Margate Before Brighton
Margate was twinned with Yalta in 1945. This came from a suggestion by Stalin to Churchill. Both leaders were in Yalta for a conference in the closing months of World War II and Stalin was showing the British leader the attractions of Yalta, a seaside town developed as the most fashionable Russian resort during the nineteenth century. He suggested it should be twinned to the most pre-eminent British resort… Brighton. For some unknown reason, Churchill rejected Brighton and suggested Margate instead. So the towns were linked.
A bit of history
There are some historical similarities between the two towns. Both had developed as seaside resorts during the nineteenth century, taking money off rich holidaymakers from an imperial metropolis. The Russian Empire at that time had huge outreach, eastwards across Siberia to the Pacific, and southwards to the Black Sea. The serfs had been freed, and cities like Moscow were heaving with industrialisation and commerce. Crimea was an attractive place for the richer families to take a holiday. Similarly Margate developed as a resort for moneyed Londoners.
Tsar Nicholas II used the Livadia Palace in Yalta (where the Yalta conference took place) for family holidays. The town also has strong connections with the writer Anton Chekhov (1865-1905) who had a house there and wrote a number of his most famous works there.
Margate too has various literary links: Charles Lamb enjoyed a holiday there; TS Eliot wrote some of “The Wasteland” there, and John Betjeman called it a “salt-scented” town in a war-time poem.
I have been unable to discover what the two towns made of their twinning link during the decades after the Yalta Conference. Stalin died in 1953, and Khrushchev decided in 1954 that Crimea could fall under Ukraine, which was then part of the USSR.
It cannot have been easy to sustain links with a town behind the Iron Curtain.
I can recall trying to be a cultural tourist in the USSR in the early 1970s, and finding it was very strictly controlled. When one applied for a visa into the USSR, one had to supply all details of travel and accommodation and all the places one wanted to visit. A free tourist guide was on offer; essentially a minder.
New dawn – new twins
As the Soviet Union was breaking up there was a resurgence of interest in twinning links with Eastern European cities, and at the time there were about 30 links. A question in Parliament in 1991 received this answer:
“The Government believes that twinning links can play an important role in breaking down barriers and developing mutual trust. To that end local authorities are encouraged through the local government international bureau to develop twinning links with their East European counterparts, particularly where a fully democratic local government is being established.”
Crimea re-attached to independent Ukraine
Amid the turbulence of the break-up of the USSR and especially in relation to the division of the Black Sea navy, Crimea ended up under Ukraine again but as an autonomous republic. The population of Crimea was a mix of Ukrainian and Russian speakers, with a minority (15%) of Tatars.
Tatars, with a cultural history stretching back to the khanates and Genghis Khan, had formed a vassal state within the Ottoman Empire until Russia took over Crimea in 1783. Stalin accused them of being Nazis and deported to Siberia. Only a few trickled back to their homeland from 1968 onwards.
Margate cannot match this polyglot mix of population and cultures.
By 2004 the twinning link appears to have become inactive.
Democracy in action
But in 2004 there were significant political elections in Ukraine, which ultimately explains why Crimea is yet again under Russia. There were elections for the President which showed a close run race between Yanukovych (pro-Russian) and Yushchenko (pro-Western).
In what was supposed to be the final round, Yanukovych was proclaimed the winner, but there was an outcry about electoral fraud in the pro-Russian regions: some pro-Yanukovych activists were accused of running around the polling stations and voting many times. Eventually following pressure from the EU and the US, the election was re-run, resulting in a win for Yushchenko.
What is interesting about the map of electoral results in 2004 is that it shows clearly how Ukraine had the potential to split into pro-Western and pro-Russian areas. Historians have pointed out that the electoral divide coincides with the old border of the Polish-Lithuanian duchy which included the Western part of Ukraine. It also coincides with religious practice: the western part being more Ukrainian Greek Catholic church, and the eastern part being Orthodox under the patriarchy of Russia.
Yalta spared from conflict
Russia has never given up its interest in the eastern parts of Ukraine. On the excuse that Russian speakers were being persecuted in Crimea by Ukrainian “Nazis” it invaded in 2014. In spite of international protests, Crimea remains under Putin’s Russia today. At least the residents of Yalta are now spared the horrors of war now being inflicted on other Black Sea towns like Mariupol.
Share your memories
If any reader can recall how the Margate links with Yalta played out before 2004, please contact Kent Bylines with the story.