A Journey Around the Black Sea
Distributed for Haus Publishing
A Journey Around the Black Sea
Fringing the Black Sea is a diverse array of countries, some centuries old and others emerging only after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Jens Mühling travels through this region, telling the stories of the people he meets along the way in order to paint a picture of the mix of cultures found here and to understand the present against a history stretching back to the arrival of Ancient Greek settlers and beyond.
A fluent Russian speaker with a knack for gaining the trust of those he meets, Mühling brings together a cast of characters as diverse as the stories he hears, all of whom are willing to tell him their complex, contradictory, and often fantastical tales full of grief and legend. He meets descendants of the so-called Pontic Greeks, whom Stalin deported to Central Asia and who have now returned; Circassians who fled to Syria a century ago and whose great-great-grandchildren have returned to Abkhazia; and members of ethnic minorities like the Georgian Mingrelians or Bulgarian Muslims, expelled to Turkey in the summer of 1989. Mühling captures the region’s uneasy alliance of tradition and modernity and the diverse humanity of those who live there.
"Informative and often entertainingly wry . . . Today it is impossible to read Simon Pare’s English translation without thinking of the horror that has since enveloped much of the region to the Black Sea’s north and west. . . . This account, not inappropriately, is often presented in fragments, as his interlocutors share what they know and Mr. Mühling fills in the gaps with enough historical detail to ensure that his readers are not lost. And the background to some of the tales he relates—vanished kingdoms and khanates, and a scrap of Rome that outlasted even Byzantium—ought to stir any imagination."
Wall Street Journal
"Far from a remote frontier, the war has made clear that the Black Sea plays a central role in the global economy and global security. It’s a place we should all be getting more familiar with. . . . Mühling makes for an observant and often wry traveling companion, conversant in several of the region’s languages. . . . Mühling is certainly drawn to the obscure and the surprising in the places he visits. One section on the nationwide tree-relocation campaign by Georgia’s billionaire ex-prime minister, for example, verges on magical realism. But he refuses to exoticize local quirks in the way of Herodotus and his ilk. He instead sets out to discover whether a Black Sea regional identity exists, distinct from the nation-states that surround it."
"[Mühling] explores nations ancient and nascent, meets everyone from marine scientists to cigarette smugglers, and digs into a history of neighborly conflict. It's a brisk and brilliant tour, a reminder that ethnically mixed communities shaped these shores for hundreds of years, until they were torn apart by imperialists and nationalists."
"Against a backdrop of demographic, political, and environmental change, the civilizations of the Black Sea are examined by looking at every situation from more than one angle. Pare’s vibrant translation from the original German brings out the literary qualities of the prose. Troubled Water is an exuberant travelogue that reveals the complex civilizations that surround the Black Sea."
Foreword Reviews (starred review)
“It is impossible not to admire the way Mühling skims effortlessly around what must be one of the most fractious coastal circumferences in the world, dipping onshore at key locations to tease out its most telling stories. He has a happy knack of bumping into characters who help unpick the layers of Black Sea history, undertaking (on the reader’s behalf) prodigious drinking sessions in the company of Circassians and Cossacks, Pontic Greeks, Armenians and Abkhazis. The net result is a 360-degree picture assembled from a jigsaw puzzle of humanity.”
Andrew Eames, author of Blue River, Black Sea
“From Ovid to small-town oligarchs, from the Scythians to modern-day cigarette smugglers, Troubled Waters takes the reader on a fascinating journey along the patchworked coasts of the Black Sea, a tour de force through geography and ethnography, culture and conflict, charting a course strewn with intriguing points of connection where the traveller-author meets the people who live on these history-laden shores. With learnedness and wry humour, Mühling explores the harbours and coves of this famed, yet obscure body of water, masterfully rendering the vibrant colours and proportions of an ocean of epic events and of small, yet tall tales.”
