Odessity: in Search of Transnational Odessa (or “Odessa the best city in the world: All about Odessa and a great many jokes”) by Joachim Schlör which
presents a research into, and a very personal approach to, the “Odessa myth.” It races the emergence and development of an idea – that Odessa is different from all other cities. One main element of this mythical or legendary representation is the multi-cultural and transnational character of the city: Not only does Odessa have a Greek, an Armenian, a Jewish, a French and an Italian history, in addition to the more obvious Russian, Ukrainian, Soviet, and post-Soviet narratives, it also finds itself in more than just one place – wherever “Odessity” as a state of mind, a memory, a literary image is being celebrated and constructed.
Here are relevant excerpts:
...One columnist complained that Odessa’s civil society was dominated by the “middle class meshchanstvo,” aspirants to what Jeffrey Brooks has called the “new” intelligentsia, people with “cultural pretensions” who “wanted their tastes to be recognized as legitimate […], wanted to be included in the cultural life largely dominated by the old intelligentsia.” Noting the growing ‘prosperity’ of a new middle class, these journalists felt that they had a pedagogic duty to foster the necessary ‘spiritual development’ to go with it. This was an honourable aim and it is, as I have said, well documented by Sylvester, with a wealth of examples. But here, inspired by no less an authority than Theodor Herzl and his defence of the petty bourgeoisie as the “yeast” of the city,24 I would like to speak up for “cultural pretensions.” The operative word is “wanted”: “people who wanted their tastes to be recognised.” To me this suggests intention, energy, ambition. What was about to be pedagogically taken in hand and improved was a kind of raw state, something unfinished, still in the making, expectant. Pretension there was, certainly, but also a kind of innocence.25 That civilising mission (which incidentally, with a strange parallelism, has reappeared today among those who seek to protect their image of Odessa from its current immigrants and their ignorance of the city’s past) aimed to overcome that innocence, and it cannot be criticised for that. But I would like to argue that that sense of innocence, of expectancy, of hope, has survived as an ‘Odessa feeling’ among those who emigrated.
The accusation of false pretension, an attitude of mind which according to Ahad Ha’am, for instance, was characteristic of the city’s Jews, was not unjustified. But perhaps such criticism failed to recognise what energy, what potential lies in this apparent ‘falseness.’ Jewish Palestine, born in Odessa, was animated by similar notions of perfectibility, ideas about the ‘new man’ and the ‘new Jew’ who would build up a perfect society of farmers and warriors and forget about life in the Diaspora. But History cunningly ensured that the experiences of impatience, of starting afresh, of pretension, of life in the Diaspora, came in with the immigrants and turned Israel into the multi-faceted society it is today.
Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky celebrated this heritage. Politically correct persons cringe when they hear the name. Jabotinsky? Isn’t he the spiritual father of Begin, Sharon and the Etzel – terrorists, dreamers of a Greater Israel? But political correctness, I am sorry to say, has no place in Odessa. For my guides in Odessa, Anja and Lena, and maybe for the entire city, he is the most important journalist and writer of the 20th century. His book Patero, [The Five] – originally published in Russian in 1936 – was only recently translated into English by Michael Katz, with the assistance of Anja Misjuk. Writing about the “springtime” of his life and of his city, “our carefree Black Sea capital with acacias growing along its steep banks”, Jabotinsky chronicles the lives of five children in the Milgrom family and their different orientations, choices, and fates. In the background, Odessa gleams. Their stories are intimately related to the city of their birth and experience. All this is set before the background of a beloved city:
“To the present day, if I squint, I can recall, albeit through a mist that obscures the details, that large square, a monument to the noble architecture of foreign masters of the first third of the nineteenth century, and witness to the serene elegance of the old-fashioned taste of the first builders of our town – Richelieu, de Ribas, Vorontsov, and the entire pioneering generation of merchants and smugglers with their Italian and Greek surnames. Ahead of me – the front staircase to the municipal library and, on the left, against the background of a broad, almost boundless bay, is the peristyle of the Duma: neither would disgrace Corinth or Pisa. To the right, I see the first houses on Italian Street, in my time known as Pushkin Street, since it was there the poet wrote Onegin; turning around, there is the English Club, and farther off in the distance, the left façade of the municipal theatre: these were built at different times but all with one and the same love of the foreign spirit of the city (Roman and Hellenistic) with its incomprehensible name, as if borrowed from the legend of a kingdom ‘to the east of the sun and west of the moon.’”26
In the next citation Jabotinsky describes a meeting with the other members of the literary circle in Odessa, and he notes something very important for our question:
“Looking back at all this some thirty years later, I think that the most curious thing about it was the good-natured fraternization of nationalities. All eight or ten tribes of old Odessa met in that club, and in fact it never occurred to anyone, even in silence, to note who was who. All this changed a few years later, but at the dawn of the last century we genuinely got along.”27
It is not really important whether or not this account is true. This is the image he had in mind – of a city (and a youth, an innocence) lost. The “foreign spirit” of the city made it a possible home for everyone who was foreign. In 1897 – one year before Jabotinsky left Odessa for the first time – one counted circa 17 babies and 123 children between the ages of one and nine years for every one hundred Jewish mothers, 13 and 96 for the Russian mothers, 12 and 75 for Ukrainians, 10 and 55 for the Poles, 8 and 62 for the Germans. Let’s return to our bus and see what happened in other parts of the city...
...we have to hurry to meet Vladimir Jabotinsky once more.
“I’ll probably never get to see Odessa again. It’s a pity because I love the place. I was indifferent to Russia even in my youth: I recall that I always got pleasantly agitated when leaving for Europe and would return only reluctantly. But Odessa – that’s another matter: arriving at the Razdelnaya Station, I would always begin to be joyfully excited. If I arrived today, my hands would probably tremble. I’m not indifferent only to Russia; in general I’m not really ‘attached’ to any country; at one time I was in love with Rome, and it lasted a long time, but even that passed. Odessa’s a different matter: it hasn’t ever passed and it won’t.
If it were possible, I’d like to arrive not at the Razdelnaya Station but on a steamship, in summer, of course, and early in the morning. I’d rise before dawn, while the lighthouse on Bolshoi Fontan was still shining, and I’d stand all alone on deck and look at the shore.”36...
.... Jabotinsky reminisces about Odessa, the Fontan, Langeron, Arkadija, the black column of Alexander II – “well, they’ve probably removed it by now, but I’m talking about old Odessa” –, the Quarantine Harbor, the piers, the “buildings high on the hill,” the palaces, the grand staircase, the statue of Duke de Richelieu. In this way, he returns to the topic of the diversity of cultures and ethnicities within Odessa, “just remember how many different peoples had gathered here from all corners of Europe to build this one city.” What then follows is something only someone from Odessa could have written:
“They say that people regard even the name Odessa as something of an amusing joke. To tell the truth, I’m not offended, it isn’t really worth revealing one’s own sorrows, but I don’t take offense for a risible relationship to my homeland. Perhaps it really was an amusing city; perhaps it was so because it laughed so readily. Ten tribes converged, each and every one so fascinating, one more interesting than the next: it all began when these tribes started laughing at one another, then they learned to laugh at themselves, and then at everything on earth, even at what hurt and at what they loved. Gradually their customs rubbed up against each other and they ceased regarding their own sacred altars in such a serious manner; they gradually discovered a very important secret in this world: that what you hold sacred your neighbour thinks is rubbish, and that your neighbour isn’t a thief or a vagrant; perhaps he’s right, perhaps not, but it’s not worth grieving over.”38...