[Marxism] No wonder Trotsky loved Turkey

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Jul 10 07:58:32 MDT 2011

NY Times July 8, 2011
A Turkish Idyll Lost in Time

LATE on a peaceful night in May, on a quiet island in the Sea of 
Marmara, I walked alone on a curving street edged by walls dripping with 
ivy. Behind the walls, palms and red pines loomed above Ottoman mansions 
that drowsed in the leafy darkness. With no sound but my own footsteps, 
I continued down a slope that led to my seafront hotel. Then I paused. 
Ahead of me, in the half-light cast by a streetlamp, I saw a cluster of 
tall, undulant shapes at the turning. “Women, or horses?” I wondered. 
Nearing, I nodded: horses. And then I laughed out loud. How on earth, in 
the 21st century, was it possible for me, or for anyone, to succumb to 
such poetic confusion? It was possible only on an island like the one 
where I found myself: the island of Buyukada, an hour’s ferry ride from 
Istanbul, a place where time stands still.

For more than a millennium, Buyukada has lured travelers from the Golden 
Horn to its lush hillsides, dramatic cliffs and romantic coves. Only two 
square miles in size, Buyukada, population 7,000, is the largest island 
in a green, hilly archipelago that rises from the Sea of Marmara like a 
convoy of basking turtles. The islands — known as the Princes, or, in 
Turkish, Adalar — are actually a far-flung district of Istanbul, but 
unlike the city on the mainland, with its roaring traffic, Wi-Fi-ready 
cafes, skyscrapers, and galleries and concerts that court a global 
audience, they haven’t seemed to have gotten the text message that the 
21st century has arrived. It isn’t entirely clear that the message about 
the 20th has arrived, either. To set foot on Buyukada is to enter a 
living diorama of the past, wholly preserved. There are no Starbucks 
here, no skyscrapers, no cars; only bicycles, horse-drawn buggies 
(called faytons), filigreed mansions and tile-roofed villas set amid 
flowery lanes, and emerald hillsides that drop down to rugged beaches.

I had learned of Buyukada only two years ago, when a beguiling 
invitation exhorted me to travel there for a costume party (the theme: 
Fruits and Flowers) at a friend’s seaside villa. Having been to Istanbul 
twice before, I wondered why I had never heard of this offshore 
Shangri-la. Intrigued, I hunted down whatever information I could find, 
and learned that the Byzantine Emperor Justin II had built a palace and 
monastery on Buyukada in A.D. 569. (He was the “prince” who gave the 
Princes Isles their name.) More monasteries followed and in ensuing 
centuries they became prisons for emperors, empresses and patriarchs who 
fell out of favor on the mainland.

But during the Ottoman era, Buyukada shed that dark heritage and 
transformed itself into a pleasure island. Greek fishermen made their 
homes there; and, eventually, wealthy families built elaborate mansions 
(kosks) and comfortable villas (konaks). For the first half of the 20th 
century, the island was popular among prosperous Greeks, Jews, Armenians 
and Turks, for whom it served as a kind of Hamptons. But when Greeks 
left Istanbul in the 1950s, following a wave of violence against 
minorities, they left their wooden summer homes behind them. In their 
absence, the island fell out of vogue.  Affluent Turks ignored Buyukada, 
preferring to vacation in Bodrum on the Mediterranean.  The island that 
had been named for an emperor became a day trip destination for poor 
residents of Istanbul seeking affordable leisure — picnics on the piney 
beaches of the Dil Peninsula and horse-drawn fayton rides.

But over the last decade or so, interest in Buyukada has revived. A 
number of old Istanbul families are returning to their summer houses, 
well-heeled investors are renovating old properties, and a handful of 
academics, artists, writers and foreigners (like my host) have come here 
to retreat from modernity, setting up stakes in Arcadia. The place is a 
time capsule, an hour by sea and a hundred years in time from the 
bustling Bosporus.


We had gone only a couple of blocks, dodging buggies and bicyclists, 
when Owen turned right on a lane where we found the ruined villa where 
Leon Trotsky once lived in exile. It was down the slope from a pasha’s 
mansion that once served as a setting for a popular Ottoman-era soap 
opera filmed on the island (which needs no special effects to evoke a 
16th-century air) and that now is being renovated by a developer.

For the banished emperors of Byzantium, Buyukada had been a grievous 
place; but for Trotsky, it was a sort of sanctuary. From 1929 to 1933, 
he lived in a gorgeous, light-filled villa on this hillside, writing his 
autobiography and his “History of the Russian Revolution.” In his spare 
time, he rowed around the island’s coves with a Greek fisherman, 
accompanied by bodyguards. (An amateur naturalist, he identified a 
species of red rockfish in the Marmara waters that he named Sebastes 

As the saws of workmen at the pasha’s kosk droned nearby, we pushed open 
a gate, shoved aside tendrils of wisteria and prickly branches of wild 
rose, and made our way through a thicket of saplings and underbrush. We 
kept quiet, not sure we were allowed on the property; and then, there it 
was: the rose-brick shell of Trotsky’s villa, rising roofless, with 
empty Gothic windows and a towering ornamental facade — an opera set 
dropped in a wilderness. Suddenly we heard voices. Was it the police? 
No. It was a group of Swiss tourists, necklaced in cameras, emerging 
from the portico. One of them proudly declared, “I’m an old Trotskyist!” 
Inside, we saw traces of staircases that had once climbed to a vanished 
second floor; a doorway, covered in creeper, led to a kitchen, where the 
stove and counters still stood, frothed with greenery. Reaching into a 
cluster of leaves, Nikita seized a corroded old pan and held it aloft 
like a trophy. “Look!” he crowed, “I found Trotsky’s frying pan!” Owen 
showed us faded painted friezes that curled up the walls, and pointed 
out a tall central upstairs window, flanked by sun-bleached shutters, 
that looked out on the sea. “That was Trotsky’s study,” he said.

