Globally acclaimed historian and author Simon Sebag Montefiore is convinced that Odessa is unlike any other city.
About the author: Simon Sebag Montefiore is a British writer, historian and television presenter. He is the author of ‘Catherine the Great & Potemkin’, ‘Young Stalin’, ‘Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar’ and ‘Jerusalem: the Biography’. ‘The Romanovs 1613-1918’ is his latest book.
Odessa is a city of beauties and merchants, rebels and adventuresses, Ukrainians, Russians, Jews, Greeks, French, Caucasians and Italians, of beaches and bourses, of gangsters and countesses, of fiction and poetry, of cosmopolitanism and brutality. It remains unique in the sphere of the ex-Russian and ex-Soviet empires. That is why this magazine, The Odessa Review, is such a worthwhile and, indeed, essential enterprise.
I first visited Odessa when I was researching my first history book on Prince Potemkin and Catherine the Great, the two statesmen who were ultimately behind its creation. I stayed in the famed Londonskaya Hotel. I walked the Seaside ‘Primorskaya’ Esplanade, the Potemkin Steps, the beaches and streets. In the city archives I was delighted to discover the only and last existing copy of an invitation from Field Marshal Prince Potemkin of Taurida to his wildly extravagant ball in the Taurida Palace in St Petersburg. This was an event attended by the Empress as well as the future Alexander I – shortly before his final departure for the south, whence he never returned. The photo reproduction of that invitation is in my book.
During that first encounter with Odessa, I relished the elegant grandeur of the city, the raffish nature of the people, the beautiful girls, the international atmosphere and the mixture of shadiness and swagger that makes Odessans, both male or female, move with a special physical confidence that comes from living in one of Europe’s greatest cities.
Odessa history is particularly colourful. It started as an Ottoman fortress captured by Admiral Jose di Ribas, the Spanish adventurer turned Russian admiral under the command of Potemkin who, on hearing of its fall, ordered the creation of a new stronghold and city. De Ribas, himself a fascinating cutthroat (who later planned to stab or poison Emperor Paul but died before the plot reached fruition), was the early driving force behind the Odessa project, but it was Catherine who named it Odessa after the Greek ‘Odessos.’ The city stalled under the feckless command of Prince Zubov, who governed New Russia (‘Novorossia’) after Potemkin’s death. It was Alexander I’s decision to appoint the competent Duc de Richelieu as governor that really transformed Odessa into the multinational metropolis that dazzled the world, attracting Russian, Jewish, Italian, Polish, Greek, Georgian and French settlers who quickly made it prosperous.
When Richelieu left Odessa to become prime minister of France, his compatriot Count Alexander de Langeron, who had earlier fought in the tsar’s armies, succeeded him. His tenure is immortalized in the city’s Langeron Beach. By the time Nicholas I appointed the able and liberal Count (later Prince) Mikhail Vorontsov to manage Odessa, the city was becoming Russia’s southern capital and its economic hub, the port for the export of over half its grain to Europe that passed through the Straits. Vorontsov, known as Milord, presided over the city as well as his huge governorship that included Crimea, much of today’s southern Ukraine and, later, the Caucasus. He ruled from his Vorontsov Palace that still just about stands, overlooking the port. He was accompanied by his pretty, clever, playful and extremely grand wife, Countess Lise Branitska. She was Potemkin’s great niece and had been born in the Winter Palace before growing up close to Catherine the Great herself. When Pushkin arrived in exile to report to Vorontsov, he embarked on an affair with Lise. It was not the affair itself (the count had mistresses too) but Pushkin’s flaunting of it that outraged the count, who subsequently arranged for the poet to be despatched to count locusts. Pushkin got his revenge by writing rude poems about Vorontsov and claiming paternity of their daughter.
By now, Odessa had a population that included all sorts of decadent aristocrats living far from Petersburg living alongside political rebels, Poles and others. Gradually a unique Russian-Polish-Jewish culture developed in the city along with a highly educated intelligentsia and debauched aristocratic society, and, increasingly, a top strata of wealthy (sometimes Jewish) merchant princes, rich on grain and ships. At the other end of the scale was a bottom strata and underclass in the Moldavanka district, which included Odessa’s famous caste of Jewish gangsters. The Ephrussi family, illuminated recently by the family memoir of Edmond de Waal, were amongst the wealthiest of these early oligarchs. Charles Ephrussi was later the model for Proust’s Charles Swann in ‘A La Recherche de Temps Perdu’. Benya Krik, the fictional hero of Isaac Babel’s Moldavanka stories of Odessa, typified the Jewish gangsters of the city.
Politically, the city was now strategically important: indeed, in some ways, the Crimean War and other wars with the Ottomans in 1877-8 were concerned with the ability of Russia to exports its grain from Odessa through the Straits to the wider world.
The new dark times of revolution, repression, and intolerance began to transmogrify the city’s enlightened atmosphere: in 1905/06, pogroms by vicious rightist militias known as the Black Hundreds victimized the Jews. The Battle Potemkin-Tavrichesky mutinied here, which was why the name of Odessa’s Steps changed from Richelieu to Potemkin. The 1917 Revolution ruined this colourful outrageous swaggering and cosmopolitan city forever, but the stories of its best writer since Pushkin, Isaac Babel, immortalized the quaintly shady culture of its gangsters and beautiful molls in the Moldavanka with his brilliant Odessa Tales that gave us the aforementioned Benya Krik and many other characters.
Odessa’s worst tragedy came in 1941/3 when the city fell to the Romanian allies of Hitler’s invading Nazi legions. The Romanians, both by diabolical design and in murderous frenzy, slaughtered the Jews of Odessa in scenes of turbulent bloodletting that horrified even the homicidal bureaucrats and killers of the SS. 80,000 died in the massacre.
After the fall of the USSR, many of the Jews who had returned to Odessa following WWII left for Israel or America. And yet Odessa is still Odessa; Odessans are still the graceful and elegant and playful products of this amazing history. The flamboyant men and the gorgeous women still walk with the swagger that distinguishes only the citizens of this great city.