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On the Barbary Shore

Black Sea

by Neal Ascherson
Hill and Wang, 306 pp., $23.00


The Black Sea is Eastern Europe’s counterpart to the Mediterranean. Indeed, it is an extension of the Mediterranean, joined to its larger twin at the Bosporus. Together, like America’s Great Lakes, they form a magnificent complex of navigable waters, set in a sun-drenched climate and surrounded since the earliest times by one civilization after another. The Black Sea littoral was dominated for very long periods by ancient Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Ottomans, and most recently, and in part, by Russia. The great rivers that flow into it—the Danube, the Dnieper, the Kuban, the Dniester, and the Don—drain a region that stretches from the Black Forest in Germany to the Caucasus.

The shores of the Black Sea lend themselves to the literary genre that may be classified as “cultural pilgrimage,” which is not just a higher form of travel writing but which has the further mission of reporting on present conditions and supplying neglected knowledge. Eastern Europe has become a rich hunting ground for writers of such accounts, as long-isolated countries have gradually opened up after communism. Among recent pilgrims, one finds Patrick Leigh Fermor in the Balkans, Anne Applebaum on the Polish-Lithuanian borders, and now Neal Ascherson.

A British critic and journalist, Ascherson is well known for his independent mind and for his mastery of exotic (for the British) subjects. He is deeply committed, for example, to his native Scotland and hence to other small, complicated countries. He is an established authority on Poland and on the decline of states, the depredations of empires, and the heroic survival of cultures. He is also, it appears, a devoted classicist, having wanted to make this journey ever since he read Rostovtzeff’s Iranians and Greeks in South Russia as a schoolboy. These strong qualifications are supplemented by assistance from specialists and by his sympathetic approach to the local people. He has also drawn on impressive literary, archaeological, and historical sources. Moreover, he shares the wanderlust of his father, who saw Russia’s Black Sea shore from the deck of a British battleship in 1920.

Ascherson began his journey on the northern shores of the Black Sea in what was still the Soviet Union. He had joined a band of roving Byzantinologists, and happened to be in Crimea on August 18, 1991, where, beyond a roadblock at Foros, he glimpsed the lights of Mikhail Gorbachev’s villa. It was the night of the coup launched by Gorbachev’s rebellious henchmen, who, in trying to save the USSR, destroyed it. Ascherson thereby witnessed that last symbolic flicker of life in the dying Soviet Empire.

He subsequently visited many historic sites, most of whose names will be obscure to modern readers: the 2500-year-old Scythian burial mounds known as kurgans; Mangup, the stronghold of Goths and later of the Karaim, a Jewish sect that had migrated from Palestine and Egypt into the Crimean mountains in the twelfth century; and Bakshisarai, capital of the Crimean Tartars. He explored modern Odessa, Rostov, and Kerch. He traversed the southern, Turkish shore on the road to Trabzon, the ancient Trebizond, capital of the Greek-speaking Comnenian Empire, which was established in 1204 by the son of the Byzantine emperor, after the Crusaders had sacked Constantinople, and lasted until conquered by the Turks in 1461. Near Istanbul, he takes us to odd corners such as the disappearing Polish colony of Adampol (Polonezköy), settled in the nineteenth century by Polish soldiers who had joined the Ottoman armies to fight against Russia.

Ascherson’s report on the debris of the Soviet Empire captures many eloquent details. Whatever the sins of the post-Soviet republics, they pale in the light of the criminal monstrosities of the preceding era. Every place he visits is blighted by the shadows of murdered millions, of heroic but squandered sacrifices. The Soviet war memorials still in place in Novorossisk and elsewhere show how the great triumphs of the war against Hitler were turned to the glorification of obscure Communist bosses. The ruins of the post-Soviet economy speak of decades of absurd priorities. Ascherson notes the remnants of isolated professional accomplishments from the Communist period in the Soviet Board of Marine Biology or in the Soviet archaeological service. But the rusting warships in Sevastopol Harbor he observes also have a civilian counterpart in the unused ocean terminal at Odessa.

To him, the endemic food shortages in one of the world’s most fertile regions underscore the irony that Soviet agriculture fell far short of the standards of the ancient Scythians, a nomadic people who had settled in the Crimea before the first Greeks arrived in the eighth century BC. Worst of all is the human damage. Anyone who thinks that the ugly rash of militant nationalism in the former Soviet Empire is explained by the disappearance of the Communists must think again. Together with fake socialism, rabid nationalism was always part of the Stalinist recipe. Many of today’s most disruptive nationalists, like Zhirinovsky and Milosevic, are ex-Communists.

In a visit to Abkhazia, the autonomous republic that was formerly part of Georgia, Ascherson found, on a small scale, the origin of forces now at work throughout the region. In 1991 the few Western commentators who took notice of the “war of independence” being fought in Abkhazia were quick to blame Balkan-style nationalism. Yet the father of the conflict must be sought not, he writes, in the present generation, but rather in Stalin’s henchman, Lavrenti Beria. As Party boss of Georgia at the height of the Terror and the purges, and as head of Stalin’s NKVD-KGB from 1938–1953, Beria was directly responsible for the policies of social engineering that turned Abkhazia into a country of deep hatreds. And as a Mingrelian—a member of a minority ethnic group in the region that speaks a language close to Georgian—he knew perfectly well what he was doing.