Erika Fatland, author of The Border: A Journey Around Russia
“In this brilliant and humane journey, Mühling explores the nations, societies and minorities jostling passionately around the Black Sea. He enters into the turbulent lives of those he meets, and there is an unforgettable anecdote—sometimes tragic and horrifying, sometimes merry and touching, on almost every page.”
Neal Ascherson, author of Black Sea
Table of Contents
Chornoye more / ??¨???? ????
The beginnings of a bridge • Hotel Fortuna •
Pasha the Turk • Greek wine • Horseless Cossacks •
A Black Sea lexicon, entry no. 1: Rapana venosa •
A Caucasian without a moustache
Shavi zghva / ???? ????
The thieves of Poti • A Black Sea lexicon, entry no. 2:
Engraulis encrasilocus • Swimming trees
Amshyn Eikwa / ????? ?????
A long story • The monkeys of Sukhum •
The return of the Circassians
Firtina the falcon • An icon falls from the sky •
The love story of Gabi and Yusuf • Amazon island •
Atatu¨rk’s eyes • In the wake of the Argo •
A Black Sea lexicon, entry no. 3: Bosporus
Cherno more / ????? ????
The renamed • Frogmen • The Sozopol vampire •
A Black Sea lexicon, entry no. 4: Hydrogen sulphide
The wrong horse • Ovid’s last metamorphosis •
The Black Danube
Chorne more / ?o??? ????
The spring at Kyrnychky • A coincidence in Odessa •
Antelopes on the steppe • A Black Sea lexicon,
entry no. 5: Mnemiopsis leidyi
Tracks in the snow • Today we, tomorrow you •
The love story of Alla and Vladimir • The end of a bridge
The Ark 291
We saw them coming towards us as we travelled the last few miles to Mount Ararat, in eastern Anatolia, where Turkey borders Armenia and Iran amid endless slopes of scree. They were walking along the sides of the road in small groups – men, most of them young with dark beards and nothing in their hands, except for a few carrying small plastic bags. It was March, and snow still lay on the winding pass roads. I wondered how fast you would have to walk in these men’s thin jackets if you didn’t want to freeze.
Mustafa, whose taxi I’d got into in Agri because the next bus to Dogubayazit left only the following day, motioned with his chin to the walkers beyond the windscreen.
No passport, no money.
I looked at him quizzically. ‘Syrians?’
He shook his head. ‘Afganlar.’
They must have come to Turkey via Iran, I thought.
The moustache hardened into a line when I tried to persuade Mustafa to stop the car. I wanted to talk to the refugees and ask them what they needed, even if I’d almost certainly be unable to provide it. Forget it, said Mustafa’s frozen moustache. Not for all the lira in the world.
We drove on towards Mount Ararat, which has an ancient and enigmatic bond with the Black Sea. Again and again, men would come around a bend in the road, in twos, five at once, then none for a long time, then suddenly a dozen followed by another dozen – and for a moment I was convinced that the road beyond the next bend would be black with people. but then no one else appeared for ages.
Every time a bunch of men approached us out of the distance, Mustafa would briefly take his hands off the steering wheel, turn his palms to the sky, and shake his head in silent bemusement, as if he were asking himself, or me, or maybe god, what on earth was to be done with all these people who could not stay where they were.
* * *
I’ve seen the Black Sea from all sides, and from none of them was it black.
It was silvery as I drove along the deserted beaches of the Russian Caucasus coast in the spring, as silvery as the skin of the dolphins hugging the shore as they pursued shoals of fish northwards.
It turned blue in May as I reached Georgia, the ancient Colchis of Greek legend, where the beaches are black but not the water.
In Turkey it seemed to take on the green of the tea plantations and hazelnut groves along its shores, and it was still green when I reached the Bosporus in late summer.
The first storms of autumn coloured it brown as the birds headed south and the tourists headed home over the Bulgarian coast.
In Romania’s Danube delta the sky seemed to hang so low over the sea that its lead-grey colour rubbed off on the water.
When I reached Ukraine, the waves scraped dirt-grey ice along the beaches.
