A Trip Into Odessa's Rich, Dark History

As Ukraine seeks international help to bring Crimea back from Russian control, residents of Odessa watching warily. The historic Black Sea port has been conquered repeatedly throughout history.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Russia's annexation of the Crimean Peninsula leaves Ukraine with control of only one major port on the Black Sea. It's the city of Odessa which, like Crimea, has a large Russian-speaking population and deep historic ties to its huge neighbor.

Odessa is playing out the Russia-Ukraine drama in its own way, as we hear from NPR's Peter Kenyon who visited recently and sent this postcard.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: It's not hard to dip into Odessa's rich, dark history. In fact, it would be hard to miss it. From ancient Greeks to unsmiling Soviets, in Odessa the old and new are talking to each other all around you.

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KENYON: To give you an idea, let's start at a square just a few blocks from the Port of Odessa. It's dominated by a monument to Catherine the Great, who took Odessa from the Turks in the late 18th century. Catherine is gesturing down a broad boulevard toward the Black Sea, where a wide stone staircase heads toward the water. These are the Potemkin Steps, for the iconic Russian director Sergei Eisenstein's silent film classic, "Battleship Potemkin."

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KENYON: During a climactic battle seen, Eisenstein had a baby stroller roll down the steps, bullets flying, the mother collapsed above. It was still a scene-stealing set piece decades later, when Brian de Palma used it in his remake of "The Untouchables."

At the top of the Potemkin Steps is a statue of a man in bronze sandals and robes. This is Armand Emmanuel de Plessis, the Duc of Richelieu. Though he was every bit as French as his name suggests, circumstances - aka the French Revolution - led him to join the Russian army. He fought the Turks at Izmail, just west of here in Bessarabia, the kingdom that a few centuries earlier produced one Count Draculesti. After the count's death, he became known as "Vlad the Impaler." The duke, though, was appointed governor of Odessa, and he presided over an era of rapid growth, welcoming a host of ethnic and religious minorities to the city. It would be fascinating to know what these historic figures might think about this square in the early 21st century, as demonstrators unfurl either Russian or Ukrainian flags, depending on their point of view, and call on another tough leader named Vlad to either come rescue them or stay away. Sometimes they show up at the same time.

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KENYON: On a recent Sunday, some of the more vocal proponents and critics of a return to Russian rule came well within shouting distance of each other. A young demonstrator hoisted a Russian flag above the Potemkin Steps. It didn't stay there very long.

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KENYON: Moldavanka is home to Odessa's once flourishing Jewish community. Its blend of high culture and low cunning was elegantly captured in Isaac Babel's "Odessa Tales." He mixed poignant elegies for a dying way of life with the exploits of a colorful anti-hero, the Jewish gangster Benya Krik.

Outside the main synagogue, worshippers say yes, they are worried about the Ultra-nationalists vying for positions of power in Kiev. But Benya Bensimon says the Ukrainian government is not anti-Semitic, despite what you hear in the Russian media.

BENYA BENSIMON: (Through Translator) I watched a bit of it, it's just incredible. On the one hand they say we have an anti-Semitic government in Ukraine, and at the same time they speculate about the Jewish backgrounds of our government officials. The things being shown on Russian television now, it's just Goebbels-style propaganda.

KENYON: Odessans are long used to being coveted by outside powers, and they know there's not much Kiev can do if Vladimir Putin should decide to make a move. In the meantime, though, both pro-Russian and pro-Western Odessans will be well entertained. The Russian drama theater is staging plays by Gogol and Chekov, while the stunning Odessa Opera and Ballet House recently featured a production of Rossini's "The Barber of Seville."

Then they can wait to see who's next to come up the Potemkin Steps.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News.

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