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  • The Black Sea World and the Question of Boundaries

“The question of boundaries,” wrote Fernand Braudel, “is the first to be encountered; from it all others flow. To draw a boundary around anything is to define, analyse, and reconstruct it, in this case select, indeed adopt, a philosophy of history.”1 Four articles in this issue contemplate the broader networks of trade and culture at the boundaries of the Black Sea. Of course, as Braudel noted with regard to the Mediterranean, the Black Sea is not a single sea but a complex configuration of peninsulas and coastlines: “its life is linked to the land, its poetry more than half-rural.”2 Depending on the states surrounding it, the boundaries of the Black Sea world have swelled and diminished, like the ebbs and flows of its tides, drawing ideas and people inward toward various hinterlands and projecting power and resources outward. At the dawn of the 16th century, the sea was effectively wholly contained within the Ottoman Empire. During the reign of Catherine the Great, it began a divided history, as the Russians took over the north and the Ottomans continued to command much of the west and south. The Cold War reproduced the north-south divide, replacing Russian imperial power with Soviet influence and the Ottoman Empire with Turkey and NATO. Yet within and beyond these divides, contacts continued and even flourished. New sets of exchanges emerged and intensified, driven by the center in Moscow and other metropoles in Sofia, Istanbul, or Bucharest.3

Teasing out these connections—what one pair of scholars has referred to in the Mediterranean context as “regimes of connectivity”4—is still in its early phases for the Black Sea region, and the forum published in this issue [End Page 237] contributes a thematically cohesive cluster of articles around what we might term a broadly epicurean theme, exploring the rich histories of wine, food, travel, and leisure. Focused mainly on the Soviet period, although with one article on the 19th century, it considers the northern circuit from Bulgaria to Georgia, approaching the region through its manifold connections both within itself and to broader issues and other spaces, from 19th-century colonization through the Cold War.

Johanna Conterio examines the Black Sea as a center of health and tourism. The Soviet Union and other communist states studied tourist systems and practices in the West, incorporating certain aspects of the capitalist spa culture into the socialist Black Sea littoral after World War II. Bulgaria and the Soviet Union, among other countries, exchanged information and ideas as well as tourists, creating networks of consumption, recreation, and health services that served to integrate the region and to create a distinctly Soviet style of leisure that was nonetheless derived, at least in part, from capitalist models. The formation of a Soviet version of consumer culture involved the expansion of food tastes and types, as Diane Koenker’s contribution notes. Georgian cuisine, grounded in a Soviet version of the Mediterranean diet, became a fundamental part of the broader Soviet identity in the Brezhnev era. Stepping into one of the many Georgian restaurants in Moscow, one could experience and participate in the Black Sea world—its aromas and spices, its folkways and costumes—so that one could almost smell the salty air.5

While it sometimes seemed as if states bordering the Black Sea had turned “their back on the sea,” preoccupied as they were with lands and bodies of waters pointing in different directions, the forum in this issue suggests that the Black Sea was as much a bridge as a border.6 The fusion of food and ideas moved Soviet culture in the direction of cosmopolitanism and toward greater variety, flavor, and color. Viniculture, as Stephen Bittner’s article suggests, built connections across ideological barriers and across many seas, bringing Napa Valley expertise, itself inspired by Italian and French models, into the Black Sea littoral. While Cold War politicians were busy constructing a vision of global politics divided by ideologies, concrete walls, barbed-wire fences, and metaphorical iron curtains, wine producers (and drinkers!) promoted the exchange of ideas, production systems, and people.

Nature was an obvious actor in this story...


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pp. 237-242
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