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11 September 2000

Appointment in Odessa

With its mafia dons and Orthodox monks, the capital of Ukraine has an exotic appeal second only to o

By Julian Evans

A couple of months ago, I got married in Odessa. Clear enough, from any perspective, as a fact that need not detain readers of a serious current affairs magazine; I mention it only because it was a sudden event and one from which I can’t say I’ve emerged unscathed. Reader, I leave it to you to decide whether this is a good or a bad thing.

I met Natalya Nikolayevna in the spring of 1999. I was in Odessa recording material for a BBC radio programme for Pushkin’s bicentenary. Pushkin, who lost his life in a duel to defend his beautiful young wife’s honour (another Natalya Nikolayevna), was exiled by Alexander I to the south of Russia in 1820 for writing liberal verses. In Odessa, however, he ended up freer than in any other city in Russia. It was a port where the breezes of Europe blew, a town of gamblers, good weather and Italian opera, where a man could live handsomely on Bessarabian wine and the credit of merchant friends. Today, it is still a city of perfect scale and fusion, built by a French governor to a broad Russian street plan by Italian architects with an appetite for curvaceous baroque. They say you could once stand between the mansions and see the Black Sea at one end of the street and the steppe at the other.

Odessa, city of Pushkin, Babel and Philby – his port of entry from Beirut in 1963 – is now part of independent Ukraine. My Natalya Nikolayevna – Natasha – is half Ukrainian, half Russian. On her mother’s side, her roots are in Siberia: she is a descendant of one of the Decembrist rebels against Nicholas I, a Siberian warrior known as “Dikiy“, meaning “wild man”.

The tragedy of post-communist Ukraine is that its potential is vast, but its infrastructure unfunded and its administrative superstructure a tottering throwback to the decades of communism. Odessa has been quartered by the mafia, Russian, Crimean, Chechen and Turkish. Everyone is ripping off the government: ordinary citizens because state salaries are rarely paid; foreigners because they identify commercial opportunities in the mess. A Texan I met was delighted by the chaos: he imported old ploughs from the US for “a few pennies” and sold them to the Ukrainian government at $300 each. Ukrainians believe that things will improve, as the mafia move into politics and rewrite the economic rule book. Despite their dire situation, there are no people more light-hearted and sarcastic than Odessans in a crisis. They should have a siege mentality, but instead they have a picnic mentality.

Natasha was a sociology postgraduate when we met, working 16-hour days as a waitress in Deribasovskaya Street. Wolfishly, I asked her out for a drink at the Londonskaya Hotel when she finished work. On our first meeting, after a lot of coaxing, she said she wanted to study acting, then stood up, exhausted. “I can have dreams, but I must earn a living.”

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We met again for coffee: she always with clouds of fatigue under her blue-green eyes; I with an overwhelming sense of our economic inequality. I think what first attracted me was her knack of levelling that superiority on my part. She achieved this feat simply by staring at me, whenever I uttered a complicated English sentence or tried to say something clever, as though I were an imbecile.

I told her one night that I liked her and asked: was she interested in me? I got the idiot-look. “Maybe.” My one achievement was that the day before I left, she gave up her restaurant job and enrolled at drama school.

In February, one foul day in London, I suddenly couldn’t imagine anything better than packing a bag full of novels and holing up for ten days in Odessa. I phoned Natasha; she arranged a room. When I arrived, I discovered she was as beautiful as before, a Botticelli miniature with pale skin and dark-shaded eyes that drilled me with curiosity. She’d given up acting, understanding she had some talent but not enough, and gone back to her first love, painting. She painted at home, in the tiny family flat. She showed me some paintings: Malevich-like, rich canvases in colours somewhere between graffiti and stained-glass windows.

We spent the afternoons out together, walking and talking in the snow. But it wasn’t until I was in my room a few days later, enjoying the melody of foghorns as I waited for her to come and fetch me, watching the bright chain mail of the sea glittering from the window, that I suddenly understood: I had stopped pursuing a city and was pursuing a woman.

To say how a love affair starts is to have to share your stupidity, or at least your irrationality. What could be more irrational than to want to share my life with a woman whom I had met only a few times? And what I would be asking Natasha to share was a colossal mess of difficulties: every conceivable cultural overhead of language, political system, country, gossip, weather – she had never been beyond the borders of the Soviet Union. Maybe shared disregard of reality will conquer all: although, from what I knew of Natasha’s character, she was the most level-headed woman I’d ever met.

