KERCH, Crimea — After Russian President Vladimir Putin wrested the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine this year, declared it part of Russia (again), and called on true patriots to vacation on its beaches this summer, he waxed a little apologetic about the dilapidated tourist infrastructure. “If we don’t offer cheap tickets,” he said, “people won’t go.” He blamed the Ukrainians for letting it get run down, and he cut the round-trip air fare from Moscow almost in half. Many Russians, inspired by Putin’s rousing rhetoric about the glories of their old empire and hopeful they could get cheap beach deals, thought it would be even easier to drive.
That was a big, big mistake.
Crimea is technically a peninsula, but it is virtually an island, and its slender connections by road to the mainland lead into eastern Ukraine, which has been in a state of rebellion—and is now in a state of war—since Putin started punishing Kiev by claiming its territories.
So if you took your car from Russia into Crimea this summer—and more than 130,000 people did—there’s only one way to get it out: on a ferry from the Crimean town of Kerch to the Russian mainland.
Now vacations are ending, workers are expected back on the job and kids will soon be back in school—except they can’t get there.
In the seemingly endless ferry line at Kerch, these days, the dreams of a glorious Crimea have degenerated into something more Darwinian and ugly, like those scenes in Hollywood disaster movies where panicked people are fleeing a monster or a plague. The wait for the ferry is 30 hours, 40 hours, 60 hours in some cases and Crimea, famed for the warmth of its Black Sea microclimate, is in fact just about as hot as hell.
A crowd of half-naked, sweaty, furious tourists is blocking the road and refusing to let any cars with Ukrainian license plates pass toward the port. Most women in the crowd appear on the verge of hysterics, cursing the Russian ministry of transport—and the day they decided to travel to Crimea. “Everybody will forget the word Crimea!” raged Viktoriya Zotova in a hoarse voice, blaming her husband for not taking her to Turkey instead, since that would be “far cheaper and with no suffering.”
Several muscular drivers with massive chains around their necks surround a young port official, demanding he call an ambulance. They say another passenger trapped in line is suffering from high blood pressure. Police try to comfort the crowd, but people are not moving. The line stretches for several miles and when a woman tried to cut it last weekend she wound up with a bleeding head. A 55-year-old tourist died of a heart attack while dreaming of his hometown, Briansk.
Port employees tell The Daily Beast that 132,562 vehicles drove into the Crimea peninsula during the period from June 1 to this week, and that over 30,000 cars are still left here, waiting to get out. The ferries run every half-hour to the Russian mainland, but they take only a few dozen cars on each trip. Traffic police have made all Russian cars park in Kerch airport—there were about 700 cars waiting on Tuesday; with hundreds more vehicles spilling out along the highway.
Several passengers on a bus from Simferopol, the Crimean capital, who had thought they were bound for Moscow are screaming at the top of their lungs. After waiting for eight hours, the tourist company called Medusa that had charged about $80 for each ticket informed the passengers that as of August 17, buses were no longer allowed on the ferries.
That came as a shock to people sitting in a stifling bus. Both drivers on the bus looked upset and lost; for decades, they drove Russian tourists over the land routes that are now closed.
“We are humans, not bags of sand,” said Yelena Sergeyeva. “We are 49 passengers with five children and now they tell us we can wait here for a week. Nobody wants to transport us back to Moscow!” She blamed her husband for talking her into this debacle. “I am never in my life going to forget the horror of the day we got on this bus to Crimea,” she said.