Santa Cruz’s Ukrainian sister city is long way from war, but deeply entwined in its cultural conflict
The Black Sea resort town of Alushta has been part of the Soviet Union and Ukraine, then under the control of Russia, since it became a Santa Cruz sister city in 1987. And it doesn’t get less complicated from there, Wallace Baine found.
Like most sisters, Santa Cruz and Alushta bear a resemblance. They are both midsized coastal cities and big tourism draws, known in their respective regions for sun and fun.
But these two cities are sisters only in an aspirational sense. Culturally and politically, they remain worlds apart, separated by forces no amount of civic bonhomie can bridge. And nowadays, Santa Cruz feels that separation more keenly than ever.
Alushta is a resort town on the Crimean peninsula, facing the Black Sea, and for almost 35 years, it has been an enthusiastic participant in Santa Cruz’s Sister Cities project. Many people from Santa Cruz have visited Alushta over the years, and vice versa.
Today, Alushta (pronounced ah-LOOSH-tah) is both in the middle of and on the sidelines of the newly erupted war following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It is no closer to Kyiv, Ukraine’s embattled capital, than Santa Cruz is to Tijuana, Mexico. But for people from Alushta, with a foot planted firmly in both Ukrainian and Russian cultures, the new conflict constitutes something of a civil war in Crimea.
Since first striking up its sister city relationship with Santa Cruz in 1987, Alushta has lived under three separate political entities. In the early days of that relationship, it was still within the Soviet Union. Then it was part of a free and autonomous Ukraine. But in 2014, Russia invaded and then formally annexed all of Crimea, including Alushta. The city now operates within the Russian federation, yet the United Nations has condemned and refused to recognize Russian rule in Crimea.
That means the once-robust sister city back-and-forth between Alushta and Santa Cruz — whose other sister cities are Jinotepe, Nicaragua; Puerto la Cruz, Venezuela; Sestri Levante, Italy; and Shingu, Japan — has been essentially in a deep freeze for eight years, caught in a diplomatic bind between the U.S. and Russian governments. Some in Santa Cruz have maintained relationships with friends in Alushta through social media. But mostly, locals with ties to Alushta are left to wonder, paraphrasing an old Hollywood movie line, O sister, where art thou?
“It’s a beautiful coastal community,” said Santa Cruz attorney Enda Brennan, who has visited Alushta five times. “It’s right on the water. It’s a lot like our situation in that they also have mountains nearby, which is a lot like the San Lorenzo Valley area. It’s where the (Russian) czar had his winter palace. It’s really a lovely part of the world.”
Alushta is about a 40-minute drive north of Yalta, the famous resort town where Joseph Stalin hosted Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill in the late stages of World War II. It’s not only a vacation destination, but it also has a thriving wine industry.
“As a tourist, it had its spas and aromatherapy and that kind of thing, so that rang a bell with Santa Cruz,” said Kris Kennedy, whose husband, the late Scott Kennedy, was instrumental in establishing the sister-city relationship with Alushta. As a teacher, Kris Kennedy visited Alushta’s schools several times. She saw a lot of parallels culturally with Santa Cruz. “They make a big deal about healthy foods and fresh vegetables from local farms and all that stuff,” she said. “And I was also pretty impressed with their school system.”
Nancy Eidam of Santa Cruz was part of the very first delegation of locals to visit Alushta in 1987, in the era of glasnost under Mikhail Gorbachev. As a sister-city delegate, Eidam even got to meet Gorbachev at one point. “They really welcomed us,” she said. Eidam has visited Alushta several times since, from the Soviet days to the era of Ukraine independence, shortly before the Russian annexation.
“They had a huge rose-growing area,” she said, “and they do have lavender farms now. And they’d take us to all those places and really entertain us royally. Lots and lots of musical performances. They’d often have us staying at the medical retreats and the vacation places for the higher-ups. And we would swim in the Black Sea.”
The sister-city relationship allowed Santa Cruzans to experience Alushta over spans of big social and political changes. In the days following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Crimea region suffered through extreme economic turmoil and deprivation. Eidam said her daughter was an exchange student in Alushta during those times: “She said that going to the grocery store was like going to a rummage sale — everything looked used, and often there was only one of something. But the last time we went, maybe 10 years ago, they had supermarkets and things were getting so much better.”
Musician John Thomas has operated a musical-instrument shop in Santa Cruz for decades. He knew next to zero about Russia or Ukraine when, around 2005, a group of visiting musical students from Alushta descended on his downtown store.
“They showed up pretty much unannounced,” remembered Thomas, “looking to replace a bunch of Soviet-era instruments and get some real mouthpieces. They were like kids in a candy store, because a retail shop that specialized in brass and woodwinds was pretty much nonexistent where they came from.”
That began an improbable journey that brought Thomas to Alushta several times as a kind of American musical ambassador. Eventually, he even married an Alushtan woman. Thomas said that his attraction to Alushta has more to do with values than with tourist draws.
“I really felt like, in general, family and culture were the priority for them, and that acquisition of things was not,” he said. “The rat race to own more stuff, it just wasn’t there.”
Thomas and other locals who have visited Alushta told me that the David-and-Goliath narrative the West is now crafting about the Russian invasion of Ukraine doesn’t work so well on the ground in Alushta. In the continuum between Ukrainian culture and Russian culture, much of Alushta — in language, the arts, historical identity and other factors — leans toward the Russian side.
“Most people who have gone over there (from Santa Cruz), which is literally dozens since the ’80s, would agree that it is very much a Russian-centric town,” said Brennan. “It’s not uncommon at all for an ethnically Russian person in Crimea to be married to someone whose family has historically been in Ukraine for centuries, so it’s complicated.”
Longtime Santa Cruz city councilmember and former mayor Cynthia Mathews most recently visited Alushta with her daughter, Amey, about two years before the Russian annexation. In the early 2000s, Mathews was part of a Santa Cruz effort to send medical and school supplies to Alushta, then struggling mightily to maintain its economy. A decade later, when she visited, “it was so hopeful and lively and active. The young people were so excited about the future. The country was hoping to get into the EU (European Union). There was free international travel. There was tourism coming in, investment. It was just a buoyant mood. It was a glory moment. It was nothing but fun.”
Santa Cruzans I spoke to about Alushta told me that they’ve had only sporadic communications with friends and contacts there since the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea. Many have struggled to get any information from the area since the Russian invasion of Ukraine last week.
“Obviously, it’s unacceptable what Putin is doing,” said Kris Kennedy. “But when I was there, most of the people I knew and talked to, there was a real affinity (for Russian culture). It’s the language they grew up speaking and that their parents had spoken. It was who they were. And the Ukrainian government was trying to change that and so many people had no connection to Ukrainian culture at all.”
John Thomas said the Alushtans he got to know are generally reluctant to engage in political conversation, especially since 2014. But he did notice a predominant anti-war sentiment in the currents of political culture there, borne out of the Soviet Union’s experience in World War II.
“The Great War — that is, the Second World War — is held up as a huge icon against war over there,” said Thomas. “It represents every reason not to go to war. And every town, every village, every city has at least one monument to the Second World War, not for the purposes of glorifying the war, but as a lesson that we never want to go there again. So it’s ironic to me, with this deep sense I got there about how war is foolish, that the leader of Russia is doing what he’s doing.”