Julia R. Barton
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Tourist Shortage in Yalta

Host Bob Edwards:

This holiday season, some travelers will head to warmer climates, while others will flock to ski-lodges in the mountains.  But for resort towns that have neither sun nor snow right now, this is the “dead season.”  Such is the fate of Yalta, on the Crimean coast of the Black Sea.  But reporter Julia Barton recently found that despite a lack of tourists, Yalta refuses to give up hope.


Yalta is wedged on a tiny piece of land between a mountain chain and the sea.  Still, a lot has happened in this small place.  Here in 1945, Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin signed a treaty that would change the fate of the world.  And nearly ten years ago, just up the coast from Yalta, Mikhail Gorbachev was held prisoner in a failed coup attempt that led to the fall of the Soviet Union.

Not that you get much of a sense of history from strolling down Yalta’s boardwalk on a cold autumn night.

A couple of Russian tourists in black leather jackets amuse themselves by singing karaoke versions of raspy prison ballads.  Gone are the crowds of Soviet workers who packed Yalta’s state-run health resorts and restaurants, even in the off season.  Now there’s almost no one in the video arcades, the discos, or on Yalta’s famous “rope-road,” a ski-lift ride up the mountainside.  Still, rope-road attendant Grigory Ivanovich is stoic about all the changes.

“We’re still working,” he says. “Not as always, but still working.”  For Grigory Ivanovich and others here, that means year-round employment, although there’s only money to be made between May and September.

“If the sun shines,” he says,  “then that’s a good day.”

But others here welcome the off-season.  Alya and Olya are waitresses at a 24-hour bar on the empty boardwalk.  They while away their 12-hour shifts by—what else?—singing karaoke.

“Honestly, now we just relax,” they say.  “We sing and drink and talk.  During the high season, we can’t sit down for a minute.”

Olya is from the inland city of Simferopol, and Alya is from the coal-mining region of Donbass.  Neither of those places has anything like Yalta’s spectacular views, cliff-side palaces and ships that come and go. Yalta is a world apart, and it seems that’s always been its role.

Towering mountains sever the city from the rest of Ukraine and Russia and all the troubles there.  At night, away from the karaoke bars, there’s only the sound of the Black Sea hitting a rocky shore. 

“So it must have sounded when there was no Yalta,” wrote Anton Chekhov more than a hundred years ago. “So it sounds now, and it will sound as indifferently and monotonously when we are all no more.” 

But Chekhov, who was dying of tuberculosis in Yalta, found hope in this landscape, a sense that something better was still to come. And despite all the difficulties, an odd sense of optimism seems to propel Yalta now.

Not far from a statue of Lenin that still presides over Yalta’s boardwalk, there stands a plastic replica of the famous casket of King Tut.  As carnival music blares around you, this King Tut promises to tell your fortune for only a dollar.  The offer still stands even when it’s pouring down rain and the mummy is wrapped in plastic, with his attendant huddled in a pup tent beside him.

A middle-aged woman in a hooded sweat-shirt emerges from the tent as we approach.  She lights up a cigarette.  Her name is Natasha.

“I have no desire to sit in the rain, but I need my salary,”  she says.  Natasha makes 30 dollars a month. It’s the last hour of her 12-hour shift, and we’re her first customers. 

Natasha unwraps King Tut from the wet plastic, which immediately gives her a shock.

In his chest, the mummy has a computer screen, which has gone haywire from the rain.  Beneath the screen is a hole.

STICK YOUR HAND IN, the mummy commands.  In a few seconds, a fortune comes out of a printer hidden in his knees.

The fortune is full of meaningless figures: four stars for health; nine stars for love and finance.  We ask Natasha if she’s ever consulted King Tut.  Every day, she says.

“He says everything will be fine.”

NPR, 12/20/2000


Arizona Town Devastated by Fire

Reporter Julia Barton tells us that the community of Summerhaven, Ariz., was largely destroyed by last month’s Aspen Fire in the mountains north of Tucson. On Thursday, residents of the tiny mountain town were allowed back for the first time in four weeks.

NPR, 7/18/03


Ukrainian Journalist Found Dead


NPR’s Bob Edwards: Last week in Ukraine, a body was uncovered which many believe is that of a journalist who’s been missing for two months.  The discovery has caused a storm of controversy in Ukraine, and as Julia Barton reports, it comes at a time when journalists in the former Soviet Republic feel their rights are under attack.



Heorhiy Gongadze founded the internet newspaper “Ukrainska Pravda” last April to provide critical coverage of politics in Ukraine.  But the night of September 16, Gongadze disappeared. And since then, the paper’s staff has gone from covering the news to being at its center.


