When the sun shines on Primorsky Boulevard, by Odesa’s famous Potemkin Steps, and the pastel-coloured mansions glow in the shade of blooming acacias, Ukraine’s southern port city feels like a thrilling place filled with secrets, its past glories just out of reach. Now, with Russia threatening to seize the whole of southern Ukraine and the Black Sea coast, and with cruise missiles striking the city as I write, the situation is as appalling as it is absurd. Exuding an almost mythical status, Odesa, a city of a million people, is entwined in the common cultural consciousness of both Ukrainians and Russians. Yet the city has always stood alone, facing the Black Sea, fiercely protecting its singular and outward-looking Odesan identity, one of double-dealing, classical music and cosmopolitanism. The foamy docks of its great port explain why.
Odesa was founded by Catherine the Great in 1794, though before that there had been a fort built by the Tatars and a Greek settlement on the site. When the city was designated a free port in 1817 it quickly began attracting merchants, netters and dockers — Greeks, Turks, Jews, Tatars — all drawn by the sugar-rush of fast cash and the freedom that port cities offer. Increasingly multicultural, the city became “Odesa mama”, a phrase still heard today, as she fed and provided for everyone from stevedores to swindlers. Poor roads connecting Odesa to Moscow played to the city’s advantage: its port offered far easier access to elsewhere in Europe and the Middle East. Trade ships gathered in the harbour, sometimes 300 at once, bringing ashore rum, oranges, sardines and silks paid for in all manner of currencies. Odesa became a vast emporium and in Yiddish “living like God in Odesa” became slang for having a good time.
The city was flush with money. Italian architects built its showstopper landmarks, with the Sardinian-born Francesco Boffo designing Vorontsov Palace and the Odesa steps, and just as Italian was taught in the best schools, it was also the early lingua franca of the commercial harbour. The streets, signposted in both Russian and Italian at one time, were spicy with the smell of meatballs and spaghetti from the kitchens of Odesa’s Italian first restaurateurs.
Blessed with warm summers and a rollicking reputation, the city became a magnet for Russian writers keen to escape the chill damp of Moscow and St Petersburg. Alexander Pushkin, while rewriting the first chapters of Eugene Onegin, spent a year of political exile in Odesa in the 1820s, cavorting with Countess Vorontsova, the wife of the governor. Gorging on oysters, Pushkin would walk with an iron stick made from a gun barrel and dined with Charles Sicard, a merchant, former French consul and owner of the Hotel du Nord. Today, that hotel, on Pushkin Street, is the Pushkin Museum. The Russian writer Aleksandr Kuprin, born in 1870 and author of The Duel, visited Odesa many times, eating fried fish on the beaches and writing of the nimble fishermen out catching mackerel: “Merry ships’ boys, harbour thieves, machinists, workers, boatmen, dockers, divers, smugglers — they were all young, healthy, and steeped in the strong odour of sea and fish; they understood hard work.”
But it wasn’t all boom time and merrymaking. Odesa has endured much in its short history: from plague, common at rat-infested sea ports, and horrendous pogroms — 2,500 Jews were murdered in 1905 — to the havoc of communism and, later, the trials of capitalism and corruption.
Today, if you walk to the foot of Nekrasova Lane in central downtown Odesa, you will see a large mansion sitting abandoned in distinguished decay. Seeds thrown by Black Sea winds have sprouted into spindly trees and paint curls off wooden window ledges, the panes messily boarded up. In 1850 Nikolai Gogol, author of Dead Souls, born in central Ukraine, lived here, in what was his uncle’s house. On the battered façade a small plaque shows Gogol’s heart-shaped face, his eyes cast downwards. As the building deteriorates, he is warmly remembered, in quintessentially Odesan style, across the street at the rickety café Gogol Mogol where salted herring sandwiches and heavy red Bessarabian wine are ordered from a menu in the form of a hardback book.
The city’s true literary son, though, was Isaac Babel, born in Odesa in 1894. He was a genius of satire and emotional understatement. Arguably his best work was Odessa Tales, a series of complex short stories reimagining Odesa as a criminal hub. Published in 1931, a decade before Odesa was occupied by Romanian allies of the Nazis, this masterpiece is a fine snapshot of a city where Jews, liberated from claustrophobic shtetls — the small Jewish towns of eastern Europe — would fuss, fight and feast.
A few years ago I attended a literary flashmob in honour of Babel in Odesa. We fans, about 500 of us, walked together as passages of his books were read aloud in Russian and Ukrainian, as well as Japanese and Kazakh. Babel died, aged just 45, at the hands of Stalin’s purges, yet it was possible on that summer’s day, with just the right light bouncing off the Black Sea, to still feel something of his long-lost world in Odesa’s courtyards and cafés, this city where, like the foamy port itself, life, tragedy and opportunity endlessly ebb and flow.