Black Sea
Neal Ascherson

It’s interesting that one of the more compelling accounts of the Black Sea, a fixture of Russian policy, was written by a Scottish journalist in the 1990s, right after the Soviet Union fell. It can still be found on the shelves of most Russian bookshops because it’s as relevant today as it was decades ago.

That’s partly because of the importance of the body of water in question. The Black Sea touches Russia, the Caucasus, Turkey, Ukraine and other geopolitically significant countries. It’s connected to the Bosporus Strait, which in turn connects it to the Mediterranean Sea. This is why the Black Sea was once the very center of imperial Russian policy and why it is now a concern of all the world.

The book makes this case by describing the cultural and political history of the Black Sea from antiquity to the present day. So rich and variegated are these histories, though, that each chapter reads like a separate book. And the impetus for each chapter was a journey to a specific region. I myself have been to the Black Sea only once, during a visit to Odessa, the city in Ukraine often referred to as the Pearl of the Black Sea. This chapter may have been the easiest for me to understand, but perhaps the most impressive chapter was devoted to Abkhazia, the breakaway region in Georgia, which for whatever reason I never seem to think of as a Black Sea region.

The narrative approach to “Black Sea” is sometimes as much as a drawback as it is an advantage. For someone who wants to read about history from a unique perspective, it checks all the boxes. The book seems more like a tour of the history of the Black Sea region, intertwined with personal memories of the author. It also requires a lot of supplemental knowledge not found in the book. For example, the author discusses the collapse of the Soviet Union … then the story is intertwined with facts about the period of the Great Patriotic War … and the Civil War … and also Catherine the Great’s trip to the Crimea. It makes for a fascinating, if at times confusing, read.

Ekaterina Zolotova, analyst