The Crimea as “Russian Riviera”


A Review of Our Riviera, Coast of Health: Environment, Medicine, and Resort Life in Fin-de-Siècle Crimea, by George Lywood.

George Lywood’s dissertation examines how the Crimea was transformed during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries into the “Russian Riviera.” Lywood shows the ways in which Russians shaped the physical environment of this stretch of the Black Sea coastline into “a place of leisure, enlightenment, imperialism, health, sanitation, and highly gendered social interactions” (p. iv). While always attentive to local events and context, Our Riviera uses the Crimean beaches and their transient and settled populations to explore larger issues of the late imperial period, from the evolution of medical practices and interactions between humans and nature, to fin-de-siècle urbanization, gender norms, and the relationship between state and civil society.

The physical spaces of Crimean resort towns unite these themes. Lywood examines the tourist destinations between Alushta and Balaklava, and Evpatoria-Saky on the west coast, avoiding the major urban centers and the steppe to the north. Resort towns like Yalta were blessed with a climate unusually mild for the Russian Empire, and attracted visitors from cities to the north. Lywood shows how the arrival of Russian elites, followed by merchant and middle classes, produced both physical transformations to the environment and shifts in what this space meant within the empire. These physical and intellectual changes were tied to the ways in which Russians appropriated and used the Crimea, transforming it from a diverse, Tatar-inflected frontier to a destination famous for its health-providing recreation and infamous for the moral conduct of its denizens. Motivating these changes were tourists, whose numbers, by the establishment of rail lines in the 1870s, exceeded 100,000 annually and remained that high until this study concludes in 1914. Our Riviera follows in the footsteps of American historian Robert Campbell to argue that tourism was not part of an overt political project on the part of the state (Robert Campbell. In Darkest Alaska: Travel and Empire along the Inside Passage. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007). Instead, tourists and their “passages [through the Crimea] exercised a form of state power while appearing to have no political effect whatsoever” (p. 8). Lywood traces the interaction between this subtle form of politics and the local context throughout Our Riviera, following its expression in educational efforts, the development of sanitation and modern medicinal practices, the location of urban planning experiments and critiques of scandalous female behavior in the Crimean press.

After a short, informative chapter acquainting the reader with the Crimea’s history from antiquity onward, Chapters 1 through 4 explore different thematic facets of fin-de-siècle social and environmental change. Chapter 1 explores the importance of educational excursions in altering Russian interactions with and thoughts about their environment. These excursions were highly interactive and non-scholastic ventures that ranged from short day-trips for tourists to multi-week hikes for students and teachers, combining natural history with local, ethnic, and national history. Through a detailed typography of different sorts of excursions alongside their associated guides and books, Lywood argues that the excursion was an important way of knitting together the Russian Empire. Since the Crimea was one of the most popular locations to take an excursion, and home to the empire’s first organization dedicated to excursion promotion – the Crimean Alpine Club – the Black Sea coast became an key site where Russians nurtured an “emotional attachment to the native land” and to their history (p. 42). Here, Lywood both expands discussions of Imperial Russian nationalism and engages a larger literature on forms of colonial rule, contending that the pedagogy of the excursion made Russian nature into a classroom and the multi-ethnic history of the Crimea into part of Russia’s imagined national community.

The second chapter of Our Riviera examines why the Black Sea coast came to be seen as the ideal site for a variety of medical therapies and generated ideas about the relationship between geography and health. Lywood contends that doctors saw Crimea’s natural environment – the marine air, moderate temperatures, frequent sunshine and mineral waters – as therapeutic for ailments ranging from tuberculosis and pulmonary diseases to reproductive problems and a host of other complaints. As a result, Crimean doctors were “practitioners and proponents of medical geography,” rather than being influenced by early ideas of germ theory (p. 87). Treatments ranged from mud baths to eating grapes, and were usually undertaken outside of medical institutions. However, the medicinal properties of mineral baths or taking the sun were studied rigorously by doctors before being promoted in tourist literature: physicians were deeply involved in creating a public, scientifically backed literature that drew multiple connections between health and the Crimean environment. By the end of the nineteenth century, some treatments were institutionalized in sanatoria, including a few charitable state-run facilities. However, Lywood argues that medical geography was not used in the Crimea as a tool of colonial authority as was common in Western European colonies. Instead, Lywood shows how the Crimea, like the North American West, demonstrates “the connections between the environment of a particular place, public perception, and medical literature” (p. 124).

