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
4 FOREIGN PARTS
street names, demolished was the cathedral, exhumed from their graves were Vorontsov and his faithless consort; the new boast of the city was its part in the 1905 rising, very soon immortalised by Comrade Eisenstein.
So Odessa adjusted, on the whole, to the new regime, and became a favoured resort on the Soviet Union’s Red Riviera, where veterans of 1905, cheerful artful dodgers and ir repressible Jewish comedians sustained the civic reputation. King brings us to this fulfilment with careful restraint: but now, at the coming of the Second World War, he springs upon his readers a ghastly late surprise.
Like me, probably few of his British readers will know that when the Germans captured Odessa in 1941, near the start of their treacherous onslaught upon Stalin’s Russia, they did not themselves administer the city and its surrounding territory but entrusted it to their allies the Romanians. In the previous year the Soviets had annexed from Romania regions that formed the immediate hinterland of Odessa, so when they themselves were driven out in the following year the Romanian dictator Ion Antonescu readily accepted the captured terr itor ies from the victorious Nazis. Romania’s zone of occupation was called Transnistria. One result was the expulsion or extermination of the Odessan Jewish community. Antonescu’s Romanians were as violently anti-Semitic as the Nazis themselves, if less well-organised in their persecutions, and the cruel climax of this book describes their behaviour. ‘Odessa used to impress its visitors,’ declared one of the newspapers they established in the city, ‘mainly through the smell of dirty yid diapers … You’d think that only yids lived there.’ But then, cried Gazeta Odesei, came the Romanians, and the Jewish hullabaloo was put to an end. Odessa started to cleanse itself of its filth. ‘The repulsive smell of Jewish courtyards disappeared with time, and Odessa awoke to a new life, full of luminous hope.’
But not for the Jews. Antonescu outlawed Jewishness throughout Transnistria. Judaism was declared an illegal religion, and Jews were regarded as more or less indistinguishable from communists as endemic enemies of the state. A ghetto was established, something altogether new in Odessa, and later all Jews were officially expelled from the city, their property confiscated and they themselves subject to forced labour in the countryside. By then, though, with German help, literally thousands of Jews had been executed in reprisal for Soviet partisan activities – the Romanian general in command ordered all his units to hang ‘at least 100 Jews’ each. Jewish leaders were murdered, and there were mass hangings and shootings all over the city. Overhead trolley-bus cables were used as gallows, and the lines of dangling bodies stretched out into the suburbs.
King relates all these horrors with calm and sorrowful restraint, relying upon contemporary accounts or statistics. Perhaps the most telling of them comes from an official Soviet report compiled in 1944, when Odessa had been liberated from the Romanians by the Red Army and pro-
claimed a Hero City of the Soviet Union. In 1939 there had been half a million Jews in the city. In 1944, so the Soviet commissars found, there were forty-eight. What now? Ask any cruise ship passenger, from the thousands that come ashore nowadays at Odessa, the great port of the Ukrainian Republic. The Pearl of the South, the Hero City of the Soviet Union, has emerged from the shadows, but in many ways, King tells us, it is a twilight town still, ‘sitting uneasily inside a new country and more comfortable marketing its distant past than presenting itself as a city of the future’.
It has its Opera House still, and all the tourists go to see the Potemkin Steps. It has its Irish pubs, too, its cappuccino cafés along tree-lined boulevards, and they have rebuilt its cathedral. It seems, though, that it has still not acquired a permanent civic identity. History will not let it rest. Since Odessa stopped being Russian and became Ukrainian, the city government has removed 148 public monuments (104 of them to Lenin) and renamed 179 streets (often in Ukrainian spelling).
Almost at the end of his fine book Charles King takes us to Brighton Beach, in Brooklyn. During the tumultuous twentieth century so many people from Odessa came to live here, many of them Jews, that journalists liked to call it Little Odessa; but they took their homeland with them, and even in Brighton Beach, King says, far, far from the Black Sea, they still find themselves in a place ‘perched between reality and memory’. To order this book for £15.99, see LR bookshop on page 12
LITERARY REVIEW August 2011