Red Star over the Black Sea: Excerpts from the Introduction

Saturday, April 1, 2023

After seven and a half years of working on my biography of Nâzım Hikmet, at times it's difficult to believe that the work is finally over. With the exception of teaching days and other times I was momentarily busy with something else, I woke up almost every morning between August of 2014 and February of this year thinking about this book. 

Not only did I wake up thinking about the book, but almost without exception I felt excited and very positive about the project. I hardly ever felt stuck or unsure of what I wanted to do with it. In this respect, Red Star over the Black was a lot of fun to write. 

So now what to do? It's hard. I think a lot of people feel a mild touch of postpartum depression after a project they've spent years on has come to an end. I can't say that I feel depressed about the book ending per se, it's just difficult to know what to think about now. I find myself flipping through the book, reading sections of it out loud, then wandering off distractedly to change the record that's playing or write some notes about a new project I'm interested in. 

Or posting excerpts from the book to my blog. 

Anyway, below you'll find some of the fruits of these labors, excerpts from the book's introduction. It's not the whole intro, but it should give you a good taste of what's there. 


The Border-Crosser

Back when I was working as an English teacher in Istanbul in the 1990s, a private student of mine named Gökhan, the CEO of a small Turkish bank, was recounting his recent business trip to Moscow. We were sitting in the meeting room adjacent to Gökhan’s office, looking out the windows onto Gezi Park.

I had a personal interest in Russia, having traveled around various parts of the ex- USSR in recent years, and had just begun to study Russian with a private tutor. Always happy to find a way to get my students talking, I began peppering Gökhan with questions about his visit. He told me that it hadn’t been very exciting, as he had spent most of his time stuck inside offices, restaurants, taxis, and his hotel room.

With one exception, however: “Do you know Nâzım Hikmet?” he asked me.

“I know of him,” I replied. Emphasis on the “of.”

Gökhan took note of the gentle correction. “You know of him, Jim, yes,” he began.

In his dark, well-tailored suit and relaxed smile, Gökhan was an easy-going guy who looked to be in his early fifties. The bank was taking care of the cost of his lessons, and he was happy enough to sit and chat with me like this.

“I will tell you about Nâzım Hikmet,” he continued. Clearing his throat, Gökhan—a banker who was no friend of communism—proceeded to speak movingly in his upper-intermediate English about Nâzım Hikmet and what the poet-communist still meant to him. Amid all of the meetings he’d attended during the course of his busy stay in Moscow, Gökhan had made one special trip for himself: a visit to Nâzım Hikmet’s tomb in the Russian capital’s famous Novodevichy Cemetery, where Chekhov, Bulgakov, Gogol, and many other well-known Russian and Soviet writers are buried.

Yes, I did know of Nâzım Hikmet. His name had come up in my classes whenever my students were asked to describe their “favorite” something or someone. Everyone knew who Nâzım was. His life story—that of a leftist poet who had resided in the USSR in his early twenties, then returned to celebrity, repression, and imprisonment in Turkey before fleeing back to the USSR in 1951—carried a larger-than-life reputation. There was, it seemed, something about Nâzım that radiated romance, a quality that was attractive even to people who might not otherwise read much, if at all.

But it was only when I sat in Gökhan’s office that day, listening to this middle-aged banker wax nostalgically about his university years, that I began to realize something much more important than the highlights from Nâzım’s life that I had often heard before: to a great many people Nâzım Hikmet remains, decades after his death, meaningful far beyond the parameters of his writing.


Ask anyone from Turkey who their country’s most famous poet is, and chances are good that the first name you will hear is “Nâzım Hikmet.” Nâzım, who was born in the Ottoman Empire in 1902 and died in the Soviet Union in 1963, is primarily known as a poet. Yet he also wrote plays, novels, short stories, screenplays, and newspaper col- umns over the course of a publishing career that spanned forty-five years. His most recent set of complete works runs to twenty-six volumes, only eight of which are dedicated to poetry. 

