Features & Images » Travel


Yalta's contrasts



Teenagers on rented Segues weave through the crowds of tourists strolling the Yalta waterfront. Ice cream vendors and souvenir hawkers share the quay with open-air beer gardens abuzz with talk and laughter. At one end of the stroll a tacky amusement park is set up for the kids and at the other a small sandy beach is crowded with bathers. Ever since the days of the Czars, this Black Sea resort on the Crimean Peninsula has been both a playground and a health spa for the people of Eastern Europe.

Protected from the cold north winds of the interior by the Laila Mountains, the Yalta coast is blessed with a sub-tropical climate. The sea is warm and the lower slopes of the mountains are covered with luxuriant vegetation. During the 1800s Russian aristocracy flocked to Yalta seeking relief from their tuberculosis. Today, 140 of the old sanatoriums are still standing. But Yalta's place in history was forged in a mere four days when, in 1945, the world's three most powerful men gathered there to chart the course of post-war Europe.

When Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill met with Joseph Stalin in Yalta's Lividia Palace the German Army, pursued by Allied forces in the west and Red Army troops in the east, was in full retreat. The end of World War II was in sight and the three world leaders had gathered in Yalta to coordinate the final campaigns of the war and to devise a plan for post-war Europe. On the plus side it ushered in the formation of a United Nations, but it also laid the foundation for 40 years of Cold War tension between East and West.

Danya, our knowledgeable local guide, explained that Lividia palace was one of the few buildings not damaged during the war. Once the opulent summer residence of Nicholas II, last of the Russian Czars, it was chosen as the site of the conference and home to the American Delegation. We followed Danya through room after room of the Czar's residence, each more luxuriant than the last until we came to a small water-garden outside the Italian Room where he paused and said with a chuckle, "Careful what you say in here, the place may still be bugged."

Here, in the very room where the "Big Three" negotiated the future of the millions of people, time seems to have come to a halt. The empty chairs around the big conference table and the benches on the Italian Terrace outside the windows are exactly the same as those in photographs of the conference now hanging on the walls. Each of the leaders came to this table with a different agenda. Roosevelt, crippled by polio and deathly ill from fatigue, was obsessed with getting an agreement on the formation of a United Nations. Churchill, the stubborn British Bulldog and master orator, was determined to draw "a line in the sand" between the USSR and Western Europe before the two armies met in the field. Stalin, shrewd, ruthless and deeply suspicious of his two English-speaking guests was intent on pushing Soviet influence as far west as he could and, with the red army surging forward, he was in a position of strength.