Nelson Algren once referred to Chicago as a “city on the make.” Along with its many charms, the city’s collection of corrupt politicians, prostitutes, gangsters and gin-soaked eccentrics, to him was heaven on earth. “Once you’ve become a part of this particular patch, you’ll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies, but never a lovely so real”, Algren wrote in 1951. After reading Charles King’s Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams I get the feeling Algren would have been quite at home in vintage Odessa. From its founding in the late 18th century (and only three years after that of Washington DC) until the Second World War this ethnically diverse city was a bustling mecca for lovable and larger than life underworld figures, musicians, corrupt officials, writers and rabble-rousers. In short, Algren’s kind of town.
Relatively young by old world standards and nestled on the Ukrainian shore of the Black Sea, Odessa is the subject of King’s 2011 book. I was first introduced to the writing of Ross King last January when I finally got around to reading my copy of his 2008 book The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus. To be honest, after reading The Ghost of Freedom I found King to be an intelligent writer with lots to say, but unfortunately a tad long-winded. However, after finishing my library copy of Odessa a few nights ago I’m happy to say that King’s more recent offering is better. The writing, when compared to his earlier book feels tighter and a bit more focused. Needless to say I was duly impressed.
Memorable cities tend to attract memorable people and Odessa is no exception. Besides the hometown of Leon Trotsky and Isaac Babel, the city also produced Zionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky and Nobel laureate Ilya Mechnikov. Others such as the American naval hero John Paul Jones, writer Alexander Pushkin and director Sergei Eisenstein resided in or passed through the city at one time or another.
According to King, until the ravages of WWII Odessa was a rough and tumble, lively and independent kind of place. Alongside the crooks and shady businessmen were entrepreneurs trying to make it big. Revolutionaries and anti-Semites rubbed elbows with artists and members of the Jewish intelligentsia. With its location on the Black Sea and sizeable communities of Jews, Italians, Greeks, Armenians and French (built of course on the ruins of an old Ottoman garrison) the city was more Levantine than Russian. Even Stalinist oppression could not entirely extinguish this fierce spirit. In what would have been unthinkable in other parts of the Soviet Union, graffiti boldly taunting security forces that “we own the night!” could be found on the walls of the city.
But in the end it was the blood lust of WWII that crushed the city’s robust spirit. In hopes of reclaiming territory lost at the end of WWI and on the eve of WWII, Romania allied itself with Nazi Germany. In accords with that alliance Romania was awarded a zone of occupation that included Odessa. In one of the lesser-known tragedies of the war, virtually all of Odessa’s Jews were murdered by the Romanians and their collaborators. In the space of only a few years one of the largest Jewish communities in the Soviet Union (at its zenith comprising roughly a third of the city’s overall population) was reduced to a relative handful.
I enjoyed this book. I found it to be a worthy contribution to Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge. It’s also inspired me to read the histories of other European cities. Lisbon: War in the Shadows of the City of Light, 1939-1945 and