LAWRENCE — It was known in antiquity as “the inhospitable sea.” In modern times, it’s been called the Soviet Riviera, famed for its subtropical climate.
The Black Sea remains one of the most prized and contested spots on earth.
According to Erik Scott, associate professor of history at the University of Kansas, the region has served as both a place where Soviet elites vacation and as a “forbidden border zone.” Recently it’s been a key battleground in Russia’s war against Ukraine.
“Control of the coastline is at the center of the conflict,” Scott said.
Scott’s new article “The Black Sea Coast as a Landscape of Cold War Intelligence” explores its development as a locale for tourism, commerce, military activity and intelligence gathering, based on newly declassified KGB records from Ukraine and Georgia. It appears in Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History.
“The Black Sea is seen as a key strategic territory by Russia and also as vital for Ukraine’s economy and its connections to the outside world. There’s so much grain going out from Odesa to the rest of the world, and it’s some of the most coveted real estate in the region,” he said. “By all accounts, Russia is trying to cut Ukraine off from the Black Sea. So in many ways, the battle centers around access to the Black Sea for Ukraine.”
Nearly twice the size as the Great Lakes, the Black Sea bounds Russia, Georgia, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey. Scott said the one word to describe the area is “diversity.”
“It’s diverse in terms of the many different populations that live along it. It’s very complex because of all the states that border it. It’s ecologically diverse as well; it has subtropical beaches but also mountains, swamps and marshland,” he said.
The territory boasts a rich history (it’s where Jason and Argonauts were fabled to have journeyed to find the Golden Fleece). But in the modern age, the Black Sea has repeatedly found itself at the center of international politics.
“There was a perception during the Cold War that the Soviet Union was closed off from the rest of the world. I tried to basically show how borders and bridges to the outside world coincided along the Black Sea coast. How the state created both openings and closures on this landscape,” he said.
Scott made several research trips to Tbilisi and Kyiv to view the KBG archives. He also traveled to Russia to look at other archival collections. Since the Black Sea is touched by all these states, materials are split among various countries.
“The KGB records are really rich,” Scott said.
“Some of the investigative files for unauthorized border crossers consist of multiple bound volumes of interrogations, informant reports and biographical materials. The KGB sifted through everything, especially if someone fled. They really wanted to understand why they fled — not only who needed to be punished but what needed to be done to build up the border to prevent further flight.”
People often speak about the KGB in hushed tones, as if the organization was a mixture of Big Brother and SPECTRE. How does Scott characterize its effectiveness during the Cold War?
“I was surprised at how the Soviet border regime was at once extremely sophisticated, in that it had extensive surveillance systems and informant networks, but also how ramshackle it was in some portions. When viewed up close, you see how rickety the Iron Curtain was … but yet how pervasive it was,” he said.
While the KGB was quite formidable — and it had wide-ranging authority and very little oversight — Scott notes one crucial factor that made it less than all-powerful.
He said, “It’s a giant bureaucratic organization with multiple divisions. Within those divisions, there are different departments. And then there are different branches of the KGB: Georgian KGB. Ukrainian KGB. They’re all supposed to report upward, but there was a tendency for officers on the ground to craft their reports based on what their superiors in Moscow wanted to hear.”
Scott has taught at KU since 2012 as an expert in Soviet and global history. He also serves as director of KU’s Center for Russian, East European & Eurasian Studies and is the editor of The Russian Review. He is fluent in Russian and Georgian.
“If we want to understand why Russia invaded Ukraine, it’s really hard to grasp that without understanding the history, politics and various strategic designs Moscow has long had on the Black Sea region,” Scott said.
“I also think we live in a world of borders. For a long time, the Iron Curtain was looked at as some kind of aberration. But I tried to put it in a comparative context, where it can be seen as a set of strategies for managing migration that anticipated so many things that are still done today.”
Top photo: Georgia’s beach front on the Black Sea was considered the “Soviet Riviera” during the Cold War era. Photo courtesy of Old Tbilisi.