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.”


Mickiewicz was not fully aware of Sobanska’s treachery. Nonetheless, her ambiguous position may well have inspired that most powerful of political allegories, his Konrad Wallenrod, the drama of a camouflaged subversive at the seat of power. From Odessa, he went into a lifelong exile. Ironically, the Polish national poet was born in Lithuania (in a town now part of Belarus), never saw Warsaw or Krakow, and set foot only once, briefly, in Poland. Ascherson comments:

It is as if Shakespeare had never visited England. A little more accurately, it is as if Shakespeare had been an Anglo-Irishman brought up in Dublin, driven to take refuge in Paris before he could find his way to London.

Throughout his wide-ranging voyages, Ascherson repeatedly returns to questions of human identity. He outlines the origins and history of a score of peoples—among them Goths, Khazars, Tatars, Pontic Greeks (from what is now the Turkish Black Sea coast), and truculent Russian Cossacks.

The Greeks who lived on the shores of the Black Sea for three thousand years were dispersed in less than thirty. First there was the great Katastrophé of 1922–1923, in which over one million Greeks living in Turkey were resettled in Greece after the Turks defeated a Greek army invading western Anatolia. Between 1936 and 1949 the Greeks living in the Soviet Union were deported to Siberia and Central Asia. Since the mid-1980s, the remnants have been returning to Greece, the “homeland” which their forebears had left as long as three millennia ago. Though once more numerous than the Greeks of the Peloponnese, and with their own flourishing civilization, the Black Sea Greeks speak a language by now largely unintelligible in Athens. They are, Ascherson writes, being “repatriated” to a land that is “alien to them physically, climatically, politically and linguistically,” and receives them only grudgingly.

Ascherson shows how difficult it is to fit these particular examples into conventional academic theories about nation-building. Though he draws on the work of historians such as Eric Hobsbawm who see socioeconomic modernization as the driving force of modern nationalism, he is quick to express reservations. Guided no doubt by his knowledge of Poland and of Scotland, where clan identity was paramount and modernization nonexistent, he shows how various forms of the “pre-modern nation” took root at an early date. As the basis for nationalism, Ascherson cites Benedict Anderson’s concept of the “imagined community”: “the assumption by individuals that thousands or millions of people whom they would never meet shared their particular culture, language, and outlook.”* Anderson identified the circulation of printed literature in the vernacular as one of the forces uniting widely dispersed cultural groups into imagined national communities that hoped to find their “supreme self-realisation as an independent nation-state.” Ascherson argues that

the nation, as imagined or even forged community, is far older than the nation-state. It existed before the political mobilisation made possible by the print revolution. It will, in fresh mutations, exist when the nation-state has passed into history.

While Ascherson agrees with Hobsbawm that “it is the duty of the historian always to denounce the element of myth in the construction of nations or ethnicities,” he also makes the case that the “imagined communities” on which some nations are based may not be wholly imaginary. One unusual example is to be found in the “Sarmatian Ideology” of the old Polish nobility, the szlachta. The Sarmatians were Iranian-speaking nomads who lived on the Black Sea steppes from the third century BC onward. The claim that Poland’s upper class was descended from Sarmatian warriors has always been treated as pure invention. But Ascherson speculates that the claim may conceal a grain of truth. He recounts the strange disappearance of one of the main Sarmatian tribes, called Alans, in the backwoods of Eastern Europe in the fourth century AD, and the reappearance of Sarmatian tamgas, or “symbolic signs,” in Poland’s unique system of noble heraldry. This, he thinks, may provide credible evidence that the szlachta originated in a Sarmatian caste that came to dominate the primitive Slavonic population of the region.

Ascherson makes a similar foray into “gender history” and the transition from matriarchy to patriarchy, taking off from Herodotus’ story about the Amazons who, mating with Scythian youths, settled down “three days’ ” march from the Sea of Azov, near the mouth of the Don River. This, too, was thought to be a tall tale, until archaeologists began to unearth graves of warrior women exactly where Herodotus indicated they had been.

In eastern Turkey, some fifty miles from Trabzon, Ascherson encounters the Lazi people, a tiny offshoot of the non-Indo-European Kartvelian group who converted to Islam some five hundred years ago. By virtue of their remoteness and their aloofness from politics, they escaped the miserable fate of Turkey’s larger minority groups, the Armenians and the Greeks. In the 1990s, Ascherson writes, they are a “pre-nationalist nation” about to enter the modern world. Their distinctive folklore and oral traditions are intact, but they will not survive another generation without the cultural assets that European nations acquired more than a hundred years ago: an alphabet, a dictionary, a grammar, a written literature, and autonomous schools. Their champion is a wonderfully dotty and devoted German scholar, Wolfgang Feuerstein, who has already published a Lazuri alphabet and is steadily supplying the elements of their national identity from his Black Forest lair. Long banned by the Turkish authorities for encouraging separatism, Professor Feuerstein of Schopfloch has a good chance of becoming the founding father of Lazuria.


