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Blinkhorn: The Russian Pompeii

Crimea is a troubled peninsula about the size of Vermont that juts into the Black Sea, with a population slightly larger than Vermont and New Hampshire combined. Its history spans thousands of years. It’s been invaded or ruled by Gothic tribes, the Byzantium empire and the Mongols, among others. It’s home to many Tartars, an ethnic Muslim minority who were expelled by Stalin in World War II for allegedly collaborating with the Nazis; the Tartars now make up around 12 percent of the population.

It’s best known in the western world for the Crimean War, which began in 1853 as a religious dispute over custody of holy places in Jerusalem. After three years of bloody fighting between Russia and an alliance of France, Britain and the Ottoman Empire, Russia was defeated. But Crimea remained part of Russia until 1954 when Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev, who had worked his way up through the Ukrainian Communist party, decided to "gift" Crimea to Ukraine.

The Crimean War was the first great power war in which steamships and railroads were used. Florence Nightingale gained lasting fame by helping to improve sanitation and lower death rates in one of the British hospitals. And another first was the emergence of professional war correspondents, led by William Howard "Billy" Russell of the Times of London - whose reports on the disastrous battle of Balaklava inspired British poet Alfred Tennyson to write "The Charge of the Light Brigade."

Then there is the once posh coastal resort of Yalta, favored by Czars, Russian nobility and Communist leaders. It was also the site of the famous World War II conference between President Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin in 1945.

When Government officials wanted to develop tourism in the area, they asked the World Bank to finance road improvements around an ancient Greek archeological site near Sevastopol – as Ukranians pronounce it. I took the two hour flight from Kiev to Simferopol and a short car ride later I arrived at one of the grandest archeological sites in the world.

Chersonesos it’s called – and 2,500 years ago this was the Greek world's most northern colony. The area was closed to foreigners during the Cold War because it was near the headquarters of the Soviet Black Sea fleet and its nuclear submarine base. But in 1992 Joe Carter, a professor from the University of Texas in Austin, became the first Western archeologist to visit the site. Carter calls it the Russian Pompeii and imagines it as an archeological preserve, complete with ancient farmhouses, forts, mints and granaries. At the time, The World Bank had other priorities, but Carter secured more than $12 million from the Packard Humanities Institute in California to begin a comprehensive restoration plan. Last year UNESCO declared Chersonesos a World Heritage site.

Given the current crisis in Ukraine Carter can only hope that his dream is still alive – only perhaps a little deferred.

Tom Blinkhorn worked for 30 years in international development with the World Bank in Africa, India, and the former Soviet Union. Before that he worked for 12 years as a reporter for US and Canadian newspapers.
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