Anywhere else in the world, a shop might post a sign that says, “Do not touch.” But in Odessa, the handwritten sign says, “Do not look with your hands.”
Other places, a workplace kitchen might have a notice that says, “Clean up after yourself.” But in Odessa, the sign says, “Be grateful you have hands! For many people in the world, doing dishes is more difficult!”
Elsewhere on our planet, neighbors might put up a sign that says, “Clean up after your pet.” But in Odessa, a note on a fence reads, “Highly respected dogs and dog-owners: please do not urinate on our beautiful flowers!”
In other cities, a youth hostel might have regulations that state that fighting will not be tolerated. But in Odessa, their regulations say, “If you don’t like your roommate, inform the administrator. Those who attempt to resolve disputes independently will be executed.”
In Odessa, everything is a joke.
“Why do you want to go there?” My relatives asked, when I informed them I had bought a one-way ticket to the famous city on the Black Sea.
“Odessa is not the same,” they warned. “You are not going to like it.”
But to help me out, my father started doing research, to see if we might, by any chance, still have family in Odessa. After calling around, my father discovered, or re-discovered, that he has a second cousin: uncle Isaac, better known as Isya, whose late mother was my late grandmother’s cousin. Uncle Isya met my father once, about 50 years ago, when they were both too young to remember. When my father phoned him to tell him that his American daughter was coming to Odessa, uncle Isya inquired, “Can she speak Russian?”
My father replied proudly that his daughter speaks not only Russian, but also French and English.
To that, uncle Isya said, “Do you know the joke?” And not waiting for my father to answer, he proceeded to tell it:
“Young lady, ‘So you say you can speak French?’
‘So say something in French!’
‘But that’s German!’
‘Ok, so I can also speak German.’”
Then uncle Isya laughed at his own joke.
Our long-lost Odessa relative gets a phone call from America, and the first thing he does is tell a joke. He must be a true Odessite.
The year 2015 sparked a huge debate among Odessa historians. At issue was the age of the city – and it wasn’t a matter of just a year or two.
Some historians argued that Odessa should celebrate its 600-year anniversary in 2015, while others said the city was not even 250. The debate became so political, that it ended up in the courts, one historian was beaten up and taken to hospital, and City Hall was forced to hold a celebration that they didn’t want to have.
And no, this was not a joke.
“Odessa has several histories,” explained historian Victor Savchenko, the author of more than a dozen books on the city. “There is a Russian imperial history, a Jewish history, and a Ukrainian history – and all of them compete with each other.”
The Russian version is the story that a tourist to Odessa will still most likely hear from guides at the city’s history museum. And it goes like this:
Odessa was founded by Catherine the Great in 1794, after the Russian Empire captured the territory from the Turks. Catherine decreed that a trade port be built on the spot where a Turkish fort (Khadjibey) stood, and she named the city Odessa. By that accounting, therefore, the city was 221 years old last year.
The Ukrainian version is rather different, for some historians claim that the first mention of Odessa was in a Polish manuscript, dated 1415. The manuscript, authored by Jan Dlugosz, describes a trade port called Kochubey on the Black Sea, from which grain was shipped to Constantinople.
“Our logic,” said Ukrainian historian Anatoly Khromov, “is that all cities in the world count their age from the first known reference [in historical documents]. But here they figure Odessa’s age from the time when the settlement was renamed Odessa.”
The point, he says, is that Odessa could not have been established in 1794, for it already had a Turkish fort – the one the Russian army defeated.
“You can’t storm a city first, and establish it later, logically speaking!” Khromov laughed.
Just like Istanbul, he continued, which figures its age from the time when it was called Byzantium (657 BC), Odessa must set its origins back to before it was conquered by the Russian empire.
According to Khromov, the 600-year-old Odessa story was first put forward by the nineteenth century Ukrainian professor Alexey Markevich. Opponents of the “Odessa 600” movement point out that Markevich was fired from his position at the Novorossiysk University. He lost his job, they say, because he was wrong about Odessa’s age. But the professor’s supporters say that the scholar was kicked out for something unrelated: he was caught importing books printed in Ukrainian into the Russian Empire. (Tsarist authorities, Khromov says, outlawed books that were printed in Ukrainian.)
The debate over Odessa’s age ended earlier last year, when Ukraine’s parliament approved 2015 as the official date for Odessa’s 600-year anniversary, and the court too, ruled in June that the city must celebrate. To mark the 600-year-birthday of a city that until now thought itself much younger, a Facebook group called “Odessa 600” was created, a special stamp with the words “Odessa 600” was issued, and coins and medals were minted. There was also a scientific conference entitled “Kochubey – Khadjibey” at the Odessa National Polytechnic University.
Yet, Odessa City Hall appealed the court’s decision, and the Russian version of the city’s history remains in the minds of many.
Also, a statue of Catherine the Great still stands at the beginning of Yekaterininskaya Street, Odessa’s trendy shopping avenue. She stands on the very spot where Karl Marx stood during the Soviet era, back when Yekaterininskaya was known as Karl Marx Street. Some are not very happy to see her there – and not because they miss Karl Marx.
