Marco Werman: No doubt Crimea’s in the media spotlight, but it’s also a place that’s close to Svetlana Boym’s heart. She teaches in the Slavic department at Harvard, and writes about Russian culture.
Svetlana Boym: Most important thing about Crimea for me, and it’s a place I love and a place I’ve visited many summers in my childhood, is that Crimea really is a cultural crossroads, and has been cultural crossroads for centuries. And, for instance, if you travel to the Crimea, you can see Greek ruins, Italian fortresses, the palace of the Crimean Han, synagogues and the caves.
Werman: And all these culture brought their art with them. What are your favorite, kind of, literary works that are connected to Crimea.
Boym: Crimea actually plays prominent role in the Russian literature, usually as a place of adventure, as an exotic place, a place of escape, so the first work that comes to mind is Alexander Pushkin’s so-called Oriental poem The Fountain of Bakhchisaray. Of course it’s a love triangle that takes place in the Harem of the Crimean Tatar Han, who captures the beautiful slave from Poland called Maria, and another slave woman Zimshira is jealous of her. So here we have kind of cross cultural encounter that does not end well. But it begins with a beautiful sight, The Fountain of Bakhchisaray, that supposedly bodies the tears, or is it, the tears of death’s slave girl, Maria, who dies in the harem and it inspired Pushkin.
Werman: Do you know any lines from the poem off the top of your head?
Boym: Oh my God.
Werman: I put you on the spot.
Boym: Yes you did. And it has a kind of interesting lines and the ending that though Zimshira’s crime was great, her punishment was even greater, and that kind of works for a lot of Russian and Soviet y history
Werman: Now, my earliest cultural exposure to this part of the world, Svetlana, was seeing the 1925 silent film Battleship Potemkin. It’s not set in Crimea, but in the nearby southern Ukrainian seaport of Odessa, where I think it was actually shot as well. Has Crimea inspired any movies that you think need mentioning?
Boym: There are many films of the soviet times. The one that comes to mind is the beloved film of my parents’ generation, it was called The Prison of the Caucuses. It was really a comedy although the title is taken from Pushkin and Tolstoy. In English, it was called Kidnapping Caucasian Style. And of course Caucuses was filmed in the Crimea, and it’s again a kind of love drama and a comedy as well, which all Soviet kids used to know.
Werman: Now as you said you spent many summers in Crimea as a girl, Svetlana. When you hear the word Crimea, what fills your imagination?
Boym: I immediately imagine Crimean landscape. And the place that I used to go is called Koktebell. It’s from Crimean Tatar, the land of blue hills. And it was a place where you have three landscapes: the steppes, the mountains and the sea. And it was really a place where perhaps I dreamt about leaving Russia that way, imagined other lands, in that way, developed lifelong friendships. So for me, it’s very important not just to think about ethnic conflicts, although this is of course a place from where Crimean Tatars were deported during Stalin’s time, Jewish population disappeared, but I still would like to think about this place as a kind of place of possibilities for cultural encounters. And often the conflicts are political rather than ethnic, and I think in a place like Crimea, it’s really important to remember that.
Werman: Well, that’s a nice memory that we haven’t really heard in the last few days.
Boym: Yes, and I thnk it’s really kind of tragic perhaps, but also ironic that Putin wages wars on the sites of former Soviet resort towns. Like in Georgia, it was [Speaking Russian], which was Abkhazia which many of us visited, now in the Crimea, this is also a kind of beautiful, almost Edenic place, that you cannot imagine as a war zone.
Werman: Svetlana, than you very much.
Boym: Was a pleasure.
Werman: Svetlana Boym is a professor at Harvard and the author of The Future of Nostalgia. We end the program with a bit of the soundtrack to the Soviet comedy Svetlana mentioned, Kidnapping Caucasian Style. From the Nan and Bill Harris Studios at WGBH, I’m Marco Werman. We’ll be back with you tomorrow.