This kind of “historical simultaneity” fascinates German journalist and travel writer Jens Mühling, whose book “Troubled Water: A Journey Around the Black Sea” was published in the United States this year in translation by Simon Pare. Although it recounts a voyage taken in late 2018 and early 2019, its release in English this year comes at a good time, just as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has highlighted the importance of the sea for its own region and for the rest of the world. The blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea coast has crippled the ability of one of the world’s largest grain exporters to ship wheat and other commodities to the rest of the world, contributing to a growing global hunger crisis , especially in parts of the Middle East and Africa. A deal to resume shipping by sea, brokered by the United Nations and Turkey this month, raised hopes of a resolution to the crisis, but subsequent Russian attacks on the key port of Odessa lowered expectations.
Far from being a distant frontier, the war made it clear that the Black Sea plays a central role in the global economy and global security. It’s a place we should all be familiar with.
To better understand the connections between current struggles and the stories that fuel them, I called Mühling, a specialist in Russian and East European affairs who served as editor of a German-language newspaper in Russia for two years. As he pointed out to me, “parts of the Black Sea coast that I traveled in 2018, which were Ukrainian at the time, are now occupied by Russia, including almost the entire coastal strip between Crimea and Odessa”. In the book, he begins his journey on the eastern side of the Kerch Strait, which separates Russia from the Crimean Peninsula, a territory that Russia has annexed and de facto controlled since 2014. Clockwise, he visits Georgia, goes back for complex geopolitical reasons for the semi-autonomous enclave of Abkhazia, then continues to Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania and Ukraine, ending his journey in Crimea on the other side of the strait.
Mühling is an observant and often ironic travel companion, fluent in several languages of the region. His story may remind readers of past travelogues such as Patrick Leigh Fermor’s “A Time of Gifts”. or “A Russian Journal” by John Steinbeck,” both of which dip a toe in the waters of the Black Sea, but as Mühling points out, the sea has been an object of fascination for foreign writers since the days of Strabo and Herodotus.
“Since the Greeks discovered the Black Sea, it has been portrayed as a place where strange people live,” Mühling told me. For the Greeks, the Black Sea was the edge of the known world, inhabited by, as he writes in the book, “cannibals, hellhounds, man-killing amazons, dwarfs riding cranes flycatchers, cyclops, lice eaters and werewolves. ”
Real and not-so-fantastic inhabitants have been overlooked in ancient literature. To this day, the region’s simplistic image as an uncivilized frontier may inform the actions of the powers around it, including the war in Ukraine. Mühling suggests that Russia “try to present this as a crusade of civilization against barbarism”. He continued, “The Russian narrative sounds really familiar if you’ve studied the history of the Black Sea a bit.”
Mühling is certainly drawn to the dark and surprising in the places he visits. A section on the nationwide tree relocation campaign spearheaded by Georgia’s billionaire former prime minister, for example, borders on magical realism. But he refuses to exoticize local oddities in the manner of Herodotus and his ilk. Rather, he seeks to discover whether there is a regional identity of the Black Sea, distinct from the nation-states that surround it. This led to what he called an unexpected focus on little-known ethnic minority groups.
Warships are evolving, but they won’t disappear
Many of them, Mühling explained, “have migration stories that are sometimes quite disconcerting and that usually took place around the Black Sea coast. You meet people who will tell you that their ancestors lived on another part of the coast and had to leave due to a man-made disaster. As a result, you have a lot of connections across the sea.” Groups Mühling encountered include Turkic-speaking Greeks living in Russia; Russian “Old Believers,” Orthodox Christians persecuted for rejecting 17th-century church reforms, which settled on the Danube Delta in Romania; and the Karaites, a Jewish sect that recognizes only the Torah, not the Talmud, in Crimea. Mühling’s approach can be seen as an attempt to push back a vision of the region centered on the nation-state at a time when nationalism is very present.
Two major Black Sea themes emerge from Mühling’s narrative journey. First, it is an ever-changing cultural region. The borders change frequently and are disputed: the independence of Abkhazia and the control of Crimea by Russia are not recognized by most of the world, even if they are a reality on the ground. This means that any journey like Mühling’s involves a walk through a changing landscape. “You become very aware of this ongoing change because it’s basically happening before your eyes,” he says.
Second, this constant cultural flux hasn’t exactly produced a harmonious melting pot. Antipathy towards people living further along the coast is a constant theme. ” Our side ! The Turks stole it from us! an Armenian couple he meets in Russia lament before him in a characteristic interview. And one of the points of view he encounters most regularly during his travels from one country to another is the hostility towards the Roma.
Yet human connection across cultural lines is possible. In Crimea, Mühling tells the story of Vladimir, a Russian-speaking marine biologist, and Alla, his Ukrainian wife, a former television journalist for a Ukrainian-language channel, who had to deal with the antipathy of both Russian speakers locals and friends back home. decision to stay on the peninsula. Alla’s son from a previous marriage tells Mühling of the day in 2014 when “Vladimir woke me up one morning and said, ‘Max, we are now part of Russia.’ The line echoes that of Vladimir Putin, who in a 2014 speech justifying the annexation of Crimea described the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 as a time when “millions of people lay down in a countries and woke up in different countries.” Putin himself had made history repeat itself.
Once again, the borders of the region are shifting. People are on the move again: more than 8 million Ukrainians have been displaced by the invasion. Reading the book today, the reader can’t help but wonder how Alla and Vladimir – and the other Ukrainians and Russians Mühling meets – are doing.
How the war spread through Ukraine
And of course, the waters themselves have been a theater of war. As Mühling proves, the traces of this conflict would lurk beneath the surface of the Black Sea – and reverberate on its shores – long after the war was over. Indeed, the Black Sea is unique among large water bodies for its two layers. The upper layer, fed by fresh water from rivers like the Danube, Dniester and Dnieper, teems with life. But 90% of the sea, which consists of heavy salt water from the Mediterranean, is clinically dead. Two hundred meters below the surface, the water does not contain oxygen. The only life that survives in this layer is bacteria that consume organic waste and produce toxic hydrogen sulfide.
Here, history literally hides beneath the surface. Thanks to the lack of oxygen, sinking ships in the Black Sea are surprisingly well preserved. Byzantine-era ships have been found with their ropes and rigging still visible. In 2017, an Anglo-Bulgarian team discovered the oldest intact shipwreck ever discovered: a 2,400-year-old Greek trader, the spitting image of those painted on vases in the British Museum.
What remains of the Moksva will rest there too, as silent and still as the remains of other eras nearby.