Excerpts from Chapter 4, Red Star over the Black Sea: Nâzım Hikmet and his Generation

Saturday, May 20, 2023

The first time I visited Batumi, Georgia, I couldn't believe my eyes. Rather than the drab, post-Soviet settlement that I expected to find, I'd come across a subtropical-looking place filled with flowers, weird-looking insects, and pastel-colored buildings. That was back in 2009, when I undertook the first of two research trips (the second was in 2013) on behalf of what would become my first book, Turks Across Empires.  

During the course of writing my second book, Red Star over the Black Sea, I didn't go back to Batumi. I did, however, feel transported there somewhat by the writing in Vâlâ Nureddin's later account of his travels through Anatolia and the USSR with Nâzım Hikmet. Vâlâ's description of their first days in Georgia, which had recently come under Bolshevik control, brought me back to the rocky beaches and very cool vibe that I associated with Batumi in particular. 

Below you'll find a few of the sections from Chapter 4 of Red Star, which went on sale in the UK a couple of months ago. The book is set to go on sale in the US at the beginning of June. The photos are from a travelogue that I was keeping on this blog in 2009


First Soviet Steps

Their boat pulled into the port in Batumi on a late September morning in 1921. Looking out from the ship’s deck on a clear day, the boys would have seen a lush, almost tropical landscape, with large, bright green mountains hemming the city in from behind. Officially, they were entering the Soviet Socialist Republic of Georgia. As far as Nâzım and Vâlâ were concerned, however, they had just set foot in the land of communism. Eight months after first encountering the Spartakists in İnebolu, Nâzım and Vâlâ were going to see what communism looked like first-hand.

Vâlâ’s memoirs emphasize how strange everything struck them that day. Everywhere they went, they encountered confusing new phenomena. At customs, for example, they were asked to describe their “social origins.” This concept was highly important in Bolshevik society, but totally foreign to Nâzım and Vâlâ. The term refers to one’s class background, i.e., whether one derives from “workers,” “peasants,” or “intellectuals.” Nâzım and Vâlâ were not used to seeing or describing themselves in such a manner.

Vâlâ was asked the question first, and in response confessed that he didn’t understand what the officer wanted to know. The customs agent then told him to simply state his father’s profession.

“Provincial governor,” he calmly replied.

“Governor, what???”

“He was the governor of Beirut,” added Vâlâ. “He’s deceased now.”

Having made their way through the customs area, Nâzım and the late Beirut 
governor’s son took their initial steps into Georgia. The first person who approached them was a Turkish guy.

“Hey, are you Turkish?” asked the man, who was carrying a length of rope wound up in a spiral. “Welcome to Batumi. I’m Turkish, too.”

Nâzım and Vâlâ were genuinely relieved to have found someone who spoke their language. But what did he want with them?

“You’re foreigners here,” continued the man. “You won’t find a place to stay on your own. I’ll carry your bags and can take you to a hotel.”

The boys weren’t sure what to do. The thought occurred to them that their interlocutor might want money in exchange for his services. Nâzım and Vâlâ barely had enough for their own expenses, let alone hiring others to carry their bags for them. On the other hand, the two reasoned, this was a Turkish-speaker who could help them find a place to stay. Maybe it would be worthwhile to give him a little money in exchange for his assistance.

Vâlâ wanted to hire the fellow, if only because he had claimed that he would find them a good, inexpensive hotel. Nâzım, however, responded by saying that he could only accept half of the man’s offer. “He can take us to the cheapest place to stay. But given that we’ve come to a communist country, let’s stop exploiting people. We won’t let him carry our bags.”

“You’re right,” concurred Vâlâ. “From now on, let’s stop exploiting the proletariat.”

Glancing back and forth at the boys, Nâzım and Vâlâ’s newfound comrade couldn’t help smiling. “Okay,” he wondered aloud to them, “but then how am I supposed to earn any money?”

