About the Black Sea Networks Initiative

Beyond Borders | Global Learning Strategies | Research Streams| Grants and Collaboration

Beyond Borders

Traditional land-based area studies focus on divisions, on fixed and heavily contested borders. In contrast, water-based studies emphasize patterns of connectivity, mobility, and exchange, allowing us to bypass national boundaries and subvert old imperial hierarchies. The Black Sea Networks project envisions an open sea connected to waterways and land routes that lead east, to China; south, to the Mediterranean and the Red Sea; west, to the heart of Central Europe; and north, to the Baltic Sea and beyond.

Rather than asking how Slavs are distinct from their neighbors, the Black Sea model explores the shifting contexts they share with others. It aims to reorient Slavic studies from a shared identity— imagined as homogenous despite dramatic differences in the political and cultural history of the Eastern, Balkan, and Central European Slavs—toward a shared space of ethnic, linguistic, religious and cultural heterogeneity, where communities and individuals are bound by durable links of conflict, cooperation, competition, and cohabitation. This new framework will help foster a new generation of Slavists with a vision of the field that speaks to the concerns of our global age.


Global Learning Strategies

In order to promote long-term change in Slavic and Black Sea Studies, the initiative will develop open-access multi-media tools and course modules and pioneer the repurposing of available educational technologies, thus building toward a fully sustainable and dynamic program. Partnerships with NYU and Yale and classroom sharing among consortium institutions will allow cooperative curricular development at other institutions, maximizing impact on the field as a whole.

The initiative expands the existing educational and strategic networks of Columbia University, opening new lines of research and collaboration on the New York campus and at the Global Centers in Istanbul and Paris. Columbia Global Centers | Turkey plays a key role, engaging directly with the larger Black Sea region through existing networks while serving as a hub for building new ones. This central position furthers the Istanbul Center’s mission to emerge as a leading regional center with an expanding sphere of influence and a truly global impact.

Bearing in mind the fast-moving and often unpredictable course of events in the Black Sea region, the initiative emphasizes digital resources as a site of collaboration. Even as political crises close borders, initiative partners will continue to exchange ideas, work together on projects, and generate new materials.



1. The Black Sea Exodus in the 1920s and the "Russian Istanbul"

This long-term international project explores the transnational cultural dissemination that accompanied the refugee crisis after WWI and the Bolshevik Revolution. The Black Sea Exodus of the 1920s - a massive wave of refugees from Crimea and the Caucusus that washed up on the shores of Istanbul and then dispersed westward, mostly in the direction of Paris - has received little scholarly attention and the "Russian" Istanbul, unlike the "Russian" Paris, Berlin, or New York is still virtually unstudied. Our research stream aims to put both of them decisively on the scholarly map. We envision most of our activities to culminate in 2020, producing interrelated events in New York, Istanbul, and Paris. We intend to capture the momentum of centennial commemorations of the Black Sea Exodus, which we expect to generate new scholarly and artistic explorations of related events and their effects in Russia, Turkey, and Eastern and Western Europe.

Currently, this research stream is organized under two team projects, each pivoting on a representative figure of the 1920s Black Sea Exodus.

Project 1: Displacement and Display: The Ongoing Revolutions of Ilia Zdanevich

This project explores the work and legacy of Ilia Zdanevich (1894-1975), a Georgian-born Russian avant-garde artist who, under the name Iliazd, spectacularly remade the phenomenon of livre d'artiste in mid-century Paris and engaged in productive dialogue with major visual artists of his time, from Picasso and Miró to Natalia Goncharova and Coco Chanel.

Our international team brings together scholars and cultural agents (collectors, curators, publishers, translators, designers, and performers) equally invested in exploring Iliazd's legacy as a transnational artist par excellence. We examine possible correspondences between Iliazd's movement across political, linguistic, and cultural boundaries - from Tbilis and Petersburg to Istanbul and Paris - and his tendency to manipulate conventions and straddle disciplines, probing the relationship between the condition of a political refugee and the potential for creative "disciplinary" freedom.

The project envisions a cluster of public events on the Morningside Campus of Columbia University in New York during March 2019 and at the Global Centers - Paris in June 2019:

  • An archival exhibition, "Ilia Zdanevich: The Tbilisi Years," on view from March 7 until June 7, 2019 in the Chang Octagon Room of Columbia's Rare Book and Manuscript Library. The exhibition will showcase new acquisitions by Columbia University Libraries prompted by our project and aimed to make Columbia a major center for the study of Iliazd.
  • A symposium, "Iliazd as a Transnational Artist," which will mark the official opening of the archival exhibition between 4:00 and 7:00pm on March 7, 2019 in Butler 522/523. It will include public lectures by Johanna Drucker, Breslauer Professor of Information Studies, UCLA, a foremost specialist on both Iliazd and the book arts in North America; François Mairé, President of the Iliazd-Club, Paris and director of the Iliazd archive in Marseille; and Boris Fridman, private collector and curator of the exhibit "Iliazd: the XXth Century of Ilia Zdanevich" at Moscow's Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts (2015-1026).
  • A workshop, "Translation of Unknown Words: A Workshop on Avant-Garde Sound in Print," from 10:00am to 6:00pm on March 8, 2019 in Butler 523. The workshop will facilitate a conversation among specialists on Zdanevich and the Russian avant-garde, translators, poets, and editors on problems of translating trans-rational (zaum) texts and related phenomena of the international avant-garde. In the second half of the workshop, translators will test their skills on selected passages from Zdanevich's zaum dramas.
  • An international two-day conference, "Displacement and Display: Iliazd as a Transnational Artist," June 6-7, 2019 at Columbia Global Centers - Paris and Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Our goals are to generate an archival exhibition at Columbia Libraries that showcases the results of its new acquisition campaign, to promote an English translation and world premier of Zdanevich's zaum plays, and to produce a multi-media publication that will benefit from Columbia University Press's new digital platform.

This project has been made possible by a Global Humanities Grant for 2018-2019 and support from Columbia University Libraries, Columbia Global Centers - Paris, Columbia Institute for Ideas and Imagination, University Seminars at Columbia University, Iliazd-Club (Paris), Bibliothèque nationale de France, and Chanel, S.A.

Research Team:

  • Leader: Valentina Izmirlieva (Slavic, Columbia University)
  • François Mairé (President of the Iliazd-Club, Paris)
  • Thomas Kitson (translator of Iliazd into English)
  • Robert Davis (Russian, Eurasian, and East European Studies Librarian, Columbia University Libraries)
  • Tanya Chebotarev (Curator of the Bakhmeteff Archive, Columbia University Libraries)
  • Régis Gayraud (Université Clermont-Auvergne, Centre de Recherches sur les Littératures et la Sociopoétique)
  • Sergey Kudriavtsev (publisher, Hylaea Books)
  • Nana Shervashidze (Curator, National Museum of Fine Art, Tbilisi, Georgia)

Project 2: The Life and Art of Iraida Barry

This is a long-term international project aimed at producing a major art exhibition at the Pera Museum (Istanbul) that will showcase the art and life of Iraida Barry — one of the first female sculptors in the Turkish Republic and a key figure of the Russian émigré cultural presence in Istanbul in the aftermath of the Soviet Revolution.

The project focuses on previously unstudied archival materials from two collections: 1) The Iraida Barry Papers at Bakhmeteff Archive of Russian and East European Culture in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Columbia University and 2) the private archive of Cengiz Kahraman in Istanbul. The Barry Papers at the Bakhmeteff Archive consist of correspondence, manuscripts, and photographs from the period between 1916 and 1970 and Barry's eight-volume memoir, Shattered Mirror. The private collection of Cengiz Kahraman includes hundreds of high-quality photographs taken by Iraida Barry and her husband Albert Barry and adds an invaluable visual dimension to the story with rarely seen views of everyday Istanbul from Beyoğlu, Moda, and Büyükada.

The exhibition, provisionally planned for 2020, will explore Barry's fascinating artistic path within the larger frame of what we may call the "Russian moment" in the history of Constantinople/Istanbul. We aim to bring into focus both the lasting place of Constantinople - the city and the symbol - in the Russian imaginary and the ephemeral phenomenon of the "Russian Istanbul" as it was captured by a variety of artifacts, embodied in particular figures and institutions, and left still legible traces on the urban texture of modern Istanbul.

In conjunction with the exhibition at Pera Museum, we plan to convene a series of workshops in New York on the Russian presence in Constantinople/Istanbul, which will culminate in an international symposium in collaboration with Columbia Global Centers - Istanbul and result in a substantive scholarly publication.

Research Team:

  • Leader: Valentina Izmirlieva (Slavic, Columbia University)
  • Holger Klein (Art History, Columbia University)
  • Isin Önol (University of Applied Arts, Vienna, Austria)
  • Merve Tezcanli (Columbia Global Centers - Istanbul)
  • Türkan Olcan (Russian Literature, Istanbul University)
  • Tanya Chebotarev (Curator of the Bakhmeteff Archive, Columbia University Libraries)
  • Cengiz Kahraman (Modern Art Collector, Istanbul Photography Museum)
  • Marlow Davis (Ph.D. candidate, Slavic, Columbia University)
  • Ararat Sekeryan (Ph.D. candidate, Slavic, Columbia University)

2. Crimea: Meta/History of a Place

The main objective of this project is to combat “Crimnesia,” the tendency to ignore Crimea or relegate it to a marginal role in the history of many different countries and regions. We propose for discussion methodological questions raised by the study of Crimea, many of which also apply to Black Sea studies. How do we choose our historical timeframe and geographical boundaries? How do we work on a site in which traditional dichotomies of empire and nation-state do not apply? The peninsula offers a rich set of competing historical narratives; a metahistorical approach can help us to parse these narratives, isolate invented or politically manipulated elements, and interrogate our own preconceptions based on our areas of scholarly focus.