To this day, Nâzım Hikmet remains a subject of fascination in Turkey. Not just one, but two cultural centers in Istanbul bear his name. All of his books are in print, and even new ones have emerged out of the woodwork in recent years, reproductions of his scribblings in long-ignored early notebooks. In traditionally bookstore-heavy districts of Istanbul like Beyoğlu or Sahaflar—the famed book bazaar abutting the main campus of Istanbul University in Beyazit—no self-respecting bookseller has less than a shelf devoted to works by and about Turkey’s most famous poet. His verse has been translated into dozens of languages, and he has been a favorite topic for biographers in Turkey and elsewhere. Literally hundreds of books have been published in Turkish relating, in some way, to Nâzım Hikmet’s life story. Only the country’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, has been the subject of more biographical attention.

Something else Nâzım has in common with Atatürk is the degree to which the images of both men have been thoroughly commercialized in Turkey.5 In tourist districts across the country, it is easy to find refrigerator magnets, coffee cups, keychains, tote-bags, and other inexpensive trinkets bearing the communist icon’s visage. To his admirers, Nâzım Hikmet is seen as something of a Turkish Che Guevara, only jollier, and coming in the form of a middle-aged man, a little chubby for his time, bearing what appears to be a cheerful yet thoughtful disposition.

While Nâzım is well-known in Turkey, he is not universally beloved. During the Cold War, liking or disliking Nâzım Hikmet usually depended upon one’s politics. Leftists, in particular, celebrated Nâzım as a brave dissident who spoke truth to power. Nâzım’s critics, meanwhile, pointed to his communism, uncritical embrace of the Soviet Union, and non-participation in the Turkish War of Liberation (1919–23) as reasons to fault him. In the wake of Nâzım’s flight from Turkey in 1951, he was stripped of his Turkish citizenship and treated as an enemy of the state.

One should not, however, get the impression that everyone in Turkey today is somehow obsessed with a long-deceased poet. In an increasingly post-literate world, Turkey is hardly unique in witnessing a decline in book-reading across the population at large. But even as people read fewer books, they still buy them, alongside postcards, posters, and other items stamped with the faces of their literary icons. Among an urban, bookstore-frequenting population in Turkey, Nâzım remains an enduringly relevant and well-regarded figure. page27image31722304 page27image31721536

Biographies of Nâzım

Even from beyond the grave, Nâzım continues to exert a formidable level of indirect control over the narratives that have developed regarding his life. One way in which this has occurred is through Nâzım’s own writings. The Turkish humorist Aziz Nesin, who revered Nâzım, once observed that “[t]here are very many fabrications (uydurmalar) in the writings and reminiscences relating to Nâzım. Chief among them are the fabrications of Nâzım himself.”

In his later years, Nâzım became increasingly preoccupied with creating his own “official history” regarding his life. This project of self-narration included, but was not limited to, the production of Nâzım’s highly autobiographical “novel” Life’s Good, Brother, which he completed shortly before his death in 1963 at the age of sixty-one.

Nâzım’s generation of international communists—Turkish or otherwise—was particularly adept at the art of self-narration. They’d certainly had practice. In the 1920s and 1930s, these border-crossing communist internationals were frequently called upon by Moscow to produce self-narratives in the form of “party autobiographies.” This often happened, for example, when an individual arrived in the Soviet Union from abroad, or when someone already living in the USSR was changing jobs or city of residence. Obliging their authors to frame past activities and associations in a par- ticular light, party autobiographies were read by Comintern officials in Moscow, who would place them in an individual’s file for future reference.

From writing party autobiographies in the 1920s and 1930s, a great number of these communists would eventually graduate, in the 1960s and afterward, to producing books of memoirs. These later autobiographical writings of aging communists constitute a fascinating sub-genre of Cold War-related primary source literature. While such published reminiscences can be useful to biographers—I draw upon them myself in this book—they need to be read in a critically-minded way, something that has not always been the case.

