Red Star over the Black Sea: Excerpts from Chapter 2

Sunday, April 2, 2023

Over the past few days I've posted excerpts from the prologue and introduction of my new book, Red Star over the Black Sea: Nâzım Hikmet and his Generation. The book, which is published by Oxford University Press, is now on sale in the UK. It will be available for purchase in the United States starting in the first week of June. 

Below you'll find some excerpts from the book's second chapter. 

Chapter 2: On the Road to Ankara

Late in the afternoon of December 31, 1920, Nâzım Hikmet met up with Vâlâ Nureddin, his friend from Galatasaray high school. The two had rendezvoused at a tavern next to the Galata Bridge, the legendary crossing over the Golden Horn. Having ordered their refreshments, the boys looked ahead. They were about to take their first steps on the way to Ankara, where Nâzım and Vâlâ planned to join the resistance movement of Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk). They were nineteen years old.

Istanbul opens onto water upon multiple fronts. Between the European side of the city and its Asian suburbs runs the Bosphorus Strait. This waterway con- nects the Black Sea—the mouth of which lies approximately twenty miles north of the city—to the inland Marmara Sea. On the western side of the Marmara Sea the Dardanelle Strait flows into the Aegean Sea. The European side of Istanbul is further divided by the Golden Horn, an inlet separating the palace-and-government quarter of Sultanahmet in the south from the entertainment districts of Taksim and Beyoğlu (or “Pera”) to the north.

For those who have spent much time in Istanbul, the cry of seagulls and the salty smell of the breeze form a common background to one’s daily routine or commute. Water is the means through which many people—like Nâzım’s ancestor Karl Detroit— first arrive in the city.

The waterways surrounding Istanbul can also provide a convenient means of escape. At this time of Istanbul’s occupation by the British, many of the city’s best- known writers and intellectuals, along with a much larger contingent of young women and men looking to somehow assist the Kemalist government, had already set out for Ankara. And it was by water that Nâzım and Vâlâ were now seeking to join their numbers.

Sudden Salvation

On a March morning in 1917, Şevket Süreyya (Aydemir) was perched on top of a hill just to the south of Kars. He was sitting at the point where the steppelands of eastern Anatolia begin to give way to the snowy peaks of the Caucasus mountains. Dug into the outcrop of a mountain at an altitude of over 9,000 feet, Şevket Süreyya was commanding a team of machine gunners whose sights were trained upon the Russian soldiers holding tight to the hills across from them.

A thin, thoughtful, elegant-looking 20-year-old officer, evket was—like Nâzım and Vâlâ—a product of the Ottoman Empire’s western borderlands. He was a native of Edirne, the former imperial capital that the Ottomans had managed to reclaim in 1913, and which today is situated just a few miles from the Bulgarian and Greek borders. evket had grown up alongside Muslim refugees from the Balkans, people who had fled to the Ottomans’ last remaining European possessions in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. An ardent pan-Turkist, evket Süreyya dreamed of liberating the Turkic-Muslim “prisoner nations” he thought of as “occu- pied” by Russia. Şevket had been fighting in the Ottoman Army for two years and was currently based not far from where his older brother had perished a couple of years earlier during the course of Enver Pasha’s disastrous Sarıkamı campaign.

Suddenly, Şevket and his men noticed a fast-growing collection of Russian soldiers assembling on the hill below them. Tempted to sound the order to attack, he nevertheless held back, sensing that something unusual was afoot. The Russians in this procession were yelling loudly, practically cheering, but what Şevket heard did not sound like battle cries. Responsible for the lives of his men, he was just twenty years old and unsure of what to do.

Şevket called his commanding officers to ask for guidance, but there was no response. A decision had to be made quickly, and Şevket was the one who needed to make it. Jumping out of his foxhole, he beckoned to a sergeant named Halil. The two slowly made their way down the hill to take a closer look at the Russian troops below. Gazing down upon the advancing soldiers, Şevket perceived that they were walking with their arms linked to one another and did not appear to be carrying weapons.

