Children of Trans-Empire: New Article re Nâzım Hikmet

December 12, 2018

It was springtime in Moscow, 1922, and Nâzım Hikmet was signing up for classes at the Communist University for the Toilers of the East.  KUTV, as the university was known by its Russian initials, was the Moscow-based school for communism where Nâzım Hikmet would study and teach for most of thenext six years.  Nâzım, who would go on to become one of Turkey’s most beloved yet controversial writers, was just twenty years old when he arrived in Moscow. The university had been opened the year before, in 1921. 

Nâzım Hikmet (left) with his friend 
and boon companion Vâlâ 
Nâzım had arrived in Moscow from Batumi, Georgia, with four comrades— Vâlâ (Nureddin), Şevket Süreyya (Aydemir), Şevket’s wife, Leman (Aydemir), and Ahmet Cevat (Emre)—whose surnames are all well-known to students of modern Turkey. The questionnaires that the five filled out were a couple of pages long and relatively straightforward, focusing mainly upon the prospective student’s family history and recent past. “What is your family’s social position?” “Did you participate in the civil war and, if so, in what capacity?” “What is your party background?”

“Do you write?” asked the questionnaire. “If so, then what?” 

“I write everything,” responded Nâzım.

“What is your street address in Moscow?”

Gde ia zhivu, Nâzım wrote. “Where I live.”

After my first book, Turks Across Empires, was published at the end of 2014, I didn't really know what I wanted to do next, at least in scholarly terms. If someone had asked me, I probably would have said something about writing a book on Muslims in Russia. But this topic, of course, had been one of the three main themes of my first book, so it wasn't really new for me. But that's what it's like, I think, after someone has completed a project they've spent years working on--it's tough to let go. Witness the careers of the many academics who spend their careers repeating themselves.  

Rather than begin work immediately on a new project, I signed up to do a number of little academic jobs that would keep me busy without committing myself to anything. I wrote a couple of encyclopedia articles--one on Central Asia, another on Muslims in Russia and the successor states--and produced a bunch of book reviews. But I still wasn't sure what I was going to do next. 

Then I took a vacation. After I was awarded tenure at Montana State toward the end of the 2014-2015 academic year, I spent about two months traveling through Turkey and Russia. In Russia I visited a number of places I'd always wanted to see, such as Ulyanovsk, Nizhnii Novgorod, Tolstoy's estate at Yasnaia Poliana, and Yekaterinburg. In Turkey, meanwhile, I chilled in Istanbul and then took a beach vacation down in Bodrum. Good times. 

Visiting Tolstoy's estate was 
a highlight from the trip
One day when I was in Istanbul, a friend of mine visited a book store, where I noticed a book about the famed Turkish poet Nâzım Hikmet's visits to Azerbaijan. The book itself didn't leave a huge impression upon me, but I found myself intrigued. Nâzım Hikmet, of course, is probably best-known for his dramatic flight from Turkey in 1951, when he escaped by motor boat across the Black Sea, eventually heading to the Soviet Union (via Romania), where he would live until his death in 1963. 

I started thinking: here's someone who spent much of his adult life living between Turkey and the Soviet Union. I'd just finished a book that was centered around three Turkic Muslims (Yusuf Akçura, Ahmet Ağaoğlu, and İsmail Gaspıralı) who had spent much of their lives living between the Russian and Ottoman empires. I was intrigued by the theme of border-crossers, which was at the heart of my previous book, but excited about the possibility of writing about different people, and a different era. A lot changed, in both Russia and the Middle East, after the conclusion of WWI. Times were changing. The ease with which individuals could cross borders in the late imperial era was coming to an end.  

Reading through the book I'd bought in Istanbul as I sat on the beach in Bodrum, I started thinking more about the drama of Nâzım's life. He'd lived in Moscow for about six years in the 1920s, before returning to Turkey at the end of 1928. His time in Turkey in the 1930s and 1940s is well documented--this was the time when he produced some of his best-known works, in addition to spending some thirteen years behind bars on trumped-up charges stemming from his refusal to renounce communism. Finally released from prison in 1950, 49 year-old Nâzım was soon conscripted into the Turkish Army for a three-year term as a private. Rather than serve what he feared might end up being a death sentence, he escaped, never to see Istanbul again. In addition to leaving Turkey, Nâzım also left behind his wife, Münevver Andaç, and his infant son. 

