Travelogue, historical detail, and shrewd comment on contemporary nationalism combine in this brilliant and witty account of an area that has seen civilizations come and go for nearly 3,000 years. British journalist Ascherson's fascination with the Black Sea was fired by his father, who was present as a midshipman when the Royal Navy evacuated the defeated White Russian Army from Novorossisk in March 1920. In a remarkable coincidence, Ascherson was himself near Gorbachev's Black Sea villa during the night of August 18, 1991, when the Soviet revolution underwent its final spasms with the attempted coup. The author mingles firsthand experience of the region and its populations with the histories of their various migrations. We hear of the seventh-century b.c. Ionian Greek colonists, whose descendants, having established their own brief empire at Trebizond in 1204, were scattered among the central Asian plains by Stalin in 1949 and are now returning to Greece, which they still think of as their home. There are the Sarmations, who, Ascherson suggests, may after all have had connections with early Polish history. We hear of the Lazi, an obscure people who speak a pre-Indo-European language, and of how a visionary German living in a Black Forest village has created for them an alphabet and thus the potential for a national identity. According to Ascherson, the Black Sea, the meeting place of East and West, allows us to explore the eternal questions of cultural clash and diversity. He intersperses his wealth of information and personal anecdote with discussions of authors such as Herodotus and the Russian scholar Mikhail Rostovtzeff, and with stimulating observations on ethnic identity and the myth of nationalism. Ascherson's vivid narrative and erudition help us to grapple with current developments and with the broader phenomena of human culture.
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