Spring 2011

Port of Memories

– Timothy Snyder

The great port Odessa, a designed city, represents enlightened modernity; nostalgia meets history, and the modern the postmodern.

The 20th century defies nostalgia and mocks historical categories. For historians and others concerned with European civilization, the Holocaust disfigures the natural reflex to make sense of the past. Historians of contemporary Europe often pay little attention to the extermination of its Jews, while historians of the Holocaust generally separate their accounts from European history. Some social theorists see the Holocaust itself as an endpoint of modernity, and thus as a powerful reason to embrace a postmodern view of the world. Yet the historians who have tried to follow this prescription find that the postmodern embrace of the fragmentary and the liminal provides no refuge from the horror. Attending to the borderlands rather than the capitals, and to zones of multinational settlement rather than nation-states, they realize that it was in precisely such places that the Holocaust began, with mass shootings over pits. If the modern storyline seems to lead straight to the gas chamber, the postmodern one leads to the ditch.

Along the northern coast of the Black Sea, nostalgia meets history, and the modern the postmodern. The great port Odessa, a designed city, represents enlightened modernity as clearly as Pierre L’Enfant’s traffic circles or Baron Haussmann’s boulevards. It was built from practically nothing beginning in the late 18th century at the orders of an enlightened Russian despot, Empress Catherine, on the designs of a series of Western Europeans, for the express purpose of being a perfect port. At the same time, its Black Sea locale is perhaps the borderland par excellence. It was the end of civilization for ancient Greeks coming from the south by sea and, two millennia later, their distant Russian imperial heirs, coming from the north by land. The city’s hinterland, the steppe, was for both ancient dwellers and modern settlers—primarily Italians, Jews, Russians, and Ukrainians—savage and unknown. Odessa was not only the southern extreme of Russian imperial power, but the port where Russian subjects profited from knowing the rest of the world. If St. Petersburg projected an image of calm majesty, Odessa emanated a pragmatic cosmopolitanism.

In his elegant history, Charles King, a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University and the author of histories of the Caucasus and the Black Sea, contemplates the origins of the city. Odessa was the proudest crea-tion of an empire that was breaking the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, mastering the Cossacks of Ukraine, and driving Ottoman armies to the south. All of this made room for a New Russia on the steppe and seacoast that is today chiefly southern Ukraine. The chief architect of this New Russia was Catherine’s favorite, Governor-General Grigory Aleksandrovich Potemkin, a forceful and clever man who understood that façades can be foundations.

The founder of Odessa itself was José Pascual Domingo de Ribas y Boyons, a warrior from Naples whom Catherine placed in charge of the city’s design in 1794. The steadiest presence was that of Duc de Richelieu, governor-general from 1803 to 1814, who weathered the plague and showed his sense of fairness by treating Jews and Christians equally during its ravages. Also important to King’s account is Governor-General Mikhail Semyonovich Vorontsov, like the others a hero of Russia’s wars of expansion in the south. King shows an admirable lack of sentimentality in his treatment of the affair of Vorontsov’s wife with Alexander Pushkin, which ended when the wronged husband sent the poet away to count locust eggs after one of the region’s periodic infestations. During the first third of the 19th century, the story of Odessa is one of power, not romance.

Odessa was at the forefront of the economic globalization of the 19th century, and the city’s rise and fall forecast what would happen throughout Europe and, indeed, the West. With a population that would grow to more than 400,000 by the end of the century, Odessa became one of Russia’s largest cities. Established near the mouths of four rivers, it was the ideal place from which to export wheat from the Russian Empire across the Black Sea to the Mediterranean and then the world. The Napoleonic Wars made Odessa one of the centers of European trade. Napoleon tried to carry out a kind of reverse blockade, banning the sale of grain from central Europe to his enemies. Russian foodstuffs from Odessa thus gained markets that they kept through the mid-1800s.

The city’s large and increasingly Jewish middle class usually mediated in trade or provided for the city itself. There was almost no manufacturing, and so the city’s prosperity depended upon serf labor in the countryside and favorable conditions on the world markets. The Crimean War of 1853–56 taught the British and the French to seek suppliers other than the Russian Empire, which was then their enemy; American farmers were the beneficiaries. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 further reduced the importance of Odessa. Once Europe was trading in earnest for foodstuffs across the Atlantic and Indian oceans, Russian wheat and Black Sea ports mattered much less. At the same time, the end of serfdom in the Russian Empire brought free but impoverished peasants from the Ukrainian hinterland to Odessa, where they confronted a downwardly mobile but still confident Jewish middle class.

