Red Star over the Black Sea: Excerpts from Chapter 5

Saturday, April 8, 2023

For the past week or so I've been posting excerpts from my new book, Red Star over the Black Sea: Nâzım Hikmet and his Generation. You can find the book's prologue here, a few sections from the introduction here, and selections from Chapter 2 here

A few points to keep in mind: 

1) These are just excerpts, not entire sections. So, for example, the offerings on this post represent only a small part of Chapter 5. 

2) These sections do not necessarily appear contiguously in the book. In some places, I've cut intervening sections out while preparing the digital excerpts. 

3) There are no footnotes in the excerpts, but there are in the book (more than 1600 of them, as a matter of fact). So, if you're wondering where the information comes from, check the notes in the book. 

Something else that you'll notice when reading the excerpts: the book is about a lot more than Nâzım Hikmet. While the poet-communist is at the center of the story, you'll see that the book also details the lives of other, less well-known figures. Mainly, what I was interested in doing with this book was placing Nâzım within a particular context, then using the stories of this generation's lives to say something bigger about the times in which these people lived. 

I hope you like it. 


In Revolutionary Russia

It was springtime in Moscow, 1922, and Nâzım and his friends were registering for classes at the Communist University of the Toilers of the East. The forms that Nâzım and the others filled out were a couple of pages long and relatively straightforward, focusing mainly upon family history and the recent past. “What is your family’s social background?” they asked. “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.”


Nâzım’s comment may have sounded a little glib, but it also contained a kernel of truth. After more than a year of traveling, including stays in Ankara, Bolu, and Batumi, home for Nâzım and Vâlâ perhaps really was wherever they happened to find themselves at the moment. It had been a long time since they’d had a fixed address. Moscow would finally provide them with one.

While Nâzım’s years in Moscow in the 1920s are typically discussed in terms of his interactions with well-known cultural personages like Vladimir Mayakovsky and Vsevolod Meyerhold, in fact Nâzım spent little time with such exalted figures. By far the most influential individuals in Nâzım’s life in the Soviet capital were the people he knew from school, worked with in the TKP, and spent time with socially. At first glance it might seem like Nâzım and his bourgeois traveling companions had relatively little in common with their more working-class comrades at KUTV. In fact, they fit in with this broader community of students in certain unanticipated ways.

Early Days in the Bolshevik Capital

The ride up from Batumi had been a grim one. Traveling very slowly, “at the speed of a caravan from the Middle Ages,” Nâzım, Vâlâ, Şevket, Leman, and Ahmet Cevat wound their way through former battlefields in the Caucasus, Ukraine, and the Volga River valley. Surrounding their often-stalled train, in places, were scenes of utter devastation. Photographs from the era reveal crowds of stunned and weakened refugees seeking shelter in railway stations.

It took Nâzım and the others eleven days, riding multiple trains, to reach their destination. Stopping off at one railroad station after another, the travelers stayed at inns and schools while waiting for the next train forward. The stations were unbearably crowded. Civil war and the threat of starvation had forced hundreds of thousands onto the roads and rails in search of a means of survival. Inching their way through the burnt out remains of central Russia, the five friends pressed onward.

They finally arrived in Moscow in late spring of 1922. From the train station, the traveling companions headed directly to the Hotel Luxe, where rooms had been arranged for them. Originally constructed in 1911, the Luxe’s building had previously housed the Hotel Frantsiia. Following the October Revolution, the Frantsiia had been nationalized, and now the Luxe was used mainly to house foreign communists visiting the Soviet capital for stays both long and short.

Located on Tverskaia Street, the broad boulevard extending north from the Kremlin, the Hotel Luxe was well known in Moscow for providing Bolshevik-class comfort in a downtown location. The hotel included a cafeteria for which Nâzım and his traveling companions were provided vouchers, a matter of critical importance in food-scarce Moscow. Vâlâ later wrote that he had made quick use of the modern bathtub at the Luxe, divesting himself of the web of fleas that had been infesting his clothes for much of the last 1,300 miles of travel.

