Black Sea

Although geographically centered, Neal Ascherson’s BLACK SEA is not primarily about geography; rather, it concerns the people who, over the centuries, migrated to the shores of this inland sea that separates East from West, “the largest mass of lifeless water in the world,” extending 144 miles from the Crimean peninsula to the Bosporus and the Dardanelles. There is life at the top, schools of dolphin and porpoise, the once- abundant Black Sea anchovy, and a kind of mackerel called the bonito, but 150 meters below the surface of the Black Sea “is the world’s biggest single reservoir of hydrogen sulphide,” and the deeper waters are therefore sterile.

Ascherson’s book spans the centuries as easily as it spans the geography of the region and the empires that have dominated it, from the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman in the south to the Russian and Soviet empires to the north. The author’s personal memories of the collapse of the Soviet empire dominate the book’s framework: “On the Black Sea, my father saw it begin,” he writes, “and on the Black Sea seventy years on, I saw the beginning of the end.” Ascherson’s father was a midshipman with the Royal Navy at Novorossisk in March of 1920; Ascherson was on a coach with a delegation of Byzantinologists on the road from Sevastopol to Yalta, above the resort of Foros where Mikhail Gorbachev was vacationing when his leadership ended in August of 1991.

The author racks his focus...

(The entire section is 466 words.)