For Europe in general, the moment of social and political distress associated with the end of the 19th-century globalization occurred in the 1920s and 30s. But in Odessa, class degradation and ethnic violence came early, in the 1890s and 1900s. As King shows, during the Revolution of 1905 in the Russian Empire, Odessa was the site of extensive pogroms, sometimes followed by episodes of Jewish retaliation. At the end of World War I, as the Russian Empire collapsed into civil war and Ukrainians sought national independence, Odessa’s Ukrainian hinterlands were wracked by the continuous mass murder of Jews. It is hard to think of these killings as “pogroms,” since the number of victims was in the tens of thousands, a scale never before seen. For this reason, King suggests that Odessa provided a precocious sense of the politics of the 20th century, or indeed the 21st.

King attends to the career of Vladimir Jabotinsky, an Odessan Jew who founded right-wing “revisionist Zionism,” a doctrine that advocated an immediate return to a Promised Land defined rather broadly to include the whole of the British Mandate of Palestine. Jabotinsky was a kind of multinationalist, respectful of and respected by other Eastern European nationalists, and, as King points out, drawn at one point to Benito Mussolini’s brand of fascism as a model. Although this current of Jewish politics was never very important in interwar Eastern Europe, and Jabotinsky had no success organizing the mass emigration he wanted in the 1930s, King notes that Jabotinsky’s identification of Jewish self-esteem with expansive territorial nationalism has enjoyed a rebirth of sorts that began in the late 20th century. For King, Jabotinsky’s ideas were an unsurprising consequence of the collapse of a cosmopolitan, middle-class city in which Jews could no longer feel that they had a secure place.

In 1905 an anchor slips, prose becomes poetry, and King shifts from history to memory. This is no doubt a conscious choice, since for King the city’s moment of greatness has passed, and its rise as a symbol for itself and others has begun. It was during the Revolution of 1905 that the sailors of the battleship Potemkin mutinied against their officers near the port of Odessa. Twenty years later, the pioneering director Sergei Eisenstein masterfully transformed this event into a beautiful film, exaggerating the scope and resonance of the revolt and adding the unforgettable scene of the civilian massacre on the Odessa Staircase.

King skillfully separates fact from myth, and transforms himself from historian to critic. He plays both roles well, but the price here is the loss of the Bolshevik Revolution as an event. In King’s account, the red flags go up in Odessa in 1917, and Soviet power is consolidated a few years later, but we are not told just how. Much happened in between, not least a Hapsburg occupation of the city and its hinterland in 1918. King treats Soviet governance of the city in the 1920s and 30s less attentively than Russian imperial governance in the 1820s and 30s. It would have been interesting to learn about Odessa’s role during the collectivization of agriculture in Soviet Ukraine, when the grain that might have fed a starving population was instead exported from Black Sea ports. It would also have been interesting to learn how Odessa, still a multinational city, suffered from the mass national shooting operations of Stalin’s Great Terror of 1937–38.

Yet King must attend to myth if he is to make one of his major points: Nostalgia for Odessa, Soviet and otherwise, has much to do with its Jewish population, as presented, for example, in Isaac Babel’s Odessa Tales (1931), a collection of short stories set in the city’s Jewish quarter, Moldavanka. At the same time, too little is known about the extermination of Odessan Jews during World War II, when Soviet power was absent. Odessa’s Jews fell victim not to Germany, but to Germany’s ally Romania.

When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, Romania was the most important of the Third Reich’s allies. The Romanian army invaded southern Ukraine, and placed a large region known as Transnistria under its own control. After a bomb planted by operatives of the Soviet state police, the NKVD, killed Romanian occupation authorities in Odessa, the Romanians murdered perhaps half of the 50,000 Jews then in the city. The remaining half, like Jews in other territories conquered by Romania, were sent to concentration camps. When the Soviets returned to Odessa in 1944, they counted 48 surviving Jews. As King shows, the particular horror that befell Odessan Jews during the war was blurred by postwar Soviet propaganda about a “hero city” united in suffering and resistance to fascism and by the fact that the postwar communist regime in Romania was an important Soviet ally.

Odessa, today a pleasant seaside city of 1.2 million people in independent Ukraine, powerfully resists historical placement. It fits neither national narratives of Ukrainian liberation nor nostalgic tropes of Russian revivalism. The city still seems rooted in nothing except itself and the works of genius of natives and admirers such as Babel and Eisenstein. It ought to be an inescapable part of Western histories of the Holocaust and modern Europe. Yet, with important exceptions such as Patricia Herlihy’s foundational 1986 book Odessa: A History, 1794–1914, it has generally escaped them. King makes a virtue of these difficulties, taking the city on its own engaging terms. His writing is aesthetic without superficiality, and erudite without pretension. Reading the book is like traveling as your best self, the self that you never quite are, ready with every reference, worldly and wise. Because King opens a difficult world with grace, the book’s ending comes, as it should, as a shock.

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Reviewed: "Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams" by Charles King, W. W. Norton, 2011. 

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Aleksey Kunitskly