Only in Crimea did the winter sun brighten the sea again, and here it assumed the hue it will forever have in my memory – a cloudy, milky green, like a soup of algae and sun cream.
* * *
Journeys seldom start where we remember their starting. This one may well have begun under my blind grandmother’s dining table.
Occasionally, as the grown-ups traded their grown-up stories, my sister and I would crawl between their legs to the end of the table, where grandma sat. We would creep up quietly behind her chair. The back was wickerwork, the holes big enough for us to poke our fingertips through. We would prod grandma in her bony back and, although she had heard rather than seen us coming, she never failed to greet our recurring prank with an indulgent, horrified shriek.
‘oh, are those mice I can feel?’
Squeaking, we would pull our mousy fingers out of the back of the chair and scuttle back under the table
In Neunkirchen, the small town in the Siegerland area of western Germany where my grandmother lived until her death, stands a memorial:
BENFACTOR OF THE POOR
I was to find out from my aunt Gertraude and her Neunkirchen friends Elfriede and Ingeborg at a family Christmas many years later that I wasn’t the only one with his eye on The Admiral’s money. in my grandmother’s hometown there is, besides the memorial to the seafarer, a street called the Van Kinsbergen Ring. Local people call it the ‘potato bug ring’ in view of the amazing number of needy Neunkircheners who came crawling out of the woodwork after van Kinsbergen’s death, claiming to be related to the generous admiral. hisalleged descendants had multiplied like potato bugs.
That Christmas, Gertraude, Elfriede, and Ingeborg also told me that the legacy payments from Holland had dried up long ago – my treasure trove had apparently been confiscated as reparations after the Second World War.
To digest my disappointment, I began to compare my childhood memories of The Admiral with his real-life biography. I learned that it was not van Kinsbergen himself but his father who had emigrated from the impoverished Siegerland in the early eighteenth century to sign up as a soldier in Holland. He had swapped his German surname, Ginsberg, for the more common local variant Kinsbergen when he married a Dutch woman, with whom he had a son named Jan Hendrik. (In an interesting inversion of his father’s self-renaming, Jan Hendrik was identified as Johann Heinrich on his memorial in the Siegerland, due to the contemporary practice of translating foreign names into their German variants.)
The immigrant’s scion joined the navy at fifteen. I realised with some perplexity that the man who would later become an admiral had gone to sea not only for the Dutch crown but for the Russians too. In his mid-thirties, van Kinsbergen had accepted Catherine the great’s offer of joining the tsarina’s war against the Turks and commanding part of her fleet, which had recently made its first sorties into the Black Sea. in 1773, van Kinsbergen engaged a considerably larger Turkish force off the Crimean coast with two gunboats and, after a battle lasting several hours, put them to flight. This skirmish at balaclava was Russia’s first naval battle on the black Sea and, thanks to my alleged great-great-great-great-great-grand-father, it resulted in a great victory.
I wasn’t sure if this was any cause for pride. Catherine’s campaign against the Turks, which van Kinsbergen continued to support in the following years, ended in 1774 with the defeat of the Ottoman Empire. Russia did what the world’s largest country had always loved doing – it grew. Catherine incorporated into her empire large swathes of the northern Black Sea coast that had previously been controlled by the Crimean Tatars, allies of the Turks. A few years later, after van Kinsbergen had returned to Holland bedecked with Russian medals, the tsarina went one step further. She subjugated the Tatars and annexed their Crimean homeland. The peninsula, Catherine declared in 1783, would be Russian ‘from now on and for all time’.
In order to conceal the fact that Crimea had ever been anything but Russian, Catherine erased almost all traces of the Tatars. Mosques and madrasahs, caravanserais and khans’ palaces were razed, and the first of several waves of Tatar refugees set out for Ottoman shores.
This wasn’t the first time – and it wouldn’t be the last – that roads around the Black Sea turned black with huddled masses as autocrats transplanted whole peoples and extinguished all sign of them from history.