We hit the road again, cycling past mares grazing on the shoulder, their 
new foals alongside them. I spotted a beach club nestled on a green 
slope, with white deck chairs on a patio, cutting away to paths that led 
down to the pebbly shore, but it was too early in the season for it to 
tempt us. Still, I couldn’t help recalling that a highlight of my 2009 
trip had been a visit to Nakibey, a beach club on the island’s 
northeastern curve that exudes the casually revelrous 1960s atmosphere 
of “The Flamingo Kid.” There, on a green-carpeted concrete pier, 
sunbathers lolled under striped umbrellas on deck chairs as bellboys 
rushed around bringing drinks and sandwiches, and I jumped into the sea 
and floated in the warm waves, gazing across the water to the spires of 

We wished we could have hunted down markers of the Byzantine emperors 
and empresses who perished on Buyukada a millennium ago, or found some 
memento of the last houri of Sultan Ahmed II’s harem, who came to 
Buyukada in 1909, after the sultan was deposed; but time has erased 
them. Instead, as twilight fell, we went to pay respects to the gated 
Greek Orthodox cemetery, where wild irises grow, before returning to 
Owen’s rented 19th-century villa for a round of cricket and drinks on 
the terrace. There we watched the sun melt purple and amber into the Sea 
of Marmara.

It turns out that tourists and other escapists are not the only 
travelers who venture to Buyukada. Every year on April 23, thousands of 
pilgrims of all faiths journey from Turkey, Greece, the Balkans and even 
Russia, making their way to the monastery of Aya Yorgi (St. George), 
which lies at the center of the island, atop Yucetepe, the island’s 
highest peak. As part of an age-old fertility ritual, they climb the 
steep road that rises sharply from a small plaza — Birlik Meydani (Union 
Square) — unwinding spools of thread and twining it around the greenery, 
from the base of the hill all the way up to the church at the summit.

We saw the signs of their recent pilgrimage when we hiked up to Yucetepe 
the next morning: the roadside was edged with tangled thread in every 
color, like a mile-long cat’s cradle. At the top of the mountain, beside 
the church of Aya Yorgi and the breathtaking views of the islands to the 
northwest, we saw the pilgrims’ hopes, written on paper, tied to the 
branches of trees. But before I could sink into too somber a reflection 
on this mythic tradition, a band of students from Kazakhstan broke my 
reverie, jumping onto bikes they’d dragged uphill, and rocketing down to 
Birlik Meydani with jubilant shrieks. The contradictory images thrilled 
and unsettled me; once again, Buyukada had a way of making me feel like 
a passenger in a time machine, with the year set on “shuffle.”

In a courtyard of the monastery, the Yucetepe restaurant offers a 
spectacular view of the surrounding sea. Mimosa perfumes the air, pine 
needles crunch underfoot, and waiters bring sizzling kebabs, grilled 
eggplant, tangy fava bean-and-tomato salad, and hot borek — triangles of 
pastry filled with tart, fluffy cheese — to outdoor tables. From our 
chairs, we could look east and see giant cargo ships anchored in the 
Bosporus, waiting their turn to head up to the Black Sea. On the grassy 
slope beside us, wild ponies, 10 feet away, grazed on blue-pink thistles.

Revived by our feast, we crossed wildflower-spattered woods to reach the 
island’s second-highest peak, Isa Tepesi, on our way to our final 
destination of the day: a hulking, dilapidated wooden structure, longer 
than a football field and more than a hundred feet high, that rises like 
a haunted manor, looking as if one good shove would smash it into 
matchsticks. A French-Turkish architect designed the compound at the 
height of the belle époque, intending it as a casino hotel for rich men 
and their alluring companions. But when the sultan, Abdul Hamid II, 
decided not to allow gambling, a philanthropist bought the hotel, and in 
1902, donated it to the patriarchate as an orphanage. By the 1970s, 
after decades of neglect, the building became so dangerous that it had 
to be abandoned. But even in utter decay, it commands respect. Last 
fall, the Turkish government returned legal ownership of the building to 
the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and a New York architect, Nicholas 
Koutsomitis, is looking into helping them convert it into a global 
center for the environment and interfaith understanding. They will have 
their work cut out for them: “The whole place is cleaned out,” he said. 
“All that’s left in there is some ghosts.”

We skirted the gated perimeter, peeking through the bars and spotting a 
defunct theater through a ravaged external wall. Sheep grazed on the 
grounds, and chickens strutted, unconscious of their awesome backdrop. 
The orphanage, eerie and timeless, looked like the ideal site for a 
zombie film.

As I marveled at this  enduring relic,  voices rang out on the path 
below. Turkish picnickers — no doubt heading for some benches in the 
pine groves — were strolling past, munching potato chips, oblivious of 
the ruin on their right. What to me was a wonder, was to them just part 
of the landscape they knew they would always find here, on this tiny 
island, year after year, century after century.

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