The wind was blowing, the sky was overcast, and I felt homesick on the day I first saw the Black Sea. I had arrived in Odessa that morning, after three months of travel; my companion, the only person I knew in the city, was a native Russian-speaker with Ukrainian nationality, German ancestry and a Polish name who used English to conduct his business – an amorphous form of ‘import-export’. Together, we had strolled through the city, past the Italianate opera and the mock-Byzantine houses, down the promenade and the Odessa steps, until we stood gazing out at the grey water beyond the docks.
From the memory of that afternoon, I think that I can guess what it was that made Neal Ascherson want to dedicate an entire book to the body of water which the Greeks first called ‘Axenos’ (‘inhospitable’) because of its winter storms and the ferocity of the peoples who lived around it: the Black Sea is one of those odd, mixed bits of Europe which produces gifted, albeit culturally schizophrenic, people. My Polish/Russian/German/Ukrainian friend was one of them. But even he seems secure in his national identity in comparison to Scylos, a Scythian prince – described by Herodotus and here again by Ascherson who spent much of his time in the Greek colony of Olbia, near the mouth of the Danube. Outside the city walls, Scylos was a nomad, a ‘steppe ruler who commanded a complex traditional society with its wagons and herds and rituals’. But inside the gates of Olbia, Scylos donned Hellenic robes, kept a Greek wife, and took part in Dionysian rites. Eventually his Scythian subjects peered over the walls and found him out; he lost his throne as a result.
This region has also, Ascherson explains, been a place of exile and homesickness from earliest times. Whereas the Mediterranean stood at the centre of the classical world, the Black Sea, dotted with Greek colonies, sat on its edge. Ovid was banished from Rome to the Black Sea port of Tomi – now Constanta in Romania – which he described as a hell of rain, wind and barbarians. Later, the shores of the Black Sea became the southern limits of the Russian empire; Odessa itself was founded as a Russian colony. Pushkin was exiled from St Petersburg to Odessa, which he rather enjoyed. He spent his time there seducing the governor general’s wife and composing hymns to Odessa, where ‘The tongues of Golden Italy/Resound happily across the pavement/where haughty Slavs parade, with/French, Spaniards, Armenians and Greeks/beside the ponderous Moldovan/and the son of Egyptian soil.’ Adam Mickiewicz, Poland’s national poet, was banished to Odessa too. He spent his time seducing a Tsarist spy and composing hymns to the Crimean landscape.
In short, the Black Sea will always attract people with an interest in modern nationalism, classical history and poetry. Neal Ascherson is the most eloquent member of that camp in Britain. And in this book, his fifth, he has chosen a genre to suit his subject. His Black Sea is neither a travelogue nor a history, and is certainly not a political tract. It is rather a mix of history and reportage, a collection of odd stories about a singular place, a description of an unusual region; perhaps it is best described as a longer-than-usual version of one of his famous Sunday columns.
Most of all, though, Black Sea is a meditation upon a particular theme: the clash between ‘civilisation’ and ‘barbarism’. Ascherson has chosen an appropriate place to tell this story: the original barbarians were the Scythians, the bearded nomads whom the Greeks first encountered on the shores of the Black Sea. Greek colonies first appeared in the region in the eighth century BC, but it took several centuries for the notion of ‘civilised’ Greek superiority to gestate. After that, the story of the Trojan was recast, as Ascherson puts it, as the ‘first round in the cosmic struggle between ‘“European” virtue and “Asian” vice’. The wars between the Greeks and the Persians followed a similar pattern – as, eventually, did the Polish wars with the Tartars and the Central European wars with the Turks, all of which took place in this region too.
What Ascherson adds to this story is the unique observation that many of the participants in these later wars actually looked backed to the pattern set by the original ‘civilised’ Greeks and Scythian ‘barbarians’, finding in their histories the origins of their own societies. Some chose the side of the barbarians: at the time of the Revolution, the Russian poet Alexander Blok boasted of Russia’s barbarian origins and gloried in them, saying, ‘Yes – we are Scythians. Yes – we are Asiatics. With slanted and avid eye…’ More recently, the reborn Cossacks in post-Soviet Russia have made an active, if somewhat bizarre, effort to return to their barbaric, nomadic roots. Ascherson meets some at a demonstration in Rostov, an ancient Cossack capital now awash with steel mill and pollution. ‘All the Don Cossacks ask is that the factories be torn down and the steppe be given back to us,’ one tells him.
Perhaps the most peculiar in stance of a modern people taking their cue from an ancient Black Sea tradition is the sixteenth-century Polish nobility’s adoption of the fourth-century Sarmatians as their ancestors. The theory was one of supremacy: the Polish nobles were said to be descended from a different tribe, one racially superior to the Slavic Polish peasants. The practice was one of excess: at its height in the eighteenth century, the cult of Sarmatism involved dressing up in Oriental clothes (more Turkish than genuine Sarmatian), entertaining lavishly and riding about on horseback. These days, not many believe the myth of Sarmatism to have any bas is in reality – except, of course, Ascherson, who has uncovered archaeological links between the symbols found engraved upon the tombs of the Black Sea Sarmatians and the coats of arms of the Polish nobility.
But then, the creators of new nationalisms around the Black Sea – in Abkhazia, Georgia, Turkey, Ukraine – have no less complex origins. In his travels around the region, Ascherson meets quite a few of them. By the end of the book, I wished he had met more: he is an observant reporter, and he is at his best when talking to people. None of which takes away from the fact that Black Sea is a genuinely compelling book: erudite, original, beautifully written, and filled with the kinds of stories that bring obscure places alive.