In the early 1920s, the Luxe had an exciting international vibe of the sort that many of its one-time guests would remember fondly in their memoirs. Nâzım and his friends, who spoke French and German among other languages, similarly got a thrill from the sheer cosmopolitanism of the legendary hotel-residence. “Amid the conversations taking place at mealtimes,” wrote Şevket Süreyya years later, “you could hear all of the languages of the world.” Vâlâ observed drily that there were people at KUTV from “seventy-two and a half nations.”

Staying at the Luxe also gave the friends a chance to rub elbows with well-known Bolsheviks. Şevket would later note that at the Luxe “it was possible to see practically all of the revolution’s leaders,” including Bolshevik luminaries like Karl Radek, Nikolai Bukharin, Lev Kamenev, and Grigory Zinoviev, the head of the Comintern. If only Sadık Ahi and the rest of the Spartakists could see them now.

Despite the excitement aroused among Nâzım and his friends by the international flavor of their surroundings, the state of the KUTV campus was somewhat dispiriting. Şevket Süreyya, the only one among the younger members of their group to have received actual training to work as a teacher, thought the campus felt “abandoned” and “cold.” He started to wonder if he had made the wrong choice in traveling up to Moscow with the others. Maybe, Şevket thought, it would be a better idea to just turn around and head back to the Caucasus with Leman.

Moscow was, moreover, ill-equipped to handle the influx of new mouths to feed. During this time in Russia, cities were hit especially hard by famine, and even in the capital there were dire food shortages. After having spent about a month in Moscow at the Luxe, Nâzım, Vâlâ, evket, and Leman were informed that they would have to go to a youth summer camp in Udel’naia, a village located about fifteen miles to the southeast of the capital. Ahmet Cevat would stay in Moscow, preparing for the upcoming school year.

Nâzım did not like this idea one bit. “We didn’t come here to stay in some village,” he sniffed. “Life is in Moscow.”

But so was death. Nâzım’s objections notwithstanding, the four had no choice in the matter. They bade farewell to Ahmet Cevat and were soon on their way to camp.

Communist University

What kind of school was Communist University of the Toilers of the East? Located on Mokhovaia Street, just a fifteen-minute walk from the Hotel Luxe in central Moscow, the university (known by its Russian initials KUTV) had opened its doors in the spring of 1921. The school was one of a series of internationally focused institutions established in Moscow and elsewhere in the USSR in the 1920s. In addition to KUTV, these schools included: Communist University of the National Minorities of the West (or “KUNMZ,” which also opened in 1921), Sun Yat-sen Communist University (1925), and the International Lenin School (1926).

The organization of the “eastern” KUTV and the “western” KUNMZ fell under the purview of the Comintern. Formally established in 1919, the Comintern was a Moscow-based institution that played a critical role in international communist organization. Starting in pre-revolutionary times, there had been a series of meetings, dubbed “communist internationals,” that had brought together communists from various countries. Following the Bolshevik takeover in Russia, the Comintern was transformed into a more permanent institution responsible for maintaining connections between Moscow and Communist Party organizations in other countries.

The Comintern was also involved in more quotidian tasks relating to the daily lives of international communists living in the USSR. Staff from the Comintern could help, for example, if a foreign communist needed assistance finding accommodation or employment. Until its dissolution in 1943, the Comintern employed thousands of individuals. During the organization’s bureaucratic heyday in the early 1930s, more than 500 people worked for the Comintern in Moscow alone.

Why create two separate universities for “eastern” (KUTV) and “western” (KUNMZ) students? The reasoning behind this division was both theoretical and practical. In theoretical terms, the splitting of the world into “western” and “eastern” populations was a very old practice, in Russia and elsewhere, one that had survived into the Soviet era. Easterners and westerners came from separate civilizations and learned differently, it was believed, so why not offer them separate educations?

There were also more practical reasons behind this institutional division. The Bolsheviks viewed the types of issues facing revolutionaries in the East and West as distinct from one another. “Western” communists, they reasoned, were more likely to come from industrialized societies that were considered ripe for communist revolution due to their more advanced stage of economic and social development. “Eastern” communists, on the other hand, more frequently came from colonized populations, where anti-imperialism and agricultural questions were considered to be of more practical benefit for revolutionary training. Segregated national populations of communists studied at different universities in Moscow, with African Americans and black South Africans attending the “eastern” KUTV, whereas their white co-nationals enrolled at other schools.

