Exploring the Black Sea's Crimean Coast
Credit: Alamy
Rob seems continually surprised at just where life has delivered him, or what it has delivered him from. One evening we stood in the wind watching the sunlight dance across the sea. Piñon and juniper trees clung to the rocky slopes. "Just think: Turkey is only 150 miles away," Rob said. "Another 200 miles, and you're in Iraq."

If things had turned out differently, Rob might've been on the far side of Turkey. With his background in military intelligence, he was one of a precious few army reservists who spoke four languages, let alone held a Ph.D., but with the war in Iraq spreading the armed forces thin, he would have been just another grunt with a gun. He thought the war was a blunder, but that wasn't the worst of it. "I knew that some kid who would probably flunk my class would have the legal authority to order me to charge a machine gun nest," he told me. "No, thanks." So in 2005 he left the army after 22 years and continued teaching history at Washington's Evergreen State College.

Today the Black Sea is clearly more peaceful than the Persian Gulf, but in fact it's been fought over for more than 200 years. In 1788 Catherine the Great hired naval hero John Paul Jones to help defend her newly acquired Crimean beachfront from the Turks. Between 1854 and 1856 the Russians faced off against an alliance of British, French, and Turkish forces. More than 200,000 were killed, but no territory traded hands, and in the end there was no decisive victor. The Crimean War may have been forgotten altogether if not for its famous literary spawn. On the British side Tennyson immortalized the bloodshed in The Charge of the Light Brigade; Russians learned about the full horror of the war largely from a little-known aristocrat whose battlefield writings gave him the reputation as the first war correspondent. "I failed to become a general in the army," Leo Tolstoy later said, "but I became one in literature."

During World War II blood flowed again in Crimea as the Russians repelled the Nazis in a series of furious battles. Sevastopol became the headquarters of the Soviet navy, and Yalta gained fame for the 1945 Big Three Conference between Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin. Crimea's hills have been peaceful for the past six decades; the only reminder of its bloody past are the war memorials.

Although Ukraine swells with nationalist pride, Crimea remains a pro-Russian outpost. Many Crimeans winced in 1954 when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev transferred Crimea from Russia to Ukraine. Since all Soviet republics were ruled by Moscow, the transfer was largely symbolic, but now that Ukraine is independent there's some bitterness in Crimea about being part of Ukraine. Most of our crew all considered themselves Russian, no matter what their passports said. The peninsula even keeps a separate parliament. But so far Crimea showed no signs of becoming another Chechnya.