When I purchased the Kindle e-book Odessa, Genius and Death in a City of Dreams, I was excited to learn more about the Russian and Ukrainian history pertaining to this famous seaport founded by Catherine the Great. Never did I ever imagine that the dramatic history contained in this fine book by Charles King would become a precursor and essential prerequisite to a better understanding of the tragic events of the past month. As the third largest city in present-day Ukraine, the history of Odessa is a microcosm of that nation’s story – a diverse and sometimes divisive blend of Ottoman, Russian, Greek, Italian, Cossack, Jewish, Orthodox, German, Slavic, Romanian, Soviet, and Ukrainian cultures all rolled into one.
A magnificent seaport city set aside the Black Sea, Odessa is a relatively young city by European standards, but those 220 years are packed with a series of major events that have defined this metropolis. Unfortunately, the unique mix of cultures that set Odessa apart from most of its counterparts in its first century of existence were decimated by a series of nightmarish acts (both internal and external) that have left the city as a hollow shell of its former glory. Pogroms, epidemics, purges, forced relocation, ethnic cleansing, revolution, warfare, and revisionism have left untold scars upon this once urban beacon of hope, faith, diversity, reluctant acceptance, and economic prosperity.
As strife has yet again returned to the Ukraine, one can only hope and pray that Odessa and the nation as a whole will survive this latest ordeal without undue bloodshed and suffering. Hopefully, this city that once held so much promise as a multicultural beacon can someday return to its rightful position as a leading center of acceptance and shared prosperity. To do otherwise would be a pity and a great loss for humanity as a whole.
Here are selected quotes from this excellent book, some of which are strikingly similar to the ongoing situation there right now:
“Odessa has stood out as a mixed and rambunctious city, an island of difference between sea and steppe, yet a place continually threatened by its own mottled personality.
“From its founding in 1794 all the way to the present, Odessa has struggled to survive somewhere between success and suicide.”
“In the end, Odessa’s experience reveals the creative power as well as the everyday difficulty of being diverse.”
“Visitors don’t arrive in Odessa so much as stumble upon it.”
“But the sea [Black Sea] also offered two things that the Russians in particular desired: ports that were ice-free for most of the winter and potential access to the Mediterranean.”
“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.”
“In relatively short order, Odessans became as status conscious as persons in other major cities.”
“A climate of social freedom was readily apparent. Public smoking, fashions that bordered on the scandalous, and public discussion of contentious issues from international affairs to taxes were relatively uncommon privileges in St. Petersburg and Moscow, but they were part of the normal street life in Odessa.”
“Odessa was founded by foreigners in Russian service, and that heritage reproduced itself generation after generation.”
“Odessa’s commercial success lay in its position at the intersection of flatlands and seascape, where the produce of the former could be sent to markets across the latter.”
“The tsar’s secret police began to see the multilingual and cosmopolitan city as a breeding ground for agitators, saboteurs, and terrorists – because in large part it was.”
“Odessa’s civilized core seemed to have withered and blown out to sea.”
“How could a city generally satisfied with its easy cosmopolitanism fall so speedily into communal chaos?
“After the revolution, however, Odessa seemed mainly a place of departure.”
“As a major cultural center, with long-standing times to Western forms of art and music, Odessa was an obvious target for labeling as a den of spies and wreckers.”
“In one of the least-known episodes of the Holocaust, at least 220,000 Jews were killed in or en route to string of ghettos and concentration camps established in portions of Soviet Ukraine and overseen by the Romanian state.”
“Odessa was one f the first four Soviet cities – along with Leningrad, Sevastopol, and Stalingrad – to be awarded the title of Gorod-Geroi, or “hero city.”
“But over the last two centuries, Odessa managed to produce a local culture woven from uneasiness, way of living that may hold lessons about the creative and destructive power of being in-between.”