I proposed 24 hours later. I can remember only that it was a Thursday; we were drinking Moldovan wine in a new bar. She said she needed time. On Friday, we took the tram outside the city to Chernomorka – Little Black Sea – where we sat the whole afternoon talking on the sea wall. That evening, at dinner at her brother’s flat, she suddenly refused to speak to me. On Saturday, she disappeared altogether.

Oddly, I wasn’t disappointed. Wherever womanly instinct was leading her, she had already done me far more good than harm. Then, at about nine in the evening, I was sitting with a novel and a large vodka in her old restaurant, when I looked up and saw her in front of me. “I knew I’d find you here,” she announced. Half an hour later, in another Deribasovskaya cafe, her coat spread over her like a blanket, the snow heaped up outside, to my total shock, she said yes. I still think she said it because it was minus ten outside, and she needed someone to curl up against in the taxi home.

The weeks of separation were tricky. We tried to stick to official business. Once I phoned and asked if she missed me, and she sent me a fax: “Try to imagine the situation when your head, or your hand or leg, has to be thousands of km away from you. Is it bad to live without your head (hand, leg)? You, of course, can make a false head (hand or leg), you can even buy a good, expensive invalid carriage . . . So sometimes your head’s phoning to you and asking: ‘Are you missing me?’ What can you answer?”

In the end, I had to fly back to Odessa so we could remind each other we were still real. When I arrived, Little Big Head – I called her this in retaliation for the idiot-look – had managed to smuggle herself out to the tarmac, and her fair face and dark eyes were the first things I saw from the plane steps.

The next obstacle was the Ukrainian bureaucracy. There were weeks of “dokumentatsiya“, running after the right documents for the Zaks, Odessa’s state wedding office, then notarising and legalising them at the Foreign Office; there was all the gathering of supporting documents for Natasha’s visa application – our embassy asked for everything, down to copies of phone bills and personal letters. Lastly, there was the residence rule, by which you may marry a Ukrainian national only after 35 days on Ukrainian soil – undoubtedly a laudable regulation to stem westerners’ depletion of Ukraine’s womanhood, but I was making a new radio series and we didn’t have time to comply. Exemption was impossible.

The result was that I arrived in Odessa in mid-May, and we had no wedding date. The person who sticks in my mind from that week, as we ran through the town like demons, is someone Natasha called The Toad. We couldn’t deal with her: she would merely repeat, “It’s impossible.” Natasha eventually found a go-between, in the colossal figure of her gypsy godmother. The negotiations took two full days. The final figure was less than half the first figure mentioned. Whatever we thought of The Toad, I strongly suspect that she divided the proceeds among her colleagues, and so a communist principle remained intact; and we had a date.

That whole week, we didn’t stop running. We would sit for a few minutes at a cafe to talk about other things – anything – then check the next bureaucratic problem to be decided and set off again. Our feelings seemed to lead us through the obstacles. We lived in the Moldavanka, the most criminal part of the city, and from here we picked our way out to parties all over the city: slightly wild affairs where guests would arrive late with stories of being held up by the militia or having their car shot at on their way back from Seven Kilometre Market.

I was introduced to Dmitri Sergeyevich, also known as Sasha the Cossack, an intelligent-featured man who spent the whole evening rattling off sentimental folk songs on a borrowed guitar. Natasha’s family, you understand, is in no way tied up with the mafia: simply that the boss of one of the biggest aruzhiye, on the run from the militia, had felt a strong need for family and home.

One evening, we escaped this web of pleasure to have a conversation we had been putting off. Were we going to have a church marriage? Discreetly, Little Big Head had left it up to me to suggest an interview with Father Arkady, the archimandrite of the St Pantelemon monastery who was also her priest. As a violently lapsed Methodist, I felt nervous and aggressive as we sat in Fr Arkady’s stone cell. Would he marry us? I asked. He quietly and politely outlined the position: the Orthodox Church allowed no mixed marriages.

After that, I read a few pages of Orthodox theology but, as I had no religion, I wasn’t sure how I could change the situation. The problem wasn’t one of principle or dislike; nor was it exactly despair, but something like it: something like never in 25 years having heard any bishop, rabbi or Thought for the Day theologian answer what I thought was the most important question. On that undecided foundation, the whole potential house of my belief rested and cracked.

So, drinking tooth-rot Crimean champagne in our Moldavanka flat, I asked Natasha: “Who, or what, is God?”

She thought quietly, then said: “God is energy.” She held up three fingers. “There are three parts. God is energy. Jesus Christ is the way of being, an example of how to be, the right way. The third, the Holy Spirit, is the connection between the two.”

I was so overwhelmed by her answer, I demanded to know where she’d got it from. Had Fr Arkady told her? She looked puzzled. No, it was just her own way of looking. I had a feeling then that, if I could ever get her into an Anglican pulpit, the churches would never be empty again.

