Recovery of Prisoners by Józef Brandt depicts the Polish-Lithuanian army attacking a Crimean Tatar war camp in 1624.

Recovery of Prisoners by Józef Brandt depicts the Polish-Lithuanian army attacking a Crimean Tatar war camp in 1624.

Raiders of the Black Sea Steppe

History major wins Class of ’21 Award for thesis on the struggle for dominance in the vast plains of Eastern Europe at the dawn of the modern era.

By Brandon Zero ’11 | July 18, 2020

An endless sea of grass. Roving bands of warring horse lords. And three divided kingdoms intent on domination. What could be a teaser for a Game of Thrones reboot actually shaped the state system that still governs European power relations today, history major Achinoam Bentov ’20 argues in his award-winning senior thesis. 

Rivalry between three Eastern European powers rendered the ungovernable space between them—the Black Sea Steppe—a site of perpetual raiding by proxy forces. This immense plain was home to Crimean Tatars, Cossacks, and Kalmyks who wielded agency of their own through trade, alliances, and violence that contested the ability of the three powers to impose their will on the stateless steppe. 

The result was a last stand—hundreds of years long and several thousand warriors strong—against incorporation into what has since become the most prevalent unit of political organization on earth.

“One of the most impressive features of Achinoam’s thesis is the significance and clarity of the sustained story it tells,” wrote Prof. David Sacks in a letter commending it for the Class of ’21 Award, which was endowed by the Class of 1921 and which honors “creative work of notable character, involving an unusual degree of initiative and spontaneity.” 

Starting in 1475, the Ottoman Empire, the Tsardom of Muscovy, and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth each competed for control of the steppe, but were never able to establish authority because the raiders kept playing them off against their rivals. It took the collapse of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1648 to break the raiders’ critical ability to triangulate their political interests, and with it, their alternative to the state system that survives today. 

This David vs Goliath narrative is not just about another historical model. 

“From another perspective, this thesis is a history of violence—of the forms it took, and the way those forms were modulated, regulated, and transformed by political, economic, and cultural factors,” says Prof. Michael Breen, who was Achinoam’s thesis adviser.

Achinoam had been mulling the thesis in one form or another since high school. He immersed himself in Eastern European history during winters and summers at Reed and was inspired by a class with Prof. Sacks. “David Sacks is a great professor and has been a very big mentor to me,” he says. “The treasure of Reed is in its professors.”

He benefited from the broad conceptual frameworks he developed at Reed, from professors and students alike. Feedback from fellow history majors played a big role in his work—a discussion with his peers was often just as valuable as any library resource.

Next up for Reed’s resident scholar of the steppe? He’s heading to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, to pursue a PhD in history. 

The other winner of the Class of ’21 Award this year is comp lit major Kate Ehrenberg ’20 who wrote a thesis exploring the concept of “reading for gesture” in Virginia Woolf’s experimental novel, The Waves, and composer Olivier Messiaen’s work for solo piano, Catalogue d’oiseaux.


Tags: Academics, Awards & Achievements, Thesis