Revealing history in ‘Black Sea’

From Herodotus to Stalin and the age of the Golden Horde to the globalized world of today, the Black Sea has been a permeable area through which countless peoples and civilizations have passed. Scythians, Greeks, Tatars, Russians, Turks, Poles, Germans and myriad others crossed the region and left their mark. The Black Sea is where Asia meets Europe, the South meets the North and the East meets the West. The colonial civilizations of the Mediterranean met with nomadic tribes migrating west, its northern coast saw the «descent» of the Baltic cultures, the Russian hinterland opened up to the south, the Ottoman Empire claimed it as its own lake and Constantinople was for years a hub both coveted and dreaded. For Neal Ascherson – foreign correspondent for the Observer (1960-1990) and journalist with the Independent on Sunday (1990-1998), as well as an award-winning writer – his immersion in the history of the Black Sea meant the beginning of a great adventure. His book «Black Sea,» out in Greek by Oceanida Publications (translated by Leonidas Karatzas), is a model of the new style of writing, a blend of a traveler’s studies with historical analyses, in-depth geopolitical information and comparative cultural anthropology. Kathimerini got in touch with Ascherson in Britain and he agreed to answer a few questions via e-mail. Was the «new order» after 1991 the inspiration for writing a book about the Black Sea? No, I began before that. The motive was first my father’s stories about his adventures there in 1990-1920 and secondly, my excitement about the interaction between Greek colonists and Scythian-Indo-Iranian nomads as described in Rostovtzeff’s «Iranians and Greeks in South Russia» [1922], which I read as a schoolboy. How come that, although so many peoples have left their mark on the Black Sea culture, so few people are familiar with it? The real answer is the Turkish conquest in the 15th century, which effectively cut off the Black Sea from mainstream European history until the early 19th century. The conquest of Crimea and the north shore by Catherine II of Russia began to bring outsiders back to the sea, which then reopened to Italian and Greek traders, Russian settlers and colonists brought from Western Europe. The Soviet period effectively cut off almost the whole Black Sea region for another 70 years. The chapters on Polish history are quite illuminating. What prompted you to research the Polish identity in such depth? As a journalist, I have reported from Poland for many years and became fascinated by the richness of Polish culture and history. For much of its past, Poland was as much a Black Sea country as a Baltic one, indeed more so. One of the book’s themes is how nations reinvent their past, and Polish identity is tied up both with the relationship with the Tatars and with their imagined descent from the Sarmatian nomads. I was very impressed by your comments on what seemed a very unconventional view of nomadic cultures. Is a fear of the new nomads of Europe still alive? It certainly is. Settled people still have a primitive fear of mobile people who are aporoi as, Herodotus put it. You can see this in the irrational terror of Gypsy immigration from Eastern Europe which now obsesses Britain. Concerning the Black Sea Greeks’ culture, can we say that the Black Sea peoples were related to national entities only through non-rational ways? They were genuinely related by culture and by imagination. Ethnicity is not just a matter of language and blood, but also of the choice of loyalty to a community – even if it is distant and almost mythical.