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Articles Blog

Sevastopol, Crimea

Karyn Planett

Whether you’ve a month or one day to explore this historic city and its surrounds, you’ll sail away clucking, thinking you’ve missed so much. And, you will have. A return visit is a must when you’ve more time, much more time.

Sevastopol has long enjoyed glowing praise. John Foster Fraser wrote in his 1899 piece Round the World on a Wheel, “Whether Paradise is formed from the plans of the south coast of the Crimea, or vice versa, I don’t know, but they must be from the same design.”

Sevastopol’s monuments and museums greet you now, then await your return. But you’ll soon realize it’s not only ancient, wearing the long face of time but a fast-paced young city, as well, faced toward the future.

Chapters From Days Past 

Reaching back into the folds of time, this area on the Crimean Peninsula was called Laestrygonian, as reported in Homer’s “Odyssey”. He wrote about that spot known as Balaklava, an important and stunning section of today’s Sevastopol. And local scholars report that in the 5th Century BC a city known as Chersonese spread across these shores. But historians point to June 14, 1783 as the date the modern city was founded by Russia’s Rear Admiral Makenzie as a naval base, chosen for its large, quiet bays. 

Christianity flourished here. Why? Because Prince Vladimir was the first of Russia’s many powerful leaders to adopt the Christian religion. Sevastopol is therefore revered as the cradle of Russian Christianity. The number of churches scattered about fills in the architectural details. 

Recent Intrigue and Drama 

Due to its strategic location on the Black Sea, Russian authorities kept the clamp severely down on Sevastopol as well as Balaklava. Not even Russian citizens could visit without a special permit, for secrecy was a crucial Cold War weapon. It was a “closed city.” And debate raged far too long as to its ownership. This territorial dispute was ultimately settled in 1993 between the Russian Federation and Ukraine with a friendship treaty signed. Even so, discussions still flare occasionally between the parties. 

Both agree, however, on its status as a “Hero City.” During the Crimean War (1854-1855) Sevastopol suffered a siege at the hands of the Turks, French, Sardinians, and British. Horrific fighting raged for just shy of one year before the Russian army retreated though not before scuttling their entire fleet, effectively blocking the harbor’s entrance keeping their ships out of enemy hands. The famous Russian artist Franz Alekseyevich Roubaud painted a massive panoramic mural depicting the soldiers’ defense of the city. This important piece was presented to the public in 1905, damaged in 1942, restored eight years later. Military history buffs shouldn’t miss viewing this masterpiece. 

The city again felt the heavy hand of war during WWII when German troops bombed it for 250 days inflicting tremendous damage. Ultimately in German hands, it was renamed Theodorichhafen. Within two years, the Red Army successfully liberated Sevastopol and honored her people by reconfirming it a “Hero City.” Residents rebuilt their city from the ashes and rubble. 

As recently as April 27, 2010, a new treaty was ratified confirming Russia’s lease on the nearby submarine base until 2017. Though this ratification process was not without challenges, documents were eventually signed. 

Today, what you see honors this illustrious past. Streets bear the names of important Soviet and Russian military figures who are revered as heroes. Their tales are told in hundreds of monuments found here and there. Some count as many as 1800 in total. 

You Mustn’t Miss The Highlights 

The Monument to the Scuttled Ships is a must, viewed from the Primorsky Boulevard waterfront and Grafskaya Landing Quay. The Panorama Museum, described previous, literally transports you back in time to see and feel the “Defense of Sevastopol from 1854-1855”. Images represent a single day in this terrible time. And the 19th-century Vladimirsky Cathedral, with the graves of eleven admirals killed in the line of duty, is worthy of a visit. Bullet holes still mar the exterior, testament to the pounding this city took during the Crimean War and WWII, known locally as the “Great Patriotic War”. 

From Sapoune Ridge Lord Ragland, Commander-in-Chief of the British Army, watched the disastrous slaughter during the British cavalry’s charge in the Crimean War’s Battle of Balaclava, October 25, 1854. As captured by Alfred Lord Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade, into the valley of death rode the 600. A memorial here remembers those troops and others lost during the 1941-42 liberation of Sevastopol. Malakhov Kurgan (Barrow), an open-air monument pays tribute to many killed in battle including Vice-Admiral V.A. Kornilov. 

There’s also the impressive ruins of Chersonesus of Tauria. Also spelled “Khersonesos”, this site originally was Heraclea, a Greek colony from 442 B.C. 

For many, the highlight of Sevastopol is the Balaklava Nuclear Submarine Base, in operation until 1993. Three years later, the last Russian submarine sailed from this base. Now open to the public, visitors should enquire whether they’ll be able to visit privately, not on tour. If so, the Sheremetyev Submarine Museum is a must. 

With history swirling about in your head and your memory card filled with photos, pause to honor those who sacrificed in the defense of their fine city. And some day read Tolstoy’s “During the Crimean War” and “Sebastopol Sketches” depicting the author’s time as a soldier. 

                                                            Karyn L. Planett