A Russian officer—blond, blue-eyed, perhaps around forty years of age—was among the first to approach the two battle-tested Ottoman soldiers. In the officer’s hands was a large loaf of bread, which he handed to Şevket and Sergeant Halil with a smile. Alongside the bread was a small heap of salt. From a childhood spent in the Ottoman Balkans, Şevket knew enough about Slavic traditions to understand that this was a gesture of peace.

For Şevket, Halil, and tens of thousands of others fighting on the Ottoman–Russian front, sudden salvation had come in the form of events taking place 1,800 miles to the north, in the Russian capital of Petrograd. The revolution had begun on Women’s Day, March 8, 1917. Large numbers of celebrants joined forces with protesters— mostly women—who had been demonstrating against the material privations brought on by the war.

At first, relatively little effort was made to put down the protests with force, as security officials did not consider the women a threat. Over the course of the days that followed, however, the number of marchers ballooned to more than 200,000 workers—one half of the industrial workforce of Petrograd. Eventually, soldiers and police cut the center of the capital off from the rest of the city in order to prevent more protesters from joining. The move backfired, however, as it only contributed to the multiplication of protests outside the city center. Before long, large swaths of Petrograd were out of the government’s control.

On March 16, Nicholas II made the stunning decision to abdicate the throne in his own name and that of his twelve-year-old son Alexei. When the former tsar’s brother, then living in Warsaw, refused to accept the crown, the 304-year history of the Romanov dynasty came to an end—all during the course of just eight days of protest. The Russian Empire would soon be gone, replaced by the Russian Republic.

Escape to Anatolia

At the dock in Sirkeci, the policeman that was helping Nâzım, Vâlâ, and their friends sneak out of Istanbul tried to break the news to them gently. “Don’t be alarmed, but there’s some danger. Once you get to Kız Kulesi, officers from the occupation forces are going to board the ship. In recent days the heat has been turning up.”

The papers that Nâzım and Vâlâ were carrying identified them as traveling egg merchants. However, the policeman was concerned that, should the boys actually have to talk to the occupation authorities, it would quickly become clear that these two 19-year-old sons of privilege didn’t know the slightest thing about the egg busi- ness. Therefore, their helper advised, it would be better to simply hide somewhere on the boat, such as among the many sacks of cotton that the Yeni Dünya was transporting.

Nâzım and Vâlâ took the man’s advice. Buried deep under the sacks of cotton, the boys held their breath and listened. In Vâlâ’s later retelling, they heard the footsteps of the occupation-authority police walking by and later disembarking the ship. The Yeni Dünya pulled away, continuing its journey northward toward the Black Sea, and sud- denly Nâzım and Vâlâ realized that they had escaped.

Vâlâ Nureddin, who would later go by the pen name Vâ-Nû, was Nâzım’s closest friend at this time. His background was, in some ways, quite similar to that of Nâzım. Born in 1901 in Salonica, Vâlâ was the son of an Ottoman civil servant who would later become the governor of Beirut. Skinnier than Nâzım, with floppy short black hair and round-lensed glasses, Vâlâ was also an aspiring poet.

Vâlâ’s adolescent years had been challenging. His father had died when Vâlâ was twelve years old, and his mother was left nearly penniless with four children to raise on her own. At age sixteen, Vâlâ was sent to Vienna to study banking, the recipient of a government scholarship. After graduating in 1919, he had returned to Istanbul to work in the Ottoman Ministry of Finance, a job that he despised. As Vâlâ would later recall in his memoirs, it was at this time that he began to dream of the freedom that a writing career could afford him.

Back in Istanbul after his years in Vienna, Vâlâ had reconnected with Nâzım, his old friend from Galatasaray. The boys soon began spending most of their free time together, writing and reciting verse and becoming fierce partisans of the Syllabist style. Poetry, and the circle of new friends that it brought to Vâlâ, soon formed the heart of his renewed life. Borrowing money from his mother, Vâlâ set up a small poetry journal that featured his own works and those of his friend Nâzım, among others.

The two older boys that Nâzım and Vâlâ were traveling with, Yusuf Ziya and Faruk Nafiz, were twenty-five and twenty-two years old, respectively. They were Nâzım and Vâlâ’s “big brothers” (in Turkish “aabey” or, colloquially, “abi”), more accomplished as writers and poets than their younger traveling companions. Yusuf and Faruk had been participants in the Young Turk-era intellectual public sphere, writing for news- papers and publishing their poetry, something that likely impressed Nâzım and Vâlâ as well.

