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 continued to be one of the world’s major exporters of wheat until the lake port of Chicago finally eclipsed Odessa. The Black Sea was and, likely, will be used again, to ship the oil from Baku to the terminals of Novorossiisk and Batumi—in another historical irony, inhabitants of Arabia used Baku kerosene to fuel their lamps until the 1930s.

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.

More seriously, Ascherson’s fondness for the epic often leads him to favour literary images over social history, especially when dealing with such evocative subjects as the Cossacks. In his account of the Cossacks he virtually collapses the early ‘primitive rebels’ of the Russo-Ottoman frontier, those pirates of the steppe, with the much-feared but stolid, orderly nineteenth-century servicemen-farmers of the Russian empire. Least justifiably of all, he crowns this nearly-extinguished historical lineage with the intrinsically lumpen post-Soviet nationalist movement that has assumed the Cossack name along with First World War uniforms and medals. Yet, Ascherson’s admirable attention to detail saves the narrative and provides the reader with a welcome sense of complexity and ambiguity. Although in a somewhat over-romanticized fashion, Ascherson draws parallels between the neo-Cossacks and the unionists in Northern Ireland or the Krajina Serbs, this helps him to illuminate the movement’s driving forces and particularly its self-imagery. In adding Afrikaners to this list, Ascherson unwittingly follows a century-old tradition. During the Boer War, Russian newspapers went as far as to translate (and transform) the name of their favourite side into Zavaalskie kazaki—Beyond-the-Vaal Cossacks. Contemporary Russians, from barely literate peasants to Leo Tolstoy, the prime dissident of the time, and even Tsar Nicholas himself, could not help feeling a deep affinity with the familiar-looking, bearded, patriarchal Boers making their heroic stand against the British empire. Certainly, the Cossacks, those near-native European frontiersmen, caused many a nineteenth-century imperialist headaches. The Russian way of coping with them was curiously un-British—Cossacks were granted lands and tax privileges in exchange for military service thus adding another estate to the imperial edifice, alongside the nobility, the clergy, town dwellers and peasants. The conquered ethnic and religious inorodtsy, that is aliens—who included most Muslims and Jews—belonged to no particular estate and therefore enjoyed few privileges. They were usually subject to the Cossack policing. One frontier group was used to control the others.

The idea of frontier interaction between core and periphery, or the civilized and the barbarous, is the main theme of Ascherson’s Black Sea narrative. He forcefully advances it through a succession of masterfully constructed situations involving Milesian colonies and Roman imperial outposts, the Byzantine monastic realm around Trebizond and the Genoese entrepôt fortresses on the edge of the Mongol empire, roving Russian Cossacks and Crimean Tatars, Gothic invaders and elusive Scythians. The idea of the Black Sea origins of the dichotomy between civilization and barbarism, frontier and empire, is not as far fetched as some earlier reviewers have suggested. Undoubtedly, frontiers existed elsewhere in the world, to the north of imperial China, in north and east Africa, or in western Europe itself. Power, accrued in the centres of historical systems, invariably produced cultural arrogance and a sense of innate supremacy which could not be unsettled by the occasional military victories scored by the peripheries. Yet it was in the Black Sea that the idea of an unbridgeable rift first crystallized in the minds of ancient Greek—as in Ascherson’s Herodotus, quite possibly himself an imperial politician. This fundamental opposition was later inherited by modern Europeans as part and parcel of their claim to the legacy of Graeco-Roman antiquity. The modern European claim was powerfully construed to exclude other possible claims, most notably Arabic and Turkish. These ‘Orientals’ were seen as the destroyers of the Hellenistic Near East and, later, Byzantium rather than their inheritors with much more direct lineages than the former barbarian inhabitants from the provinces of Gallia, Germania and Britannia. When the western European frontier of antiquity itself became the centre of modern world civilization, the Black Sea was no longer a frontier. By the mid-nineteenth century it was incorporated into the capitalist world-economy as its periphery, fully encompassed by modern state borders.