For all its diversity, it is the possibility of ecological disaster that may help to bring unity to the region. Ninety percent of the Black Sea’s water is biologically dead, but Ascherson insists that it has in fact been almost entirely lifeless for centuries. The excess of hydrogen sulfide that poisons its waters below 150 to 200 meters is a natural byproduct of the decay of huge amounts of organic matter carried to its depths by its tributaries. The real, man-made disaster is the death of the sea life that once flourished in its surface waters. The formerly abundant shoals of anchovy, sturgeon, and bonito are virtually extinct after decades of pollution and overfishing. Still, the prospect of ecological catastrophe has brought some hope. In Odessa in 1993, he writes,

I watched Ministers for the Environment from Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, Russia, Georgia, and Turkey sitting down with experts from several different United Nations agencies and the World Bank to draft a declaration on the protection of the Black Sea, as part of a continuous action plan. I heard the Turkish delegate and the Bulgarian delegate warmly welcoming each other’s ideas—something inconceivable at normal international conferences, where proceedings have often been held up for days while Turkey and Bulgaria wrangle about history and minorities.

Oddly, amid the discussion of ethnic groups, tribes, and nations, Ascherson misses the opportunity for a digression on the subject of race. In discussing the immensely diverse racial and national groups of the Caucasus, he implicitly exposes the absurdity of believing in a single, not to mention superior, Caucasian race. He has much to say about Jewish contributions to the region, pointing out that Jewish merchants were present in Black Sea ports from early times and that the Turkic Khazars who ruled the Black Sea steppes during the eighth and ninth centuries converted to Judaism. In tsarist days, Jews were granted full citizenship in the “New Russia” around the Black Sea while they were denied it elsewhere in the empire. In a splendid account of the multinational society of Odessa, Ascherson discusses the many Jews—among them Isaac Babel, Vladimir Jabotinsky, and Leon Trotsky—who had migrated to the coast from the inland, formerly Polish provinces.

Most interesting, perhaps, is the little-known episode of “the Hussars of Israel,” the Jewish soldiers who in the 1850s served, and fought well, with the so-called Ottoman Cossacks under a flamboyant Polish exile, Michal Czaykowski, who had converted to Islam, taken the name Sadyk Pasha, and joined the Turkish Army. Adam Mickiewicz originated the scheme to form a Jewish fighting unit, believing that

the creation of the Hussars and their victories in battle would not only announce to the world that the Jewish nation had broken away from the ancient Gentile caricature of egotism and servility; it would also electrify and transform the Jewish masses throughout the Russian Empire. And, as Mickiewicz put it, the Christian peasantry would follow the Jewish example. “We shall spread like lava with out continually growing legion, from synagogue to synagogue, village to village, into the very depths of Poland and Lithuania.”

In the end, the project failed. Czaykowski was skeptical about the future of the Jewish unit, the Ottoman authorities were uncooperative, and Mickiewicz died suddenly of cholera. He belonged to that old form of Polish patriotism, which Pilsudski would later embody, in which ethnic and religious differences counted for less than political loyalty; but even so his thoughts about the Jews had developed to a point advanced for his time. “Without the emancipation of the Jews,” he wrote, “Poland cannot rise. Should she rise without the emancipation of the Jews, which I do not believe, she certainly will not be able to maintain herself.”

To select particular strands of Ascherson’s account, however, is to diminish it. Much of the exhilaration one feels in reading his book comes from tracking the threads through its labyrinth. Not that it is immune to minor criticisms. The faint-hearted may complain that the mental gymnastics required to leap with the author among the arcana are too demanding. The pedantic may well deplore the lack of footnotes; and the decision to abandon all textual references is perhaps questionable, although Ascherson is careful to acknowledge his intellectual debts to numerous academics, including Edith Hall and François Hartog on the “Barbarians,” Patricia Herlihy on Odessa, Tadeusz Sulimirski on the Sarmatian Theory, and above all Anthony Bryer, “historiographer-imperial” of the Greek-speaking Pontic communities centered on Trebizond. But what the book lacks in academic apparatus it more than makes up for in clarity and agility.

(I have one small objection to his pages on Poland and Russia. Having put Pushkin and Mickiewicz on the same Odessan stage, he regrettably does not follow their friendship further. Nationalists often think that Polish and Russian cultures are incompatible—a view Ascherson challenges. So to have traced the two national poets from Odessa until their friendly meetings in St. Petersburg would have nicely proved his point.)

Ascherson explains that he is “not a circumnavigator,” and admits that Turkey, Bulgaria, and Rumania might have been given fuller treatment. One could add Moldova and Georgia to his list. The most striking omission of all is harder to forgive. Ascherson spends most of his travels in what is now the independent republic of Ukraine, yet he has hardly anything to say about Ukrainian history. Having chosen to concentrate on nations and nationalism, he repeatedly sidesteps the central problem of nationality in the region, i.e., the complex question of distinguishing Ukrainian and Russian national claims.