The four poet-travelers reached Zonguldak the day after they had set out from Istanbul. Approaching the city’s docks from the sea, they noticed an assembled group of young people waiting at the pier. A welcoming party had been arranged, coming out to greet the Yeni Dünya on small rowboats. Much to Nâzım and Vâlâ’s surprise, it turned out that this gesture had been prepared on behalf of none other than the four poets themselves. A banquet had even been set up in their honor. The festivities had been organized, the boys would later learn, by one Ragıp Bey, a wealthy local supporter of the Ankara cause.

That night, after the banquet had ended, a storm hit Zonguldak. The next day’s onward travel to İnebolu, located about 150 miles to the east, would prove a rough ride. Upon arriving in İnebolu, Yusuf Ziya reminded the others to kiss the ground when disembarking, a tradition that had recently become fashionable among the freedom-fighters arriving by boat from Istanbul.

Their affectionate interactions with İnebolu’s shoreline notwithstanding, the four friends were given a somewhat brusque reception. Instead of a welcoming committee in the manner of Zonguldak, their boat was met by a military commissar and two civil officials. The four poets were taken directly to the closest police station. On the way there, the commissar explained, somewhat cryptically, that he was just following “orders from Ankara.” The boys would later learn that there was concern in Kemal’s capital about the possibility of spies and saboteurs infiltrating the movement. Everyone arriving in İnebolu had to be thoroughly vetted before receiving permission to continue onward to Ankara.

While waiting to begin the next leg of their journey, Nâzım, Vâlâ, Yusuf Ziya, and Faruk Nafiz spent their days and nights getting acquainted with İnebolu. There was a teahouse frequented by the town’s younger set, and Nâzım and Vâlâ spent hours there reading newspapers and trading gossip with fellow travelers and locals. In the even- ings, the teahouse grew crowded and intimate. The four visitors took turns reciting their works, helping to break the chill of the town’s blustery winter nights. Despite the somewhat severe treatment they had been given at the harbor, the boys were again fêted in the style of minor celebrities. The most popular of the four poets, according to Vâlâ’s later recollections, was Nâzım, whose fiery nationalistic verse routinely received the most energetic applause.

They waited for fifteen days in İnebolu, but in the end the news they received was disappointing: Yusuf Ziya and Faruk Nafiz were ordered to return to Istanbul. Apparently, the two had been flagged as security risks due to their past associations. Yusuf Ziya had previously worked for the newspaper Alemdar, which had been critical of the erstwhile Young Turks who made up the bulk of Mustafa Kemal’s inner circle. Faruk Nafiz, meanwhile, had once received a medal from Damat Ferit Pasha, a politician who had been the Ottoman signatory to the Treaty of Sèvres. The services of Faruk Nafiz and Yusuf Ziya would therefore not be desired in Ankara.

Nâzım and Vâlâ, on the other hand, were not only given permission to proceed, but were also supplied with money for their expenses. Their happiness at receiving this funding was tempered, however, by the boys’ sadness—perhaps fear—stemming from the loss of their elder companions. Nâzım and Vâlâ, two “Istanbul children,” were totally out of their element in rural Anatolia. They had thought that their two abis, or “older brothers,” would look after them on this trip, but now Nâzım and Vâlâ were on their own.

The boys walked down to the shoreline and stared out to the west, climbing a hill to get a better look at the departing vessel. Below them was a small cluster of houses not far from the water. In the distance, Vâlâ could hear a donkey braying. They watched the boat for some time longer as it carried their friends away. 

Walking in the Wind

In the absence of their older traveling companions, Nâzım and Vâlâ rebounded quickly. The very same day that Yusuf Ziya and Faruk Nafiz were shipped back to Istanbul, the boys made friends with a new group of travelers.

Having decided to treat themselves by spending some of their road money, Nâzım and Vâlâ walked over to the large coffeehouse next to the pier and bought dinner. While they were eating the boys noticed a group of young men sitting nearby, people they had seen a few times around town. The group was easy to spot because their leader always wore a long red scarf around his thin neck. This was Sadık Ahi.