I spent the 2016-2017 academic year in Moscow on sabbatical. It was an incredible opportunity, one that I'll never forget. I'd spent time in Russia and elsewhere in the ex-USSR before--about three years or so, during the course of graduate school and beyond, where I'd researched my first book in Russia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and the Crimea. To have the chance to work at Soviet archives just a quarter-mile from Red Square--well, that was just mind-blowing. No matter what the frustrations that are occasionally associated with graduate school and working as an assistant, then an associate professor, it's stuff like this that makes it so worthwhile. I'd never regretted the decision to leave my life in Turkey in 1999 and return to the US for graduate school--but even back then I'd never really imagined that I'd be in a position to do something like this. 

Altogether I spent nine months in Russia, along with a couple of months in Istanbul and a few weeks in Amsterdam doing research on Nâzım, and this past summer I was able to get back to Amsterdam, Istanbul, and Budapest (where I ended up doing a bit of book-related work as well). The Nâzım book is going well, but it's a long process. I'd like to be able to show a draft to friends sometime in 2019, but who knows? These things take time. 

In the meantime, there are some parts of the story that, while interesting to me, won't fit in the book. They detract too much from the main story, but I don't want to lose them entirely. So, I'm turning them into articles. Hopefully, when the book is eventually produced, I'll be able to reference these side-issues and point readers who are interested in them to articles that are already in print. 

The first of these articles was published last week in the Journal of the Ottoman and Turkish Studies Association. It discusses the arrival stories of Nâzım, his friends (mentioned in the vignette I put above), and a broader population of Turkish communists who studied in Moscow in the 1920s as a school called "Communist University for the Toilers of the East." If you're interested in the article, you can find a pdf of it here, as well as (hopefully soon) on the research page of this website. 

So why am I interested in this guy? There are a lot of reasons. Obviously, Nâzım is one of the most famous figures in 20th century Turkish history, which is reason enough for an historian to want to work on him. But, to be honest, I also feel a connection of sorts to him, at least as far as his border-crossing nature is concerned. Yes, I get it: he's Nâzım Hikmet, I'm just an associate professor in Montana. But I also spent seven years abroad when I was in my twenties, and to some degree I think that I can see a certain angle on his life that hasn't been presented in the voluminous literature that has already been written regarding Nâzım Hikmet's life. If I didn't think that I could say something new here, I wouldn't be trying to write about him

Ultimately, I think the most interesting part of this particular article isn't so much the material relating directly to Nâzım--most of which is taken from Vâlâ Nureddin's memoirs. Rather, the point of the article is to put Nâzım's presence in Moscow in the 1920s into a broader context. So, the new information in the article pertains mainly to Nâzım's Turkish classmates at Communist University--how they got to Moscow and what this tells us about the times in which these individuals were living. 

Let me know what you think. 

More photos, commentary, and links can be found, comme toujours, in the Borderlands Lounge.  

Are you a Turk across empires? Order your copy at the OUP website or on Amazon


  1. I have read your article on Nazım, James. Good work! Next time maybe you work on Nestor Lakoba's mission to Istanbul?

  2. Thank you, Candan! Nestor Lakoba is an interesting figure, isn't he?

    Hope you're doing well,

  3. Yes, Lakoba is an insteresting figure, Jim. I am looking for Vladimir Novikov's publication of Lakoba's report on his trip to Turkey from RGASPI, if he has published at all. Did you come across such an article?
    best wishes

  4. I haven't seen Novikov's article, but I'll keep an eye open for it.
    Hope you're doing well, Candan Bey!

  5. Here's an upcoming biography on Lakoba that I can't wait to check out:

  6. Looking for a picture and POV of Leman Aydemir.

  7. Hi, this is Jim. Regarding Leman Aydemir, I wrote a bit more about her in Red Star. Pretty much everything I could find out about her ended up in that book. I've never seen her photograph.

    She's an interesting person. Her husband says very little about her in his memoirs.