Final Public Oral Exam: Taylor C. Zajicek

Black Sea, Cold War: An Environmental History of the Black Sea Region, 1930-2005
Thursday, June 29, 2023, 11:00 am1:00 pm


Event Description


Stephen Kotkin, co-adviser
Michael Gordin, co-adviser
Michael Reynolds
Molly Greene
Catherine Evtuhov, Columbia University


This dissertation is an environmental and transnational history of the Black Sea region, primarily during the Cold War. The Black Sea is one of world history’s most combustible bottlenecks—at the heart of the Crimean War, the Ottoman collapse, and this century’s Russo-Ukrainian conflict. The Cold War added another chapter to this fractious history, bisecting the region into a communist north and a NATO-aligned south.

Yet despite nearly five decades of ideological rivalry, the Black Sea states were still connected by the natural environment. This dissertation argues that the region’s capitalists and communists—by damming, fishing, and polluting the same waters—continued to shape each other’s fates, sometimes unwittingly. It analyzes regional entanglement across three sectors: scientific research, conservation, and resource management. How did the sea’s ecological unity challenge its geopolitical division? How did Soviet, Turkish, and Balkan actors manage their aquatic commons in concert with nonhuman forces?

The study confirms that ecological processes, by unspooling across national boundaries, can inspire surprising partnerships. However, the elevation of a material connection into a mutual interest is not automatic. Black Sea environmental diplomacy hinged on interest groups that both recognized transborder concerns and had the domestic clout to penetrate the littoral’s political membranes. Bloc mentality softened the barriers between allies and hardened those between rivals, but it did not foreclose dialogue altogether. Indeed, regionalist solidarities rooted in shared goals or crises could withstand even major diplomatic disagreements, provided they were sufficiently institutionalized.

To map the Black Sea’s interconnections, the dissertation is object-oriented. Each chapter traces a material circulation that transcended the Iron Curtain. Case studies include artifacts such as scientific research, as well as a diverse cast of nonhuman border-crossers, including anchovies, pollution, dolphins, Chernobyl radioisotopes, invasive jellies, and a dam that straddled the Soviet-Turkish border.

The dissertation, by extending its periodization beyond the postwar decades, shows that distinct geopolitical arrangements—e.g., the Cold War—also functioned as distinct environmental orders. In this way, the project models a comparative approach to the modern histories of oceans and other transnational spaces, whose trajectories are obscured by universal narratives of globalization or environmental decline.

A copy of the dissertation will be available for review two weeks before the exam. Contact Lee Horinko for a copy of the dissertation and the Zoom meeting link and password.

All are welcome and encouraged to attend.

Lee Horinko
Area of Interest
Borderlands History
Environmental History
20th Century
Middle East and North Africa
Russia and Eurasia
Scholarly Series
Dissertation Defense