Odessa by Charles King

What I liked most about Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams is how clearly Charles King tells the early stories of Odessa’s founding. For while there had been a small settlement at the site under khans and Ottomans,

none of the extant written records gives an unambiguous account of long-term settlement [at Odessa’s site]. Other modern cities on or near the Black Sea—the grimy port of Constanta in Romania, the storied Russian naval station at Sevastopol, and the jewel of the Black Sea world, Istanbul—all have ancient pedigrees. Beneath modern concrete and asphalt lie Greek, Roman, and Byzantine ruins. But Odessa has none of this. The site had little to offer beyond a bay open to harsh northeasterly winds. When you see the city from a cruise ship or ferry, you are looking at a recent creation, a place that for two hundred years has both reveled in and regretted the fact that it has no history. p. 25

That last phrase is also as succinct a statement of King’s view of the city’s genius loci as the book has to offer. Given a nearly blank slate, statesmen and entrepreneurs of the late Russian Empire created a city that was free of the burdens of history, one that to greater extent than other Russian cities gave a home to minorities (particularly Jews), and one that was simultaneously an expression of commercial needs (for a port in the region) and an example of what the concentrated power of will and empire could create.

The steppes to the north of Odessa’s site came to be inhabited by people eventually known as Cossacks, sometime freebooters, sometime farmers who lived in the borderlands on the eastern edge of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. It was an area where the rulers were far away—Krakow, Constantinople, or Moscow—and rough frontier living prevailed. In the 1760s and 1770s, the armies of Catherine the Great pushed even nominal Ottoman rule back across the Black Sea and extended Russian power across the sea’s northern shores. Colonization of these lands, and bringing existing settlements under Russian control gave them the name of New Russia—Novorossiya—a term that competed with Ukraine, and is now one of rallying cries of rebels in eastern Ukraine trying to re-attach some of the Black Sea shore to Russia.

In early 1787, Catherine toured some of these lands in a massive imperial progress, organized by her court favorite and now-former lover, Prince Grigory Aleksandrovich Potemkin. This is the very tour that gave the world the term “Potemkin village,” for what the empress saw was far from the true state of development in her southern lands. As King writes, “The peasants and herders who inhabited the flatlands, hill country, and coastline were awed more by the flamboyance of the procession than by the freedom and rational governance that the Russians now promised.”

Later that year, Russia and the Ottoman Empire went to war again. Among the officers in Catherine’s service were John Paul Jones, late of the fledgling US Navy (who fared poorly in the campaign), and a Neapolitan mercenary named José Pascual Domingo de Ribas y Boyons (son of the Spanish consul in Naples and an aristocratic Irishwoman), known to the Russians as Osip Mikhailovich Deribas. De Ribas captured a small Ottoman garrison town, Khadjibey, at the site of what would become Odessa.

Shortly after the war, de Ribas approached the empress Catherine with a plan. The old garrison town could be transformed into the jewel of her new southern possessions. With enough money and de Ribas’s notorious fervor, a purposeful city could rise like a beacon at the edge of the sea. The greatness of her reign, evident in the new edifices of St. Petersburg and in the European customs of her court, would have a southern exposure.
Catherine was evidently taken with the idea. On May 27, 1794, she issued an edict to de Ribas recognizing the “profitable situation of Khadjibey on the Black Sea and the advantages connected therewith.” She ordered its development as a commercial and shipping center and personally named de Ribas the chief administrator … of the project. p. 51

De Ribas suggested Odessos as a new name, in line with the Russian practice of giving russified versions of ancient Greek names to the Black Sea settlements they built or expanded.

According to a story that is as fitting as it is unverifiable, the empress made one lasting change to de Ribas’s original plans. All the new foundations on the steppe and coasts of the Black Sea had masculine names. Odessos, commanded the most powerful and self-consciously modern woman in Russian history, should be changed to “Odessa”—the feminized version of a name forever associated with the ancient Odysseus, the wily warrior and navigator. p. 52

In the last years of Catherine’s reign, building proceeded apace. Odessa fell out of favor under her successor Paul I, and de Ribas did not live to see the pendulum swing in the other direction under the next tsar, Alexander I. The freedom of international shipping through the Bosporus made Odessa’s initial fortune as a port, and European interest in the emerging city grew rapidly.

Both seaborne and overland commerce made Odessa the centerpiece of an expanding international network that tied the city more to its European counterparts than to the imperial metropolises of St. Petersburg and Moscow. The deplorable state of Russian roads meant that the overland journey from Moscow to Odessa could take up to forty days in bad weather, while a traveler could get from London to Odessa in as few as twenty-one days, via Hamburg, Berlin, and Cracow.
Like the New Russian region of which it was now the effective capital, Odessa was following a path from distant colonial outpost to commercial center. De Ribas’s vision had spurred the city’s founding, while Alexander I presided over the initial boom in New Russia that revived Odessa’s role in the southern empire. But much of the real credit for its takeoff goes to a French aristocrat on the lam. p. 57

Armand Emmanuel Sophie Septimanie du Plessis, duc de Richelieu, grand-nephew of the famed Cardinal, escaped the French Revolution and established himself in Catherine’s court. At the age of 37, he was appointed by Alexander I as city administrator for Odessa. King’s chapter on Richelieu’s term as governor is, to my mind, the best in the book. “When he arrived, Richelieu discovered not so much a city, despite the robust commerce, as an architectural drawing—all plan and relatively little substance, with streets and foundations laid out in the chalky dust of the plain.” King describes how Enlightenment ideas of civic organization collided with the rough reality of building on the Pontic steppe. He also chronicles how the openness of the port brought the mix of peoples that became characteristic of the city, but also caused its greatest early crisis: an outbreak of plague in 1812. While Napoleon’s soldiers were menacing Moscow, Richelieu ordered stern measures to combat the disease, including a general quarantine that lasted nearly two months and burning the city’s docks. King notes that the city’s Jews were treated the same as its Christian inhabitants during the quarantine, whereas they had often been the scapegoats of outbreaks elsewhere in Europe. King also writes, “Odessa had gone through the first episode of an internal struggle that would last well into the twentieth century: a conflict between a self-image of openness and grandeur and one of insularity and terror.” (p. 66-67)