I was christened 36 hours later, barefoot before the monastery’s great iconostasis. Fr Arkady was shy in dealing with a foreigner. His hand trembled as he dipped the brush in the pot of holy oil and painted the sign of the cross on my forehead, eyelids, nose, mouth, ears, chest, hands and feet. It feels strange to report that, after experiencing the terrific impersonality of prayers being offered for me in an unknown tongue by a stranger, when Fr Arkady gave me his hand to kiss, I wanted to cry.

Of the wedding next day, I have discontinuous memory. It was a beautiful May Saturday. A breeze wrapped itself kindly round us; Natasha looked stupendous in a simple dress with a dozen petticoats, her hair piled high and studded with rhinestones, like Audrey Hepburn’s in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The only thing I understood at the Zaks ceremony was the strains of “Strangers in the Night” being played over the PA throughout. Following tradition, we took ourselves off to be photographed in our favourite parts of the city: the Potemkin steps, Primorskiy Boulevard, the sea station, Pushkin’s lodgings on Pushkinskaya. I spotted a huge slogan graffitied in red on a wall: “VOTE FOR NATASHA!” We bagged it for our collection. I remember feeling: this is one of the best glimpses of my life I will ever have.

The church service was the next day. Before then, the worst wedding video ever shot shows that we smashed champagne glasses on the steps of the Students’ Palace; that I made an interminable speech during which the battery tactfully died; that my wife dances like an angel on the head of a pin; and that, at two in the morning, the only couple left on the dance floor were Natasha’s dad and his doctor, locked in mortal embrace.

At the monastery next morning, it was strange and exhilarating to see Natasha in her white dress and veil flitting through the dark stone passages. For a reason that didn’t become clear until later, Fr Arkady fluffed the exchange of rings and some of the prayers. The mystical or hesychastic base of the Orthodox rite lies in raising the soul’s level by repeated prayer and threefold repetition: as we took wine and were led around the church, our hands bound with Fr Arkady’s, three times, I felt we were truly sending a decision somewhere else, somewhere higher. This, I think, is in tune with the concept of Hesychasm. “While you are still in your head,” a 19th-century Russian Hesychast wrote, “your thoughts will always be swirling about like snow in winter . . . All our inner disorder is due to the dislocation of our power, the mind and the heart each going their own way.”

Hesychasm is criticised by western rationalists because 1,000 years of faith have failed to free our world of poverty and brutality. Yet critics fail to grasp that, although a multitude of voices can be directed to prayer to take us outside our heads and reconnect us with life, any of us can break the energy connection by bad thoughts.

I grasped this principle of connection much later, but it offers a context for Fr Arkady’s nervousness and the monks’ shocked expressions as we and our guests passed into church. In 150 years, as one of Fr Arkady’s less shy assistants explained, there had never been a wedding inside St Pantelemon’s: it was a monastery. Ours was the first and last wedding there; the archimandrite’s reason for marrying us was because: a) in ignorance, I had asked him straight out, and b) it was his duty to support us; he was powerless to refuse. That was why he had stumbled; he had never conducted a wedding service before.

The fortnight’s last cliffhanger has receded in memory, although at the time Natasha’s nerve, and mine, finally threatened to unpack themselves. The following night, we caught the sleeper to Kiev, where Natasha had to be interviewed at the embassy. Kiev is a fabulous remnant of Stalin’s ambivalent love for Ukraine, but it was a revoltingly tense morning.

Our only honeymoon has been the one night in that train. The plan was to reintroduce the concept at a later date. As I write, however, Natalya Nikolayevna is, a bit to our shock, pregnant, so we may have to substitute one anticipated pleasure for another.

Writing this account, I realise I feel irreversibly changed. All I can say is that the changes – new wife, new family, new religion – have a great (and easy) clarity to them. I feel self-conscious to the extent that my chosen way of marriage was, if nothing else, an old-fashioned way – but how ironic it is, in the quicksilver world of London, that the old-fashioned path moves so fast.

The baby is due in February, almost a year to the day from when I proposed; meanwhile, we are here in England, Natasha is starting to paint again, and adapting with Stakhanovite swiftness to the shock. She admires the British for their work ethic and is wary of the corporate monster of capitalism. The day we first took a bus down Oxford Street, I asked her what she thought of London: she said she had seen as many beggars as in Odessa, but there were far more mad people here. What about the others?

“What I see in the streets is just people running very fast, so as not to be swallowed by civilisation,” she said, and I realised our moving days were probably not over, that our eventual destination might not be London, but some calmer, less civilised, more old-fashioned city by the sea.

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