Troubled Water: A Journey Around the Black Sea

From The Wall Street Journal:

When the Argonauts—so the story goes—sailed toward the Black Sea, they had to deal with giants, harpies and murderous women. When, in April 2018, Jens Mühling, a German journalist and a writer, arrives on the Black Sea coast during the early stages of the journey he so vividly describes in “Troubled Water,” he ends up drinking—a river of alcohol flows through this book—with a Russian (Oleg, naturally) and a Crimean Tatar (Elvis, naturally) in the courtyard of a rundown fishing cooperative on the western tip of Russia’s Taman Peninsula. A mile away, a newly built bridge awaits its formal opening. It connects the peninsula with Russian-occupied Crimea: “We screwed up our eyes, shelled Black Sea shrimps, and observed the world’s largest country in the act of growing.”

That bridge or, more precisely, the circumstances that led to its construction, casts a shadow over Mr. Mühling’s narrative—a shadow longer even than he had intended. Informative and often entertainingly wry, “Troubled Water” was published in Germany in 2020. Today it is impossible to read Simon Pare’s English translation without thinking of the horror that has since enveloped much of the region to the Black Sea’s north and west.

In 2018, Mr. Mühling spots warships at anchor off the Russian city of Novorossiysk, “armour-clad giants, grey, hulking, and motionless, like crocodiles digesting the banquet they had devoured in Crimea,” a banquet now proven to have been no more than an hors d’oeuvre. Another passage unwittingly offers a small glimpse of what lay ahead for Russia itself: With economic sanctions in force after Crimea’s annexation, Western fast-food chains could no longer do business there. But a good number of their outlets were enjoying a rogue afterlife, operating more or less as before, but with local proprietors and, not infrequently, a name hinting at past glories. A Burger King had become a Big Burger, a Starbucks a Starducks, its logo replaced by a duck. Never mind that the actual Starbucks logo, as Mr. Mühling notes, depicts Mixoparthenos (half-maiden, half-snake), a creature out of ancient Black Sea myth.

In an epilogue, the author returns to the region eight months after his original journey to cross (rather than circle) the Black Sea, leaving on a freight ferry from Chornomorsk, a Ukrainian port south of Odessa, a city that has this year come under Russian missile attack. Worse probably is in store for Odessa, where Mr. Mühling admires the “splendid imperial facades” and finds the latest generation of a once large and famously vibrant Jewish community, drastically reduced by a World War II massacre (Odessa was occupied by Germany’s Romanian allies), Soviet-era assimilation, and emigration. Mr. Mühling discovers reopened synagogues, “a Jewish newspaper, a small museum, a few kosher restaurants—and Jews too, their number estimated at 10,000 by some, 30,000 by others. The community lived on.” That, a rabbi tells him, is “exactly what we wanted to achieve. We wanted to show that we cannot be destroyed. Hitler is gone, Stalin is gone, but we are still here.” So much for “Nazi” Ukraine.

Jason voyaged to the Black Sea to steal the Golden Fleece. Mr. Mühling sought the stories of the extraordinary mix of peoples who inhabit a littoral over 2,500 miles long. They are the descendants of settlers and conquerors, as well of those who were there long before—populations, or in some cases, the remnants of populations, scythed through, swamped and reshuffled by invaders, autocrats, ideologues and the repeated collision of cultures. Much of “Troubled Water” describes Mr. Mühling’s encounters with those he meets, using their lives and his own experiences to illuminate the here and now as well as the then.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal