Black Sea - Neal Ascherson

The edition of "Black Sea" that I read is the updated one, "Coasts and Conquests from Pericles to Putin" but I couldn't get its pretty cover to link.

 

This is an ambitious book that solidly delivers. Romania and Bulgaria don't really get a look in. The focus is more Ukraine and Russia with some Turkey. So much suffering and tragedy in the history of the region, but also survival, exuberance and tradition.

 

The mix of the author's personal experience and scholarship keeps things moving at a fast clip. My brain whirled a bit: so many civilisations that I knew so little about. There are also philosophical considerations of things like nationalism. You might agree or disagree with those, but they serve a purpose in digesting the implications of the long history of the region and where it might go.

 

There are lovely personal stories interwoven, like the archaeologist who discovered an ancient princess, and seems half in love with her.

 

From a personal perspective, I was fascinated by a digression (beautifully justified and tied back to an earlier discussion in a surprising way) about the Polish aristocracy and their claim to be Sarmatian. Half of my family was Polish, if not aristocratic - more like canny survivors. Mind-blowing how weirdly people argue in defence of privilege, and how ruthlessly. Speaking of Polish surprises. I had never heard of Polish Messianism that equates the Polish nation with the body of Christ.

 

This is the sort of living, immersive history book that sparks a desire to travel.

 

I guess I could do no better than to end my review of the book with the quotation that starts it.

 

I must admit, I can be perfectly happy reading...and equally happy pouring the sands through my fingers and resting with the whole of my being, while the wind pats my cheeks with its cool, damp hands. It seems to be pleased that there is not another soul on the beach, all the way to the horizon where the bluish promontories look likea company of bears lapping the sea-water.

 

All day long, the stiff grass rustles on the cliffs. Infinitely old, this gentle sound, heard on this shore for century after century, imparts the love of wisdom and simplicity.

 

Konstantin Paustovsky, Years of Hope.