From Batumi to Tbilisi

Walking around Batumi felt like a dream that day. After dropping off their bags, Nâzım and Vâlâ decided to explore the town and get their first taste of communism. Wandering aimlessly among the palm trees and tropical plants which lined the big city park the boys had stumbled across, they quickly got lost.

Having been prepared to find a revolutionary republic in the throes of upheaval, the boys were stunned by how ordinary everything appeared. For example, as they were walking Nâzım and Vâlâ saw a beautiful little church—but hadn’t the Spartakists told them that religion had been outlawed? And what about that couple over there, strolling hand in hand, with a baby in tow? Didn’t Sadık Ahi say that the traditional family patriarchy had come to an end under communism?

“That’s what he said,” confirmed Nâzım.

But it sure didn’t look that way, at least insofar as Nâzım and Vâlâ could tell. In fact, everywhere the boys turned, they saw something that seemed relaxed, comfortable, and . . . quite normal. Having arrived in Georgia thinking of their surroundings mainly in political and ideological terms, this juxtaposition of everyday life alongside what Nâzım and Vâlâ had been told about communism was jarring.

From an old lady in the park, they bought some little black grapes wrapped in paper cartons. Carrying their snacks, Nâzım and Vâlâ walked along the rocky shoreline for a while before stumbling across something that definitely did feel out of the ordinary: a nude beach. Astonished by their surroundings as they ran a gauntlet of naked flesh, the two young friends glanced back at one another in wonder. “Women and girls,” recounted Vâlâ breathlessly almost forty years later, “were walking around with their breasts and every organ exposed.”

In Life’s Good, Brother, Nâzım described something similar in presenting the experiences of his fictional hero, Ahmet:

In 1922, midsummer, men and women lay side by side on the Batumi beach, face down or on their backs—all completely naked. I mean, no bathing suits or anything, just stark naked.

“Are we in a dream?” Vâlâ remembered asking himself. Or was this really communism?

Despite their rather positive first impressions of Batumi, the boys were concerned about money. After paying for their hotel room for the night, they had a total of twenty-six liras remaining. Nâzım and Vâlâ therefore decided that it would be best to continue traveling as soon as possible to Tbilisi, where they hoped to find Muhittin Bey and Nüzhet. The easiest way to get there was by train, but the boys had been warned that it might be difficult to obtain tickets. One of the desk clerks at their hotel had told them that, in order to secure a place in line, they would need to arrive at the station hours ahead of time.

He was right. When the boys showed up at the train station the next morning, they found a line “more than a kilometer long,” stretching far beyond the large building’s doors. Slowly, and by subtly cutting in front of people “in the Turkish style,” Nâzım and Vâlâ made it to the ticket window some eight hours later. The bad news, however, was that the train they wanted was sold out. They would have to come back the next day.

At this point, Vâlâ lost his temper. He wrote later that he could not remember “having ever been so angry in my life, kicking and stomping my feet, my fists clenched.” This time, however, it was Nâzım who kept his cool. According to Vâlâ’s later reminis- cences, Nâzım managed to calm Vâlâ down, urging his friend to focus on the matter at hand. In order to be sure about getting tickets the next day, the two quickly decided to spend the night in the station sleeping in front of the sales window. The following morning, they were the first in line, and later that day they boarded a train for Tbilisi.

Traveling day and night, the boys took in the sights, sounds, and smells of the crowded train, which ambled past mountain peaks of more than 9,000 feet. Some of Nâzım and Vâlâ’s fellow passengers shared food and wine with them, while others passed the time singing songs. Years later, Vâlâ would recall the large number of attractive women on board. He tried to listen in on their conversations, observing that it sounded as if they were “speaking with letters that came right from their throats.” The train finally pulled into Tbilisi the next morning.

While they were still in Batumi, Nâzım and Vâlâ had met a few Turks who claimed to know Muhittin Bey. Everybody had said the same thing: look for him at the Orient Hotel. Disembarking at Tbilisi’s main train station, Nâzım and Vâlâ went straight to the Orient. The hotel was easy to find, as it was an imposing building located right in the heart of the city center. The boys, Vâlâ later recalled, felt a bit uncomfortable walking into such a fancy place in their grimy, travel-worn clothes, so they took a minute to straighten their hair and clean up their faces before entering.