Abkhazia, whose people speak their own ancient language and are distinct from both Georgians and Russians, became an autonomous Soviet republic in 1921, but ten years later Stalin made it part of Georgia. Beria then organized an influx of Georgians, who turned the natives into a helpless minority in their own land. In 1949, he ordered the mass deportation of the only other substantial minority, the Greeks—all on the pretext of “building Communism.” In doing so, he decimated the local intelligentsia, while creating a class of Georgian apparatchiks who were as chauvinistic as they were dependent on Moscow.

The explosion in Abkhazia occurred as soon as the USSR was dissolved. The Georgians took up arms to free themselves from Moscow, and the Abkhazians took up arms to free themselves from Georgia. Then the Russian Army intervened on the Abkhazian side, in an attempt to impose a new version of its traditional dominance. During the fighting, the attractive Black Sea port of Sukhum, like Chechnya’s Grozny two years later, was demolished. When Ascherson picked his way through the rubble of the city to interview the Abkhazian Minister of Information, he entered her shell-scarred office through a hole in the wall. Encouragingly, the surviving citizens, mainly Abkhazians and Russians, seemed intent on a new spirit of cooperation. But the experience could only have reinforced Ascherson’s “sad” conclusion that “latent mistrust between different cultures is immortal.”


Ascherson’s main concern in his book, however, is with history. He seeks to evoke the peoples and places of the past and to uncover the memories and ideas that link them to those living today. He does so by reconstructing his journeys so that historical locations serve as the starting points for complex intellectual trails. His initial ramble around Crimea introduces one of his favorite themes: that multinational societies have worked in the past. “Only in recent times,” he writes, has the “truth” that Crimea “belongs to everybody and nobody been violated.” In 1783, Catherine II declared Crimea to be forever Russian; in 1942, in their abortive “Gottland Project,” the Nazis planned to dominate it with German settlers; in 1944 Stalin cruelly shipped the Crimean Tatars to Central Asia; and in 1954, in a famous gesture, Khrushchev handed Crimea over to Ukraine—with the result that Russia has now lost its naval base at Sevastopol, and the Russians in Crimea are protesting Ukrainian rule.

One of Ascherson’s most ambitious chapters deals with the Western image of the “Barbarian,” in search of whom he traveled southeast from the ancient Black Sea settlement of Olbia to the little port of Anapa, where the international Lermontov society was holding its reunion. (Lermontov, we learn, was descended from a Scots emigrant, Learmonth of Balcomie, and conveniently wrote a poem “On the Tomb of Ossian.”) Between Olbia and Anapa, Ascherson provides fascinating commentaries on the Greek invention of “civilization,” on Ovid’s laments at Tomi, the Romanian port city where he was exiled, and on the emergence of the idea of the “noble savage” in Greek tragedies. These reflections are a tour de force, particularly in the imaginative ways they link antiquity to the present:

Settled people fear moving people, but they also envy and admire them. In envying and admiring, they are inventing the sort of travelling people they want—once again, holding up a mirror to examine themselves.

The Greek tragedians, when they had invented the barbarians, soon began to play with the “inner barbarism” of Greeks. Perhaps part of the otherness of barbarians was that, unlike the civilised, they were morally all of a piece—not dualistic characters in which a good nature warred with a bad, but whole. The “Hippocratic” authors—the unknown writers of the Greek medical treatises wrongly attributed to the physician Hippocrates—asserted in Airs, Waters, Places that Scythians and all “Asians” resembled one another physically, while “Europeans” (meaning essentially Greeks) differed sharply in size and appearance from one city to another. Barbarians were homogenous; civilised people were multiform and differentiated. The Greek tragedians thought this might be true about minds as well as bodies. If it was, they were not sure that the contrast between Greek and barbarian psychology—the first complex and inhibited, the second supposed to be spontaneous and natural—was altogether complimentary to the Greeks.

Somewhere here begins Europe’s long, unfinished ballad of yearning for noble savages, for hunter-gatherers in touch with themselves and their ecology, for cowboys, cattle-reivers, gypsies and Cossacks, for Bedouin nomads and aboriginals walking their song-lines through the unspoiled wilderness. When Euripides began to write, the Athenian dramatists were using the “otherness” of their new composite barbarian as a mirror for inspecting Greek virtues. But by the time that he came to write Medea, in 431 BC, the mirror was being used to show Greek vices as well, or at least to put in question orthodox Greek morality.

From the Odessa waterfront and the famous steps used by Eisenstein in his film The Battleship Potemkin, Ascherson’s story moves back to the 1820s, to the intrigues within the circle of the tsarist governor and two of his exiled guests, Alexander Pushkin and the Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz. The spider in the center of this web of conspiracy and counterintelligence turns out to be Balzac’s sister-in-law, Karolina Sobanska, who was both the mistress of Odessa’s police chief, Jan Witt, and the lover of, among others, Mickiewicz. She was an ambivalent Pole who, in defense of her privileges in Russia, spied on her compatriots and denounced their anti-Russian activities. When in 1935 the Bolsheviks published tsarist documents about Pushkin’s milieu, they released a letter by Sobanska justifying herself to the police minister in St. Petersburg. In it she expressed her “profound contempt…for the nation to which I have the misfortune to belong.” “I had to meet Poles,” she wrote. “But I could not bring myself to approach those whose very contact gave the sensation of being licked by a rabid dog.” For “approach” read “seduce.”

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