KUNMZ was primarily responsible for working with foreign students from the USSR’s “near-abroad,” countries on the western borderlands which had gained their independence from Russia following the revolutions of 1917. Originally, KUNMZ was supposed to consist of departments teaching in nine languages, four of which— Latvian, Estonian, Lithuanian, and Polish—were spoken in countries which had, until recently, been part of the Russian Empire. The other five anticipated languages of instruction at KUNMZ were German, “Jewish” (Yiddish), Hungarian, “Yugoslavian” (Serbo-Croatian), and Czech. The last three of these, which were all spoken primarily in regions that had never been a part of Russia, were later scrapped in favor of Finnish and Romanian, two languages which were spoken in former Russian imperial territories. The goal, here and elsewhere, was to employ KUNMZ as a means of making contact with young communists from regions of the former Russian Empire that had not (yet) been re-incorporated into the Soviet Union.

KUTV and KUNMZ were not exclusively, or even predominantly, populated by foreign students. In the 1920s, the total number of students enrolled at KUTV and KUNMZ typically ranged between 600 and 1,000 per university. Internal documents at KUNMZ routinely referred to the university’s students as hailing from both “the western regions of the RSFSR” and “the west” more generally. “[I]n some sectors,” one report noted, “students coming from abroad make up the majority” of the overall number of enrollees, an indication that in the other sectors Soviet students outnumbered their foreign classmates.

In a similar manner, KUTV was home to both Soviet and foreign students, with the numbers in the “Foreign Group” (ingruppa) at KUTV usually ranging between 200 and 300 per year. However, not all of the students listed in these reports were necessarily in Moscow, or even the Soviet Union. In December 1924, for example, out of a total number of 294 KUTV Foreign Group students, thirty-two Turks were counted. Only sixteen of these students, however, were actually living within the borders of the USSR at the time.

When Nâzım and his friends arrived in Moscow, there was not yet a Turkish sector at KUTV. Five language sectors were then available: Russian, French, English, Chinese, and Korean, with Nâzım and Vâlâ opting to study in the French one. In the 1924–25 academic year, KUTV opened several new sectors, including one for Turkish, alongside Greek, Malayan, Japanese, and Persian. From this point forward, there were usually between ten and fifteen Turkish students on campus at KUTV at any given time.

A typical course of study at KUTV or KUNMZ usually lasted about two years, with students receiving an education in subjects both theoretical and applied. Nâzım’s university papers indicate that he took courses on Leninism and Historical Materialism, in addition to more traditional ones like Geography, Geology, Physics, and Chemistry. Life at KUTV was not all work and no play, however. Students were taken on a variety of excursions in and around Moscow, visiting factories, the Ethnographical Museum, the zoo, and other sites.

No one received letter or numerical grades. Rather, students were provided with performance evaluations. A short note, often just a word like “good,” “average,” or “weak,” was typically written directly onto the student’s file, next to a list of classes taken. At the end of the semester, students received party references (kharakteristiki) that were one to three sentences in length. A good reference would say something like “an active, disciplined, and fully mature comrade. Mastered coursework in a fully satisfactory manner.” A less enthusiastic one stated “Not very mature with respect to party-oriented relations toward comrades,” or “immature party member, not very active.”

The material conditions associated with studying in Moscow at this time could be challenging. Breakfast usually consisted of little more than “boiling water, perhaps with a little sugar,” and later in the day students were provided small allotments of potatoes, soup, and occasionally “a tiny piece of meat or dried fish.” In early 1928, the African Americans Carl Jones and Roy Farmer complained to KUTV authorities about worms in the dessert they’d been given in the cafeteria. Jones and Farmer also bemoaned the state of the school’s “stinking” toilets, which, they noted, were “deplorable beyond description and a menace to the general health of the student body.”