“Parlez-vous Français?” ventured Vâlâ, addressing the receptionist. Receiving a response in the affirmative, Vâlâ quickly explained that he and Nâzım were looking for Muhittin Bey.

“Muhittin Bey has left the hotel,” came the abrupt reply. The words tumbled down upon Nâzım and Vâlâ like a collapsing wall. Their worst fears had been realized. From further questioning, the boys apprehended that Muhittin Bey had recently departed for Moscow, and that Nüzhet had gone with him.

Just as it had begun to appear that all hope had been lost, the receptionist added that Muhittin Bey had not left permanently, and that his wife and mother were still staying at the Orient. This was good news. Vâlâ and Nâzım begged for the ladies to be called in their room. Agreeing to the request, the receptionist reported that they were in. While they had never met Vâlâ before, the women knew Nâzım and invited the boys to come up and visit them in their rooms.

Upstairs, the women treated Nâzım and Vâlâ to breakfast and a round of questions. Why had they come to Tbilisi? How much money did they have? Where were they staying? After hearing the boys’ answers, it became clear to the women that their guests were in need of assistance. Muhittin Bey’s wife, Melâhat Hanım, offered to let Nâzım and Vâlâ stay with them. The women would share the bedroom, and Nâzım and Vâlâ could sleep on the couch and armchair in the sitting room.

The problem with this arrangement was that the hotel had a standing rule against non-paying visitors staying in guests’ rooms beyond midnight. Sure enough, just before twelve o’clock there was a knock at the door of the suite. The boys were told that they would have to go. With their bags still at the left-luggage room of the train station, Nâzım and Vâlâ walked out into the nearly empty streets without any idea of what to do or where to go.

They approached a few people on the street and tried, in various languages, to ask about cheap hotels in the area. No one understood them. Eventually, Nâzım and Vâlâ noticed that one fellow had been following them ever since they had left the Orient. Half-suspecting he was a plain-clothes policeman, they decided to ask him if he knew of a decent place to stay. It turned out that he did, directing Nâzım and Vâlâ to a clean, but quite expensive, inn. By the time they had paid for their room, Nâzım and Vâlâ had just nine liras left. But at least they had a bed for the night.

After breakfast the following morning, the boys were at a loss for what to do. They wandered the streets for a while, walking underneath the graceful wrought-iron balconies typical of the architecture of the southern Caucasus. Eventually, Nâzım and Vâlâ headed over to the Orient to see if Melâhat Hanım could do anything about their plight.

As the boys entered the Orient’s ornate foyer, the receptionist hurried up to them with unexpected news. He told Nâzım and Vâlâ that Polikarp “Budu” Mdivani, one of the most important politicians in Georgia, wanted to see them immediately. Vâlâ remembered the name, as Spartakist Vehbi had mentioned it to him back when the two had met up at the Kuyulu Café in Ankara. Vehbi, Vâlâ recalled, had told him that if he ever found himself stranded in Tbilisi, he should get in touch with Mdivani—and now Mdivani was making contact with them! The boys’ luck appeared to be changing.

The receptionist led Nâzım and Vâlâ to Mdivani’s living quarters, which were located about two hundred yards down the street from the hotel. The boys went upstairs, where they were ushered into a large room. Mdivani entered shortly after they did. He told Nâzım and Vâlâ that he knew who they were and why they were in Tbilisi. This must have come as news to Nâzım and Vâlâ, who themselves had only the vaguest notion of what they were doing in Georgia.

At this moment, Vâlâ came close to ruining their unexpected good fortune by needlessly launching into an elaborate lie. The maneuver was something that Spartakist Vehbi had suggested he try back when they were at the Kuyulu. Following Vehbi’s advice, Vâlâ “reminded” the Georgian politician that they had once met at Muhittin Bey’s house in Ankara. “That day,” began Vâlâ, “Sadık Ahi Bey was there, Servet Bey was there, Vehbi Bey was there...”

