Excerpt: 'Odessa'  

Excerpt: 'Odessa'

Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams
Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams
By Charles King
Hardcover, 336 pages
W.W. Norton and Co.
List Price: $27.95

Mark Twain felt supremely at home when he visited Odessa in the late summer of 1867. He had come to the Russian port city on the world's first long-distance pleasure cruise, a jaunt across the Near East related in The Innocents Abroad. After a twenty-hour run across the Black Sea on the American steamer Quaker City, Twain stepped ashore to see Odessa's cascade of stone steps — one of the most famous staircases in the world — beckoning him from the docklands to the upper city. At the top, looking like a casual visitor peering out over the harbor, the diminutive statue of the duc de Richelieu, one of the city's early builders, held out a welcoming hand. Twain puffed his way to the heights and gazed out over the grain silos and quays below. Behind him rose the city center, buzzing with the business of trade, shipping, and exchange.

Broad, well-kept streets intersected at right angles. Low houses of two or three stories flanked the boulevards. Plain facades plastered in blues and yellows reflected the sunlight that bounced ashore from the calm waters of the Black Sea. Acacia trees lifted their branches over sidewalks that teemed with people taking in the summer air, while dust clouds roiled with each passing carriage. "Look up the street or down the street, this way or that way," Twain wrote, "we saw only America!"

That was an odd way of seeing things. 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.

Not long after Twain's trip, the city witnessed some of the most horrific antisemitic violence in Russian history. Jews were literally murdered in the streets in repeated outpourings of hatred and fear. Much later, in a forgotten chapter of the Holocaust, Odessa's Jewish community --by then a third of the city's population — was nearly destroyed by the largest wartime program of planned killing committed by a country other than Nazi Germany, in this case, Nazi-allied Romania. What Twain saw in the streets and courtyards of Odessa was a place that had cultivated, like his homeland, a remarkable ability to unite nationalities and reshape itself on its own terms, generation after generation. What he missed was the city's tendency to tip with deadly regularity over the precipice of self-destruction.

At the time of his visit, Odessa was still developing the identity that its boosters would embrace and its detractors decry: a taste for the witty and the absurd; a veneer of Russian culture laid over a Yiddish, Greek, and Italian core; a boom-and-bust economy; a love of the dandy in men and the daring in women; a style of music and writing that involved both libertine abandon and controlled experimentation; and an approach to politics that swung wildly between the radical and the reactionary. It would eventually transfer many of those habits and values to new locales, from the jazz clubs of Leningrad to the borscht-belt banquet halls of the Catskills and Brighton Beach. In the four countries that have governed it — the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, Romania (as an occupying power), and now Ukraine — Odessa has stood out as a mixed and rambunctious city, an island of difference perched between sea and steppe, yet a place continually threatened by its own mottled personality. "Odessa did not have any tradition, but it was therefore not afraid of new forms of living and activity," recalled the Zionist activist and Odessa native Vladimir Jabotinsky. "It developed in us more temperament and less passion, more cynicism, but less bitterness."

From its founding in 1794 all the way to the present, Odessa has struggled to survive somewhere between success and suicide. Like many vibrant seaports and multicultural urban spaces, the city has continually sought to unleash its better demons, the mischievous tricksters that are the vital muses of urban society and the restless creators of literature and art. But it has often loosed its darker ones instead, those that lurk in alleyways and whisper of religious loathing, class envy, and ethnic revenge. When things worked, Odessa nurtured intellectuals and artists whose talents lit up the world. When they didn't, the city's name became a byword for fanaticism, antisemitism, and deadly nationalism.

Excerpted from Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams by Charles King. Copyright 2011 by Charles King. Excerpted by permission of W.W. Norton and Company.