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Urban Legend

In Odessa, you can smell Europe.” Or so said the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin. Like so many others who spoke of this place, he misspoke, or at least he stretched the truth. That trait is one of the city’s best-known commodities.

Nothing akin to Sergei Eisenstein’s famous baby-carriage scene in Battleship Potemkin, filmed at Odessa’s gorgeous seaside stairs, ever occurred. (Charlie Chaplin called it the best movie ever made.) Isaac Babel’s Moldavanka, the site of his vivid, gangster-inflected stories of the 1920s, which are among the most celebrated works in the Russian language, was home to some criminals, but it was really little more than an Odessa neighborhood of the lower middle-class and working poor. One of only four places lauded in the Soviet Union as “hero cities” of World War II—along with Leningrad (under German siege for two and a half years), Sevastopol (nine months of artillery barrages), and Stalingrad (eventually crushed by the Germans)—Odessa never merited the honor. Its wartime experience was, with the exception of the annihilation of its Jews (most of whom, unless they fled, were murdered by Romanian occupiers) or the paltry numbers of its partisan fighters, embarrassingly benign. Well into the 1950s, much of its population waxed nostalgic about its wartime mayor.

Still, almost from its birth—it was founded only in 1794 on land grabbed from the Ottomans—something set the city apart. Never did it seem altogether Russian, and certainly not Ukrainian. In its oddities, and its distinctiveness, it felt Jewish, but at the same time different from what it meant to be Jewish elsewhere. Since the 1820s, perhaps still earlier it was known, as often as not, for its undeniable, if amorphous, difference. Like other somewhat remote port cities (New Orleans, Trieste), Odessa boasted a cultivated provincialism, a rhetorical style that encouraged candid exaggeration, a locally coherent mixture of pleasure seeking, risk-taking, and relentless moneymaking.  

Charles King has written a crisp, reliable account of the town culled from a wide range of sources, most impressively from archival material on Odessa’s wartime experiences under the Romanians. It is a history clearly intended for the general reader, but the book tells a complex story. King appreciates the poignancy of an urban tale of a visually attractive melting pot that was, and not infrequently, the site of fierce inter-ethnic brutality. More Jews were slaughtered in the Odessa pogrom of 1905 than were killed anywhere else in Russia at the time. And although Odessa’s most beloved post-war celebrities—the film star Mark Bernes, and Russia’s Sinatra, Leonid Utesov—were both Jews, its municipal authorities were known in the 1950s and ’60s as among the most overtly anti-Semitic in Russia.

It is absurd, as King knows, to talk of this place without speaking of Jews. Not that Odessa’s Jews, as in Berdichev, ever made up the majority of the population; at most, one-third of its approximately 400,000 inhabitants at the turn of the twentieth century were Jewish. But their imprint, and especially that of their language, on the city’s ever-distinguishable linguistic twists and turns, their longtime economic prominence (they dominated the wheat trade in a place that was then the grain-basket of Europe), their cultural visibility and, indeed, their volubility made Odessa into a place inseparable from Jewishness. Walk into a turn-of-the-twentieth-century Odessa shop to query a clerk, pick up a local newspaper to peruse a feuilleton, meet a cobbler, attorney or, for that matter, nearly any of Odessa’s several dozen bordello-proprietors and, almost certainly, you would encounter a Jew.  

This was, to be sure, a multinational city administered in its first formative years by the still much-beloved Frenchman Richelieu (whose statue adorns the plaza just above Odessa’s famous stairs). Its first street signs were in Italian and, when barely more than a distant outpost, it devoted itself to building a theater to house visiting opera stars. King tracks Odessa’s history with the use of biographical snippets and quick forays into the rich body of imaginative literature. The book is something of a blend between a general history and a guided tour with often quite splendid descriptions. Here King recreates the smells, the feel of the mid-nineteenth-century city, as many hundreds of wagons filled with wheat and pulled by animals bound for Odessa’s slaughterhouses packed the streets—the streets, constructed of highly porous limestone, that filled the lungs of Odessa’s populace especially on windy days:

Immense herds of cattle provided manure for fertilizer in the countryside and pulled the thousands of wooden carts that bore the harvested grain from field to storage centers. … The dried dung could be collected and sold as fuel to poor families, and the animals could then be given up to slaughter for meat and hides. The sweet smoke burning grass-rich manure mingled in the air with the reek of tallow vats and the sharp odor of tanneries, the factories that produced the bricks of processed fat and bundles of unworked leather destined for Turkey, Italy, or France.

The story ends, as King tells it, not in Odessa itself but in Brighton Beach. (Packed already in the 1970s with Odessa Jews, some estimate that three-quarters of Brighton Beach's population come from Odessa and from Black Sea towns nearby.) King acknowledges that Odessa, still beautiful (if faded) in its center, has by now lost much of what it was that made it a source of nostalgia, of tender longing for quite nearly as long as it has existed. Still, its imprint remains palpable. A few years ago, I was befriended in San Francisco by a taxi driver, a barrel-chested Odessa Jew, who regaled me on trips to the airport with filthy jokes, loving and excruciatingly detailed descriptions of the faux-marble, bought cheap, for his suburban kitchen, the foibles—intermittently touching and idiotic—of his blond-haired Russian wife, and the inexpensive but lavishly appreciated gifts he brought with him to Odessa girlfriends on trips back home. Of Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly, he spoke with admiration just short of wartime depictions of Stalin. There, in the cab, was Odessa: its bravado, its sensuousness, its fervent materialism, its boyish crassness, and, above all, its excitement about life’s simplest pleasures. “If you think about it,” wrote Babel, “it is a town in which you can live free and easy. Half the population is made up of Jews, and Jews are a people who have learned a few simple truths long the way. Jews get married so as not to be alone, love so as to live through the centuries, hoard money so that they can buy houses and give their wives astrakhan coats, love children because, let’s face it, it is good and important to love one’s children.”

Steven J. Zipperstein, Koshland Professor at Stanford, is writing a cultural history of Russian Jewry in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.