The Black Sea Region as a Historical Focus of “Ethnic Cleansing” and Genocide

The Black Sea region is not noted for its history of genocide and forced population transfers (or “ethnic cleansing”). Internet searches on several different engines, for example, returned very little linked to these key terms. But there is probably no other area in the world that has experienced more instances of these forms of atrocity, at least in the 20th century. The map posted below shows key episodes in the region, starting with the Circassian genocide of the mid 19th century. As is immediately apparent, the Black Sea region has been the focus of many such events.

There are several important reasons why the Black Sea has seen so much ethnic cleansing and genocide. In the 1930s and early 40s, one genocidal dictator, Joseph Stalin, controlled much of the region, whereas another, Adolf Hitler, coveted and invaded the same area. Stalin’s mass killing in the Black Sea zone began in the 1930s with the Holodomor, or the mass extermination by starvation of the kulaks (peasants owning more than 3.2 hectares of land) of Ukraine and environs and of Cossacks in the Kuban region. After Nazi Germany invaded, Hitler ordered the genocide of vast numbers of Jews living in the northern Black Sea region. As German forces drove toward the oil fields of Baku, Stalin ordered the mass removal of several ethnic groups in the region who were suspected of not being adequately loyal to the Bolshevik regime. This process was itself genocidal, as vast numbers of people perished in the process. Something similar had happened to the Armenians of the greater southeastern Black Sea region during and before World War I: Ottoman authorities were worried about Armenian loyalty, and therefore expelled vast numbers to the deserts of the Middle East. The mortality rate was extraordinarily high, leading most scholars to classify this as an episode of genocide.

But there are other reasons for the processes of ethnic removal that have occurred in the Black Sea region. Much of the coastal zone had long been characterized by profound ethnolinguistic diversity, as is common in maritime areas characterized by extensive interregional trade. Such diversity ran afoul of the modern political model of the ethnically based nation-state. As a result, many ethnic communities were kicked out to create more ethnically homogeneous countries. Sometimes this involved mutual expulsions, as occurred when the new Turkish Republic expelled its ethnic Greeks to Greece while Greece expelled most its ethnic Turks to Turkey. Romania and Bulgaria did something similar in the 1940s. Such episodes continued throughout the 20th century. In the 1980s, for example, Bulgaria undertook mass expulsions of ethnic Turks. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and Georgia became independent, Abkhazia declared its independence from Georgia; in the conflict that followed, most ethnic Georgians and Greeks either voluntarily left Abkhazia or were expelled from it.

One Black Sea coastal region, Budjak in Ukraine, was subjected to less “ethnic cleansing” than many other littoral areas, although its Jews and Germans were mostly lost in the early 1940s. A current language map of Budjak reveals a much more complicated ethnic mixture than is found in most other Black Sea coastal regions.

In investigating the Black Sea region, I have been repeatedly struck by how central it is to understanding and interpreting key historical events and processes, dating back to the neolithic. Yet the Black Sea region occupies a very modest position in the conventional geo-historical imagination. This paradox deserves further scrutiny.