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Destination: Ukraine

The Czar Slept Here : Once lavish retreats for the USSR's powerful, dachas now open to public

July 14, 1996|JEANNE EDMUNDS APOSTOL

YALTA, Ukraine — The sun poured in through sheer lace curtains on the French doors we had left open overnight. The breeze across the balcony carried the scent of lilacs and evergreen trees, and a faint hint of the seashore. Songbirds awakened us to a glorious dawn.

Ukraine? Am I dreaming? I nudged my husband, Doug, who was aching from the 23-hour train ride from Kiev the day before.

We walked out onto the balcony. At 5 a.m. the late-May sun had just moved above the horizon. It was a fireball that rose once, disappeared behind a cloud, then rose farther in the same blood-red color. Perhaps this is why Russia's last czar, Nicholas II, chose to build his summer palace--his dacha--on this spot. Yes, we were still in the Ukraine, but it was not the Ukraine we knew. After the cold and dark winter months on diplomatic duty in the capital of Kiev, we were ready for this: living like royalty in a guest suite in Levadia Palace on the Crimean peninsula.

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Say the word dacha and to most people it evokes images of sublime country retreats used by the rich, famous or politically connected. But a dacha (pronounced DAH cha) can be as simple as a one-room shack by a stream or as elaborate as a mansion or palace. Many urban-dwellers in Ukraine and Russia own dachas in rural areas where they grow vegetables, raise pigs and chickens or just get away for the weekend. With the economies in the former Soviet Union still struggling after independence, many use food grown at their dachas as an important supplement to their daily diets. At the other end of the scale, dachas were often given to Soviet literary figures and party members as perks for their loyalty and the glory they brought to their country.

Say the word Crimea to a Ukrainian and you'll get a wistful, "Aaah, Crimea" in reply. The peninsula's attractions include its locally famous Massandra wines, swaying evergreen trees, health resorts and a mostly sunny climate (OK, it's probably the climate). And now it's possible to stay in dachas in the Crimea, the onetime crown jewel of the USSR's Black Sea resorts--for a reasonable price.

The main building of Levadia Palace, our lodging and the place where Nicholas II and his wife, Czarina Alexandra, spent many months of the year, is well preserved. This granite renaissance-style estate, built in 1911, was a refuge from the harsh winters in St. Petersburg (then Petrograd), and the family lived here in grand style. Some of the original furnishings and many tapestries and paintings remain. The czar and czarina entertained foreign visitors and gave grand balls here.

Levadia is better known to Americans today as the site of the 1945 Yalta conference, where Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin and Franklin Delano Roosevelt met to divide the spoils of World War II. Churchill and FDR stayed here during the conference; Stalin stayed at Josopov Palace, a dacha later controlled by the KGB, just a few miles away.

Josopov is a dacha with an interesting history. With its stone lions guarding the front entrance, beautiful rose gardens and bucolic setting, it is a striking estate with historical importance. Here, Stalin and his minister of foreign affairs, Vyacheslav Molotov, pondered plans for post-WWII Soviet dominance. Since 1945 and until the breakup of the Soviet Union, it was used as an exclusive summer retreat for the KGB and high-ranking Communist party members.

Now, Josopov Palace is one of four former government dachas in the Yalta area that rent rooms to tourists.

Though Stalin is said to have slept in a different bed each night, the main-floor suite that includes his private office and some original furniture can be rented for $350 nightly, if one can tolerate the notion of sleeping in Stalin's bed. The garden-level suite that was occupied by Molotov rents for $250 a night.

We were glad to get back to our two-room suite in Levadia Palace, with its stone balconies facing the czar's arboretum and, beyond that, the azure Black Sea. The view was so magnificent it was easy to overlook the lumpy beds, limited hot water and George Jetson-style furniture, including an elliptical couch and side chair covered in dark blue velvet with a bright pattern of the cosmos. There were beautiful fresh flowers in the room and on the balconies; the European-tile tub in the bathroom was big enough for two. And breakfasts were delicious: blinis one day, a strange and wonderful breakfast salad of cherries, carrots, apples and vegetables the next, followed by other courses of Western and Ukrainian dishes.

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