Vâlâ’s clumsy trick, however, was quickly shot down by Mdivani, who interrupted him by saying: “I have never seen either of you before in my life. Yes, I did in fact go frequently to Muhittin Bey’s house. I know Sadık, Servet, and Vehbi. But if I were to see either of you passing in the street, I wouldn’t recognize you.”

Nâzım rescued the moment, however, by changing the subject. Discreetly shifting away from the failed ruse, Nâzım explained to Mdivani that he and Vâlâ were poets who had come to Tbilisi because they were curious about the revolution. They did not know anyone in town, and had been unable to find Muhittin Bey, their only contact. They were willing to work hard, explained Nâzım, to overcome their difficulties.

“I know,” responded Mdivani cryptically. “That’s what everyone has told me. But my train is about to depart—I’m on my way to Moscow. When I get back, our mutual friend Muhittin Bey will have already returned. We’ll look after you.” With these words, Mdivani escorted Nâzım and Vâlâ back to the Orient, scene of their previous eviction. Mdivani explained to the hotel manager that the two young travelers would be staying free of charge in a room reserved for guests of the Georgian government. Instructions were issued to supply Nâzım and Vâlâ with vouchers in order to dine without cost at the hotel restaurant.

After checking in to their new abode, Nâzım and Vâlâ returned to the train station and retrieved their bags. The boys took a taxi back to the Orient with their things, draining still more of their remaining funds. But who needed money now? Perhaps Sadık Ahi and Ziya Hilmi had been right all along. As long as you knew the right people, maybe you really didn’t need money under communism, after all.

A Search for Embeddedness

When Şevket Süreyya had first arrived in Azerbaijan in 1919, he had felt exhilarated. Here he had the chance, thought Şevket, to provide a genuine service to the community, as well as for the Turkic world more generally. In Baku, however, he had grown to feel only disdain for the other Turks he had seen, indolent types who wasted their time hanging out at the Çanakkale coffeehouse. Surrounded by the sea breeze, and the smacking of pips and rolling of dice from the establishment’s much-used backgammon boards, Şevket Süreyya had come to the conclusion that most of those other teachers had somehow lost their way.

He vowed to be different. Early on in Baku, Şevket had visited the offices of the Azeri Ministry of Education and requested to be appointed to a school far from the capital. They gave him a position in Nuha, today’s Şeki, in the far northwest of the country. Arriving in Nuha with the mountains looming far above him, Şevket Süreyya had finally made it to the real Turan.

It was a stretch, of course. Technically speaking, “Turan” was usually thought of in terms of Central Asia, as Şevket Süreyya well knew. But to the newly-arrived Turkish teacher from Edirne, Azerbaijan represented reclaimed Turkic land, territory that had been taken back from the Russians. Just as Nâzım and Vâlâ had initially searched for an idealized communism in Batumi, Şevket Süreyya had, in those early days under the nationalist Müsavat government, thought of Azerbaijan mainly in ideological terms as a pan-Turkic entity. Yet, as had also been the case with Nâzım and Vâlâ on their first day in Georgia, the reality of life in Turan would ultimately prove quite disorienting to Şevket.

This time of Şevket Süreyya’s life was particularly intense with feeling. Working in Nuha as the local teacher, he had begun a secret love affair with a woman named Sitare. Şevket had also become a soldier again, commanding a group of men in fighting that had broken out between Muslims and Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh. As a veteran of World War I, Şevket Süreyya was a valued presence. But even as he was living out what once had been his pan-Turkist fantasy—leading his brother “Turks” into battle against their enemies—Şevket Süreyya was growing increasingly disillusioned with his life in Azerbaijan.

