GUY RAZ, host:
Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.
Mark Twain arrived in the Russian port city of Odessa late in the summer of 1867 on a pleasure cruise. One of the first things he did was to climb the city's famous limestone steps, those steps made famous in the silent film "Battleship Potemkin."
Anyway, Twain looked out across the Black Sea, and then he turned around, and he saw streets filled with Italians and Greeks, Jews, Ukrainians and Russians. And he wrote: Look up the street, or down the street, this way or that way. We saw only America.
Mr. CHARLES KING (Author, "Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams"): That was an odd way of seeing things. Mark Twain was standing in a city that had been scouted by a Neapolitan mercenary, named by a Russian empress, governed by her one-eyed secret husband, built by two exiled French noblemen, modernized by a Cambridge-educated count and celebrated by his wife's Russian lover.
It was one of the largest cities in Russia and the empire's preeminent commercial port, even though it was situated closer to Vienna and Athens than to Moscow and St. Petersburg. The population was almost a quarter Jewish.
RAZ: Odessa was a city that would witness both the glory and the depravity of the 20th century, a place where gangsters and shysters and revolutionaries and writers all mingled.
Charles King has written a new biography of the city. It's called "Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams." That was his voice you just heard. He's with me in the studio.
Charles, thanks for coming in.
Mr. KING: Thanks for having me.
RAZ: You call Odessa a city of dreams. Whose dreams?
Mr. KING: Many people's dreams over the centuries. It was founded really out of nothing in the flat landscape of the steppe and the sea by Catherine the Great and then built over the centuries by one after another exiled French administrator, then during the Russian imperial period, built by one after another regional Russian administrator and later on in the Soviet period, created as this preeminent southern seaport for the Russian empire and later for the Soviet Union.
It was a place that was, like St. Petersburg in the north, built out of nothing.
RAZ: Many people who know anything about Odessa know it through the film "Battleship Potemkin" of - I think 1925, no?
Mr. KING: 1925, yeah.
RAZ: By Sergei Eisenstein, the famous Soviet filmmaker. And there's that scene, of course, with the baby carriage going down those steps in Odessa. How important was that film in sort of shaping the identity of the city?
Mr. KING: Well, I think Eisenstein's "Battleship Potemkin" is the film that really creates a modern image of what the city is, even though the film itself is a total imagination of...
Mr. KING: ...totally fictional account.
RAZ: A Soviet propaganda.
Mr. KING: The film was a form of propaganda, but it was, by and large, a reimagining of what had happened 20 years before the film was actually created, that is in the revolution of 1905.
RAZ: When the workers of Odessa supposedly stood up to the tsar's army.
Mr. KING: There was supposedly a major uprising in the city.
RAZ: There were (unintelligible).
Mr. KING: There was - well, there was some - it was disorder, let's say, in the city.
Mr. KING: The signature element of 1905 was the largest pogrom against Jews in the history of the Russian empire, which doesn't figure into the film.
RAZ: You can't tell the story of Odessa without telling the story of Odessa's Jews. By the eve of the Second World War, about a third of the population was Jewish, 200,000 Jews in Odessa. Explain how it was that this was a city where Jews, as you write, felt relatively free, and yet there were these periods of violence.
Mr. KING: That's right. The city, in fact, has this kind of double identity, a place that's liberal, that's relatively open but a dark and subversive side that appears from time to time over the course of the 19th century, and then, most spectacularly, most tragically, over the course of the 20th century.
RAZ: There were some amazing personalities who came out of Odessa, or spent a considerable amount of time there. We mentioned Eisenstein, or the writer Isaak Babel. Leon Trotsky went to school there, Vladimir Jabotinsky, the hard-line Zionist leader. What was it about the city that made these men distinctive? I mean, how were they, in a sense, Odessa?
Mr. KING: Well, Trotsky says that he learned all of his life lessons from going to St. Paul's School in Odessa. He learned about what he called the great vacillating mass of humanity. When he would get in trouble, he couldn't find anyone to support him among his schoolmates. And so he - from that, he says, he took the idea that you had to organize the revolution. The revolution wouldn't just happen.
But I think there was something to the city that was a combination of a relatively liberal environment, a very multicultural environment. And being on the edge of an empire with all of these influences floating in, it was also a place where you could be relatively subversive. And it was hard for the tsar, or later on, even the Soviets to keep track of you.
RAZ: The writer Isaak Babel famously wrote a book, "Odessa Tales," about life in the city. It captures this world of gangsters and criminals and kind of the underworld but in an almost loving way. Did he come to kind of define the type of Odessan personality or the type of Odessan personality?
Mr. KING: That was one of his goals, I think, as a writer, to look into the heart of the city, both metaphorically and geographically, because he's writing about a neighborhood right in the center of town called Moldavanka, which was a center of relatively poor Jews. And he made it into a center of gangsters and shysters and men on the make.
That became, along with "Battleship Potemkin," became the major representation of Odessa in the 20th century. The person he's trying to describe, though, I think is someone who is, if not Jewish himself, Jewish in a broad kind of cultural sense. He's a cosmopolitan. He is at home in the world. And that, I think, for Babel, was what a real Odessan is.
RAZ: After the war, what happened to Odessa? I mean, did it begin a kind of a decline, or was it - did it maintain some of that energy?
Mr. KING: Well, the energy, I think, is still there, was still there after the war. But Odessa has lost, after 1945, the thing that in many ways made it most distinctive, and that was its Jewish community.
But Odessa was very good at recreating itself in other places. If you go to Brighton Beach in Brooklyn...
Mr. KING: ...the place that's sometimes called Little Odessa...
RAZ: Little Odessa. Yeah.
Mr. KING: ...you can get a sense of what the city once was there.
It's a kind of sepia-tinged version of its own past. And Odessa, like Brighton Beach, is a tiny bit sad. But that's kind of part of its identity as well.
RAZ: That's Charles King. He's a professor of international relations at Georgetown University. His new book is called "Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams."
Charles King, thank you.
Mr. KING: Thank you.