A Journey to the Sea of Azov


I’ve just returned home from a journey. It was one of the best journeys of my life. Planes, trains and automobiles carried me to the end of Europe; and back. Except for the last mile. But that’s a story in itself.

I had been invited to Ukraine by Glenn Cripe, who runs the Language of Liberty Institute. What we do is hold “camps,” usually about five days long, to which students (mainly at undergraduate level) come. And at which teachers like me put forward the ideas of liberty, not only as expressed by philosophers of the past, but also we see it ourselves. We enjoy the company of young people, our liberty nephews and nieces. And everything is (supposed to be) in English, the language of liberty.

This was my fourth visit to Ukraine inside 18 months, all for the same purpose. This time we were going to a place called Strilkove, south of Genichesk, on the Arabat Spit which forms the beach on the west side of the Sea of Azov. Strilkove is about 15km from the de facto Crimean border with Russia. It’s about as far south as you can go, and still be in Ukraine. It has little tourist infrastructure yet. But it’s experiencing a boom right now, because many Ukrainian people who would normally have gone to the (much more beautiful and developed) Crimea don’t want to suffer the hassle of crossing the border.

I’ll backtrack. I flew to Kiev (on Lufthansa, these days my favourite airline). I stayed one night there, and spent the day walking around the city. I was footsore when I reached the station and boarded the 21:44 train to Genichesk. I had a berth in a first class sleeper; but this was Soviet first class. It was full, too. As compartment mate, I had a very nice Ukrainian woman a few years younger than myself, who spoke a little English. There’s no gender separation among passengers in Ukrainian sleeper trains!

It was a 15 hour journey to Genichesk; I’d guess almost 1,000 kilometres. The bed was narrow, and the coach had no springs to speak of. That said, the cost of that trip one way was about the same as a standard class peak time return trip to London from my home in Surrey.

It was about 35km from Genichesk to our motel, piloted by a crazy driver. It’s almost the first house in the village, and the paved road ends right outside. (With a foot deep hole to trap drivers who fail to divert!). Our hosts were Muslims, members of the Crimean Tatar minority. As were the local organizers, who had chosen to leave Crimea and move to Ukraine after the “authorities” raided their flat.

We had only 14 full time students, a smaller group than usual. One Crimean Tatar, eleven other Ukrainians, and two from Poland. (A couple of others breezed in and out). There were three faculty members: Glenn, myself and Jacek from Poland. We had guest speakers too: Zarema the local organizer, Miriam from the Friedrich Naumann foundation (the major sponsor of the camp), Kamil the Polish entrepreneur, and a Ukrainian liberal politician called Oleksandr, who gave a very interesting workshop. (In Ukrainian not in English, unfortunately).

But in this group, there were four exceptional students. And at least two, in my estimation, moved in a (classical) liberal direction during the camp.

The Crimean Tatar cuisine at the motel was excellent. As one who abhors most sauces, I like food to taste as it looks. A tomato, for example, should taste like a tomato, not be adulterated by some nondescript, alien dressing. These tomatoes tasted as they should! As did the broth, the vegetables, the meat, the pastries, and the apples from the motel’s own orchard. What sauces they did use, were subtle. And all was washed down by many, many cups of black tea.

Although I was there to teach, I learned a lot too. I developed a fellow feeling for Crimean Tatars. They are under 20 per cent of the population in their supposed homeland, so even without the Russians, “democracy” is a big no-no for them. I looked at their history, and I gagged. Several times. I wonder what English nationalists would think of their cause?

Now to some memorable moments outside the classroom. On the second evening, one of the students found near the beach an all but new born puppy, abandoned by its mother. Having heard my presentation on John Locke earlier in the day, he christened it “John Locke,” and brought it to the motel. Regrettably, it was later found to be a female. But she was thriving when I left.

Ah, and then there was the walk to the store for beer. Only about eight minutes along a sandy track beside the road, but hard work. And even harder work on the way back, under the load of 2.5 litre bottles of Ukrainian lager that cost about £1-30 each.

Then there was the night when five cows invaded the motel garden. On that same night, I saw the stars clearer than I’ve ever seen them before. And there were huge lightning storms away to the south-west – exactly the direction from which the Russians would have been firing, if either side’s idiot politicians had been stupid enough to start a war.

To the journey back. The train was better sprung this time, but my companion was male and spoke no English. I was dumped at Kiev station at 5am. Kiev is a 24 hour city, but not the area around the station (!) I had a leisurely morning, and a superb lunch, before flying back to London. It had been my best trip for many years.

…until I got home. I took the coach to Woking, and the train from there. Arriving at my local station, there were no taxis. I couldn’t haul my bags up the hill, so I left them in the station, walked home and got out the car. I then had a blarney with the ticket operative, who had removed my bags to a storeroom as a “security risk.” I gave him Edmund Burke’s “Bad laws are the worst sort of tyranny,” and he seemed to understand, sort of.

It’s an interesting world, no?

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6 thoughts on “A Journey to the Sea of Azov

  1. You had some good experiences, but I expect the Tatars left out the historical context of their deportation to Central Asia after the war. Stalin didn’t just wake up and decide to deport them for no reason. It was a punishment for aiding the Germans in the war. You were almost certainly scammed on taxis (from central kiev to the airport it is 270 grivnas, but I expect you paid multiples of that). The Ukrainians are a very greedy and selfish lot.

    • David,

      My understanding is that some of the Tatars supported the Germans, but by no means all. I suspect Stalin’s problem with them may in reality have been their earlier support for the White Army. In this they were like the Ukrainian (Zaporizhian) Cossacks.

      As to taxis, there is now a taxi desk at Boryspil which gives a fixed price quote. I paid 390 grivni on the way in. Maybe a rip-off, but good value by the standards of the rest of Europe. And on the way out, I paid only 200.

      There are, of course, greedy/selfish Ukrainians. But I think it’s wrong to judge all of them negatively just because some are bad.

    • The rolling stock is around 50 years old, the rails may be even older. It’s easy to keep prices cheap when you are both running down your assets, and subsidized by a state.

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