The officials have asked us to redo the museum: walking through the ruins of the Greek settlement, they poke at the stones with their feet, render instructions to me without looking up. I stand at a remove from them, from the smoke of their cigarettes; I offer small crumbs of historical commentary when the moment requires it, but mostly the officials are content to talk among themselves in Russian, making little in-jokes obscure to me. The light is failing; I look across the landscape that ripples out from the foot of the hill. From certain angles, when the trees hide the skyline of Sevastopol below, it is tempting to imagine us transported to those Aegean lands that birthed the ruins we now tread among, to imagine ourselves messengers from a colder time and place.
* * *
“The officials have asked us to redo the museum,” I tell Alla as she prepares our meal that evening. It is the tail end of summer: she is making a dessert soup of sour cherries, her hands stained with the work of pitting them. Alla lives in the flat directly below mine, and we often have dinner together. She is a teacher at a nearby school, and like me she is unmarried.
“I mean their presentation. They want us to play up the later stuff, the connections to the Church. They told me today that Saint Vladimir was baptized there.”
“Maybe. Or maybe in Kiev. Or somewhere else. You know how these things are.” I watch her spoon sour cream into the bowls, brilliant white against the oxblood skins of the fruit.
“Saint Vladimir,” Alla repeats. “Quite the name.” I know that tone of voice. Still, if this is an invitation to further political comment, then neither of us takes it; we sit down at the table and allow a curtain of meaningful silence to drape over all that passes unsaid.
* * *
To those unfamiliar with Crimea’s history, the presence of Greek ruins might come as a surprise. In actual fact our people have had a long and complicated entanglement with the Mediterranean, to which we owe the strictures of our religion, the flat austerity of our painted ikons, the curves and jags peculiar to our letters.
But when the Sevastopol of the present was still waiting in the anteroom of history, there were other, smaller non-Sevastopols on the spot, ancient settlements with a better claim to veneration. Two thousand years before a German consort found herself at the helm of Russia’s war engines, the Greeks had built the town of Chersonesus, now in ruins, in the care of which it is my duty to serve.
In Sevastopol we keep the Greek myths alive: our children learn them off by heart in school, fall asleep to the plodding rhythm of a grandparent’s bedside recitation. But we tell the stories in our own way, transposing foreign gods onto familiar landscapes, familiar tales. The shadows of our Hellenistic past can be seen in our profiles, in the casts of our smiles. And the Black Sea is muddled with the Mediterranean, and waters that meet in life come also to mix in our veins.