The summer of 1995 in Yalta, the resort city in Southern Crimea, was exceptionally hot. Russian and Ukrainian tourists found respite while sunbathing and swimming in the Black Sea. The previous year had a standout election in Ukraine, inaugurating the second president since independence. The cavernous vacuum left by the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 created many questionable enterprises throughout the former Eastern Bloc. Of all these competing ideas seeking to quickly fill the void, it was the advancement of Western influence that the neighboring superpower Russia feared the most, and that most intrigued the former Eastern Bloc nations after decades under Soviet control.
At this pivotal point, the British photographer Martin Parr documented a newly independent Ukraine through images captured throughout Yalta. These images of a tough transition toward newfound freedom stand in stark contrast to those coming out of the war-torn area today. By viewing them we can better understand Ukraine and Crimea’s stubbornly relentless fight for independence. Parr succinctly put his finger on the pulse of Ukraine’s early post-Communist transition and wobbly attempts at nation-building, capturing Ukraine’s simultaneous exhausted collapse and deep, uninhibited sign of relief.
His photographs of a then-Ukrainian Crimea, show us that despite the turmoil of economic instability, hyper-inflation, and intense corruption, a few lucky middle-class families (and mafia opportunists) could enjoy a sunny day out in Yalta, also known as the “Russian Riviera” for its Mediterranean climate. In one of his Yalta Beach images, two men strike a pose near the Black Sea, looking as if they have stepped directly off of Miami Beach. They embrace the colorful capitalistic commodities that help them proudly signal their identities to the world around them as if proclaiming, “Ukraine has a new independence and so do we!” Like many of Parr’s images, it sparkles with profound silliness.
Parr recognizes beaches as the world’s great equalizers. Where else do we parade around, baring body parts in broad daylight among complete strangers? Beaches contain invisible, unofficial, self-made boundaries in which we are allowed to do supremely odd things that are received as perfectly acceptable.
Lest any sense of guilt arises from snickering at a bygone Ukraine, let us remember that our current global hero, Volodymyr Zelensky, the Churchillian Zoomer, began his career as a comedian. In a surreal tragicomic twist of fate, Zelensky starred in a television show of political satire, wondrously titled “Servant of the People.” There, he portrayed a man whose tirades against corruption were so popular that he was practically forced to run for president — and then won. The show was so popular that Zelensky was actually elected president. As we all watch Zelensky’s new, popular performances today, he helps us understand the potential of comedy as a powerful equalizer in perhaps a way that forced communism could not accomplish.
Through the prism of Parr’s photographs, we can better fathom the Russian rationalization that has led to the invasion. The former Soviet empire encompassed 15 republics, such as Georgia and Ukraine. In the Russian imagination, these now-sovereign states still belong to the motherland, and for the love of country, Putin continues a neo-imperial dream of a pan-Slavic empire. As the West — particularly the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization — has increasingly crept towards the East, Russia has repeatedly gone to war to gain its former territories. In much the same manner as America reacted with Cold War pandemonium upon discovering the placement of Soviet weaponry in Cuba in 1962, Russia today is responding with a NIMBY war at the possibility of NATO at its backdoor.
In this context, Parr’s images show us that as early as 1995 — a scant four years after Ukraine gained independence and just as it was stumbling into nationhood — it was not their own historical Cossack heritage its people embraced, nor was it traditional Tatar culture of the Crimean people. Rather, Ukrainians grasped at Western, namely American, culture and Parr’s photographs display that encroachment that has led to where we are today. A child tumbles on a faux-medieval bouncy castle beside bright balloons displaying corporate characters. It is a nice day out for young families. While the parents seem to attend to other matters, it is a large, steely Lenin who looms in the background, peering omnipotently and judgmentally, over all of them. In those difficult economic times (inflation … get it?) the siren-call of capitalism, with its captivating colors and its promising products, provided an alternative to the Ukrainian people, and all they would have to do is sell their souls — according to father Lenin. The Disneyfication of Ukraine had crept up upon them, seemingly inevitably, as Lenin watched mournfully in the background, his Communist ideology slowly slipping away like a child’s balloon drifting up into the air.
Parr’s images from 1995 show us what Russia is fighting against and what Ukraine is fighting for. After decades of existing under the strong hammer and sickle of the Soviet empire, in the mid-1990s Ukraine found itself at a pivotal moment. Its geographical location required tough decisions to be made: remain within its Russian authoritarian past or look westward into the future. For that decision, Ukraine is now suffering immensely. After decades of yearning and struggling and pleading to join the West, will the West ultimately let them down?
In Parr’s images we can almost smell the salt air, feel the warmth of the sun, and can keenly recall that particular feeling of a beachy endless summer. The photographs invoke nostalgia for sunny days full of hope that Ukrainians are holding onto dearly at the moment. They also foretell the most postmodern presidential election in European history when, upon winning the Ukrainian presidency in 2019, Zelensky called out to his people: “Look at us! Everything is possible!”
Editor’s Note 5/9/2022, 11:18am EDT: A previous version of this article misspelled “Tatar” as “Tartar.” This has been corrected.