Once the association between health and the Crimean environment was established, it was essential that visitors could, in fact, access treatments. In Chapter 3, Lywood explores how city planners, physicians, local governments and the central state attempted to create a sanitized region that was simultaneously celebrated for its natural attributes and urbanized. The collective effort by multiple levels of government was referred to, in the Crimean press, as the project of building an “All-Russian Sanatorium,” a project that Lywood compares to Michel Foucault’s discussion of French revolutionaries’ attempts to expand health-giving spaces for the general community. While in Russia this goal was broadly shared and included projects for water sanitation, street cleaning, appropriate housing, and the creation of parks, Lywood examines debates over implementation to illuminate the relationship between state and civil society. In an original and useful intervention into the literature on state-society interactions in the late tsarist period, Our Riviera demonstrates that doctors were the prime instigators of city sanitation projects and were pillars of a civil society, often also serving on local administrative bodies. Lywood persuasively shows that, as a result of these dual roles and an overarching sense of public duty among physicians, the lines between state and non-state actors blurred over time. Even where doctors and administrators were not the same people, the shared goal of creating public health and maintaining the attractiveness of the Crimea as a tourist destination eliminated competition between the state and professional organizations, while the tsarist government interfered only sporadically. As a result, “in Crimea modernization could be a local and liberal movement even within an autocratic state” (p. 130).

In Chapter 4, Lywood turns to a discussion of how gender relationships in Crimean resort towns were portrayed and critiqued by the press. Despite the fact that most women came to the Crimea for relaxation and health reasons, journalists – especially writers of satire – portrayed Black Sea towns as places where well-off Russian women came to commit the crime of adultery with Tatar men or to participate in consumerist culture. Lywood identifies three major tropes in newspaper accounts and satires of resort life. The first was the “Resort Lady,” a figure of feminine caprice, always well-dressed but “intellectually deficient,” immoral but obsessed with “understanding and manipulating local fashions and social hierarchies” (p. 174). Secondly, the press used the figure of the Crimean Tartar guide to explore the intersections of race and sexuality. These guides, Tartar men who took groups of visitors into the countryside, were thoroughly integrated into the resorts, and by the early twentieth century began to lead tours for all-female groups. Such tours were seen in the press as having a sexual component. Lywood contends that this dynamic in which women hired male guides is a different sort of imperial sexual encounter than those discussed in most Western European cases, since in the Crimea women were the instigators and Tatar men a demographic minority. As a result, the “reaction against the intimate behavior of Russian women was to actually prevent the domination of Russians (the majority of the population) by their Crimean Tatar subjects” (p. 193). Finally, Our Riviera discusses the press rhetoric regarding the various tourist seasons – the “velvet,” when nobility visited, or the “cotton,” when merchants were more likely to book the resorts – and details the press critiques of the sexual mores associated with upper classes and capitalist consumption. Across these three cases, Lywood shows how in the particular space of the Crimea issues of class imported from Russia’s cities were constantly on display, with journalists sharing the intelligentsia’s anti-capitalist understanding of social life and change.

Our Riviera, Coast of Health is an important contribution to the new but growing literature by historians like Christopher Ely and Nicholas Breyfogle on the relationship between inhabitants of the Russian Empire and their environment. For historians of the Russian Empire, Lywood’s argument about the porosity of state and civil society is especially compelling, and his attention to the place of the natural world in the constitution of empire opens interesting avenues of research in other Russian locales. The breadth of topics discussed in this dissertation also puts it in dialogue with scholarship outside of Imperial Russia, especially with histories of medicine and planning, empire, tourism, and histories that consider gender and space. Finally, Lywood’s narrative is engaging and peopled with the sort of characters and observations that would make it an interesting read for anyone interested in the Crimea as a place.

Bathsheba Demuth
PhD Candidate
Department of History
University of California, Berkeley

Primary Sources

State Archive of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea (GAARK)
Krymskii kurortnyi listok
Russkaia Riv‘era
Russkii ekskursant

Dissertation Information

Ohio State University. 2012. 219 pp. Primary Advisor: Nicholas Breyfogle.

Image: Ivan Aivazovsky, View from Livadia. 1861.

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