Review: Odessa – Genius and Death in a City of Dreams by Charles King
Great seaports have great histories. Names like Genoa, Marseilles, Rotterdam and Liverpool conjure up a multitude of images reflecting hard work as well as frivolity, wealth alongside destitution, a creativity of spirit sometimes matched by a meanness exploding into violence. Such cities have their admirers as well as their detractors, though nowadays fewer people are likely to have strong opinions one way or the other – travellers are more likely to encounter airports than seaports.
Charles King is an admirer of Odessa but by no means an uncritical one. His “biography” of this noted Black Sea port takes us from the city’s birth, just over two centuries ago during the reign of the Russian empress Catherine the Great, to recent times as part of an independent Ukraine.
We get to know some of the famous characters associated with Odessa, including early city administrators such as the Frenchman Armand de Richelieu and the Russian Count Mikhail Vorontsov, the poet Pushkin, the revolutionary Trotsky, the writer Isaac Babel and the Zionist Vladimir Jabotinsky. They gave Odessa its shape, sometimes literally in terms of commissioning architectural projects and sometimes metaphorically, by giving the place an air of intellect and learning. But we also get an insight into the murkier sides of the city.
Violent undertow draws them in
“As the nineteenth century raced towards its end, the city’s dangerous underworld became one of the deepest and most enduring features of its character. In the alleyways and overcrowded houses, in the wharf area and the dust-choked neighbourhoods, Odessa developed the Russian Empire’s greatest collection of criminals, delinquents and creative crooks, men and women who managed to raise the vocation of the lowly goniff – an ingenious schemer and artful dodger in Yiddish – to a profession.”
In general that description could fit Marseilles, Liverpool or many other great seaports and in a similar manner, too, Odessa attracted peoples of many nationalities like a magnet – in its case becoming a melting pot of Russians, Turks, Greeks, Armenians, Tatars, Moldovans, Ukrainians, Bulgarians, Poles, Italians, Germans and even some adventurers from France, England and the US (such as John Paul Jones of American War of Independence fame). The city’s many faces and cultures meant that some could describe it only by analogy – as a Russian Florence, a Russian Naples, a Russian Paris, a Russian Chicago, even a Russian Cincinnati.
Among the diverse groups there were lots of Jews who initially found the atmosphere of Odessa to be relatively open, at least compared to elsewhere. Unsurprisingly that didn’t stop the ugly face of violent anti-Semitism putting in an occasional appearance. Never-theless the city’s Jewish population continued to grow such that by the Second World War nearly one-third of inhabitants were Jewish.
Then tragedy struck. For much of the war Odessa was under the control of Hitler’s ally Romania. In contrast to Romania proper, where Jews had a degree of security during the war (though not those in northern Transylvania which was returned to Hungary in late August 1940), in Odessa almost all Jews lost their lives in a local Romanian-managed Holocaust.
In April 1944 the Red Army recaptured Odessa, which would subsequently be declared a ‘Hero City’ for its wartime resistance. As King describes, however, that was an over-romanticised view. While there had been some resistance there had also been much collaboration. And when post-war Romania joined the Soviet bloc as a “friendly socialist neighbour” it was conveniently forgotten that the city’s wartime occupiers were Romanians (as opposed to “Nazi aggressors”).
Nostalgia covers scars
Myth-making about Odessa, its real and imagined past, is one of the central themes of this book. One indication is that from the 1950s onward there was a growing industry in literature, film, the popular press and tourism which involved “the substitution of memory and nostalgia for history and remembrance”.
Yet there had been significant precedents. What is perhaps the most widely known image of Odessa – the massacre on the city’s famous steps as portrayed in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 classic of Soviet cinema Battleship Potemkin – involves one of those myths. The scene is supposed to have taken place following a mutiny of Black Sea Fleet sailors in 1905. There was a revolt in Odessa during that year, as elsewhere in Russia, but the massacre on the steps was a dramatic figment of Eisenstein’s imagination.
Buy the book
Odessa – Genius and Death in a City of Dreams
By Charles King
Hardback, illustrated, maps
W.W. Norton, 2011