Nâzım’s border-crossing has, at times, also presented complications for his biographers, most of whom have researched him only in Turkey. As for his contemporaries, Nâzım moved far too often for anyone to have seen more than one part of his life up close. Few of his friends from Turkey had first-hand knowledge about his experiences in the USSR, and hardly any of Nâzım’s acquaintances from his later Soviet days had known him when he lived in Turkey. By the same token, most people outside of prison were not familiar with Nâzım’s day-to-day life behind bars, while his prison comrades had limited interactions with him beyond jail. The great majority of Nâzım’s friends and acquaintances knew just one side of his multi-faceted life, and they relied upon Nâzım to fill in the blanks about the rest. The stories that Nâzım told them were then uncritically repeated in the memoirs and biographies that these friends would write in relation to Nâzım years later. From there, they have since made their way into the biographical literature as well.

In addition to trying to be more critically-minded with respect to the manner in which I read the available source materials, another difference between this biography and previous ones relates to context. Whereas Nâzım’s other biographers tend to discuss his life in terms of its uniqueness, I am more interested in what Nâzım Hikmet had in common with others from his time. When I first began researching this project in Moscow in 2016, I was struck by the degree to which the border-crossing lives of many Turkish Communist Party (TKP) members, well-known and obscure, resembled that of Nâzım. Gradually, I began to see Nâzım’s biography less as an isolated case, and more like the story of a generation.

This book also situates Nâzım within a much more international milieu than is usually the case. Existing works on Nâzım Hikmet can be quite Turkey-centric, and often have little to say about the years Nâzım spent living abroad. The periods 1922–28 and 1951–63 are treated as black holes of a sort, unknowable save for Nâzım’s own publications and a few well-worn anecdotes. Out of the approximately 1,500 pages devoted to Nâzım’s life in Kemal Sülker’s six-volume biography of Nâzım, only nine relate to the years 1951–63. Nâzım’s most recent English-language biography, meanwhile, provides just over five pages for the years 1922–28. In this book, by contrast, Nâzım’s international life and his crossing of borders—including those between freedom and imprisonment—lie at the very heart of the story.

Something else that is different about this biography of Nâzım relates to my treatment of his writing. This book does not set out specifically to interpret Nâzım’s poetry. Instead, I look more carefully at matters like: changes taking place with respect to style, genre, and approach; his level of productivity; how much he was paid; where his works were published, and other more tangible points that I connect to Nâzım’s ever-changing circles, his surroundings, and the crossing of frontiers.

While in these respects and others my approach and conclusions regarding Nâzım often differ from those of his previous biographers, I owe them a considerable debt of gratitude. Only because of their books was I able to write about Nâzım’s life in the way that I have.

From Empire to Republic

In a world of empires, size mattered. This was a fact of late imperial life that impacted both the heterogeneity of states and the nature of their frontiers. From the perspective of the individuals who ran empires, it was much more important to be large than racially, ethnically, or religiously homogeneous. This focus upon geographical breadth and growing populations is an important reason why both the Ottoman and Russian empires were so diverse with respect to religion and ethnicity.

By the end of the nineteenth century, less than 50 percent of Russia’s population was ethnic Russian. According to some estimates, there were more Muslims in Russia at the beginning of the twentieth century than there were in either the Ottoman Empire or Iran, the two largest independent Muslim states in the world at the time. While political leaders in Istanbul or St. Petersburg may have preferred, in an ideal world, to rule over more ethnically or religiously homogeneous populations, they did not have much choice in the matter. If they wanted their states to expand, or even just maintain their size, they would have to tolerate the presence of a diverse set of communities within their frontiers.

Partly as a result of this diversity, government officials in both late imperial Russia and the Ottoman Empire approached the administration of their diverse subjects according to largely pragmatic—rather than ideological or nationalist—terms. This consistent—but not constant—pragmatism could also sometimes lead to discrepancies between the approaches of officials in the capital and those working on the ground in the borderlands.

At a time, for example, when Russian policymakers in St. Petersburg were obsessing over the alleged threats stemming from “pan-Turkism” and “pan-Islamism,” local officials in the Crimea opened the door to Crimean Tatars to return to Russia following their previous immigration to the Ottoman Empire. Such an approach to “return migrants” hardly constituted an expression of fear of an Islamic bogeyman, nor did it represent an isolated case. Ultimately, it was more important to state officials in Russia and the Ottoman Empire to gain taxpayers, craftsmen, food-growers, soldiers, factory-workers, and other useful subjects, and doing so meant finding ways of managing difference, as opposed to resisting it.

