Thursday, 11 October 2012

A Historian on a Tour


I recently returned from a tour of the Black Sea and felt compelled to write a few reflections about the benefits of being a historian while being on tour of the sites that ring this region. I say this in recognition that in the places visited, for reasons either historical or contemporary politics, the official spiel of the guides was carefully designed to provide a positive message about the place and one that would not offend the customers—in short something innocuous. Controversial topics should be either avoided or played down. A tourist was at a disadvantage if he had not sufficiently read relevant literature prior to the trip in order to deconstruct what he was hearing. I should state at the outset that this venture was not a study trip although three lecturers enhanced the experience.

Panel from the Panorama at Sevastopol
The guides provided a plethora of historical data, especially from more distant times, because I think it is safer. In the Ukraine we visited three locations: Odessa, Sevastopol and Yalta, and in Russia toured Sochi. Given that the publication of That Line of Darkness: The Gothic Spirit from Lenin to bin Laden, Encompass Editions, 2013 will soon be released, these places held considerable interest. A walking tour in Odessa of the area built in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century introduced Catherine the Great’s New Russia. Standing at the top of the famed Potemkin steps did evoke the famous massacre scene with the tumbling baby carriage from the 1925 classic Battleship Potemkin. We did hear that the city was named one of the “hero” cities because of its endurance during the shelling of Odessa during World War II when its citizens resisted the Romanians, the ally of Nazi Germany. But the material presented appeared sanitized and highly selective given that a sizable number of Ukrainians collaborated with the Romanians and most of the population spent the war safely evacuated to the east. In addition, the Romanians established control of the city and the region, and conducted a reign of terror against the Jews. For the full horror of this period, I would highly recommend chapters nine and eleven from Charles King’s excellent Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams (2011). In Sevastopol, a brief mention was made of the resistance to the Romanians during the war but the primary focus was on something more distant—a Russian campaign during the eleven-month siege in 1854-55 during the Crimean War by Allied forces. A city highlight is a panoramic painting featuring four thousand human figures, three-dimensional relief models of defense fortifications and guns of a one-day successful attempt to repel an attack by British and French troops, an example of Russian courage and tenacity in the face of foreign aggression, although that sentiment was never overtly expressed. The stated message at the panorama was that a million died in this pointless war and nothing was accomplished. Not quite true since the Treaty of Paris established that no warships would be allowed to patrol the Black Sea, a provision that had the imprimatur of international law. (The Russian fleet's destruction of their Turkish counterpart prompted the British and the French to come to the support of the Ottomans because they feared that the Russian navy would seize control the Dardanelles and threaten western commerce.) None of this was mentioned by the guide. But her point about the human devastation from that war is well-taken. I am reminded of Clare Clark’s novel The Great Stink that features a traumatized veteran, an engineer who welcomes the opportunity to work on the construction of the sewer system because he hopes the work will help him to forget his ghastly Crimean War experience and yet he slashes his arms and thighs when he cannot maintain the routines of a “normal” life.

Livadia Palace at Yalta
At Yalta, the primary interest was the Livadia Palace, the summer home of the last Tsar and his family but also the site of the Yalta Conference. Perhaps what was most interesting to me was the side mutterings of a few tourists—that Stalin had hoodwinked Roosevelt, a common misconception that Roosevelt gave away Eastern Europe to the Soviets—that ignored the reality that in February 1945 that Soviet troops were already on the ground liberating countries from Nazi control and that Stalin after Yalta violated his promise not to interfere in these countries’ politics. A discussion on this issue might have been illuminating but none was forthcoming.

Perhaps I am carping too much given that a tour is not a history lesson, that its purpose is to sell the city as a place to revisit and that most tourists are content to ask mostly factual questions—what is the population size of the city? I expected that there would be some discussion about contemporary politics and social issues. Given that we heard that Ukrainian was not taught in most of the schools, witnessed the presence of the Russian fleet in the Sebastopol harbour, (the Russian lease of naval facilities that was to expire in 2017 was extended in 2010 for twenty five years in return for a Ukrainian discount on Russian natural gas), and despite the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the existence of an independent Ukraine, the Russians continue to have a major investment in the region. I could not help wondering about Ukrainian-Russian interests. The Ukrainian guides tamped down the existence of any tensions, and in Odessa in particular, the message was that given the historical diversity of the population, the city was just like America, a melting pot. What became clear was that each guide, beneath the presentation of data, wanted to send a positive if skewed message to the primarily American tourists. I should note that others were on a tour where the guide provided personal family history about the tensions between the Ukrainians and Russians. Although such stories can be moving, they are anecdotal; the experience of somebody else could be different.

