My situation seemed comically surreal. On a grand stage in the middle of a Black Sea beach, a high-energy performer bangs out “Ace of Spades” on an accordion. The late, great Lemmy would surely hoist a Jack Daniel’s to this quirky performance, but an even more usual sight competes for my attention. We are standing on a nude beach, and a vodka-soaked, Commander Chekov doppelgänger swings, sways and shakes a few steps to my side while completely naked from head to toe. He committed, quite literally, to rock out with his cock out.
“For the love of god,” I whispered to a newfound friend from Boston, “I hope this guy doesn’t fall into me.” Trying to be funny, my friend motioned with his hands as if he intended to push me into Naked Chekov. Startled, I jumped, and my friend cracked a wry Bostonian smirk. “The Celtics suck,” I said in retaliation.
Crimea is a pendant-shaped Black Sea peninsula famous for Yalta, the city where FDR, Stalin and Churchill carved up Europe after World War II, and the beach towns dotting its coastline make up what tour agencies like to call the Russian Riviera. Stalin so adored Crimea that he relocated the local Tatars to Uzbekistan and other Central Asian nations after the war to make room for wealthy Russians and their socialism-funded vacation cottages. Interesting stops on the Crimea Trail include a well-preserved Genoese fortress in Sudak, 19th-century vineyards and sandy beaches in Novyi Svit, the Tepe Kermen Cave City of Bakhchysarai, the Vorontsov Palace (by the same British architect who completed Buckingham Palace) in Alupka, the battle site in Balaclava that inspired Lord Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade and the hippie-centric resort town of Koktebel.
In Crimean Tatar, Koktebel means “Land of the Blue Hills,” and its claims to fame include Symbolist poet Maximilian Voloshin, the Karadag Nature Reserve and the postcard-selling Golden Gate rock a few hundred feet offshore. Natural and literary beauty aside, Koktebel is an arts-friendly charmer that boasted the most famous nude beach of the former Soviet Empire. In the late summer, the annual Neptune Day hosted world-class body artists depicting the birth of Venus on naked bodies, but when I visited in September 2009, the art scene turned to tunes with the Koktebel Jazz Festival.
The previous month, I arrived in Kiev, Ukraine, where I made several new friends, including a lovely young lady from Washington state doing nonprofit work in Ukraine. She told us about the Koktebel Jazz Festival, which draws international artists from around the world performing directly on the nude beach. The festival, launched in 2003 by Ukrainian businesswoman Lilia Mlinarich and Russian television journalist Dmitry Kiselyov, embodied the town’s hippie spirit by allowing free access to the beach stages, and each night, thousands of people spread out across the small, smooth rocks to enjoy food, vodka, wine and live jazz music. All my new friends at the Kiev hostel wanted to go, and we agreed to reconnect there a month later.
I opted to splurge—by Ukrainian price-point standards—on the Galeon Hotel near the Karadag (Black Mount) volcano, but the town had several guesthouse options, and some people camped on the beach. As Crimea’s prime naturalist destination, Koktebel naturally drew more progressive Eastern European types, and the jazz festival doubled down on the hipness. It was the only time passing through Russia or Ukraine that I encountered public cannabis smoking, which Louis Armstrong might call the sign of legit jazz musicians.
Arriving late in the afternoon, our group of American and British degenerates headed to the jazz stages, which was where I encountered Magic Mikhail, or whatever rock-out calls himself. The next day, we hit the naturalist beach, which was not exactly what we expected.
“For a nude beach, there is not a lot of nudity,” observed one of the Americans.
Looking around, we saw a few random sunbathers without tan lines, but Ukrainian supermodels they were not. Most were actually a bit long in the tooth. Then, surprisingly, a British doctoral student in our group went the full monty.
“Let’s go!” said the man I would now call doctor as he dropped trow and ran into the water.
“Who’s next?” I joked. There were no takers, at least not sans suits.
Sheets of small pebbles cover the beach and the shallow section of the water, but as we inched our way into the Black Sea, our feet finally reached sand when we were about waist deep. The water was calm and relaxing but frigid, even for late September, which meant the non-future doctors in our group were now firmly against baring all. Frigid water is not a man’s friend on a nude beach, and all of us were single at the time.
The Tatars, a Turkic tribe that settled in Crimea in the 13th century onward, migrated to the peninsula from the Central Asian steppes in and around Mongolia. Some Tatars returned in the late 1960s, and more followed after the Soviet Parliament in 1989 condemned the postwar mass relocation. When we visited, many local Tatars operated food stalls serving delicious Tatar specialties that reflected their Turkic roots, while others sold trinkets, homemade cakes and crisp, honey-drenched baklava on the beach. The local viniculture specializes in champagne and sparkling white wines, but our group largely opted for vodka after learning that national brands sell for as little as $2 per bottle. (Pro tip: Test the bottles in the freezer and stop buying brands that turn partly slushy, which means they were watered down.)
After gorging on meat kebabs for lunch, we wandered the town watching various non-festival acts perform impromptu jams wherever they could find a place to set up. Later that night, we hit the beach stages once again staying far from anyone hoping to catch a full night tan. This was clearly a hip festival as a band on the second night proceeded to reinterpret Led Zeppelin classics as uptempo jazz tunes. During one of the Zep covers, a Ukrainian said something to me I didn’t understand.
“I am sorry, do you speak English?” I asked.
The man smiled and held up a joint, and I gratefully accepted the pass. The weak cannabis might not have been indica-dominant Crimea Blue, but the shared joint was the type of U.S.-Soviet bonding I never imagined as a kid growing up in the final throes of The Cold War.
“Thank you so much,” I said, guessing he would understand my body language if not my words.
By the final day, $2 vodka coursed through our veins, and our slow boardwalk crawl looked more like a West Palm Beach walking club. Koktebel might not rival the NOLA Jazz Fest in size, scope or hurricane cocktails, but it certainly competed on the unusual party tip. Hopefully it still does.
In 2015, a headline on The Moscow Times website read, “The Battle for Crimea Plays Out in Jazz.” The year previous, Russia annexed Crimea, and though the festival continues under the same name, it now takes place west of Crimea in the beach town of Zatoka near Odessa. According to the Times website, there was no place for a Ukrainian festival in Russian Koktebel. Co-founder Kiselyov, now head of the Russian state news agency Rossiya Segodnya, apparently became an anti-Ukrainian Putin puppet, and he responded to the move by launching the Koktebel Jazz Party. Kiselyov had wished to keep the Koktebel Jazz Festival name, but co-founder Mlinarich must have sensed the coming drama and registered an international trademark in 2011 in her name.
The Koktebel Jazz Festival moved up its dates to August in 2015, and in a shifty move, the Koktebel Jazz Party scheduled its event for the same dates. In 2016, only one day overlaps. In its third year near Odessa, the Koktebel Jazz Festival is set to take place August 25 to 28, while the Jazz Party starts on August 28. Moving the festival to August should provide warmer weather, and nearby Odessa does have a party scene at Arcadia Beach. However, with so many changes, the festival’s naked, hippie, cannabis-smoking, Motörhead-channeling days may well be a thing of the past.
Photo: Maria Savenko, CC-BY
David Jenison is a Los Angeles native and the Content Editor of PROHBTD. He has covered entertainment, restaurants and travel for more than 20 years.