Since the Neolithic agriculturalist revolution, the shores of the Black Sea have been continuously inhabited by linguistically and culturally diverse peoples. In some places ethno-historical continuities are truly staggering, as in the inaccessible valleys of the Caucasus, sheltered from invasions, where natives can make credible—as well as totally incredible—claims that their lineages reach back into the early Bronze Age. The adjacent steppes, on the other hand, have always been exposed to the waves of nomadic tribes coming from Central Asia. These areas are perhaps even more remarkable for the structural continuity of material life despite their changing peoples and fleeting configurations of power. The millennia-old patterns of trade between the Black Sea and the eastern Mediterranean which had been firmly established by the sixth century bc, if not earlier, underwent cycles of expansion and contraction, yet endured largely unchanged well into the nineteenth century. On the northern shores of the Black Sea we find the succession of archaeological ‘cultures’—that is, peoples whose names we will never learn (they might even include the apparently not-so-legendary Amazons)—and the less chronologically remote and therefore somewhat better-known Mæotians, Scythians, Sarmatians, Khazars, Cumans and Tatars. Even before the arrival of Russians from the north in the eighteenth century—who were themselves prompted by the expanding capitalist world economy in the West—these nomadic or semi-nomadic ‘natives’ of the Eurasian landmass were regularly confronted by sea-borne traders and occasional conquerors emerging on the other end of what was essentially a commodity chain—Ionian Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Genoese, Ottoman Turks.
Staples like wheat, dried fish and caviar—once so abundant that it was part of the everyday diet—plus furs and hides, salt, wax and honey were continuously exported from the Black Sea in exchange for the sophisticated products of Mediterranean craftsmanship. Another enduring export was slaves, destined for the Mediterranean plantations, Anatolian copper mines, Venetian galleys, Mameluk armies and Ottoman harems. In an ironic imitation of Pax Britannica, Russian cruisers manned largely by serf sailors finally extinguished this age-old trade in the 1830s and in the meantime wrested naval supremacy from the Ottoman empire. Nonetheless, for another century the Black Sea
In a nutshell, the Black Sea is one of the oldest and surely the best integrated periphery of Mediterranean class societies. The latter, exploiting their primogenitor monopoly on literacy, began the tradition of calling themselves ‘civilizations’, opposing themselves to the ‘primeval barbarism’ of the periphery. The tradition of describing in terms of innate cultural divides what are actually spatial differences in economic positions and the derivative social composition of local societies certainly remains with us to this day.
Neil Ascherson set himself the almost impossible task of describing the human interactions that produced and sustained this oldest frontier between ‘civilization and barbarism’.footnote＊ Four decades after the appearance of the Fernand Braudel’s Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, Ascherson attempted to paint his own grand canvas of another landlocked and densely populated sea basin, blending geography, history, and human experience, broadly defined, into a single narrative. In doing so, he boldly disregarded the mantra of dissertation advisors who urge new generations of researchers to ‘focus’, to narrow down their topic and get technical. Most wonderfully, Ascherson emerges largely successful from his epic and sentimental journey into the space-time continuum we call the Black Sea. To borrow Ascherson’s own words with which he describes the discourse of a Greek itinerant philosopher Dio Chrysostom, one of his vividly portrayed protagonists: ‘it is a beautiful, baffling piece of work; it is also an eclectic patchwork. . .’
Even more incredibly, the book is marvellously detailed and largely accurate, leaving few egregious mistakes or misspellings to the pedants. Of course, a work of this magnitude could not completely avoid errors which lead to somewhat frustrating omissions. For instance, by transforming Nikita Khrushchev into a Ukrainian—he was an ethnic Russian—the author prevents himself from examining the truly puzzling reasons for awarding the Crimea to the Ukraine in 1954. Why indeed would the Soviet leader, an enthusiastic promoter of merging the nationalities in the coming communist society, attempt to play on Ukrainian national sentiment by donating to the Ukrainian ssr a territory ethnically cleansed of its old Ottoman populations by both Hitler and Stalin only a decade before? Why did Khrushchev, reputedly obsessed with correcting Stalin’s crimes, force the Crimean Tatars to remain in their Central Asian exile while absolving other—though far from all—nationalities deported in the 1940s? But to blame Ascherson for failing to undertake another trip into historical understanding would be sheer injustice.