by Paul Gottfried
Black Sea Sketches, the record of a journey through five countries bordering the Black Sea taken by a Southern man of letters (who has authored thirteen volumes of prose and poetry), has much to teach about political and cultural changes in the region depicted. Of the five countries the author visited--Ukraine, Rumania, Bulgaria, Turkey, andGeorgia--all but Turkey had been under Communist rule. Ukraine had suffered a Soviet occupation of seventy years, and Rumania had endured brutal rule under its last Communist dictator Nicolas Ceaucescu, whom his freed countrymen slaughtered rather unceremoniously, together with Ceaucescu's equally distasteful spouse, after the fall of his Soviet protector.
Despite this revolutionary socialist interlude, most of the countries Mills traveled through seem less affected by modernizing tendencies than Western Europe or the United States. One is struck not only by his description of the ox-drawn carts crossing the muddy roads of Bulgaria, Turkey, and Eastern Rumania but also by the absence in these Black Sea countries, outside of certain regions in Ukraine, of a developed industrial economy. Whereas Western countries have moved to a service economy, most of the areas visited by Mills seem barely touched by the Industrial Revolution. The photographs adorning the book, of peasant faces and rural villages, belong to another age as well as geography. In one particularly interesting photo, taken in the Rumanian town of Jurilovca, one notices on the right side a primitive, ramshackle factory and in the center a peasant family dressed in local garb sitting on a donkey cart. Throughout the book one encounters pictures (snapped across a region winding thousands of miles around the Black Sea) of women in babushkas, of men in peasant frocks, and of an economy without modern technology.
Another characteristic that unites these people the farther east one goes is the relative absence of majoritarian nationalism. Although the Ukrainians, Rumanians, and Turks have had in the past strong, often intolerant national movements, what is vividly shown about the ethnic groups Mills spends time with is their now torpid coexistence. Whether Russian Old Believers (who fled the Tsar and his doctrinal changes in the Orthodox state church in the seventeenth century for Rumania), Greek Christians residing in Muslim Turkey, or Christian and Muslim communities juxtaposed in Bulgaria and the Caucuses, the minority groups which Mills describes seem self-enclosed rather than persecuted. Although some of them were badly treated in an earlier age, they now seem to operate in a time warp fashioned partly by their real and imagined histories. And what they often see, according to Mills, as differentiating them from other villages and ethnicities, might seem to us quaint, such as variations on alcoholic drinks or the spices put into meat stews. Mills speaks about a "kind of urgency" that impelled him to make this trip and prepare his sketches before "an homogenization takes place" and each of the places he visits loses its "uniqueness." What Mills brings out without explicitly stating it, however, is the similarity among these places in terms of their pre-modern character.
Two political lessons can be inferred from this work's elegant evocation of premodern societies. One, they have moved toward tolerance without embracing Western ideological pluralism. Turks put up with Greek Christians, most of whom they expelled after World War I following bloody conflicts, and Rumanians and Hungarians now live side by side inTransylvania after decades of tension, but in neither case does the majority group "celebrate" the presence of its resident minorities or praise them for "enriching" the majority culture. Tolerance, in the premodern sense, consists of the peaceful acceptance of the Other, with whom one finds oneself having to share the same territory. Unlike the ideological pluralism of late modern and postmodern Western societies, which is marked by social engineering, consumerism, and disintegrating national identities, tolerance represents a solid human achievement: it represents the victory of group restraint over violent tribalism and seems to be generally getting the upper hand in the Black Searegions Mills describes.
The second political lesson in the book is that the notion that what Mills calls "the Communist experiment" has transformed its hapless subjects has been vastly exaggerated. If there is a homo sovieticus, as dissidents from Communist countries in the 1970s and '80s maintained had been the result of Marxist-Leninist indoctrination, Mills has certainly not uncovered confirming evidence. Except for corrupt bureaucracies left from an earlier period, and veterans of the Red Army whom Mills stumbles on in the Caucuses, the Soviet experiment does not seem to have changed significantly the pre-modern societies that lived under it. The worst effect might be the ecological disaster that Communist industrialization bequeathed to inhabitants of the Black Sea region. From East Germany through the Caucuses, one finds environmental poisoning from a materialist ideology that places no intrinsic value in Nature or animal life. Contrary to the imbecilic identification among Western leftists of Marxism with ecology, all Marxist regimes that were able to raped the natural environment. But of course such regimes were put in the hands of socialist bureaucrats, as opposed to childlike yuppies who happily fantasize about the "socialist future."
Marxist government could not modernize the populations that Mills writes about. They have remained for the most part tribal and rural, and they filter their collective experiences through the distant past. For example, the Raskolniki ("Old Believers") in Rumania, and the Georgian peasants under Russian rule, viewed the Soviet government as a somewhat updated version of the tsarist regime. Like my Mennonite neighbors in Southeastern Pennsylvania, these populations consider the state a periodic nuisance that they have to cope with in structuring their communal life. That they considered the Communists old wine in new bottles is therefore not surprising.