The significance of "beautiful spaces"

It is hard to come up with a pair of concepts as evocative and as subjective as "beauty" and "space." Combine them, and you have a concept that seems, at first glance, to defy definition.

Then again, combine them, and you have a concept which, on second thought, functions as a uniquely powerful tool for making sense of a historical terrain in which every square inch is continually claimed and contested, subject to ruin and reinvention.

What does it gain us to think of Crimea as a constellation of beautiful spaces?

First, paying attention to space forces us recognize the relationship between place and process; place and practice. Space, after all, is no empty container - no mere shaded area within the boundary lines on a map. Space is an assemblage of places related to one another through a common set of social, economic, political or cultural characteristics, as well as a discernible infrastructure or a set of institutions or practices that links them in meaningful (sometimes even quantifiable) ways. Spatial history thus becomes the history of a system of sites, processes, relationships, and their meanings.

Second, identifying place and location - the physical sites of human experience - as objects of analysis pushes us to think carefully about how we narrate the past. Many of the men and women who wrote about Crimea in the 19th century narrated place with ease and enjoyment. [FINISH]

Finally, we cannot understand Crimea or its relationship with Russia (or Ukraine for that matter) without understanding what constituted beauty in this small corner of the Russian Empire. Beautiful Spaces argues that beauty in this part of the world was fickle. It could be associated in one breath with the majesty of cliffs rising from the Black Sea or the luxurious gardens of the river valleys, and with the landscape of decrepitude and ruin in the next breath.

Thus Peter Keppen waxed rather poetic in his description of Uchansu-Isar: a spot for those who sought out "spectacles of nature." In this case, the spectacle was a waterfall careening from the heights above the fortification. (Uchan-su means "flying water" in Tatar.) Anyone willing to make the 40 minute trip from Yalta would find himself or herself standing among "tall, beautiful pines, the tops of which do not reach the foundation of the walls - so high is the cliff from which the fortification rises." But that was hardly all. "The gloomy forest," Keppen went on, "the gate that now leads nowhere, having outlived its builders by many centuries; the sound of the stream that flies like a silver string from the sheer cliff to hide itself in the shadows of the forest... all of this evokes an unusual despondence and exposes the vanity of human thought and the utter insignificance of earthly whims, the satisfaction of which so often produces only an imaginary bliss!" (186) 

In Crimea, beauty was complex and ephemeral, simple and timeless. But it was always significant.

[Note: Beautiful Spaces complements my book, Claiming Crimea: A History of Catherine the Great's Southern Empire, forthcoming with Yale University Press (fall 2017).]