This is a dissertation about a particular place, small in size and population, which existed in fin-de-siècle Russia and was known as the Russian Riviera. Stretching along the south and west coasts of the Crimean peninsula, 1300 miles away from St. Petersburg, Russia’s Riviera was the premiere travel destination within the tsarist empire.
“What was the Russian Riviera?” is the broad question at hand here. How did Russians understand their Riviera? What cultural influences shaped the questions raised by locals and visitors concerning the Riviera’s identity and future development? How did Russians give meaning to the place?
Through a thorough analysis of travel literature (by which I mean guidebooks, pamphlets, advertisements, published diaries, and personal reflections), medical reports, local administrative records, and above all newspapers, this dissertation sets out to answer these big questions. The Russian Riviera’s identity and its meaning as a place came to be directly related to the ways that Russians appropriated spaces in Crimea in new ways—ways that were both distinct to the region but also reflective of broader social and cultural processes taking place in the late tsarist empire. Russian travelers used them as a conduit to education and enlightenment. Crimea’s natural world was also rendered as a space of health and modern medical treatments. I suggest that the exploration and understandings of those natural spaces also gave Crimea new meaning as an integrated part of the Russian imperial and national homeland. The growth of resorts for Russian travelers also created new urban spaces in Crimea. The towns and small cities of the coastlines were built up as sanitary spaces by local planners, doctors and engineers; as spaces of leisure for the tourist public; and they were also spaces of social interaction that revolved heavily around contested notions of masculinity and femininity, fashion, and promiscuity. Ultimately, Crimea’s coastlines became the Russian Riviera, endowed with meaning for Russians, because of the ways that they transformed its physical environment into a place of leisure, enlightenment, imperialism, health, sanitation, and highly gendered social interactions.
The contests over the identity of the Russian Riviera and the meaning that local and traveling Russians gave to it speak to a whole host of anxieties and aspirations that they held at the fin-de-siècle. More than a history of a small part of peninsula thousands of miles from the imperial centers, this dissertation sheds light on real concerns of nineteenth and early twentieth century Russians, including the changing relationships between humans and the natural world, modern medical knowledge, practices, and civil society, rapid urbanization, and the politics and public discourse surrounding sex. Like no other place in the tsarist empire, the history of the Russian Riviera matters as a site that reveals the extensive, interwoven links connecting travel, imperialism, medicine, gendered social environments, and the natural world.