Black Sea ’93


The last few weeks have had me reflecting a lot on my time in Russia and Ukraine almost 30y ago…

When I joined the Royal Navy in ’89 we were definitely living in ‘interesting times’. The defence studies lecturers at Britannia Royal Naval College (BRNC) Dartmouth were tearing up talks they’d used for decades as the Iron Curtain fell, the Berlin Wall came down, and we shifted into a brave new world of after the Cold War.

As I finished my degree I found myself spending a few weeks with the Polish Navy on their sail training ship ORP Iskra, giving me my first experience of a former Warsaw Pact country. A week or so later I joined HMS Avenger to complete my ‘fleet’ training, and found myself heading back East for the first Royal Navy deployment to the Black Sea since the end of WW2.


After transiting the Bosphorus into the Black Sea our first port of call was Novorossiysk, a large naval port city[1]. We stayed there about a week, and it was quite an experience. My time ended up split between hosting people on the ship, and attending the variety of receptions we were invited to.

For me, the highlight was visiting the ‘Champanski’ factory at Abrau Durso. They had a proud tradition of making high quality ‘traditional method‘ wine going back to the time of the Tsars, which had somehow survived the Bolshevik revolution, the ‘Great Patriotic War’ and subsequent Stalinism.

We were hosted for dinners on Russian warships, giving the opportunity for a good look around, and leaving the impression of ‘what were we ever scared of?’ – yes they were armed to the teeth, but all the kit was garbage. A visit to a Sovremenny-class destroyer revealed an operations room with command and control capability that looked like a WW2 time capsule [and some of those ships are still in service]. Of course the real problem was strength of numbers rather than quality of equipment. We faced wave after wave of vodka toasts saturating our livers, just like in conflict we’d have faced wave after wave saturating our defences.

I had my first encounter with the Klept. The local mayor (or maybe it was his ‘fixer’) was a former KGB Colonel. His kids had Nike trainers and satellite TV. The ‘McMafia’ was taking root and tapping itself into the cashflows as commerce opened up.

One peculiarity was money. Normally we’d get local currency, but for this visit we got dollars, and it soon became clear that the locals preferred pristine notes rather than worn ones, as they had more life left in them. The corruption and petty crime were insane. People expected $bribes to be paid for all sorts of things, and many of our sailors were robbed (some at gun point) for the $ in their wallets. We had to shut off access to the ops room during ship open to visitors as people were pinching the button caps from the Computer Assisted Action Information System (CAAIS) consoles to take home as souvenirs.

The visit was a BIG DEAL for the locals, and to an extent we were treated like rock stars. People would grab anybody in uniform to have their photo taken with a visitor from the West. I met some Brits who were starting up an import/export business, and amongst younger people there was much excitement and enthusiasm for the opportunities that were opening up. But the older folk were more skeptical, with many morning the demise of the Communism, the USSR, and the certainty it had given them.

Another memorable moment was meeting some of the teachers from a local school. We’d stuffed the ship with donated clothes and books and medical equipment that had all been donated to local charities. But they still wanted more English language books, so I gave one teacher my copy of Terry Pratchet’s ‘The Colour of Magic’, which I’d read on the way.

I also recall a soldier proudly showing off to me his AK-74. I was a little bemused that he didn’t remove the magazine as part of showing me the weapon was safe, until it transpired that nobody had any bullets. There were soldiers with guns all over the place, but none of them were actually armed.

A pause in the action

Our next port of call was supposed to be to Georgia, but they were rather inconveniently having a civil war, so we spent a few extra days at sea. For me it was a welcome break. I’d got food poisoning or a stomach bug in Novorossiysk that led to me losing a stone of weight, the constant entertaining and receptions had led to borderline alcohol poisoning, and the busy schedule hadn’t been at all conducive to progressing through the ‘task book’ that officers under training needed to complete.


Next up was Odesa, Ukraine’s third largest city, and a major port. We weren’t there long, so I didn’t get to see very much of the place. As usual we hosted a cocktail party on arrival for local dignitaries, but this one was different. The Minister for Defence Malcolm Rifkind[2] was guest of honour, and he brought with him an entourage of the great and the good from Kyiv. I remember speaking to a young lady who spoke remarkably good English, and was in the process of setting up DHL’s operations in the Ukraine.

I got to spend an hour or two ashore sightseeing the wonderful architecture, but there wasn’t much to do. Though street traders were sprouting up, mostly selling Matryoshka dolls in a mix of traditional styles and modern ones representing Gorbachev and Yeltsin.

From my conversations with Ukrainians they were not bemoaning the end of the USSR. They were relishing the opportunities of independence, and all the potential that it brought.

And thus the divergent paths that bring us back to the present were embarked upon – Russia mourning its decline of empire, and Ukraine embracing an independent future. I’ve seen observations that Putin just doesn’t get this, but rather has a mental model forged in the 70s and 80s, and is now so insulated by surrounding kiss-ups that there’s no opportunity for the truth to break through.


I didn’t get to see anything of Constanta, as I was assistant liaison officer for the visit, which tied me down in admin work all day every day. At least the young officer from the Romanian Navy assigned to work with us was a great chap[3]. I did however get to see some other parts of Romania by helping to organise a trip to Transylvania, which included sites like the former Royal Palace at Peles Castle, and Bran Castle.

Bucharest was still showing the scars of the revolution that had deposed Ceaușescu, though we were treated to some amazing food there before the journey home. At least the back row of seats on the plane didn’t fall off their mountings on the way back like they had on the way out.


Varna in ’93 felt very different to the other Black Sea ports. It was busy and vibrant and fun in the ways that a city used to tourists should be. It wasn’t just a commercial port, looking after sailors for the short time there bringing trade in and out; it was a place where people came to eat, drink and be merry. We were almost back in the West, and it showed.


16 Mar 2022 – my former colleague Igor Ilyinsky wrote about Odesa as his birthplace, and his mixed sense of identity, which reminded me of conversations about (Ukrainian) language whilst I was there.


[1] As Putin annexed the Crimea in 2014 I recall seeing an argument that Russia needed to secure Sevastapol as their only viable Black Sea port. This is of course nonsense, they always had Novorossiysk as well (and Sevastapol had continued to serve as a port for the Russian Navy).
[2] It can’t go without saying that I’ve never met a more ill mannered, pompous twat in all my life than Malcolm Rifkind. It says a lot about our political system that such awful people find their way into ‘safe seats’ where they get voted for despite everything, and of course this only emboldens their behaviour.
[3] His English was of course much better than my Romanian, but he very much desired the little Collins Romanian-English Dictionary we had on board. It wasn’t mine to give him, so I took his address and picked one up for him at W H Smiths once back home.

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