I N POTEMKIN’S STEPS
ODESSA: GENIUS AND DEATH
IN A CITY OF DREAMS
By Charles King (W W Norton 336pp £19.99)
THINK ODESSA, AND you probably think of Sergei Eisenstein’s classic 1925 film Battleship Potemkin. Very proper too. The Black Sea port was a hodgepodge from its very foundation at the end of the eighteenth century, and the film title by which it is best evoked nowadays is a little jumble of ironies too.
Jewish enterprise, and by the late nineteenth century Jews constituted a third of its population. They suffered the usual indignities and impertinences of prejudice (‘No Jews are admitted’, blandly says my Murray’s Handbook, 1899, of the Odessa Commercial Club): they responded with perhaps more than the usual vivacity. They never, it seems, realised the commercial and financial dominance that they achieved in Trieste, under the Austro-Hungarian Empire; but during the later years of tsarist rule many of them played prominent parts in the intellectual and artistic society of Odessa. Theatre, literature and opera flourished in the city. Writers, actors and musicians responded to its generous climate, and cultivated Jews contributed largely to the style of a city that was sometimes called the southern capital of Russia, and sometimes the Pearl of the South.
King traces this rise to celebrity with vivid portraits of the people who inspired it. There was Grigory Potemkin himself, whose very first show-villages were built to ornament a preposterously grand visit by the Empress Catherine, his lover as well as his boss. There was the French Duc de Richelieu, the first governor of the city, whose statue stands to this day at the head of the Steps;
For one thing the warship itself, the focus of a historic naval mutiny at Odessa in 1905, was really called Kniaz Potemkin Tavritchesky. It was soon renamed Pantelimon, and ended up in 1922 as Boretz Za Svobodu. Then the iconic Potemkin Steps, scene of the film’s most celebrated sequence, were not named, as the ship was, after Catherine the Great’s representative in the city, but after the film itself . And finally, while as art the film is a genuine masterpiece, as history it is unreliable. Nevertheless the mutiny among sailors of the tsar’s Black Sea fleet, and the concomitant disorders in Odessa, were certainly early forerunners of the Soviet Revolution in the next decade, and Odessa has almost emblematically represented many such intimations of history. It was founded as part of the Russian urge to dominion in the east, confronting the Ottoman Empire in the countries north of the Black Sea and creating a New Russia of settlement and development. Odessa was to be its principal port, and its genesis and geographical position conspired over the years to make it wealthy, lively, cosmopolitan, humorous, raffish, nervy and vulnerable. It was also, it seems, never sure of its own identity.
there was also the very Russian Count Mikhail Vorontsov, governor-general of New Russia. There was Alexander Pushkin, the poet, who was exiled to Odessa because of his subversive attitudes and presently had an affair with the governor-general’s wife. And there was Lev Bronstein, who lear nt, as a troublesome Jewish schoolboy in this city of cross-currents, some of the insights that would guide him when he became, in later life, Leon Trotsky.
Who’s left holding the baby?
For i f Odessa had become, under the tsars, a rich and well-
Charles King’s scholarly and fascinating book demonstrates how tenaciously, through infinite fluctuations of historical fortune, the city has maintained that character. The trendy subtitle is unworthy of the work. It is a humane and tragic survey of a great and tragic subject – for at the very heart of the Odessan story, far transcending the importance of Eisenstein’s masterpiece, is a terrible calamity that is surely unfamiliar to nearly all of us.
Like other burgeoning seaports of southern Europe, such as Trieste or Thessalonica, Odessa became a magnet for endowed colonial metropolis, with a famous opera house and a grand cathedral, it was always a city of shadows, too – a teeming port city, multi-ethnic, semi-oriental, frequented by adventurers and rapscallions, and with a large Jewish population who, however accomplished their leaders, would always remain to many Odessans no more than dubious aliens. It was a hotbed, a scheming, uncertain sort of place – the Greek independence campaign was largely fostered there, and the secur ity services in distant St Petersburg or Moscow always carefully watched it. Trotsky called it ‘the most police-ridden city in police-ridden Russia’. When I was in Odessa in the 1950s it was the one Soviet city where I constantly felt under surveillance.
Even after the Soviet Revolution, King tells us, ‘good natured criminality’ was considered part of the city’s heritage. Nevertheless Odessa was thoroughly adapted to the new ideology. Gone were the old imperial symbols and
LITERARY REVIEW August 2011