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Conference: The Black Sea in the Socialist World

Birkbeck College, University of London.
February 6-7, 2015.

Early last month, Laureate postdoctoral fellow Philippa Hetherington took part in an intellectually rich conference on the comparative and connective history of the Black Sea region at Birkbeck, University of London. The workshop was convened byJohanna Conterio, a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology at Birkbeck, and part of the Wellcome Trust-funded project The Reluctant Internationalists: A History of Public Health and International Organisations, Movements and Experts in Twentieth Century Europe, led by Dr Jessica Reinisch. The February event, ‘Landscapes of Health: the Black Sea in the Socialist World,’ brought together historians working on both the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc, and explored the idea of the Black Sea region as a particularly important node in the geography of socialism. Coinciding with the sixtieth anniversary of the Yalta Conference (4-11 February 1945), the conference highlighted the unique position of the Black Sea in international history, as well as in the economic, social and cultural history of tourism, health, and migration in the region.

Mirroring the international focus of the conference, speakers came to Birkbeck from across the world, including Russia, Australia and Switzerland as well as Texas, California and Illinois. The opening panel explored the singular trajectory of the Black Sea in the Cold War. Samuel Hirst (European University, St Petersburg), spoke about the shared antipathy of both Soviet and Turkish policy-makers towards Western economic dominance in the 1920s. As Hirst explained, for a brief moment in the interwar period, anti-Westernism and economic cooperation bound the Soviet and Turkish states into an unlikely trans-Black Sea alliance. In her examination of the transnational politics of Soviet deaf activism, Claire Shaw (Bristol) turned from Turkey to France, exploring the sites of miscommunication and misunderstanding between French and Soviet understandings of welfare and support for deaf communities. Finally, Stephen Bittner (Sonoma State), discussed the visit of international wine experts to the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s, on the invitation of the Soviet wine industry. As Bittner outlined, definitions of ‘taste’ and ‘quality’ vis-à-vis wine proved fundamentally untranslatable, as wine occupied a different social role for the Soviets and their guests. All three papers emphasised the contingent nature of cross-cultural cultural and economic ties between the Soviets and their neighbours, and highlighted the importance of attention to the ruptures, as well as the points of connection, produced by trans-national ties.

The second panel discussed population mobility on the Black Sea, through the prisms of both short-term travel (for tourism) and long-term departure (emigration and defection). Diane Koenker (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) explored the particular place of Black Sea tourism in the internationalization of Soviet culinary tastes. Any visitor to the former Soviet Union will notice the ubiquity of Georgian cuisine across the region: Koenker uncovered the longer history of this love affair with shashlyk, which she explained was complicated by fears of Caucasian ‘danger’ alongside a desire for ‘Eastern exoticism.’ Mary Neuberger (University of Texas, Austin) gave the first paper of the day focusing on Bulgaria, tracing the highs and lows of the country’s Black Sea resort industry since 1949, and particularly the initially highly successful Balkanturist state tourism agency. Erik Scott (Kansas) explored the politics of the Turkish-Georgian border in the post-war Soviet Union, highlighting the importance of studying immobility alongside mobility in the migratory dynamics of the region. He then discussed a notorious example of a defection from Georgia, on a plane traveling from Tblisi to Trabzon, and the long lasting effects of this event on the imagination of the space between Turkey and Georgia. Finally, Philippa Hetherington (Sydney) spoke about the importance of the Black Sea as a ‘laboratory of mobility’ in the interwar period, and in particular the special place occupied by displaced Russians crossing the sea in the refugee regime instigated by the Nansen Office at the League of Nations.

The final panel of the first day focused on a topic particularly close to the heart of the Reluctant Internationalists project: the Black Sea as a site of experimentation in health resorts after 1945. Juliana Maxim (San Diego) discussed the architecture of early Romanian socialist resorts from the perspective of art history, arguing that the bright new seaside resorts of the late 1950s operated as vehicles of cultural engineering, turning a ‘backward’ region into a hub of socialist modernity. Johanna Conterio (Birkbeck) emphasised the Black Sea as a site of aesthetic exchange, through which the Soviet authorities learned a new architectural language of ‘mass healthcare resort’ from their Bulgarian and Romanian neighbours.
As she pointed out, examples such as this are an important corrective to a historical narrative that assumes the Soviet Union always imposed its political and aesthetic preferences on the rest of the Eastern Bloc. In the third paper, William Nickell (Chicago) examined the instrumental use of Sochi as the ‘model resort’ within Russia and the Soviet Union since the 1930s, and its role as a palimpsest serving as a paradigm of both socialist and capitalist development. Arguably, it was more viable in the former incarnation than in the more recent latter, and Nickell ended by speculating that new development plans in the city would be undermined by their decidedly un-democratic nature.

Day two of the conference opened with a rich panel on mapping, both literal and imaginary. Kelly O’Neill (Harvard) discussed a remarkably diverse set of maps inspired by the archeological exploration of the Russian/Ukrainian Black Sea Coast since the eighteenth century. As she argued, maps of the Black Sea, and visualizations of its archeological riches, could convey highly disparate ideological messages, from presenting the coast as a sum of its ports, to highlighting the great distances between the origin point of archeological treasures and their homes in museums. Susan Grant (University College, Dublin) explored the production, and sometimes unraveling, of Sochi as the ideal ‘place of rest’ through the perspective of the ‘middle’ health care workers, the nurses and feldshers who tended to patient needs for health through ‘cultured rest’ from the 1930s to the 1970s. Finally, Ruxandra Petrinca (McGill) introduced conference participants to 2 Mai and Vama Veche, two Romanian socialist-era resorts that she argued were ‘oases of individual freedom’ for the middle-class holiday-makers in the 1960s and 1970s. Thus, participants learned about the various ways in which the Black Sea Coast was imagined as site of historical authenticity, idealized space of health, and even rare arena for political freedom, in the context of socialism(s).

Rounding off the conference, three distinguished discussants summed up the weekend's proceedings and pointed to directions for future research. Diane Koenker (Illinois, Urbana Champaign) highlighted the need to pay more attention to both gender and class in our analyses of the region, and to question whether we are writing specifically connective histories of the different national spaces around the Black Sea, or more comparative ones. Elidor Mehilli (Hunter College) reminded participants that the Black Sea historically was not only a space of mobility and freedom, but also a space of Communist careerism, political posturing and the socialisation of Communist elites. Further, he raised the question of whether the socialist model of interconnectedness across this space was distinctive. Valeska Huber (German Historical Institute, London), meanwhile, called speakers’ attention to the need to think about the space of the sea itself, and not merely the coastline, and thus to engage with maritime historians who have discussed the social and cultural role of water. She also reiterated the need to historicize not only the dynamics of movement across the region, but also of immobility - moments of acceleration and deceleration in population and cultural exchange, as well as points of flow and spaces of blockage.

Ultimately, this conference sought both to place the Black Sea region in the burgeoning scholarship on global and transnational history, and also to problematize both comparative and connective perspectives on the region. Participants agreed that thinking more broadly in terms of the region as an ‘inter’ or ‘trans’-national space, albeit one ideologically divided at specific moments along nationalist lines, was enriching for scholars of the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey. However, many participants also felt that it was important to remember how national boundaries were also reified at various points in the twentieth century, and processes such as cultural, economic and population exchange could sometimes serve to concretize imagined notions of essential difference, rather than break them down. Podcasts of the discussions at the conference are available here; readers are also encouraged to look out for the proceedings of the conference, which are to be published in a forthcoming issue of the Slavonic and East European Review

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