Red Star over the Black Sea: Excerpts from Chapter 11

Saturday, June 17, 2023

On this date in 1951, a Turkish poet named Nâzım Hikmet awoke before dawn, crept out of his house in Istanbul, and boarded a motorboat piloted by his brother-in-law. Their destination? The Eastern bloc. 

Chris-Craft boat of the sort Nâzım Hikmet
used to escape Turkey in 1951


The two brothers-in-law rode their boat up the Bosphorous, the turquoise saltwater strait which divides Turkey, and Istanbul, into “European” and “Asian” sections, before heading out into the Black Sea. Their original idea had been to get Nâzım to Bulgaria, and from there the USSR. En route, however, the brothers-in-law spotted a Romanian cargo ship, the Plekhanov. Boarding this should would, for Nâzım, be just as good as traveling all the way into Bulgarian territorial waters. Either way, they figured, Nâzım would be safely deposited behind the Iron Curtain. Nâzım boarded the Plekhanov, and his brother-in-law turned around and piloted the boat back to Istanbul. They would never see each other again.

Below you'll find some excerpts from Chapter 11 of my new book, Red Star over the Black Sea: Nâzım Hikmet and his Generation. These pages relate what Nâzım was doing between the day of his escape from Turkey and his arrival in Moscow twelve days later. They're redacted and without footnotes, though. If you want the real deal, you'll have to buy the book.  


In Stalin’s USSR

Some twelve days after setting out one early morning from his home on the Anatolian side of Istanbul, Nâzım had arrived in the Soviet Union by plane from Bucharest. It was June 29, 1951. He had come home once again to Moscow, the city of his youth.

It must have seemed like a good sign. Nâzım had been met at Moscow’s Vnukovskii aerodrome by a flurry of representatives from various Soviet cultural institutions. The most important of these was the Soviet Writers’ Union, the organization which had officially invited Nâzım to the USSR in the aftermath of his flight from Turkey. The Moscow dailies all wrote extensively about Nâzım’s arrival, an event that was likewise broadcast throughout the official medias of the Eastern Bloc.

This was, after all, an important day for freedom.

In a warm editorial welcoming Nâzım to the Soviet Union, Literaturnaia Gazeta hailed the exiled poet as a “hero” and dedicated “fighter for peace.” Appropriately, the paper greeted Nâzım with both a poem and a toast.

Nâzım Hikmet! Our hearts burned with such bitter pain in the days when, together with all progressive humanity, we fought for the release from prison of the great son of the Turkish nation! How great was our joy when the walls of the prisons fell down!

It was time for Nâzım to sing for his supper. His public statements in Moscow during these early days were filled with denunciations of the Turkish and American govern- ments, and especially Ankara’s recent decision to become directly involved in the Korean War. In a letter that he published in Literaturnaia Gazeta shortly after his arrival in Moscow, Nâzım listed the calamities visited upon his homeland by US sol- diers. “On the streets of Istanbul,” Nâzım reported, “drunken officers stroll about, creating scandals. The Turkish people hate the American imperialists because they know that, at [the Americans’] command, Turkish fascists are shipping off Turkish youth to a likely death in Korea.”

Nevertheless, noted Nâzım, there was still hope for humanity: Joseph Stalin. In an editorial otherwise devoted to castigating the American military presence in Turkey, Nâzım also found a way to laud the greatness of the Soviet leader. The poet-communist conjured an oleaginous image juxtaposing his wife, mother, and a certain Georgian dictator:

During my most difficult days and hours in prison I never lost heart or certainty in my victory. Before me was the image (obraz) of Comrade Stalin. I always had a photograph of Comrade Stalin with me, which I faithfully saved alongside photographs of my mother and wife.


While Nâzım’s biographers tend to assume that his communist credentials in Moscow were “almost impeccable” in 1951, this was far from being the case. Practically no one in the Soviet Union, least of all a Turkish poet with an allegedly Trotskyite past, had an unimpeachable background at this time. While İsmail Bilen may have liked Nâzım, there was still a lot of unflattering material in the poet’s party file. Moreover, being close to İsmail Bilen was hardly a guarantee that one could evade unjustified arrest and imprisonment—as Salih Hacıoğlu and others could attest. Although Nâzım was surely aware that his checkered past had been recorded in his party paperwork, he may not have understood the extent to which his reputation had been savaged in the 1930s.

Twelve Days in Romania

Nâzım left Istanbul in the early morning of June 17. By the end of the day, he had made it to Constanța, Romania. He did not, however, fly out of Bucharest until June 29. So, what was Nâzım doing during the course of these twelve days in Romania?