His pan-Turkism died in Turan. Whereas young men like Şevket had, in the years prior to and during World War I, eagerly bought into the idea that all “Turks” from the Balkans to Central Asia were part of one nation, the reality of living in Azerbaijan had disabused him of this notion. In what was supposedly part of the greater “Turan” of his youthful dreams, Şevket came to the conclusion that the people around him cared nothing for the pan-Turkic identity to which he had ascribed so much importance. Instead, the Azeris that Şevket Süreyya had met usually viewed themselves and others in much more parochial terms, specifically as either Sunni or Shiite Muslims. The idea of somehow tying together the various Turkic peoples of the former Ottoman and Russian empires into a single community began to strike him as a preposterous fantasy. As Şevket Süreyya Aydemir would later record in his memoirs, this realization brought upon a period of philosophical re-evaluation and personal uproar (hengâme).

Returning to Nuha from the fighting, Şevket Süreyya received the news that Baku had fallen to Bolshevik forces. It was April 1920, and the days of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic were numbered. By the end of the month, the nationalist government would be thoroughly routed and the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic erected in its place. The new government was under the political domination of Moscow, with which Azerbaijan would formally be politically reunited when the Soviet Union was created in 1922.

One day, not long after getting back to Nuha, Şevket Süreyya was waiting for Sitare to visit him when he heard footsteps approaching. Turning around in the expectation of greeting his lover at the door, Şevket instead found himself face-to-face with a young man. The intruder had tousled hair and was completely covered with the dirt and grime of the battlefield. He carried a gun and stood staring at Şevket Süreyya with a mocking expression. Throwing his filthy cloak down onto the carpet in front of him, the man looked up at Şevket and announced, “I’m going to stay here, too.”

Tongue-tied, and perhaps trying to make some kind of connection with this strange new presence, Şevket Süreyya asked him: “Were you in the war as well?” The intruder responded by saying “I was a fisherman in Astrakhan. Then I got drafted. They sent me to the German front. I joined the party once the revolution broke out.” From that point forward, Şevket Süreyya took to calling the man “the Astrakhan Fisherman.”

The Astrakhan Fisherman and his colleagues were the first communist unit to make their way to Nuha, over which they quickly went about establishing administrative control. Posters were hung demanding that the city’s families, businesses, and inns turn over their valuables. By the end of the day, the town’s new rulers had confiscated a pile of expensive carpets alongside gold and silver objects and coins, all of which lay stacked together in front of the Bolsheviks’ new headquarters in town. Those who were found to have hidden their possessions from the Astrakhan Fisherman’s gang were put on trial as speculators or spies.

What Şevket Süreyya was witnessing first-hand in Nuha was part of a larger process of Bolshevization that took place more generally in Azerbaijan in the spring and summer of 1920. The Bolsheviks saw the southern Caucasus as crucial to exporting their revolution to the Muslim populations of Asia and Africa. Bordering Turkey and Iran, Azerbaijan was emerging as Moscow’s window on the Middle East.

According to paperwork that Şevket would fill out in Moscow in 1922, he had formally joined the TKP in Azerbaijan on December 19, 1920. These forms also indicate that Şevket had served as a member of the district committee of the Azerbaijan Communist Party (or “AKP”) in Nuha. This would have made him a colleague of the Astrakhan Fisherman, rather than his antagonist. Yet Şevket soon left town all the same, making his way to Batumi, which he reached in September 1921. The former pan-Turkist, disillusioned by the lack of “unity” he had seen in Azerbaijan, was gradually shifting his gaze from one ideal to another.

Şevket Süreyya’s newfound allegiance to communism did not, moreover, constitute the only way in which he was taking on new commitments at this time. Having left Sitare behind in Nuha, Şevket decided that it was time to get married. Shortly after arriving in Batumi, he heard about a young woman named Leman, whose family had recently arrived in the region as refugees from İzmir. The two were quickly betrothed. At the time of their wedding, Şevket Süreyya was twenty-three years old and Leman fifteen or sixteen. As Şevket would note in his account from many years later, upon arriving in Batumi “I married the first Turkish girl I came across.”


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