Du Malone writes: Think of the negative of a photo: the zones of light are all dark and the zones of dark are all light.

We can think of seas like that. We often think of them as gaps, as spaces between the places where history happens. Or at best as mere extension of land — we talk of the Black Sea as an extension of Turkey (as the ‘Ottoman lake’) or Russia (as part of the Russian ‘zone of influence’).

But we can also reverse the image and think of seas as places in their own right. Some writing in history and archaeology encourages us to think in that way. For example, Barry Cunliffe’s Facing the ocean: 8000 BC to AD 1500; and Fernand Braudel’s The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II.

The Black sea as a zone of influence

Indeed, we can come to see the sea as the thing that exerts a zone of influence.

In ‘Fluid histories’ Alexander A. Bauer & Owen P. Doonan write: ‘People living along a coastal littoral are often in closer contact with each other than with those living inland…Contact with regions across the sea, along with the maritime focus of their economy, distinguishes coastal groups from their inland counterparts, and serves to bring them culturally closer to each other‘ (in Ruxandra Ivan (ed.), New regionalism or no regionalism? (Ashgate 2012)).

The conception of seas (including the Black Sea) as zones of influence is found, according to Eyup Ozveren (‘The Black sea world as a unit of analysis’), in Traian Stoianovich’s Study of Balkan civilisation: ‘Stoianovich’s Balkans a was a land mass divided in important ways…each part turned to a different sea, be that the Adriatic, or the Ionian, or the Aegean, or the Black Sea…These parts traded with one another by way of sea to the extent that they could not do so by way of land. If anything, the landscape of the Balkans divided rather united the geography‘ (in Tunc Aybak (ed.), Politics of the Black sea (I.B.  Tauris, 2001).

The Black Sea region as a whole

To understand the Black Sea as a whole, we need to consider two axes, namely the east-west and south-north.

As Bauer & Doonan point out, a major anti-clockwise circular current facilitated movement along the east-west axis, helping to link the Balkans to the Caucasus and, beyond that, Europe to Asia. But in addition two smaller gyres of counter-clockwise movement aided north-south movement, linking the Crimea to Turkey.

Referring to George I. Bratianu’s history (La mer Noire, 1969), Ozveren writes that ‘While placing the Black Sea at the civilizational crossroads between East and West in general terms , Bratianu’s account singles out the North-South axis as the backbone of the Black Sea world‘. He adds that ‘Given the North-South axis, Bratianu rightly insisted that it was always from the South that the impulse for change came’.

The balance of the North-South axis changed as the Ottoman empire fell and the Soviet empire grew. But with the demise of the USSR, Ozveren suggests that pattern of history might renew itself.

The Black Sea as the turntable of world history

12 Oct 19 merry go round
The Black Sea region as the turntable of world history? ‘Black comedy at the Black Sea’, by Dorel Frumusanu, generously made available under a  under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 licence.

If we take a still wider view, we can see the Black Sea as major centre of world history — as opposed to the more conventional view of the Black Sea as a mere backyard of the Mediterranean.

From Bratianu’s perspective, by displacing Byzantine rule in parts of the region, the Mongols enable a less conservative, more institutionally flexible and trade-oriented economy to develop.

Indeed, with the arrival of Italian merchants, the region can be seen as the cradle of European capitalism.

Whither

What becomes of the region now? Teodor Baconschi (in ‘Black Sea strategies’) identifies three emerging strategies.

First, following the collapse of the Soviet empire, new states emerged, mistrustful of ‘countries or entities from outside the region‘ and seeking to establish their own identities ‘by distancing themselves from the former metropolis‘. He calls this the ‘In-house Affair’ strategy.

Second is what Baconschi calls the ‘Straight about the Straits’ strategy, aimed at preserving the international status of the Black Sea.

And third is the strategy (dubbed the ‘Eurasian bridge’) of ‘building on the value of the Black Sea as a gate to the outside world, particularly Asia: Europe needs, in the medium run, a second maritime hub, since Rotterdam (and Northern Europe, in general) are well nigh saturated‘ (Baconschi, in George Cristian Maior & Segei Konoployov, Strategic knowledge in the wider Black Sea area (Editura RAO, 2011).

In that vein, I note the publication of Anaklia’s deep sea port — a new strategic pivot in Eurasia — of a report from the Gagra Institute. It foresees the development of Anaklia into ‘a world-class port bringing a positive economic impact on countries of South Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Middle East’.

We shall see.

Postscript

In a thought-provoking, not to say contentious, piece (‘Plugging into the World through the Black Sea’) from Georgia Today, Viktor Kipiani seeks to synthesise views on strategy. He argues that though

Historically a space for trade, the [region] is increasingly becoming an arena for competition and rivalry aggravated…by a lack of meaningful multilateral arrangements capable of resulting in trade-offs and ensuring some sense of balance

and

with Russia dropping a new Iron Curtain across the Black Sea, the region is…increasingly becoming a new defensive perimeter running along the fault line between two normative worlds—that of democracy, and that of authoritarianism‘.