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Yalta: Cold War memories and Crimea

Origins of old Cold War found in Crimean resort, as Black Sea peninsula provides potential birthplace for new one.
Last modified: 17 Mar 2014 20:10

Yalta, like much of Crimea's Black Sea coast, has a sense of faded glory. It was a favourite resort for the aristocracy in the early years of the 20th century, and later, in Soviet times, a popular holiday destination for the masses.

These days, Russians and Ukrainians with money prefer to go further afield for sun and sand - to Turkey, Greece, Dubai or even Thailand.

But Yalta's name endures in our consciousness, because it was the site of a famous conference in February 1945, that brought together 'the Big Three' of the Allies during the Second World War: Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill. They met in the Tsar's old summer palace, Livadia, to agree on the final stages of victory against Hitler's Germany, and to draw Europe's borders in the new post-war era.

Now, of course, there is much talk of Eastern Europe's borders being redrawn once more. Crimea seems destined to return to Russian control. Perhaps eastern Ukraine will follow.

And much of the language of the Second World War is being invoked once more; Russians believe the new government in Kiev is led by 'fascists' and talk of how the heroic sacrifices of the 'Great Patriotic War' should not be in vain.

Western politicians, for their part, draw analogies between Hitler's seizure of the Sudetenland and Vladimir Putin's audacious advance into Crimea. From Kiev to New York, Putin is crudely characterised by protestors as a second Hitler.

So, it seemed strangely appropriate to visit the Livadia Palace this week, and see where the three leaders put pen to paper.

They managed to reach a clever compromise in 1945. The Russian language version of their agreement is signed by Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill, in that order. The English language version is signed in the opposite order; by Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin. That way, it is said, everyone kept face.

Historians disagree on the significance of Yalta. Some maintain that Britain and the United States betrayed the peoples of Eastern Europe, allowing them to come under Soviet domination.

Others say that Roosevelt and Churchill did the best they could under the circumstances, and that it was Stalin who reneged on his promise to hold free elections in the various countries of Eastern Europe that he'd recaptured from the Nazis.

Either way, any discussion on the origins of the Cold War is bound to involve Yalta. It's a bleak thought, on an otherwise cheering spring day in the Livadia Palace. And, by a strange irony, if we are now watching the beginning of a new Cold War, I suspect historians will be writing about this month's events in Crimea for many decades to come.