Monday, April 11, 2011

Odessa: Genius and Death in the City of Dreams by Charles King

"With hundreds of thousands of head of livestock coming through the city each harvest season, dust and mud were constant features of Odessan life."

I was born in Odessa, Texas, and this quote from Odessa: Genius and Death in the City of Dreams by Charles King might well describe early Odessa when it was stop on the Texas and Pacific Railroad. There was probably more dust than mud, but it must have rained a couple of times a year when there was not a drought. King, however, is describing Odessa on the Black Sea, a city that was founded in 1794 by a Neapolitan captain in the Russian Army whose father was Spanish and mother was Irish. Just a village named Khadjibey when the Russians took the area from the Ottoman Turks, Catherine the Great wanted it to be a great ice-free port near the mouth of the Danube River and three other major rivers. Although ice did form occasionally, Catherine mostly got her wish posthumously. Odessa became one of the great ports of the 19th century when Ukrainian grain and meat fed much of Europe.

With quickly accumulated wealth, Odessa built an impressive port, government buildings, cathedrals, libraries, and an opera house. People from all over Europe rushed in to make their fortune, and for a while it was a cosmopolitan and very tolerant city. Being far from the seat of Russian government in St. Petersburg, Odessa became very independent and attracted criminals and spies from across Europe and the Middle East. The population far exceeded any planning. Epidemics of plague, cholera, and Typhus were frequent. The tolerance failed as world markets failed and Odessans had to compete with each other for the remains of their economy. As was the case in many areas of Eastern Europe, Jews were blamed for most problems.

As described by the author, much of Odessa's 20th century was bleak. Wheat from Kansas and Nebraska undercut Ukrainian wheat on the world markets and the Turks limited the passage to the Mediterranean Sea. Many people died in a succession of power changes following the Bolsheviks murdering of the czar in 1917. In World War II, Odessa fell to the Romanians, who executed most of Odessa's remaining Jews. Only after the death of Stalin did life in Odessa get better, as it became a favorite vacation destination for Communist Party leaders and workers alike.

I did not know much of this before I read Odessa, but I was able to make many connections to history that I did know thanks to the author's storytelling. He introduced many familiar characters, including American naval captain John Paul Jones, humorist Mark Twain, French expatriate Armand de Richelieu, Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, Soviet film maker Sergei Eisenstein, and Jewish story teller Isaac Babel. I am left with an appreciation for a place that with better luck could have become the Black Sea's San Francisco. Maybe it still can be, just dustier.

King, Charles. Odessa: Genius and Death in the City of Dreams. W. W. Norton, 2011. ISBN 9780393070842.

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