Odessa – Charles King

Situated on the north-eastern shore of the Black Sea, the site of Odessa was a backwater Turkish fort overlooking a small fishing village. During the reign of Catherine the Great of Russia (1762-1796) the fort fell to Russian forces and Jose Pascual Domingo de Ribas y Boyons, a Neapolitan man born to a Spanish father and Italian mother, then in Catherine’s service, saw potential for the site to become Russia’s southern port. With the empress’ blessing, de Ribas laid out the new city along a European pattern.

Despite problems with sanitation and clean water (the city is not set on a river), outbreaks of plague from Ottoman ships, and intermittent crises over Ottoman control of the Bosporus, Odessa flourished. Hard by three major rivers agricultural goods from the Russian interior converged on the city, while liberal trade policies made it an attractive destination for merchants, its mild climate and European accouterments made it attractive to ex-patriots, and Russian reticence to move south led to economic privileges to Jews that were not common elsewhere in the empire. Odesssa’s newness made it exceptional compared to other cities, with fewer regulations and a wilder population that fostered creativity and crime, particularly in the years before the revolution.

According to Charles King, the popular conception of Odessa (such that one exists) is a fiction made from nostalgia and propaganda that is perpetually being redrawn. After 1918, for instance, Odessa came to be regarded as one of the original cities for the Russian revolution, but this reputation was the product of the movie Battleship Potemkin that valorized a mutiny aboard an imperial naval vessel of that name. Likewise, Odessa changed fundamentally when it was occupied by Romanian forces during World War 2, both because a limited number of episodes added it to the list of Soviet hero cities resisting occupation and because the occupation irreversibly changed the demographics of the city. The Jewish population of Odessa was gone.

There is obviously a good deal more to Odessa than the briefest sketch laid out above, and King wanders into the realm of biography to flesh out the picture of the literary and political luminaries, as well as a number of the criminals, that left their mark on Odessa or had Odessa leave its mark on them. There were time that my attention flagged—I picked Odessa out of the library stacks for no other reason than that members of my family lived there before coming to the United States, though none of them rose to the level of inclusion—but that is going to happen. From a historical perspective, King’s greatest feat and perhaps the most fascinating part of Odessa the city is the extent to which the character of a community is constructed through both stories and monuments. To give one notable example, Odessa’s most famous monument is the Potemkin Steps, a set of staircases that connect the harbor to the city atop which sits a statue of Richelieu, a French expat and early governor of the city. One might assume that the steps were named for Grigory Potemkin, whose military campaign captured the town for Russia or at least for the Battleship Potemkin mutineers, but, in fact, it was neither. Naturally, the steps were named for the movie Battleship Potemkin. King brings this type of layered memorializations to the front of his narrative time and again, building the cultural legacy of Odessa into the series of political and economic decisions that shaped the population that inhabited this comparatively young city.

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I also recently finished reading Stefan Zweig’s Confusion, a psychological novel that I found simultaneously insightful and problematic, and the second book in N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy, The Broken Kingdoms. Next up is going to be something non-fiction, either Glen Weldon’s The Caped Crusade or Chuck Klostermann’s What if we’re wrong.

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