Upon visiting the site of Saint Vladimir’s baptism at Cherson (now Sevastopol) in Crimea, for example, where the Grand Duke of Kiev converted in 991 AD from paganism to Christianity, Ascherson plunges into a fine exposé of how the event has been a central “Russian Myth,” whether in a tsarist, “Byzantine,” or Stalinist version. Common to all is the claim that Saint Vladimir created a unified Russian people from a variety of tribes. But he forgets that “St. Volodymir” is also the patron of the Ukrainians, and hence part of the “Ukrainian Myth.” To overlook a nation of over 50 million in their own homeland is to miss the lion in the zoo.

Ascherson could also have pointed out that in the Republic of Ukraine, which has passed much of the last three centuries in the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union, a substantial majority of people not only speak Ukrainian but have also rejected all Russian connections, especially rule from Moscow. There is a minority of Russian-speakers (about 17 percent) with a variety of political allegiances. One important group of people—who speak either Russian or Ukrainian or both—until 1991 thought of themselves primarily as Soviet citizens. Then there are the other residents of Ukraine—Tatars, Rumanians, Jews, Greeks, and Poles among them—whose numbers are small. (Ascherson, better than anyone else, could have made a comparison between Ukraine’s place in Russian history and Scotland’s in British history; but he did not.)

As for Saint Vladimir, he can best be explained by referring to that other unsaintly Saint Charlemagne. Just as Charlemagne/Karl der Grosse came to be regarded both as a great Frenchman and as the first German emperor, so Vladimir/Volodymir is thought to be Russian by Russians and Ukrainian by Ukrainians. Of course he was neither. Neither France nor Germany had been born in the days of the Franks; neither Russia nor Ukraine existed in the days of Kievan Rus. Such distinctions should not be difficult to make, so long as one ignores the textbooks.

Ascherson does not need to draw lessons, yet several implications emerge from his account. If the Black Sea is “unknown,” we should ask why. One answer would emphasize the shortcomings of scholarship, for few academics would dare to emulate Ascherson’s feat. All too many of them are expert in their own minuscule fields but shun a broader perspective. Who, after all, if not a Scottish Polono-Russophile-journalist-classicist might have taken on so large a task? Not the Turkologists. Nor the Slavicists. Certainly not the Sovietologists, who have been Russocentric to a fault.

Second, by casting so powerful a light on the history and ethnic composition of Russia, Ascherson’s explorations illuminate some of the assumptions on which Western policy is based. He shows, for example, that the region often regarded as “the cradle of Russia” is something rather different. The shore of the Black Sea is not the “ancient Russian land” constantly invaded by foreigners. It is an ancient land of many cultures and civilizations. The Russian state, as Ascherson notes, did not reach the Black Sea until 1696; Crimea was not conquered until 1783; Odessa was not even founded until 1795. Despite Russia’s best efforts, the non-Russian peoples have never been effectively assimilated. The result was not a true social fusion, but an unstable imperial amalgam that bears little resemblance to melting-pot societies like the US. As Gorbachev discovered, it falls apart whenever the cement of central power is weakened.

Most importantly, Ascherson’s study draws attention to the dubious notion of “Western Civilization” within which European history is conventionally discussed. The Black Sea binds Europe with Asia, just as the Mediterranean links Europe with the Middle East and North Africa. The nuances and transitions of the region’s cultural legacy are not, in fact, unusual. They are only thought to be remote or exotic because the eastern reaches of the European Peninsula, like the “Oriental” lands beyond it, have traditionally been derided as alien and inferior. As Ascherson brilliantly argues, the pernicious intellectual tradition of constantly redefining the “West” against the “barbarian” East has persisted ever since the Greeks. It ignores the differences that exist within the “West,” and it glorifies the rich and powerful, reducing the hugely variegated “East” to its lowest common denominators. In its crudest form, the “barbarian” stereotype of the East was used to justify a civilized nation’s campaign for Lebensraum and, as part of it, the “Final Solution.” Ascherson writes of “a ruthless mental dynasty which still holds invisible power over the Western mind” and of “the idea of ‘Europe’ with all its arrogance, all its implications of superiority, all its assumptions of priority and antiquity, all its pretensions to a natural right to dominate.” For that “mental dynasty,” Eastern Europe is not really part of Europe at all.

Such habits of thought are extremely damaging to Western Europeans who, after seventy years of divorce, now have to reintegrate themselves with their eastern neighbors. And the same habits are also damaging to the many millions of Americans who have roots in Eastern Europe or in the parts of Western Europe (like Scotland or Ireland) whose heritage is excluded from the canon. One strongly suspects that it was the implicit arrogance of so-called “Western Civilization” that has provoked the revolt against it in the American academy. Unfortunately, the defenders of what is simplistically seen as the Western canon will not be seriously challenged until a more accurate understanding of history emerges. Part of the solution would be to readmit the Eastern European lands to “Civilization,” and add Neal Ascherson’s book to the canon.

This Issue

April 18, 1996