Theodosia by Ruth Maclennan

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Theodosia reflects on the connections between a people and a place, between a person and the earth on which he walks, and the physical and emotional conditions of exile. It also questions the role of the camera itself: the relations it sets up between viewers and viewed, and the illusion of the image of a place as a reliable document. In Theodosia, the voices of poets, artists, exiled and repatriated Crimeans, holidaymakers and visitors, are interspersed with the ruminations of a contemporary observer. The words and images flow together and apart, gathering associations, rupturing expectations, or reflecting each others’ worlds. A pilot crashes in the steppes of Crimea in 1944. Tartar tribesmen rescue and care for him. The artist Joseph Beuys ascribes this event to himself, founding a myth of rebirth that he revisits throughout his life and work through the materials he uses and the artist persona he inhabits. Two months after this event, another event took place, known in the Crimean Tartar language as Sürgünlik, meaning exile: the entire Crimean Tartar population was deported to the Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan, and other far-flung areas of the Soviet Union. At the same time, all Tartar villages were renamed and many were erased completely from the map and the land. Two thousand years earlier, in the poem cycle, Tristia, the Roman poet Ovid was exiled to the Black Sea in the first century AD. He writes of his fears, sense of dislocation, his barbarian neighbors, and his despair at ever returning home. For the Russian poets Marina Tsvetaeva and Osip Mandelstam, the Black Sea and Crimea, and the towns of Koktebel and Theodosia in particular, are fascinating and exotic places, worlds away from Moscow, an idyllic, prelapsarian, pre-revolutionary, time and place they return to in their poetry. An artist’s colony, perhaps the first, is founded around the charismatic polymath Maximilian Voloshin. So begins a century of Crimea as holiday destination. The Soviet Union transformed it into a holiday camp for rewarded workers and spoiled apparatchiks. Tens of thousands of children descended to stay in purpose-built sanatoria, and converted Khazar mansions, to enjoy two weeks of sunshine and sea, and indoctrination through sport and leisure. Crimea continues to be fashioned after the desires of its inhabitants, whether it’s the tourists or those who cater for them. Two decades of rampant dysfunctional capitalism and kleptocratic rule are just the latest strata of experiences to be written across this palimpsest, that Neal Ascherson calls, ‘the birthplace of civilization and barbarism’, in his book, ‘The Black Sea’.