In 1927, KUTV created a special division, the Spetsgruppa. This section of the university, unlike others at KUTV, was reserved specifically for “highly qualified party workers” interested in learning how “to apply in practice the methods of Marxism- Leninism in the revolutionary struggle.” Those who completed this training were sent back to their home country pseudonymously to work underground for the party.

Most of the individuals studying at KUTV did not, however, go into such cloak- and-dagger careers. Many, in fact, would end up staying in the Soviet Union, where they found jobs, settled down, and often became Soviet citizens. Turkish alumni of KUTV who remained in the USSR after graduation were usually sent to areas of the country with Turkic-Muslim populations, such as the Volga-Ural region, Central Asia, and, especially, Azerbaijan. Students who were considered promising were groomed by university and Comintern officials to enter leadership positions within their national parties.

This was what the TKP had in mind for Nâzım and his friends.

Children of Trans-Empire

Who were Nâzım’s classmates at KUTV, and how had they ended up at the university? Nâzım’s fellow Turks at KUTV had typically arrived in Moscow via one of three main channels. Interestingly, all three were based primarily upon connections with Russia that had preceded the October Revolution.

The largest cohort of Turks at KUTV was made up of former Ottoman soldiers, almost all of whom were ex-POWs who had been held at prison camps in Russia during World War I. Repatriating Ottoman POWs had been important enough for the Ottoman government to send Yusuf Akçura across central Europe and Russia in 1917–18, and the Bolsheviks likewise placed considerable value upon these individuals. Rather than return to Anatolia, many Ottoman POWs had ended up in Baku, where they joined the TKP of Mustafa Suphi. Following the murders of Suphi and the rest of the TKP Central Committee in January 1921, these ex-POWs began making their way to Moscow to study at KUTV.

A fairly typical case was that of Fahri Reşid. A former soldier who began serving in the Ottoman Army in 1916, Fahri was later captured and imprisoned in Russia. Upon being freed by the Bolsheviks, he joined the Red Army and took part in the invasion of the Caucasus. Once the fighting was over, Fahri became a member of Mustafa Suphi’s TKP in Baku. He worked the POW camps as an agitator, giving speeches on behalf of the Bolsheviks in an effort to convince other ex-Ottoman soldiers to sign up with the TKP. In 1922, Fahri Reşid arrived at KUTV, joining a large contingent of former Ottoman POWs at the school.

Fahri Reşid prior to and during
his time at KUTV

Noureddin Kadirov was not an ex-POW, but rather an Ottoman deserter with a checkered past. He was born in 1899 in Bursa and orphaned at a young age. When he was thirteen, Noureddin had accidentally shot and killed one of his classmates when playing with his uncle’s gun, but owing to his young age he had spent just two months in prison. In 1916 Noureddin was drafted into the Ottoman Army. Three years later, while posted to Kars, he deserted. Noureddin first headed to Batumi in search of work, then traveled to Baku before returning to Batumi, where he was arrested by Georgian authorities. Noureddin was then liberated by the Bolsheviks when they took Batumi in March 1921, and it was at this time that he signed up with them. In 1922, Noureddin arrived in Moscow to study at KUTV. 

While there were numerous ex-soldiers among the ranks of Turkish students at KUTV in the early years, most of them did not stay long. Trapped in the chaos of civil war-era Russia with no means of their own to get back home, many of these individuals had joined the TKP primarily as a means of survival. Although a few would stay on and live out their lives in the USSR, the great majority of the ex-POWs disappeared from KUTV’s classrolls once the fighting had ceased in Anatolia and the Republic of Turkey was created in October 1923.

Another commonly seen trait among TKP students at KUTV was a family background in the Ottoman borderlands. This was particularly the case with respect to the eastern borderlands of the Ottoman Empire, such as the Black Sea cities of Trabzon and Rize, which were in close proximity to the Russian frontier. During the final decades of empire, it had been common for individuals living on one side of the border to have family members or a job on the other. Crossing the frontier for periods both short and long was not an unusual experience.

