Calming the Waters: Stella Ghervas Re-examines the Black Sea

April 18, 2017
Stella Ghervas

Stella GhervasStella Ghervas, a Jaroslaw and Mihaychuk Postdoctoral Research Fellow at HURI, will present some of her recent research at the Seminar in Ukrainian Studies on Monday, April 24. 

At HURI, Ghervas is carrying out research on the Black Sea coastal areas, as part of her larger project on the Black Sea region. Her work challenges the idea that the Black Sea space naturally leads to conflict and nationalism, while assessing economic development, population increases, and growth of cities during a time of "thawed" relations.

On Monday, her talk, "Calming the Waters? Toward a New History of the Black Sea," will examine the history and historiography of the Black Sea. In a different approach to its history, Ghervas argues, could lie the key to "calming the waters," i.e. fostering peace and prosperity in the region.

Ahead of her talk, Ghervas gave us a sneak peek into her research. All are welcome to attend Monday's seminar at 4:15 pm.

HURI: What can we expect at the seminar?

Ghervas: I will present the current state of my research project on the history of the Black Sea. It is a “New Thalassology” of the Black Sea, aiming to cover the history of maritime and regional encounters on and around that sea. It is also a reflection on conflict and peace in the region.

In this lecture I will argue that the Black Sea as a whole is, beyond its hydrographical and geographical meanings, a legitimate object of study for historians: It corresponds to deep cultural and social realities, because the sea acts as a strong medium of connection. As a matter of fact, it existed long before past empires and current nation-states, and if we judge by the rapid evolutions of the past three centuries, it might outlast them. One of the main purposes of this presentation is to examine how the history of the Black Sea has been written so far and how it could be written in future.

HURI: Aside from people interested in the region, who would be interested in coming?

Ghervas: Obviously, this seminar could be of interest for anyone interested in the history, politics and geography of this sea, but also for students and scholars of current political issues in the Black Sea Region, be it Ukraine, Turkey, Georgia, Bulgaria or Russia. This approach could also interest researchers of various disciplines: those who are interested in the history of the seas and oceans (the New Thalassology), as well as in debates about history writing, such as whether national narratives should be superseded by regional ones that are emancipated from political stakes and agendas. It might also interest scholars and practitioners involved in conflict-resolution. At a time where Russian power seems firmly cemented on the Crimea once more and Turkey continues its path toward authoritarianism, there’s an incentive to rediscovering the rich texture of the interrelations between the populations around the shores of that sea.

GhervasHURI: What initially drew you to study the Black Sea region?

Ghervas: It is a long story, made of both personal and academic reasons. I have family ties with this region. Then, in the course of my work on my monograph, Réinventer la tradition: Alexandre Stourdza et l’Europe de la Sainte-Alliance, I worked on Alexander Sturdza, the scion of a Greco-Moldovan family who entered in the service of the Tsar Alexander I and spent his last years in the port city of Odessa on the Black Sea. (An English version under the title Enlightenment and Tradition in Post-Napoleonic Europe: The Worlds of Alexander Sturdza is under contract with Cambridge University Press and will appear soon in its series Ideas in Context.) Patricia Herlihy’s book on Odessa greatly inspired my previous work, as she showed me that this city and its hinterland could be a subject of research in and of itself. More generally, I had already interest in history in the longue durée, thanks to Braudel’s work on the Mediterranean.

More recently I worked on a European history of peace and peacemaking (Conquering Peace: From the Enlightenment to the European Union is under completion for publication by Harvard University Press); this was an opportunity to reflect on the role of the Black Sea in the broader picture of European history, as well as on the role of ethno-nationalisms in the wars of the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries. There is also a conspicuous lack of global narratives for the Black Sea. It is more than half a century since Gheorghe Brătianu’s classic history of the Black Sea as a unit. Even his book stopped at the Ottoman Conquest and has never been translated, though Neal Ascherson and Charles King have more recently attempted general surveys in English.

HURI: What are some of the biggest misconceptions people have about the region?

Ghervas: The conspicuous absence of the Black Sea as a regional object has crystallized the idea that it is a cockpit of competition between expanding empires or nation-states – in other words a “closed” space traversed by fault lines, or a “frozen sea”. Yet the assumption that great powers should always vie for control of this space implicitly challenges the right (not in legal, but in cultural and political terms) of Ukraine, Georgia and the Republic of Moldova to survive as sovereign states. To answer that existential issue, those states have so far found no other solution than to emphasize the one dominant language and culture of its inhabitants to the detriment of others. Unfortunately, such a policy came short of enhancing their legitimacy, by raising “minority” issues that encouraged armed separatisms. The Black Sea had the bad luck to be located in a part of the world where national histories are a matter of quasi-religious dogma.

Ships in Black SeaAccording to these views, conflicts become unavoidable because each of the littoral states is afflicted by ontologically hostile neighbors and misfit “minorities”. Those official narratives are striving to establish or re-establish a “legitimate” control over territories. Such narratives tend to reinforce revanchism (revenge against real or fancied oppression of the past) and irredentism (the desire to reacquire lost territories).

I argue that reality is quite different: that there have been in the Black Sea, for centuries, webs of regional identities that have brought these populations together and that still exist; and the sea remains a connecting medium between the shores. Before thinking of bringing peace and prosperity to that region, it might be useful to explore ways to create a unitary narrative, which would rehabilitate this constellation of mixed identities, narratives that would be more conducive to appraisal of others, than to anger and hatred. This is the motivation for my title, “Calming the Waters”, and for my broader attempt to write a new history of the Black Sea. In my lecture, I will describe some of the methodological and practical challenges for historians who are writing a narrative that replaces the sea at the center of the Black Sea region.

Stella Ghervas is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and an Associate of the Department of History at Harvard University. Among her many publications are Réinventer la tradition: Alexandre Stourdza et l’Europe de la Sainte-Alliance (2008), which was awarded the Guizot Prize of the Académie Française, and Lieux d’Europe: Mythes et limites, ed. (2008). Her new book Conquering Peace: From the Enlightenment to the European Union is forthcoming from Harvard University Press. She is now working on a new monographic project, Calming the Waters? A New History of the Black Sea, 1774-1920s, and co-editing a volume on the cultural history of peace in the Enlightenment.