According to Zekeriya Sertel, who often met up with Nâzım in the 1950s, Nâzım was greeted in Constanța by a collection of writers, and then was personally ferried by car to Bucharest by Ana Pauker, Romania’s Foreign Minister. Arriving in the capital on June 19, Nâzım was installed at a Central Committee guesthouse located in a leafy neighborhood on A. A. Zhdanov Street, 32. Nâzım’s hosts in Bucharest brought him some new clothes, as he had still been wearing what had been on his back when he had left Istanbul.

His handlers in the Romanian capital kept him busy. On his first evening in Bucharest Nâzım was taken out to attend a performance of the ballet The Red Poppy, which he recalled having seen years earlier during his student days in Moscow. On June 20, a Wednesday, Nâzım was given a medical checkup, later visiting public exhibitions on Stalin and Romanian folkloric art. In the afternoon, he went to the offices of the Romanian branch of the World Peace Council, where he met with the Romanian media. As would be the case with nearly all of his public statements during this time in Bucharest, Nâzım said nothing about the actual reason why he had fled Turkey, preferring instead to focus upon the broader terms of Cold War politics.

Rather than tell his own story and underscore the inhumanity of conscripting a 49-year-old in weakened health, Nâzım criticized Ankara’s developing relationship with the United States, declaring that Turkey had become “an American colony” under Menderes. The Turkish government, Nâzım charged, had transformed “the sons of Turkey into the murderers of the Korean people.” The next day, he visited Radio Bucharest, where Nâzım made comments “almost exactly like” those from the day before at the WPC.

Nâzım was making an audition of sorts to Soviet, Romanian, and other Eastern Bloc governments. He was demonstrating, in these early days, his potential value as a propagandizer, and he had ambitious plans about the role he could play in USSR- based TKP activities. In a report to Moscow from this time, party officials in Bucharest noted that Nâzım planned on asking the Communist Party of the USSR “to provide assistance for the strengthening” of the party. Nâzım, the report went on to say, was “constantly working on ideas about the need to reorganize the TKP and strengthen the moral support that it receives from the VKP (b) and the fraternal parties of the peoples’ republics.”

On June 20, three days after the Plekhanov had plucked Nâzım out of the Black Sea, his arrival in Romania was announced internationally on Radio Bucharest. The next day, the story was splashed across the front page of the Bucharest daily Scânteia. Just below Nâzım’s large photo, which was featured prominently above the newspaper’s fold, was a handwritten message, in Turkish, from Nâzım to the Romanian people, again lauding Stalin:

In the struggle between life and death, and between peace and war, life and peace will emerge victorious. This is because there are masses of people who rise to the defense of peace and life. And these masses of hundreds of millions are the free people of the Soviet Union and the peoples’ republics. The hand that carries the flag of peace and life is Stalin’s.

In the Soviet press, meanwhile, nothing about Nâzım’s arrival in Romania appeared until June 22, two days after the announcement on Radio Bucharest. The tone of this coverage, moreover, was noticeably understated in comparison with that of Scânteia. In Pravda, the news of Nâzım’s escape was announced in a small item tucked away on page 3. The story was just a few paragraphs long and its headline was written in a noticeably smaller font than the two stories placed on either side of it.

Titled “Nâzım Hikmet is in Romania,” the article’s contents were taken entirely from public statements that Nâzım had made to the Romanian media. This would constitute the only comment that Pravda would make about Nâzım until June 27, the day after the Central Committee of the CPSU had made a decision on Nâzım’s status.

On June 26, the Central Committee of the CPSU voted to admit Nâzım to the Soviet Union. The Deputy Chairman of the External Political Committee, Boris Ponomarev, sent a note to Stalin, Malenkov, Molotov, Beria, Mikoyan, Kaganovich, Bulganin, and Khrushchev regarding Nâzım’s bid to re-locate from Bucharest to Moscow. Noting that Alexander Fadeyev, the Chairman of the Soviet Writers’ Union, had “inquired with a request for permission to invite Nâzım Hikmet to the USSR as a guest” of the Writers’ Union, Ponomarev forwarded a letter that Nâzım had written to Stalin and the rest of the Central Committee. In this statement (zaiavlenie), Nâzım explained how he had gotten to the Eastern Bloc and what he hoped to do next.

It is a remarkable document. According to Nâzım, the financing for his escape had come from the money that he had earned from his World Peace Council prize from the previous year. The Sertels, Nâzım claimed, had acted as go-betweens connecting Nâzım and the WPC. Nâzım stated that he had asked the WPC to give half of his peace prize money to Sabiha, and to deposit the other half in Nâzım’s name into a Swiss bank account. Sabiha, who was living in Paris at this time, was not able to travel back to Turkey due to fear of arrest, so Zekeriya, Nâzım wrote, had brought the cash from France to Istanbul. “In this way,” Nâzım claimed, “I had the money to organize the escape. The comrades from the party had permitted me,” Nâzım emphasized, “to organize my own escape” without the involvement of anyone else.


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

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