Book Discussion: Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams

By
Christian Dallago

“There are plenty of cities, especially great Jewish cities, in East-Central Europe that [were] transformed … over the course of the 1940’s. But in Odessa’s case, there is a core mystery here,” said Charles King, Professor of International Affairs and Government at Georgetown University and former Title VIII-Supported Short-Term Scholar, Kennan Institute, at an 21 April 2011 Kennan Institute event.  “How did this cosmopolitan place,” King continued, “in some ways experience the antithesis of cosmopolitanism in the course of 907 days during the Second World War?”

In discussing his new book, Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams, the author analyzed the vibrant city of Odessa, and the destruction of its Jewish population. “It’s really not so much the story of how a city was destroyed by occupiers, even though that’s the memory that would become official,” King added, “it’s really a much more difficult, subtle and tough-to-digest story about how a cosmopolitan place learned to devour itself.” In Odessa, King explored what he called the “Russian dream city,” and its lesser-known history—that of a city whose enduring nostalgia has obscured its own historical narrative, and whose once-prominent multiculturalism and cosmopolitan ideals unraveled under Romanian occupation.

King cited two artistic figures responsible for creating the aura of nostalgia in—and modern images of—Odessa. Isaak Babel, a Russian-Jewish journalist, playwright and short story writer of the 1920s and 1930s, was integral in the conceptualization of an identity that became “quintessentially Odessan,” King said. However, the Odessa of the late Imperial period that Babel emulated had already disappeared from the city by that time; indeed, Babel was engaging in “active nostalgia” with the city of his childhood.

The second figure King mentioned was the famed Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, whose 1925 film, Battleship Potemkin, pioneered a new image of the city. Eisenstein set the film in Odessa rather than St. Petersburg to embellish Odessa’s reputation as Russia’s greatest port city; while the basic storyline of the film was historically accurate, Eisenstein took liberties with fictionalizing the details, the speaker noted. The history depicted in Battleship Potemkin immensely captivated Soviet audiences, but omitted an essential detail of life in 1905 Odessa: the condition of Odessa’s Jewish community, and the largest anti-Jewish pogrom in Russian history up to that point.

While Babel and Eisenstein forged Odessa’s early 20th century identity, September 1941 to April 1944 represent Odessa’s “blank spot.” As the only Soviet city occupied by non-Germans, Odessa was out of place in Soviet war history—yet under the occupation of Antonescu’s Romania, the people of Odessa were subject to equally merciless conditions. Romanian fascism fostered anti-Semitic and anti-communist sentiments that lead to many casualties. King noted that while two thirds of the city’s Jewish population was able to flee before the occupation, the population that stayed behind declined from approximately 200,000 to 48 by April 1944. Notwithstanding Odessa’s later honorary title of “Hero City”—one of the first four cities honored as such in the Soviet Union—the horrors Odessa witnessed during Romanian occupation, including ghettoization, displacement and mass executions, went largely unnoticed after the war. This dark history of Odessa, then officially part of the Romanian territory Transnistria, is one many Odessans have tried to forget: the history of how this city “devoured itself,” characterized the speaker.

Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams concluded not in Odessa, but in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, where many of the city’s former residents have settled over time. The speaker emphasized that “the power and resilience of place, and how particular pieces of real estate that develop reputations for whatever reason, because of their cultural vibrancy, because of their uniqueness, because of their history, have a kind of immortality to them.” Regardless of immortality, King concluded, cosmopolitanism “isn’t so much a virtue as it is a project. If you don’t keep to the project, if you don’t work at it enough, really awful things can happen”—regardless of whether the project is in Odessa, Brighton Beach, or anywhere else.

Blair Ruble, Director, Kennan Institute

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