Home > Books, Family, History > Odessa


On finishing Thomas de Waal’s The Caucasus three days ago, I thought I was done with books on countries or wars or travel or history of the Black Sea, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Before The Caucasus was Orlando Figes’ The Crimean War and Colin Thubron’s Shadow of the Silk Road (see my posts here, here, and here, as well as here) Next on my reading list was Robert Caro’s latest LBJ tome The Passage of Power, just out.

But Caro’s book is so long. I wasn’t ready to immerse myself in it. Searching for an alternative, I found Charles King’s Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams. I suppose I was destined to read about Odessa before leaving this part of the world. It is, after all, my ancestral homeland, the 1893 birthplace of my grandmother, and a city I know little about.

Here is an excerpt from the description of the book at the author’s website:

Italian merchants, Greek freedom fighters, and Turkish seamen; a Russian empress and her favorite soldier-bureaucrats; Jewish tavern keepers, traders, and journalists—these and many others seeking fortune and adventure rubbed shoulders in Odessa, the greatest port on the Black Sea.

Here a dream of freedom inspired geniuses and innovators, from Alexander Pushkin and Isaac Babel to Zionist activist Vladimir Jabotinsky and immunologist Ilya Mechnikov. Yet here too was death on a staggering scale: not only the insidious plagues common to seaports but also the mass murder of Jews carried out by Romanian occupation forces during the Second World War. Drawing on a wealth of original source material, Odessa is an elegy for a vibrant, multicultural city as well as a celebration of the survival of Odessa’s dream in a diaspora reaching all the way to Israel and the United States.

I’m a little more than a third of the way through so far. It’s not a long book, and therefore not all that detailed either, but informative nonetheless. An opening chapter surveys the history of the Black Sea region from ancient times to the 1780s. Each of the next few chapters is built around one or two people of note in Russian and Odessan history.

First we learn about Potemkin, his relationship with Catherine the Great, war with the Ottomans, the arrival of John Paul Jones to assist with naval warfare, his dismal performance, and the saving of the day by José Pascual Domingo de Ribas. Among other successes, de Ribas took the small Black Sea village of Khadjibey from the Ottomans, leading to its incorporation into the Russian Empire in 1792. Subsequently, he received Catherine’s approval to build a new city, Odessa, on the site.

De Ribas and Catherine would both die before much progress was made. In the next chapter, we move on to the early 1800s, during which Richilieu carried through on the project, creating Odessa. The plague intervened in 1812, almost killing Odessa before it could reach adolescence, but Richilieu saved it through quarantine and fire.

On we go to Mikhail Vorontsov, his marriage to Lise Branicka, his appointment as governor-general of New Russia, the arrival in Odessa of the young Alexander Pushkin, his famous affair with Lise, and Odessa’s growth as a major international city attracting Italians, Greeks, Germans, Jews, Armenians, and many more.

Odessa’s role as a progressive port city made it especially attractive to Jews, for whom it provided a two-fold freedom: freedom within the larger culture to work in a variety of professions and live where they pleased, plus freedom within Jewish culture from the more traditional practices of the Pale. The chapter I’m now reading focuses on this growing Jewish community. King writes:

Jews emerged as the critical middlemen in Odessa’s commerce, linking up with peasants, immigrant farmers, and herders in the interior and forming an essential bridge to the large export concerns in the port city. Through their energy and social networks, Odessa became something that none of its early founders, from Potemkin to Vorontsov, could have imagined: the preeminent port of the Yiddish-speaking world. As a frontier city in need of both people and income, Odessa became one of the major urban centers of the Pale system, a modern and dynamic city where Jews could find economic prosperity and a degree of freedom within an otherwise constraining system. While Jews were viewed as competitors to Christian businesses in other corners of the empire — one of the reasons for legal restrictions on Jewish economic activity — their business contacts were seen as a boon in the growing city.

That’s my family he’s describing, a family I know close to nothing about. Not even when they would have arrived in Odessa. What I know is my grandmother’s stories of her childhood, the pogroms, and the Cossacks. Not that I had any idea what pogroms or Cossacks were, but I knew they were bad. And I knew that because Cossacks were attacking Jews (no doubt the 1905 Odessa pogrom that I will soon learn more about in the book), my grandmother’s family had to stay indoors to avoid danger. But they had to eat, and it fell to my grandmother to go out to buy food for the family.

In retrospect, the point must have been that she was the child most able to pass for a non-Jew. The language spoken at home was Yiddish, but she spoke Russian at school. Indeed, she studied French and was probably fluent in all three. Given how good her English would become, with less of the classic Yiddish accent of so many of her generation who came to New York, I would bet her Russian was that of a native. Whatever the reason, she was the family food procurer.

Not long after the pogroms, the family made their way to New York. My great-grandparents never did learn English or fit in. My grandmother did so quickly. It’s stunning to realize that she was equally at home in the world I’m now reading about and in late twentieth-century New York. What a woman!

Happy Mother’s Day, grandma.

Categories: Books, Family, History
  1. May 13, 2012 at 10:04 PM

    You should give The Hare With Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal a read. His family history also starts in Odessa and reaches across Europe, finishing up in England.
    I think that I might try and read this book you have written about though. After reading The Hare With Amber Eyes, it piqued my interest in Odessa – a place that I had never heard about previously. There seems to be LOTS of history attached to this place!

    • Ron
      May 13, 2012 at 10:48 PM

      Thanks for the suggestion. I remember reading about the book. I’ll add it to my list.

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