Photographer: Andrey Rudakov /Bloomberg

The Cult of Putin — and Trump — Grows in Crimea

  • Two years after annexation, Russian tourists are everywhere
  • ‘Crimea Is Ours’ shirts, Putin-the-Liberator magnets sell fast

From the Russian city of Perm, on the outer edges of the Ural Mountain range, to the peninsula of Crimea, it’s about 1,800 miles. By car, that’s a good 40 hours, give or take a few.

Undaunted, the Shvetsovs, Sergey and Irina, loaded their two young kids into the backseat of their Russian-made Lada -- a little, ruby-red thing, all faded and rickety -- and hit the highway one day early last month. They drove day and night, through the vast European Plain, past Moscow, down to the Black Sea, and finally, by ferry, across the Kerch Strait.

Souvenir magnets for sale.

Photographer: Elena Popina

They had come, they said, for the same reason that thousands of other Russians are pouring into the peninsula nowadays: To see President Vladimir Putin’s newest acquisition with their own eyes, and, of course, to stock up on cheap souvenirs glorifying the 2014 annexation and tweaking the Western world. The “Crimea Is Ours” T-shirts are wildly popular. The Shvetsovs bought three. So too are the Putin-the-Liberator magnets (there are many variations on this theme). The couple picked out a dozen.

Crimea “needs a strong leader,” said Sergey, 41 and slender, with green eyes and a bushy, reddish-brown mustache. “And Putin is a strong leader.”

For more on the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, click here.

Largely left in disrepair following the collapse of the USSR two decades ago, the peninsula suddenly finds itself in the midst of a mini-tourism rush, recapturing in the process a bit of the old glory it had as a one-time summer hot spot for czarist families in the 19th century and, later, for high-ranking Soviet officials. Much of the crowd now is made up of middle-class Russians. On a recent weekday afternoon, they were packed tight into the lone Crimean airport, sitting on suitcases strewn across the floor and waiting restlessly in 40-minute bathroom lines. Along the trendy southern shore, hotels were not only booked solid that week but were even taking reservations for four months out -- into the dead of winter.

‘Next Big Thing’

The annexation, of course, is bitterly contested by Ukraine and has been repeatedly condemned by the European Union and U.S., which have slapped sanctions on the peninsula and on top Russian officials. An insurgency by Kremlin-backed rebels continues today in eastern Ukraine, where the death toll is approaching 10,000.

For many Russian tourists, the controversy, if anything, seems to have added to the allure of Crimea, to have stirred patriotic sentiments. It’s hard to know how long it will last. The mania could fade just as quickly as it erupted, once the novelty of it all wears off. But for now, with Putin and his aides heaping outsize attention on the peninsula (they flew in again last month to inspect construction of a Crimea-to-Russia bridge), there is a palpable sense among many here that the place is on the verge of a development boom.

Sergey, having watched countless hours of Crimea news coverage on state TV, said he’s convinced the place is destined to be “the next big thing.” Yes, yes, one local said, so big that it’ll eventually rival the French Riviera. “Drop whatever you’re doing, wherever you are, and move to Crimea,” he blurted out excitedly.

This was another Sergey -- Sergey Bespalov.

Part-time taxi driver, part-time grape farmer, full-time Crimea cheerleader, Bespalov, 34, is a squat, muscle-bound dynamo packed into a tight black T-shirt (think Popeye).

Boats in the Black Sea.

Photographer: Elena Popina

His enthusiasm stems not just from his unwavering adoration of Putin, but also from his own personal experience. After the takeover, he braced for a big drop-off in business, fearing the geopolitical tensions would scare off tourists. The foreigners have indeed stayed away, but that decline has been offset by the surge in visitors from Russia. Bespalov figures that between the grapes and the taxi fares, he and his wife are doing at least as well as they were before, pulling in about 30,000 rubles ($480) a month.

“I’m happy to see all of the tourists here,” he said, “but I’m especially happy to see those with lots of money.”

Flying the Flag

The interior of Bespalov’s taxi is something of a shrine to Russia. A small national flag hangs from the ceiling just above his head; as do a pair of miniature boxing gloves with a flag on each of them; another one adorns the back of his baseball hat.

Russian flags, in fact, seem to be everywhere in Crimea nowadays. In Sevastopol, the largest city, they hang from street lights, on the top of buildings, on the back of boats, and jut out from the carts of street vendors. This may not seem very unusual in many parts of the world, but in Russia, it’s something of an oddity. One doesn’t normally encounter such exuberant flag-flying in the streets of, say, Moscow or St. Petersburg.

Bespalov, like many Crimeans, speaks fluent Russian and says he always felt greater loyalty to the Kremlin than Kiev. The peninsula actually was part of Russia for the better part of two centuries until Nikita Khrushchev turned it over to Ukraine, then a part of the USSR, in the 1950s. (One of today’s best-selling magnet souvenirs borrows from this episode: “Khrushchev Gave It Up, Putin Took It Back” is the gist of it.)

Message for Trump

A decade before that handover, the region played a central role in World War II. First, when Soviet troops held off Axis forces for 250 days, earning Sevastopol the moniker Hero City; and then, in early 1945, as the site of the Yalta Conference that helped bring an end to the fighting and divvy up the post-war map. The palaces that hosted Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill during the talks -- spectacular, czarist-era retreats carved out of the rugged mountains overlooking the water -- are considered must-see tourist stops.

There are scores of vineyards too, and these, it turns out, have become a big draw for Russian visitors. Maybe not as big as the “Crimea Is Ours” T-shirts, but with the ruble having plunged about 30 percent against the euro since the annexation, many Russian connoisseurs have taken to scooping up local bottles of cabernet and merlot instead of shelling out more money for imported French and Italian wines. There are brands for all budgets here, from $4 for a 2016 chardonnay to $1,100 for an 81-year-old bottle of Massandra pink muscatel.

The garden near Massandra Palace.

Photographer: Elena Popina

Anton Kazakov, a young ad executive from Moscow, was throwing back glasses of Massandra red with his buddies at a popular fish joint late one night and glowing about the pair of $500 bottles he had bought earlier that day. They too were Massandras, a top local label, and dated back to the 1960s. When the topic turned to the U.S. and Russia and the standoff over Crimea, Kazakov quickly lost interest. “I’m just here for the good wine.”

Most people, though, like Bespalov and Shvetsov, were dying to talk politics. Once Bespalov got rolling, there was little stopping him as he rattled off opinions and questions, one after the other, in rapid-fire succession.

“What do Americans think about Crimea? Are they talking about us on TV? Do they realize that this is now a part of Russia? Why do they say it was illegal for us to join Russia? Who are they to say what’s legal and what’s not?’’

And then he turned to the topic of Donald Trump. Like Shvetsov, he wanted to know if the man who has called Putin a “strong leader” -- and indicated he’d consider lifting sanctions -- will become the next president of the United States. Regardless, he had a message he asked be taken to the candidate: “We love him here. Tell him he is more than welcome in Crimea.’’

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