Despite pet birds chirping in a cage, the mood at “Ukrainska Pravda” is especially grim these days.  That’s because last week, the publication decided to investigate a body that had been found in the town of Tarashcha,  about 90 miles from Kiev. The paper’s editor, Olena Prytula, has complained of a lack of cooperation from authorities overseeing the investigation into Gongadze’s disappearance.  But she says the coroner in Tarashchy turned out to be a sympathetic soul.


PRYTULA: He didn’t act as an official, he just acted as a human being. He said if you really think that’s Georgiy, you should take this body and bury it, and you’ll feel better.


The body, which was unearthed on November 3, was decapitated and badly disfigured.  But Prytula says several factors positively identified it as Gongadze’s, including the contents of the stomach, jewelry found on the body, and shrapnel lodged in one wrist.  Gongadze had been wounded in the same spot while covering a civil war in the neighboring republic of Georgia.


But in a bizarre twist, authorities snatched the body while Prytula was out seeking official permission to remove it.  She says the corpse was taken without the coroner’s knowledge.


PRYTULA: He just came to us and said, “There’s no body.” He was surprised and told the police so right front of us.


The coroner confirms Prytula’s account, and authorities now say the body is in a Kiev morgue undergoing a thorough autopsy.  But the macabre chain of events has put public officials on the defensive, including Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma.  The President recently expressed doubt that the body might be Gongadze’s.

“To say that this is Gongadze is a responsibility that only the forensic experts can take on,” he said.  “It’s a matter of further investigation, but I think we’ll soon bring this all to a close.”

But many outside observers say the president and his close circle are partly to blame for the dangerous working conditions of journalists here.  Last year…the New-York based “Committee to Protect Journalists” placed President Kuchma third on its list of Enemies of the press world-wide…citing incidents of violence and censorship leading up to the elections in which Kuchma won his second term.


MYCIO: I would say that without a doubt, journalism, real journalism—reporting on events, on issues of public concern, on individuals of public concern—in an objective, professional way, is a very dangerous profession right now.

Mary Mycio directs the IREX-ProMedia “Legal Defense and Education Program,” a U.S.-funded initiative to help Ukrainian journalists.  She says most newspapers and television stations here are now under the control of so-called oligarchs…men and    women who gained wealth during the privatization of Soviet-era industries and who now hold powerful positions in Ukraine’s Parliament and presidential administration. Mycio sees the Internet as one bright spot, and so does the U-S Embassy here, which gave a one-time grant of $24,000 to Gongadze’s website after his disappearance. Olena Prytula says the money has given the site enough independence to confront authorities about Gongadze’s disappearance and possible murder.  But it hasn’t protected them from a sense of shock.

PRYTULA: The biggest horror is the fact that something like this is possible in our country […].  As for me, I’m not afraid of anything anymore.


Prytula says she’s pursuing DNA testing to prove the body she saw is Gongadze’s.  But she and Gongadze’s family still fear that even when confronted with proof, authorities may not release the corpse, and the case of the missing journalist may never be laid to rest. 

For NPR News…I’m Julia Barton in Kiev, Ukraine.

[NPR 11/20/2000]

(Source: NPR)


Lost in Translation

Lost in Translation

By Julia Barton

Ona moya drama—shto ya mogu skazat’ bolshye?”

It’s one of the rare moments in Michael Apted’s documentary The Long Way Home when the subject of the film—Russian rock star Boris Grebenshikov—actually says something in Russian. He’s singing in a London studio with the man who was to catapult him to Western fame, Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics. Grebenshikov’s tenor voice is smoky but sweet: Ona moya drama.

"It’s quite hypnotic hearing the Russian language," Stewart remarks, "because I don’t understand every word that you’re singing, so I kind of drift off and it sounds like someone singing backwards."

"I think lots of rock ‘n’ roll should be in a foreign language," Grebenshikov replies. "Like mantra." But the song "She Is My Drama" never made it onto the album they were recording, Radio Silence.

That was 1989, when perestroika was rock’s flavor of the month and Boris Grebenshikov was its main ingredient. Long-haired and lanky, arrogant but undeniably talented, the Leningrad singer was a natural object for the West’s affections. Plus he had street cred most established rockers sorely lacked: he had spent most of his life being illegal.
Inspired by smuggled-in recordings of the Beatles and Bob Dylan—and by his own desire for meaning beyond the Soviet Union’s next five-year plan, Grebenshikov had been making his own rock music since the early 1970s. He and an amorphous group of friends who called themselves Aquarium performed impromptu concerts in apartments and warehouses. Tapes of their work were passed hand to hand across the country’s 11 time zones. The KGB regularly hauled Grebenshikov in to question him about drug use and his “foggy” lyrics, and he eventually lost a university job teaching applied mathematics. But his underground fame grew by leaps and bounds as people turned to his obscure yet optimistic songs for some perspective on Soviet life. In Grebenshikov’s songs, the soul was an “electric dog” sinking its teeth into communal apartment walls, and the long February of Brezhnev’s rule was “only our dance at the edge of spring.”