One individual with a background of this sort was Trabzon-born Ali Yazıcı. “Due to some kind of conflict,” explained a later report written by Şefik Hüsnü, Yazıcı “was obliged to escape” to Russia prior to the outbreak of World War I—and there he had stayed. After the war ended, Yazıcı signed up with Mustafa Suphi’s Turkish communists, becoming a party member in Baku in 1920. Two years after that, Yazıcı made his way to Moscow to begin his studies at KUTV.

Fırıncı Ahmet (“Ahmet the Baker”) was born in 1901 in a village outside Hopa, about twenty miles south of Batumi. At the time of Ahmet’s birth, Hopa was part of the Russian Empire. With the region scheduled to be turned over to Kemal’s Ankara government, however, Ahmet had, in 1921, relocated north to Sukhumi, Abkhazia, where he began working with an uncle. In 1923, the Baker returned to Hopa, which by this time had become part of Turkey, and shortly thereafter he was conscripted into the Turkish Army. Following his discharge from the service in 1925, Ahmet once more moved to the USSR, where he again worked for some time in Sukhumi. He then returned to Turkey, this time moving to Istanbul and finding employment in a café in the district of Ortaköy. In 1926, Ahmet the Baker joined the TKP, which sent him once again back to Russia the following year to study in Moscow. While Ahmet’s path to Moscow might seem a rather circuitous one, numerous other individuals had similarly spent their early lives traversing the Russian–Ottoman frontier in this way before moving on to KUTV.

There were also quite a few TKP members at KUTV who hailed from the western borderlands of the Ottoman Empire. Nâzım and his friends were all in this category, having grown up in Salonica and Istanbul (Nâzım and Vâlâ), Edirne (Şevket Süreyya), Crete (Ahmet Cevat), and İzmir (Leman). While there were not as many TKP members from the western borderlands as from the Russian–Ottoman frontier region to the east, both borderland areas contributed far more TKP members to KUTV than did interior regions like central and eastern Anatolia.

A third characteristic that was frequently seen in the backgrounds of early TKP members at KUTV was a personal family history of migrating from Russia to the Ottoman Empire. This was particularly the case among Crimean Tatars. Many Crimean Tatars had, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, left the Crimea for the Ottoman Empire, only to return to their homeland later on as either Ottoman or Russian subjects—or sometimes even both. Whereas this form of return migration had come to an end with the outbreak of World War I, in the early 1920s a new generation of Ottoman-born Crimean Tatar offspring, whose parents had left Russia for the Ottoman Empire years earlier, was now “returning,” as communists, to a Russia they had never before seen.

The “return” to Soviet Russia of Ottoman-born Crimean Tatars was a move that at least some individuals within the early Bolshevik state supported. Officials in Moscow had instructed, in late September 1922, that local party directors in the Crimea should “not delay the long-term repatriation of Crimean Tatars who are Turkish citizens” back into the Crimea. During these years immediately following the revolution, the border was open and foreigners were welcome in the USSR.

This was a policy toward the frontier that attracted people like İbrahim Krimskii. A Crimean Tatar born in Varna, Bulgaria, the 20-year-old Krimskii had made his way from Varna to the Crimea, and then to Moscow, following the conclusion of World War I. İbrahim’s tenure at KUTV would be marked by his repeated efforts, during the years 1923–25, to obtain permission to relocate to the Crimea for purposes relating to both work and rest. At KUTV, İbrahim would encounter several other Ottoman-born Crimean Tatars who had similarly come “home” to the Soviet Union during these years.

At a time when men far outnumbered women at the university more generally, there were several Ottoman-born Crimean Tatar women studying at KUTV in the 1920s. The Crimean Tatar Cemile Nevşirvanova, whom Nâzım and Vâlâ had first met at the Orient Hotel in Tbilisi, began studying at KUTV at the same time as Nâzım and Vâlâ. She had come with her husband Zinetullah, who was also studying at the university. Cemile’s goal, at least insofar as she explained it in her student paperwork, was to promote “revolution among the women of the east.” Her younger sister Rahime also came to Moscow at this time, noting in her KUTV paperwork that she wished to “participate in the women’s movement.”

