Letter from Europe

From A to Z: Achilles to Zelensky

Issue no. 2023/3

Picture above: Snake Island in the Black Sea (photo © Lesik Aleksandr / dreamstime.com).


In this Letter from Europe we report from an island in the Black Sea that over the last 200 years has been variously controlled by the Ottomans, Romania, the Soviet Union and Ukraine. It is the place where the Greek hero Achilles allegedly dwelt after his death.

Dear fellow travellers

Do you have a moment? Good, if you do, as we would like to tell you about an island. Not any island but a special place once much cherished by the Ancient Greeks. Over the last 200 years, this island has been variously controlled by the Ottomans, Romania, the Soviet Union and Ukraine.

Two hundred years ago a Russian naval commander, one Captain ND Kritzkii, landed on this island in the western part of the Black Sea, not far from the great delta where the Danube lazily decants into the sea. Captain Kritzkii’s 1823 landing on Leuce was important as he and fellow officers took time to map the island and make sketches of the great temple which dominated the island’s gentle summit. According to mythological tradition, Leuce – historically known also as Fidonisi – was where Achilles dwelt after his death. This wild outpost in the Black Sea evidently fired the Hellenic imagination, giving the island a cultic role which found physical expression in the Temple of Achilles.

It was good that Captain Kritzkii went to so much trouble in 1823, for not long after his visit the remains of the temple were destroyed to make way for a lighthouse. These were contested waters with Russian and Ottoman fleets competing for maritime supremacy. Let’s skip forward to the Treaty of Versailles in the aftermath of the First World War when Leuce was confirmed as belonging to Romania. That was in 1920. On inter-war Romanian maps it is shown as Insula Serpilor – the island of serpents. It is shown with that English rendering of the name on our John Bartholomew World Atlas published in Edinburgh in 1924.

By now, you have surely twigged. This is the very same Snake Island which has featured in the news of late. For all who have coveted this lonely piece of rock, the heroic classical associations of the island have been the subject of much myth-making. To own Leuce was to claim association with Achilles and touch the realm of heroic immortality. So it was no coincidence that on the very day that Russia invaded Ukraine, while the world focused on Ukraine’s eastern provinces, the Russian navy attacked and took control of Snake Island – far away from the main assault on Ukrainian territory.

Since then Ukrainian troops have retaken Snake Island and it is currently the southernmost fragment of territory controlled by Ukraine. Earlier this month Ukraine’s President Zelensky dropped in on Snake Island, symbolically making that visit on the 500th day of the war, and asserting its status as ‘a place of victory’ in a nice echo of the Ancient Greek tradition of immortalising heroes.

Snake Island is not just symbolically important. It is also strategically significant. Whoever controls this small island effectively has oversight of the coastal arc from Odesa down past to the Danube delta to Constanta. Students of Black Sea history will recall the Battle of Fidonisi in July 1788 when three dozen Russian ships confronted the Turkish fleet in the waters around Snake Island. The Russians won on that occasion.

Romania has never quite given up claim on the isle of serpents. Romania controlled Snake Island during the inter-war years, ceding it to the Soviet Union after the 1947 Paris Peace Treaties, when Bessarabia was also assigned to the Soviet Union. The island became part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Post-independence, the Kyiv government made moves to assert its right to Snake Island, establishing a garrison there. Border guards and their families moved to the island and a new cluster of houses were built around the lighthouse with a branch of a Ukrainian bank and a post office.

Some years ago, we explored that general region of mainland Ukraine, reporting for hidden europe on life in the Pontic Steppes today. We stayed right on the Black Sea coast in that little fragment of Ukraine separated by the River Dnister from the rest of the country. Despite clear days, we really don’t recall having seen Snake Island, although it would surely have been visible on the horizon. Clear proof, perhaps, that you don’t see what you don’t look for!

Snake Island is a fine example of an island which has fired the cultural imagination since ancient times. This curious appeal of islands is explored in an article in issue 70 of hidden europe which was published a fortnight back. We project our hopes, our desires and our fears onto islands which then become crucibles of life, easier to mould and understand than when those same aspirations and worries are seen in the context of our normal, rather messy, lives in less confined spaces. If you are interested in buying this final issue of hidden europe, it is still available in our online shop. You can review what else is in hidden europe 70 on our website.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe)

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