But those songs were all sung “backwards.” Though some of Aquarium’s songs had been smuggled abroad on the 1986 compilation Red Wave, what seemed to ensure Grebenshikov’s success in the West was his near perfect fluency in English. Backed by some well-meaning Americans who’d “discovered” him, by CBS Records, and ultimately by the cash-hungry openness of glasnost, Grebenshikov decided to record Radio Silence in the language of his rock ‘n’ roll idols. What happened to him afterward remains a cautionary tale for any foreign star who hopes to ride his steed down Main Street USA.

The first time Grebenshikov played in Chicago, it was at Park West, in promotion of Radio Silence. CBS had told most of the members of Aquarium to stay home, but Grebenshikov forged ahead with the tour, which caused great bitterness in Russia and broke up the band. In its place, Grebenshikov had hype. He fielded calls from People, exhaled clouds of nicotine in New York magazine, and posed for Rolling Stone, which asked, “Is Boris Good Enough?”

Sadly, the answer was “not quite.” Able to express everything from sarcasm to hope to despair in a single word of his native tongue, Grebenshikov’s voice was now lost in a din of synthesizers. His English lyrics were mostly about the distress of traveling, with a few references to King Arthur thrown in for no apparent reason. The occasional moments of real poetry and talent on Radio Silence only made this all the more disconcerting. At home, Grebenshikov was seen as a traitor; abroad, he was hardly a temptation to the Great Oversaturated American. Park West was only about two-thirds full that night.

Last Friday, Grebenshikov returned to Park West for the start of his third American tour. He managed to draw a crowd of roughly the same size as his first visit—but this time he did it without a single ad or mention in the Chicago press. Thanks to the fall of communism, there are now enough Russians scattered around the globe to fill almost any medium-size hall Grebenshikov cares to play. His Chicago fans ranged from old men in polyester suits to teenage girls in J. Crew miniskirts. “Borya!” they screamed at every interval between songs. During his three encores, Grebenshikov sang the quirky anthems he’d penned for them in darker times, like “Zheleznadorozhnaya Voda” (“Railroad Water”), a simple, Dylan-esque song off Aquarium’s 1981 Blue Album about aging without growing apathetic:

Dai mnye napit’sya zheleznadorozhnye vodi
Dai mnye napit’sya zheleznadorozhnye vodi
Mnye nravitsya letom tem, shto letom tyeplo,
Zima mnye mila tem, shto zamerzlo styeklo.
Menya nye vidno v okno i snyeg zamel sledi

(Let me drink plenty of railroad water again.
Let me drink plenty of railroad water again.
I like summertime ‘cause it’s sunny and warm.
The winter is good at window patterns and storms.
I can’t be seen behind glass and snow has covered all tracks.)

Backstage before the concert, now 44 and still smoking, Grebenshikov suppressed a cough with black coffee. He looked older and wiser than in the press photos of 1989—though he’s chopped off all his hair and dyed the fuzz blue. He had only wry dismissals for questions about his “circus” days with CBS, but warmed up when asked what he did next: he went back to Russia for a visit and ended up staying to produce some of the best work of his career.

"I just looked around me, and songs started pouring out," he said. "And then I forgot all about this American track."

Starting with 1991’s Russian Album, Grebenshikov churned out all the haunting, poetic music his countrymen could ask for. Using guitar, accordion, violin, and oboe (and a few psychedelic Beatles motifs), he composed dark, metaphoric songs about wolves, stars, and horses. But against a subdued acoustic background, Grebenshikov’s voice has a beauty and intensity that transcends language. These albums of the early 90s would be most likely to appeal to adventurous listeners in the West—but here they’re only available, like most of Grebenshikov’s music, by mail order, as pirate cassettes in Russian-language bookstores, or via the Web (try www.planetaquarium.com/english).

Always restless, Grebenshikov has now declared his “folk” period over, and he’s turned back to the West. Although his latest album, last year’s Lilith, is entirely in Russian, he recorded it with members of the Band, solidifying all those Dylan comparisons. The result, to these ears, is competent but not transcendent. These ears, however, have not been the target of Grebenshikov’s music for a long time.

"It’s clear to me that Americans don’t have ears for anything that’s not in an American language," he said, plucking his guitar backstage. Then he went out into the spotlight, where he didn’t have to speak a word of English the rest of the night.

Chicago Reader, 4/28/98

NPR, 3/14/99