Aynühayat Voinova was another Crimean Tatar who, as she stated on her KUTV registration forms, was “born in Turkey.” She too had been part of Ahmet Cevat’s retinue at the Hotel Orient, where she had first met Nâzım and Vâlâ. At age thirty-nine, Aynühayat was without question one of the oldest students at KUTV, and surely stood out as part of a class that was overwhelmingly male and in their early twenties. Like many other Crimean Tatars, Aynühayat had made her way “back” to her ancestral homeland via communism. She had initially found work in the Crimea as an instructor in the zhenotdel, the branch of the Communist Party responsible for recruiting women to the ranks of the Bolsheviks. In 1923, she left for Moscow to begin her studies at KUTV.

Also studying at KUTV at this time was Fevziye Habibova, who was born in Istanbul in 1900. Habibova may or may not have been a Crimean Tatar, but she does appear to have been of Russian Muslim origins. After attending a teacher-training college during the British occupation, Fevziye had set out for Ankara to volunteer for Mustafa Kemal’s forces. She had, according to her Comintern file, worked for some time as a nurse in the war against the Greeks. In Ankara, Fevziye had become involved in the TKP, and in 1922 she had left for Moscow on the recommendation of the party.

At around the beginning of April 1924, she became pregnant—party paperwork from December of that year indicates that Fevziye was drawing rations in accordance with her eighth month of pregnancy. In March 1925, Fevziye died in a Moscow hospital. No cause of death is listed, nor is there any indication of what happened to her child.

Not all of the TKP “returnees” at KUTV were of Turkic-Muslim origins. Alexander Senkevich was the grandson of a Polish soldier—and Russian subject—who had reportedly received sanctuary in the Ottoman Empire after killing a tsarist officer. Alexander’s grandfather had then settled in Istanbul, where he would later marry an Ottoman Greek woman. Their son, Alexander’s father, received Russian subjecthood as a youth through his father.

Born in 1907 in the Istanbul suburb of San Stefano, Alexander was similarly a subject of both the Russian and Ottoman empires. He had also benefited from the free education which he was eligible to receive, by dint of his Russian subjecthood, at the Russian School of Istanbul. Classes at the school came to an end, however, with the outbreak of war between the two empires. Only in 1920 was Alexander able to resume his studies at the school, which was now under the control of anti-communist “White” Russians of Istanbul.

During his time at the Russian school, “Sasha” Senkevich made friends in the Komsomol, a youth-oriented component of the Communist Party. He took to organ- izing various activities for the group, such as helping to establish their soccer team. Alexander’s diligence eventually caught the attention of Şefik Hüsnü and others in the TKP, and in December 1924 Alexander was sent to Moscow, where he began his studies at KUTV in January of the new year.

While it might be tempting to assume that human mobility followed the path of ideology, in many cases the opposite appears to have taken place. Ex-POWs stranded on Russian territory found it practical to join up with the Bolsheviks. So too did indi- viduals who had grown up traveling back and forth between Russia and the Ottoman Empire, or whose parents had previously emigrated from Russia. While their reasons for moving to the USSR were doubtless complex and variegated, it is nevertheless striking how many of these individuals had first arrived in Russia for reasons other than communism, or else had some sort of connection to Russia that preceded the October Revolution.

In this respect, Nâzım and his friends had something in common with many of their Turkish classmates at KUTV, as their conversion to communism had likewise followed, rather than preceded, their arrival in the USSR. Ahmet Cevat and Şevket Süreyya had arrived in the Caucasus as pan-Turkists, then became communists in the months following the Bolshevik takeover of Azerbaijan. Nâzım and Vâlâ, meanwhile, had been interested in seeing what communism looked like prior to first traveling to Batumi, but had only become communists after the TKP had given them jobs and a place to live.

None of this means that Nâzım, his friends, or the other students at KUTV were not genuine in their embrace of communism, but it does suggest that ideology was not always the determining factor guiding their decisions. For most of the Turks at KUTV, including Nâzım and his friends, geographical re-location had come first, with their shift toward communism taking place only later. The choices that these women and men made were not always ideological ones, even if they were usually articulated in such terms in their party and Comintern paperwork, or in their later memoirs and reminiscences.


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

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