In the first two decades of Nâzım Hikmet’s life, merchants, migrants, pilgrims, teachers, students, activists, and other types of border-crossers traversed the frontier on numerous occasions—sometimes even holding the passports of both empires. Others simply jumped the border illegally and found work on the other side. De facto dual subjecthood (or “citizenship”) was a frequent occurrence, with individuals gaining subjecthood in one country without the other’s bureaucracy knowing about it. This was especially the case among Turkic-speaking Muslims, who made up the bulk of Russia’s Muslim populations, and whose settlement in the Ottoman Empire was encouraged by authorities in Istanbul.

Following the end of empire, however, the frontier was no longer seen by state authorities in the Republic of Turkey (established in 1923) or the USSR (1922) as a source of opportunity. Rather, borders—and the people who crossed them—came to be viewed as a menace. This change in attitude could be seen in many ways, including in the choice of capitals for these new countries. The imperial centers of Istanbul and St. Petersburg had been elegant port cities, facing water at various angles and situated not far from the frontier. They were replaced, by the empires’ post-imperial successors, with inward-looking Moscow and Ankara, cities that were chosen precisely because of their relatively long distance from the border.

In looking at border-crossers, I draw upon a wide variety of historical literature that has examined the frontier in different ways. For years, border-crossing between Russia and the Middle East was discussed mainly in terms of state-directed wartime actions, such as the mass expulsions of Muslims from regions like the Balkans, the Crimea, and the north Caucasus. These studies, like those relating to the Armenian deportations and genocide, were concerned primarily with establishing a record of these events and explaining how they unfolded.

More recently, historians of Russia and the Middle East have begun looking at border-crossing in new ways. These works tend to be less state-centric, looking not only at government actions but also at the stories of border-crossers themselves. Rather than treating “migration” as if it were a simple, unidirectional act, these historians follow their subjects across the frontier, back and forth, often drawing from multiple archives in more than one country, examining issues like reverse migration, dual subjecthood, and extra-territorial sovereignty. Others have looked at the construction of borders or non-human border-crossers, such as disease. Today, the late imperial border is discussed in ways that would not have been imaginable just two decades ago.

This book takes these discussions about borders and border-crossers deep into the twentieth century. Existing works on late imperial border-crossers end with World War I. Biography, however, enables one to evade such traditional historical timelines. Beginning with the final decades of empire and going all the way up to the last years of the Cold War, I tell a story about Nâzım Hikmet and his generation that transcends both borders and eras.

Communist Internationals

How did foreign nationals end up living as communists in the Soviet Union? For a long time, studies relating to international communism focused mainly upon ideology and institutions like the Comintern or the various national parties. In more recent years, however, a number of books and articles have been produced which look more closely at the human side of communist internationalism. These works combine personal stories with broader analysis to explore larger questions relating to the Soviet Union, international communist movements, and networks of “communist internationals,” i.e., communists who had crossed borders and lived abroad.

Earlier histories focusing more specifically on the Turkish Communist Party likewise tended to look most closely at matters pertaining to institutions and ideology, rather than people. When individuals have been discussed in this literature, it has usually been in the context of their party activities. By looking more at communists—and less at communism per se—I aim to examine the complex lives of these individuals on a more human scale, one that also tells us something about the eras in which they lived. The women and men of the TKP were far more than simple repositories of ideology. As best I can, I have tried to reconstruct their vanished world.


Long before Stalinism or the party’s eventual domination in Eastern Europe by grumpy old bureaucrats, communism was sexy. And so was Nâzım Hikmet. In seeking to rescue Nâzım “from the dreary bondage of myth, from the oppressive after- shock of cultural significance,” my goal has been to breathe life back into a figure who has often been treated in one-dimensional terms. The brash young poet who once endeavored to tear down the idols of Turkey’s literary establishment has himself been transformed into one.

The first step in moving beyond this monument is to see how Nâzım fit in. 


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

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