Having clearly set up how the city was established, why it grew, and how it weathered it early crises, King follows other, perforce narrower, paths through the next 200 years of Odessa’s history. First he chronicles Pushkin’s time in the city, including his affair with the governor’s wife. Then King details the rise of Jewish Odessa, the rich mix that gave rise to innovations in worship, in music, to say nothing of the cultural background in which both Isaac Babel and Leon Trotsky grew up. He also notes how in less than a century, Odessa’s prominence was already slipping. The Crimean War was one blow; global commerce and advancing technology dealt two more. “The Kansas and Nebraska territories soon competed directly with New Russia for the lion’s share of the European grain trade. The grand project to find a southern outlet from the Mediterranean—the Suez Canal—reached completion in 1869, shifting trade in ways that dampened the significance of the Black Sea. Overland routes from central and southern Europe to Persia and Central Asia, which had previously had their trailheads at the Ottoman Black Sea ports, were now displaced by the easier water route through the Suez.” (p. 121)

That slipping sets up another theme of the second half of King’s book, that Odessa as remembered has eclipsed actually existing Odessa. That remembered Odessa is made not only from the city’s glory days of growth and wealth but also from its underground. Smuggling and evading rules are characteristic of almost every famous port, and Odessa earned its reputation in that regard. (Indeed, in the late 1990s, the man who drove my small group around central Mongolia said he had spent time in Odessa some years before. We surmised from what he said that he had been involved in less-than-official trade between socialist Mongolia and the USSR.) Another aspect of remembered Odessa is the size and prominence of its Jewish community. King traces the community’s growth, the institutions it developed and aspects of culture, as well as threads such as political Zionism.

Odessa came to be remembered as much as experienced, argues King, through the films set there. First and most famous is Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. The steps from downtown to the waterside, King writes, “would come to be called the ‘Potemkin steps’—not after Catherine’s imperial partner and one of the city’s founders, nor even after the mutinous battleship, but rather after Eisenstein’s film.” (p. 199) A wartime film called Two Warriors captured the public mood and catapulted one of its lead, who played a recognizably Odessan (and probably Jewish) character, into Soviet stardom, further cementing the image of the city. Postwar comedies were set there, or featured Odessans, making the city’s culture widely recognizable and carried even into the Odessa diaspora. King’s final chapter chronicles Odessa elsewhere, particularly in Brighton Beach, a neighborhood with a large proportion of immigrants from Odessa and whose prominent former residents include Arthur Miller, Joseph Heller, Mel Brooks and Neil Diamond.

Before addressing the diaspora, King describes the fate of Odessa’s Jews during the Second World War, when the city came under Romanian occupation. He estimates that at least 220,000 Jewish people “were killed in or en route to a string of ghettos and concentration camps established in portions of the Soviet Union and overseen by the Romanian state. Some of the victims came from the city of Odessa and its hinterlands; many more were from other territories Romania conquered when it joined the Germans in invading the Soviet Union in 1941.” (p. 202-03) He adds, “The fortunes of the city and its inhabitants were uncertain at the outset and dangerously predictable as the war wound on.” (p. 203) As a major port, Odessa was a key prize for the Axis, and was captured by the end of 1941. “Killing Jews was not a primary goal of the Romanian soldiers and gendarmes as they headed east, but it was a side project pursued with some of the zeal, if none of the organization, of the Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS.” (p. 210) King details the careers and the decisions of the Romanian occupiers in what they did to the city’s Jews, as well as those who had fled into Odessa ahead of the invading armies. Likewise, he gives accounts from survivors—some could pass as gentile Russian, others managed to slip through the cracks of the regime’s control. But survivors were exceptions.

The book was published in 2011. Post-Soviet Odessa is largely an afterthought in King’s telling. After he describes the decimation of the Jewish community in WWII, King’s focus shifts to remembered Odessa, and the Odessan diaspora. Every author of a history makes choices about what to include and what to emphasize, especially when the author has chosen to keep a book’s length very manageable—Odessa clocks in at just under 300 pages of narrative. Still, this strikes me as a missed opportunity. Odessa had been part of independent Ukraine for two decades as King was putting together his manuscript. How has that experience been different from the Soviet period? What are the continuities that stretch back to the imperial period? How does remembered Odessa fit with today’s lived Odessa?

As a coda, in the spring of 2014 Odessa was one of a few places where rebellion against Ukraine, which began with the Russian occupation of the Crimean peninsula and spread rapidly across much of what had been—and which partisans were trying to make again—Novorossiya, came to a screeching halt. In early May, a march became a street brawl became a siege that turned a major building into an inferno, killing 42 people in one of the biggest single outbursts of violence in the initial rebellion by pro-Russian elements. It’s the kind of outburst King describes several times from earlier periods in Odessan history. The book may argue that old Odessa is largely a memory now; some aspects of it, however, are still shaping the city’s fate.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2014/12/18/odessa-by-charles-king/

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  1. […] territory. … For Russia, Constantinople itself was the objective, for the pre-war economic boom in Ukraine and the Russian south had been possible only because of the shopping lane along the Bosphorus and Dardanelles. … […]

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