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 …

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