- Black Sea by Neal Ascherson
Cape, 306 pp, £17.99, July 1995, ISBN 0 224 04102 9
In the late Twenties, the paternal grandfather of Dimitri, a close friend of mine from Thessaloniki, decided to leave Novorossisk, the Russian Black Sea port. The Soviet Government had ended the NEP, the experiment with small-time capitalism that would be replaced by the Five-Year Plan and collectivisation. The growing pressure of Stalinism persuaded him that the business skills which he had acquired in Istanbul and Trebizond would be better employed in Greece. He succeeded in moving to Drama.
There was no room for Dimitri’s grandfather in the cities or towns of northern Greece. The region was still coping with hundreds of thousands of refugees from Anatolia and eastern Thrace, victims of the Treaty of Lausanne which had regulated the great population exchange between Greece and Turkey in 1923. So instead of continuing his career as an entrepreneur, he was given a little patch of land and told to become a farmer. In 1941 the Bulgarians stormed through Thrace and eastern Macedonia and he sought refuge in the Italian-controlled region of Macedonia, where the occupation was considerably less harsh. Dimitri’s father was sent to Athens for safety and nearly died there, along with the tens of thousands who failed to survive the merciless winter of 1941-2. For all that, Dimitri’s grandfather made the right decision when he left Novorossisk. His sister, who stayed, survived a number of pogroms before being deported to Siberia in the mid-Thirties. She spent three decades in miserable internal exile before the Greek Government rescued her during Khrushchev’s capricious thaw.
Dimitri’s maternal grandmother was a Bulgarian. She, too, lived close to the Black Sea just outside Edirne (Adrianopolis) and under the provisions of the Treaty of Lausanne she, too, was shifted westwards to the region of Drama. Here she eloped with a Greek doctor, who was arrested by the Bulgarians in 1941 and sentenced to death (largely because of his nationality). His wife pleaded with the local commander, playing on her Bulgarian nationality, and he was given a reprieve. They moved to the Danube delta. After the war, they returned to Greece to escape the Communists in Bulgaria. Here the grandfather was promptly arrested on suspicion of being an Elam-Vougaris (a Greek Communist supporter of Bulgarian/Slav Macedonian expansion). He was shipped to the island of Thasos, where Communist guerrillas and sympathisers were forced to live under atrocious conditions.
The story of Dimitri’s family probably sounds familiar to Neal Ascherson, who must have encountered dozens of similar cases when researching his book. There are cities, towns and villages in the hinterland of the Black Sea and to its west on the Aegean where much of the population can boast of such expulsion.
Dimitri’s grandfather was in Novorossisk when Ascherson’s own father was aboard the Emperor of India, a British warship, which was anchored just off the port in March 1920 preparing to assist in the evacuation of General Denikin’s White Russian forces. The decision of Captain Joseph Henley to accept this devastated army was one of the few commendable British interventions in the Civil War – Deniken’s men would have faced certain death at the hands of the oncoming Red Army.