Stalin's villa at Sochi
In Sochi, the main attraction was Stalin’s Dacha. Given my study of Stalin, this summer retreat was a highlight—just being there and seeing the grounds and some of the modest rooms that the dictator inhabited—and the guide’s remarks were most revealing. She was basically accurate about Stalin’s personal family life, but she attributed his need for a summer dacha to the “stress” that he was under during the 1930s. There was little specifically about his deadly campaign against the kulaks or how he engineered a famine. She did however acknowledge that these were “criminal times.” Now she lived in a “free state” and could say anything she wanted. When I asked her privately about her responses to the current controversy over the trial and conviction of the feminist rock musicians for their controversial remarks about the Russian Orthodox Church and Putin that went viral, she did not avoid the question. She was a “believer” and as such she was offended by the remarks, but she could “forgive” them. Moreover, the time they spent in jail before and during the trial was sufficient. She did not \understand how the controversy could be construed as anti-Putin. I should add that several of the guides were more forthcoming when they were privately asked questions but that was not always the case.

When we were in Turkey, I privately asked the guide, who was popular with the passengers because he spoke English with a New York accent that he acquired when he lived there when he was attending school, what his opinion was regarding the treatment of the Armenians. His smile disappeared and after a moment’s silence, he asked if I was Armenian. I replied in the negative but that my query was motivated by historical interest. He said that this was a delicate question and with a dismissal of his hands, he turned and walked away. I did not even mention the word genocide as Charles King does in The Black Sea: A History. At Trabzon where the guide refused to answer my question, King cites an Italian diplomat, who in 1915 helplessly looked down at the “gangs of Armenian exiles” at the doors of the consulate unable to respond to their “prayers for help” even though “hundreds of corpses [were] found every day.

Sumela Monastery Turkey
When we left Trabzon for an hour’s bus trip to the Sumela Monastery located high in the mountains, the guide offered a potted history of the “transfer” between Greeks and Turks in 1923. The Treaty of Lausanne authorized the compulsory transfer to Greece of 1.5 million Orthodox Christians as well as the movement of 350,000 Muslims from Greece to Turkey. The spiel seemed abstract and sanitized as it conveyed little of the physical toll and psychological trauma given that an Orthodox Christian might not even speak Greek or a Muslim Turkish, and yet these displaced peoples found themselves in a new national homeland to which they owed no allegiance. None of this diminished the spectacular view, the invigorating climb or the wonderful images in the monastery which has become a major tourist site. Yet I could not help wondering whether anyone on the bus was really listening to the guide or was disturbed about the events that occurred almost a century ago unless a tourist was a descendant of one of the victimized peoples.

The foregoing is by no means a complete account of the tour but the essence of what I have already written remains consistent. The guides for the most part did what they were expected to— provide lots of historical data, especially about the distant past but avoid anything that was not allowed by the authorities, might offend or be controversial. Some were livelier than others but at least no one read from the Michelin Guide, as I once experienced on a previous trip. Almost everyone referred to the ancient Greeks, who were among the earliest settlers almost everywhere. But nothing, of course, was said about how the Greeks in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries joined with Russians and assaulted Jews. In fact, nothing was and perhaps could be said about the anti-Semitism in the Crimea, especially Odessa before, during and after World War II since that would have been conveying a negative impression of the city. When we were touring the old city of Nessebur in Bulgaria, the emphasis was on the Christian Churches that managed to survive under the Ottomans. Our Bulgarian guide referred to the period of Occupation but he said nothing about the massacre of Bulgarian Christians in the late nineteenth century. Even when his people were the victims, there was the need for self-censorship. Unless the trip is a study tour, nothing is likely to change and perhaps it should not, but I am grateful that I went on this trip armed with historical background, especially on the twentieth century, an awareness that allows me to silently dialogue with the guides when open exchange is not possible. Indeed, I was encouraged to read more when I returned.

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