YALTA, Crimea — The town of Simeiz, once a favorite vacation spot for Ukrainian gays and “hippies,” lost most of its free-spirited visitors this year. On a recent weekend, no kissing couples were to be seen on the shaded benches of Apollo Alley, known among locals as the Alley of Naked Men because of the white statues of nude Greek gods. Very few people sunbathed on Simeiz’s famously picturesque beaches, where spectacular rocks rise out of gorgeous turquoise water; and at sunset, no new-age hipsters hung out around the graceful architectural monument called Dream Villa, which was an overcrowded hotspot only last year.
As feared, in the nearby provinces of eastern Ukraine, where rebels backed by the Kremlin’s troops are fighting to follow Crimea into the arms of the Mother Russia, a ceasefire signed only days ago already is breaking down. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko had capitulated to almost all of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s demands, but that doesn't seem to have been enough. As the United States and the European Union move to tighten sanctions on Moscow, and tin-lined coffins are sent back to Kiev and to Russia in growing numbers, what’s happened in Crimea since its annexation in March does not look very promising. Unlike the dreary industrial region of Donbass where the fighting is concentrated, Crimea has great potential as a tourist center. But for what kind of tourists, and from where?
Today, in the midst of the war, what patriotic Ukrainian would vacation on an annexed beach? And even Russian-subsidized programs have not brought nearly as many visitors to Crimea as before the crises. Simeiz, famous for its splashy parties and crowded clubs, looked deserted.
“Ukrainians in general and especially gay guys don’t feel safe coming here, because of Russian anti-gay laws,” Aleksei, a jeweler in Simeiz, told The Daily Beast. “Making a show of loving the Russians does not help us any longer—every business in Crimea is losing money.”
Crimea’s gay population, which some online forums estimated at over 10,000, faces mounting insecurity. The “prime minister” on the Black Sea peninsula, Sergey Aksyonov, has announced that “sexual minorities will never be allowed public events in Crimea.” He promised that police would act quickly to stop them. “Authorities will never support them,” he said.
So, instead of the festive rainbow culture of rock and roll, electronic music, psychedelia and esoterica, Russian-run Crimea will offer an alternative: gambling. Last April, shortly after annexation, the Duma voted for the law allowing gaming zones in Crimea.
Does the ethos of the roulette wheel and one-armed bandits match the professed conservative Russian Orthodox religious values and ideology of Novorossiya, the new administrative area that the Kremlin is carving out of Ukraine at a huge cost? Is gambling culture more desirable than gay culture and counterculture? One of Novorossiya’s biggest advocates, Igor Druz, seems to see it in an equally negative light.
When Druz visited Crimea before, he said, he felt disturbed by the debauched atmosphere. Druz has even supported a ban on cursing in Novorossiya, whose mission, in his view, is to fight against “dirt, occultism and fascism in Kiev.” He says introducing a casino in Crimea is to “spit in the face of those who believe deeply in Orthodox values.” Crimea, where one can find booze any time of the night, is far from the ideals of a Russian Orthodox monastery, but with casinos coming to the peninsula it will likely continue its dance with a new devil. “It is hard to beat the enemy if you yourself suffer from his sins,” says Druz.
At this point, however, casinos are a matter of survival. The peninsula, with a population of over 2 million people, does not have much of a choice. This year the “velvet season,” as the end of the summer tourist rush is known here, also marked the beginning of a food crisis and electricity blackouts. Milk products normally delivered from Ukraine disappeared from grocery stores and the prices of goods delivered from Russia are “biting,” locals complained. One recent Monday morning Crimea woke up to find that Ukraine had cut the electric power by two-thirds.
“The euphoria we had when we voted at the referendum to join Russia is fading away, as we are losing money, and feeling scared of being left without Ukrainian gas and electricity this winter,” says Anton Baranchikov, a young entrepreneur.
Last winter, Putin was rejecting the idea of openings casinos in Crimea, but by late July he had signed into the law the Duma legislation about gambling zones.
“With the Russian economy suffering from sanctions and increasing unemployment, the only way Putin could cover Crimea expenses was to create the biggest gambling center in Russia,” former Duma deputy and opposition leader Gennady Gudkov told The Daily Beast. “But the other side of the coin would be, inevitably, the flowering of crime and corruption around the gambling business.”
By June, the Russian Crimea Ministry had to cut the budget for turning the peninsula into a supposed resort paradise by 38.5 percent, from $29.4 billion down to $18.2 billion. About $10 billion was earmarked to build a bridge across the Kerch Strait, with its unpredictable currents during spring floods. (At present there is no land route available between Russia and Crimea, since the old ones all go through a part of Ukraine where, not coincidentally, the last month has seen intense fighting.) By September, Russian authorities agreed to define the boundaries of about 500 acres outside Yalta, a historical and cultural center of Crimea, which will become the gaming zone.
Yalta was great for strolls along the sea during the Byzantine, Ottoman and Russian empires. Nicholas II, the last Romanov, built the graceful Livadia Palace on top of a hill there. The world knows about it mainly because of the 1944 meeting between Joseph Stalin, Winston Churchill, and Franklin Roosevelt as the end of World War II approached.
No such momentous encounters have been held there recently, but last month Putin did receive a French politician and businessman, Philippe de Villiers, at the Livadia Palace. He hosted him in the one-time office of Tsar Nicholas II that overlooks a tropical garden and the Black Sea. Monsieur de Villiers, an ostentatiously religious conservative and failed former French presidential candidate, promised to build an amusement park in annexed Crimea. What fun.