THE WORDS “UNDERWATER MUSEUM” will probably make most divers think of the underwater sculpture park that opened in 2006 off Grenada in the Caribbean.
Russian divers, however, were the pioneers in this field. They set up Leaders’ Alley in the Black Sea 15 years before that.
I remember when I first saw the Alley, in 2000. I arrived at Tarkhankut Cape, the westernmost point of the Crimean peninsula, as part of a group of divers ranging from beginners to advanced.
A day or two into the diving, after the regular sites had been visited, one veteran proposed “a dive at the museum”. Many people had heard of it, so we voted unanimously to include it in the following day’s dive plan.
We arrived at a small bay in two cars and a minibus with a trailer full of kit. The banks were very steep there, and it was difficult to find a place to descend.
Negotiating a winding path, jumping from stone to stone like mountain goats, we had to make several trips to get our equipment down to the water.
A gusty south-west wind was blowing, the sea was slightly agitated and the water was quite muddy close in.
But we descended and shadowed our guide as he confidently followed some unseen bearing.
He had told us it wasn’t far, but we followed him for about 30 minutes.
I kept thinking about the incompetent Ivan Susanin (a historical figure who led Polish troops into impassable swamps where they perished).
Now and then our guide would check his compass and depth gauge, turning his head and looking for rock formations he might recognise.
Then he would dramatically change direction, and even rise to the surface, trying to navigate by the cliffs.
No one was surprised when he finally shrugged and spread his hands helplessly. Having lost its mutual objective, the group split into pairs and dispersed. My buddy and I moved slowly from rock to rock, occasionally stopping to photograph the scenery or a fish.
Suddenly I had an inkling that someone was watching us. Sometimes divers in tropical waters get the uneasy feeling that a shark or large barracuda is observing them from a distance – but there are no large predators in the Black Sea.
Everything seemed normal – rocks, seaweed, pale-blue water column. Then my buddy pointed downwards. Framed by swaying brown algae, I could see the face of a revolutionary leader watching me. It was Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.

WHEN BRITISH SCULPTOR and diver Jason deCaires Taylor was drowning his first sculptures near Grenada, he had two aims – to attract tourists and to create a substratum for sea creatures to colonise.
The Tarkhankut underwater museum was different. The Soviet Union was a highly ideological power. In every town and village you would find numerous images of the first socialist state’s founders and revolutionary heroes.
Most numerous were paintings and sculptures of VI Lenin. He observed the life of every Soviet citizen from Pioneer and Komsomol badges, banknotes, small portraits and vast depictions occupying entire walls of buildings.
In front of each district or municipal party committee or village council would be the leader’s monument or bust. Busts of all sizes decorated corners of military units, schools, offices and even prisons.
In 1991, the Soviet Union broke up. As Communist ideology was condemned by many of the newly formed independent states, hundreds of thousands of gypsum, marble, granite, bronze, stainless steel and other Ilyiches were consigned not just to the ash-heap of history but to a landfill.
Busts of Lenin, Stalin and Dzerzhinsky could be bought at scrap-metal prices, or just retrieved from a rubbish bin, had anyone wanted them. The symbols that had recently been worshipped seemed in danger of disappearing altogether.

IT’S HARD TO SAY WHETHER it was nostalgia or irony that motivated a diving instructor from Donetsk called Vladimir Borumenskiy to place the first Lenin bust in Tarkhankut.
He left it on the bank in 1991, but when he came back a year later, it had lost its head. So that August he moved the sculpture out of reach of vandals into 12m of water.
He then installed another four busts – two of Lenin and one each of Karl Marx and statesman Klim Voroshilov.
People regarded Leaders’ Alley as a quirky whim of the Donetsk divers, and Vladimir, chief caretaker of the exhibition, still thought of it as little more than a summer entertainment, as new figures were added each season.
The “Hall of Leaders” was followed by the “Hall of Artists”, covering writers, poets and composers. An Italian newspaper first referred to the site as an “underwater museum” in 1996.
From then on, the movement turned into a sort of spontaneous folk art. The collection grew year by year, with the addition of dozens of exhibits very different from the original concept.
Historical and patriotic man-made sculptures now lie alongside hi-tech installations and toys, and making a contribution has become a popular underwater pastime.
Divers visit Tarkhankut from all over the Ukraine and Russia to compete in an undeclared contest for the most unusual or bulkiest object they can set up. You’ll find mobile phones, an electric samovar, models of ships, Tower Bridge, the Eiffel Tower and even a real 5m-high wind turbine.
The museum soon outgrew the first two “halls”. It has increased tenfold in size and resembles an underwater park spread over a large area of rocky ridges.
I recently visited the site again. No-one has any trouble finding it these days, because a plate marked “Underwater Museum 100m” is set on the cliffs, and a buoy marks “the start” of the exhibition.

MOTOR BOATS FROM LOCAL DIVE CENTRES take turns to bring new tourists out, because these days this is a popular dive site in the western Crimea. For a small fee you can even hire a dive-guide to conduct you through the museum.
The exhibition is so large now that two sets of divers moving in slightly different directions will come back with tales of totally different exhibits. And the sea, of course, has made its contribution.
Severe winter storms have mixed revolutionaries and artists together, and it takes no more than a season for sea water to eat plaster statues.
But many of the exhibits are now adorned with seaweed and molluscs, and many fish species find shelter, especially in the bigger metallic constructions.
So the underwater museum of Tarkhankut now has more in common with the Grenada project, as the exhibits merge with the underwater terrain.
This Soviet Atlantis can’t boast the harmony and perfection of the underwater parks in Grenada and now Mexico, but it is the only interactive museum of its kind in the world.
If you should pay it a visit, I’m certain that you won’t be bored!