After his meeting with Nestor Lakoba in Istanbul, Sadık Ahi had made good on his pledge to set off for Ankara. He was traveling alongside a collection of his fellow “German” Spartakists, including Vehbi (Sarıdal) and Nafi Atuf (Kansu), among others. Sadık and his friends had, like Nâzım and Vâlâ, been hanging out in town, waiting to be cleared for onward travel to Ankara. Talking loudly at the teahouse, Ahi and company soon attracted the attention of Nâzım and Vâlâ, who eventually joined the older boys at their table.

At the time that Nâzım and Vâlâ met Ahi and the other Spartakists, the boys still held, in Vâlâ’s later words, quite nationalistic political views. In his later memoirs from this journey, Vâlâ described Nâzım as having been “a dyed-in-the-wool nationalist” at this time. Their intellectual heroes were Turkists like Ziya Gökalp and Halide Edip, and Nâzım’s earliest poetry had emulated the aggressively nationalistic style that was then in vogue.

Eagerly, Nâzım and Vâlâ explained their literary and political interests to Ahi and his companions. To the boys’ embarrassment and dismay, however, Ahi and his friends soon began teasing their younger colleagues about these views. Far from cele- brating the boy-poets in the manner to which they had become accustomed, Ahi and the other Spartakists deemed Nâzım and Vâlâ’s nationalism a sign of naïveté and ignorance. Vâlâ, in his memoirs, remembered the experience as a humiliating one, at least initially.

Rather than get angry or storm out, however, Vâlâ and Nâzım appear to have almost enjoyed the intellectual dressing-down they were receiving. Realizing that the older boys had something to teach them, and perhaps hoping to join forces with their interlocutors for the rest of the way to Ankara, Nâzım and Vâlâ kept coming back to the Spartakists for more punishment in the days to come.

Although the boys were now free to leave town and continue their journey, Nâzım and Vâlâ decided to postpone their departure for a while. After all, what was the hurry? They had plenty of money, and they were now beginning to enjoy themselves again after the hasty dispatch of their older friends. For the next several days, Nâzım and Vâlâ spent nearly all of their time with the Spartakists, drinking tea in the enor- mous but sparsely decorated room that Ahi and his confederates had rented on the edge of town. In Vâlâ’s reminiscences, the boys followed the Spartakists through the streets of İnebolu, over the hills and along the shoreline outside of town, engaging in hours-long conversations amid the relentless gusts of a January Black Sea wind.

Eventually, the Spartakists received permission for onward travel to Ankara. They immediately rented a wagon and left town without the boys. Nâzım and Vâlâ, who had hung around İnebolu for as long as the Spartakists were still there, remained in town for two more days. By the time they were ready to leave town, however, snow had begun to fall. The boys were told by locals that the roads would be muddy and unsuitable for wheeled vehicles, and that it would be best for them to travel on foot. They were also warned to not go alone, as there were bandits in the hills. Nâzım and Vâlâ heeded this advice and joined up with a larger party of travelers who were setting out to make the journey together. 

In Vâlâ’s memoirs, Nâzım is presented as almost childlike, barely capable of looking after himself. Vâlâ wrote that Nâzım had even turned over his money to Vâlâ to hold on his behalf, lest Nâzım lose it or waste it on some trifle. “From that day forward and for years I was his money-manager,” Vâlâ wrote. “In all of our Anatolia, the Caucasus, in Russia,” Vâlâ would hold the cash.

When standing in front of a store window, if he really craved a kebab, halva, cake or something like that, he would stand and look at me with a bashful and hesitant expression. I understood. He loved sweets. I’d take him inside and get him something to eat.

Vâlâ’s memoirs, which were written in the late 1950s, gently tease Nâzım on occasion. Such is the case, for example, with Vâlâ’s story about Nâzım setting out to buy a new hat. No longer in temperate Istanbul, the boys needed heavier clothing to make it through the harsh Anatolian winter. Vâlâ, as he would later record, convinced Nâzım to get himself a kalpak, the type of headwear that Mustafa Kemal was making popular at the time. Up until then, Nâzım had always worn a fez, “a rather decadent thing” that was associated primarily with urban life, and therefore unsuitable for the rough country they would now be encountering.

