From exiled opponents of Stalinist rule, such as Trotsky, to Arab scholars fleeing dictatorial regimes, Istanbul has served as a sanctuary for dissident intellectuals.
In the summer of 2015, the ruined remains of a villa on Buyukada Island off Istanbul went up for sale. A prospective buyer with $4.4m in his pocket would get not only prime real estate for a summer retreat but a piece of Soviet history.
It was in this villa that Leon Trotsky, the Bolshevik intellectual and revolutionary, lived after his falling out with Stalin following Lenin's death. The founder of the Red Army wrote his autobiography during his four-year stay there from 1929 to 1933.
Trocki Kosku, as the mansion is known in Turkish, is a reminder of how Istanbul provided a refuge for intellectuals and dissidents in the 20th century. The story of Trotsky's sojourn in Istanbul is not an exception.
Facing their final defeat at the hands of the Bolsheviks in late 1920, remnants of the White movement set sail from the Crimean peninsula to Istanbul. Pyotr Nikolayevich Wrangel, commander of the White Army, led the evacuation.
Istanbul was soon swarming with thousands of soldiers and refugees. In a twist of fate, both Trotsky and his rivals Whites found themselves seeking safety in Istanbul.
In fact, besides the defeated White Russians and disenchanted Bolsheviks, German Jewish intellectuals, Bosniak scholars, and Arab journalists all made Istanbul their home at some point over the last hundred years.
In the years leading up to and during World War II, German Jewish intellectuals found refuge in Turkey. Beginning in 1933, Turkey invited eminent scholars and according to Arnold Reisman, around 190 of them made their way to the Turkish Republic.
Turkey was implementing major educational reforms in the 1930s and these scholars played a significant role in that transitional period. A number of them were instrumental in reforming Istanbul University. Famous names including mathematician Richard von Mises taught there.
At its Faculty of Law, professors still recall the contributions of emigre scholars. Reisman notes that Albert Einstein personally knew and communicated with at least sixteen emigre scholars who found sanctuary in Turkey. This was a testament to their prominence.
Many of the professors went on to teach at top universities in the US while some returned to post-war Germany. Several had written memoirs yet this aspect of European history is not widely known.
Escape from Communism
During communist rule in Yugoslavia, Muslims sensing impending persecution made their way to Turkey. Muhammed Tajib Okic headed to Istanbul where he worked in the Prime Minister's Archive. This Bosnian scholar of Islam went on to figure prominently in revitalising the academic study of Islam in Turkey. His contribution is summed up by the honorific title bestowed upon him by his students: “Hocaların Hocası“ or “Teacher of Teachers.”
Several decades later, Istanbul again became a sanctuary for Bosniaks as war raged in their country in the 1990s. Professors, doctors, young researchers and students spent part of their careers and lives in Istanbul.
Today, it is Arab intellectuals who have made Istanbul their place of residence. In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, intellectuals and dissidents seeking a sanctuary found themselves in Istanbul. Among them are Nobel Prize winner Tawakkol Karman and former Egyptian presidential candidate Ayman Nour who have both set up media outlets in Istanbul.
Scholars from Arab countries have also found employment at private universities in the city. The Economist puts the figure of Arabs in Istanbul as of last year at 1.2 million. The Arab Media Association in Istanbul counted 850 journalists.
A centre of learning for centuries, Istanbul is now yet again a sanctuary for intellectuals as it has been over the past hundred years.
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