This project emerged from symposium hosted by the University of Cambridge in April 2017. We are planning a follow-up two-day conference, “Crimea Matters,” Columbia in April 2018, where we will workshop articles based on the papers presented at Cambridge and hear new papers from other colleagues representing additional fields and disciplines that reveal the true interdisciplinary potential of Crimea and Black Sea studies. The goal of this conference is to publish a special issue on Crimea in the journal Southeast European and Black Sea Studies(Routledge).

Research Team:

  • Leaders: Rory Finnin (Director of the Ukrainian Studies Programme, Cambridge) and Valentina Izmirlieva (Slavic, Columbia University)
  • Vsevolod Samokhvalov (Political Science, University of Liège, Belgium)
  • Idil Izmirli (School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University)
  • Sophie Pinkham (Ph.D. candidate in Slavic, Columbia University)

3. The Culture of Post-Socialism: Black Sea Horizons


1. Black Sea Myths and Modern Europe

This is a long-term international project aimed at exploring ancient key Black Sea myths with a stable presence in the Western cultural imagination—Prometheus, Medea and the Argonauts, Iphigenia, Odysseus—and their life in the lands where these myths initially emerged. The project targets especially the little-studied political mobilization of these myths in the construction of modern national, regional, and pan-European identities for various communities around the Black Sea. Of special interest is the history of the political project “The Prometheans,” an alliance of representatives from various Black Sea states whose aim was to resist the regional hegemony of the Soviet Union between the two world wars.

In October 2017, Columbia will host a mini-symposium dedicated to this project. A cluster of events in the Bulgarian city of Plovdiv, part of the EU cultural program “Plovdiv 2019—European Capital of Culture,” will make available the results of this research to a large international audience. Apart from a scholarly symposium and a scholarly publication, we also plan international initiatives around the city of Plovdiv that will celebrate the legacy of Black Sea myths in modern Europe.

Research Team:

  • Leader: Valentina Izmirlieva (Slavic, Columbia University)
  • Edith Hall (Classics, King’s College London)
  • Cleo Protokhristova (Comparative Literature, Plovdiv University, Bulgaria)
  • Tamta Khalvashi (Anthropology, Free University of Tbilisi, Georgia)
  • Marina Kotzamani (Theater, University of Peloponnese, Greece and the Gennadius Library, Athens)
  • Barbara Kowalzig (Classics and History, NYU)

2. “Azbuka Arbuza”: Black Sea Languages Database

This project emerged from a research-a-thon we conducted in January 2017 that aimed to create a database that shows when the words for fruits and vegetables entered the various Black Sea languages. This data set will allow us to map the spread of these linguistic units against known Black Sea trade routes, to see whether, as one might expect, fruit names were borrowed as the fruits themselves were bought and sold. The resulting data set will be made available to other scholars to employ in their own research, expand to adjacent regions, or re-imagine in other ways. Our visualizations will be presented on the Black Sea Networks website and contribute to a publication in the forthcoming special issue of the journal Russian Literature dedicated to Digital Humanities in Slavic Studies. The project has been co-sponsored by the Center for Teaching and Learning and has been using the facilities of Columbia’s Group for Experimental Methods in the Humanities.

Research Team:

  • Leader: Bradley Gorski (German, Russian, and East European Studies, Vanderbilt University)
  • Serhii Tereshchenko (M.A. Slavic, Columbia University)
  • Alex Gil (Columbia University Libraries)
  • Nikolas Nyby (CTL, Columbia University)


Grants and Collaboration

The initiative is a recipient of Columbia’s Presidential Global Innovation Fund for 2016–2018 and of a Global Humanities Grant for 2018-2019. It is developed in partnership with Columbia’s Harriman Institute, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Center for Teaching and Learning and Digital Humanities Center, the Bakhmeteff Archive, Columbia University Libraries, Columbia Institute for Ideas and Imagination, and University Seminars at Columbia University, as well as the American Councils for International Education, The Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University, The Cambridge Ukrainian Studies Programme, Iliazd-Club (Paris), Bibliothèque nationale de France, and Chanel, S.A. Central to the project's conception and ongoing work is close collaboration with Columbia’s Global Centers | Istanbul and Columbia Global Centers | Paris.