According to Vâlâ, Nâzım immediately went out and bought a strange-looking kalpak that was as tall “as the headwear worn by whirling dervishes.” This creation was decorated on top with red flowers and silver ribbons, which Nâzım had reluc- tantly shown off to Vâlâ after making the purchase. In response to Vâlâ’s teasing, Nâzım gave his new headwear a solid punch from the inside, producing a momentary flurry of red-and-silver ornamentation.

Ankara was 200 miles to the south of İnebolu. It was a hard walk, and mostly uphill at first. Yet in that first day they still managed to cover almost twenty miles. Walking through forests that covered the mountains lying inland from Anatolia’s Black Sea coastline, Nâzım and Vâlâ’s party trekked for hours without encountering any other people or dwellings. Finally, in a barren location on the edge of a cliff, the traveling party came across a small village that had a few places to stay.

The boys were exhausted. At the first place they stopped, Vâlâ sat down briefly on a small bench while Nâzım went inside to ask about finding a place to sleep. There was nothing available, but Nâzım and Vâlâ were told to go try their luck at an inn located just fifty feet down the road. According to Vâlâ’s later recollection of the journey, walking those last fifty feet after having already sat down was harder than anything else he had done that day. Vâlâ felt certain he would not be able to walk the next morning. 

The boys would surprise themselves, however, with their own fortitude. When the two friends woke up in the morning, they breakfasted on some eggs they bought in the village and found that they had the strength to go forward. Once again, the entire day was spent walking, but the boys noticed that, once this second day of trekking through steep, difficult terrain had passed, they felt less tired than they had the previ- ous evening. And then, on the third day, they were barely tired at all, reaching Kastamonu by nightfall. Distance-wise, Nâzım and Vâlâ had covered just over a quarter of the way between İnebolu and Ankara, but the most topographically challenging part of the trek was now behind them.

As Kastamonu was the largest town they would encounter until Ankara, Nâzım and Vâlâ decided to spend a few days resting up before continuing their journey. During the course of their stay, they were befriended by some young locals who gave them moonshine rakı and took them to a brothel on the edge of town. According to Vâlâ’s later account, he and Nâzım drank the rakı but stayed away from the women. The ladies, wrote Vâlâ, invited the boys up to their rooms, but Nâzım and Vâlâ begged off, claiming to be too tired. Ever mindful of not hurting anyone’s feelings, the two young poets promised to come back at their earliest convenience.

During the course of the six days they spent walking from Kastamonu to Ankara, Nâzım and Vâlâ saw living conditions that shocked them. On one occasion, the sun was just about to set and the boys were afraid they would find no shelter. Suddenly, they smelled burning dung, a sure sign that they were approaching an inhabited area. Try as they might, however, Nâzım and Vâlâ could not find the source of the smell.

They asked the mule-driver they were traveling with how much farther it would be until they reached the next village.

“This is it,” came the reply.

Vâlâ and Nâzım were baffled. No house was in sight.
“The village is beneath us,” explained the mule-driver.

Sure enough, the boys discovered that the villagers lived in the caves that ran

through the hill that Nâzım and Vâlâ were at that moment standing upon. The mule- driver yelled out below to explain that company had arrived, pushing open a wooden door that led underground. Straight into Nâzım and Vâlâ’s faces came a plume of black smoke. The two friends quickly found a place to lie down and, exhausted, fell right to sleep. They awoke the next morning refreshed, if jarred somewhat by the sight of one another’s soot-smeared expressions.

That day, Nâzım and Vâlâ walked to Çankırı, a final travelers’ outpost located just ninety miles to the northeast of Ankara. There they again encountered the Spartakists, who were resting up and reprovisioning after their own trip down from İnebolu. Nâzım and Vâlâ spent two days hanging out with Ahi and the others in Çankırı, sitting in coffeehouses and picking up their conversations where they had left off. The boys and the Spartakists then traveled together the rest of the way into Ankara.


Only a few weeks had passed, but the boys were arriving in the Kemalist capital in a very different frame of mind from that with which they had departed Istanbul. Already, it felt like they were in a new world entirely.


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

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