“It’s the same as putting up a monument to Hitler in Israel,” Khromov said.
All Catherine did for Ukraine, Khromov said, was establish serfdom and take noble titles from Ukrainian elites. And all she did for Odessa, was give the city its name. And the name, he says, was a mistake.
Catherine attached a feminine ending to the name of an ancient Greek settlement, Odessos, which she mistakenly believed to have been located on the same spot. (Odessos was actually situated further west, on the site of modern Varna, Bulgaria.) In fact, there likely was a Greek settlement here as far back as the fourth or fifth century BC, which could make the city far older than 600…
After Odessa became absorbed into the Russian Empire, it quickly blossomed. It grew into the fourth most important metropolis in the empire – after Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Warsaw. And this importance was not just about trade. For it was in Odessa that Gogol wrote the second half of Dead Souls, Pushkin started working on Eugene Onegin, Mendeleev taught science, Jabotinsky became an influential Zionist, and Trotsky received his education – all while architects did wonders with stone. Even today a visitor to Odessa cannot help but marvel at the city’s glory: one might say that Odessa is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Each building is unlike the one next to it – and beyond all of them sparkles the Black Sea.
What set Odessa apart from other Russian cities, local history enthusiasts say, is its multiculturalism. From the start, there were very few ethnic Russian residents here. The population was a mix of Greeks, Bulgarians, Ukrainians, Jews, Albanians and West Europeans – as well as Germans, Italians, and French.
Because Odessa fell inside the Pale of Settlement, by the end of the nineteenth century Jewish residents were a third of the population. By the 1920s, that had risen to 40 percent.
At the symbolic center of the city stood the opera theater – it is still its best-known landmark. In fact, arts and music were so important in Odessa that the standing joke was “if a boy walks down the street without a violin, it’s because he plays the piano,” said Odessa tour guide Olga Bokhonovskaya.
Odessa was a city of free trade and business. Ukrainian grain was shipped through here to Europe and Turkey, while all manner of goods arrived from Asia and Europe. And because money was king, Odessa became notorious for its immorality and organized crime. Odessa’s songs are famous for lyrics too scandalous to quote.
“It was the capital of prostitution in the nineteenth century and it still is,” historian Victor Savchenko said.
The tsarist history of the city’s first 100 years also notes that it was the site of at least three plague outbreaks – the one in 1812 was so severe that to this day there is a plague hill at a cemetery here, where the bodies of the victims were buried. According to the guide at Odessa’s history museum, that outbreak was why men from Odessa were not drafted into the Russian army to fight Napoleon that year.
Cholera also visited Odessa regularly during the nineteenth century – and even in the twentieth, with the most recent outbreak famously closing down the summer resort in 1970.
Then there were the pogroms. Attacks on the Jewish community began in the nineteenth century, and in 1905, a pogrom turned into a three-day bloodbath that took over 400 lives. So it was that in Odessa Jews began to develop a vision of a new homeland in Palestine, Bokhonovskaya said. “They understood that they could earn money, but that no one would protect them during a pogrom,” she said. “The pogrom of 1905 was the pogrom that started the mass immigration to America. Even the millionaires started leaving.” [Between 1880 and 1924, over 2 million Jews from Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Romania came to America.]
The twentieth century was no less turbulent for Odessa. Between 1917 and 1920, the government changed hands 12 times (“there is no doubt about it, I checked,” Savchenko said).
Then came the Second World War, when Odessa was occupied by Romanian fascists and most of the city’s Jewish residents who didn’t flee were executed, burned alive, or died of starvation and disease.
Unfortunately, to this day, an hour and a half long guided tour of Odessa’s WWII history at the city’s history museum makes barely a mention of the Holocaust. When talking about the Romanian occupation of Odessa, the tour guide begins by saying that the Romanians did much to restore the war-torn city, e.g. they renovated the opera theater, after it was bombed, they paid attention to cleanliness, passing regulations forbidding residents to consume sunflower seeds in the street, etc. “And they killed a lot of Jews,” is all the tour guide says. How many Jews were murdered, exactly, is a matter of some debate. According to the Odessa’s Jewish Museum, the numbers exceeded 220,000.
Despite this, Odessa had a large Jewish population up until the fall of the Soviet Union – when tens of thousands of Jewish residents – who had the reputation for being the city’s best jokesters and comedians – left for Israel and other countries.
Ever since, many say, Odessa has not been the same.
“They say that Odessa went away,” Savchenko said. “People can leave, but a city cannot leave. Odessa infects the new arrivals.”
Not every single Jew left Odessa, of course. Odessa still has two synagogues. The city also had a Jewish mayor, Eduard Gurwits, between 1994 and 1998, and again from 2005 to 2010.
Yet somehow, today Odessa gives the impression of a glorious city that has seen better days. In the city’s small international airport – which has connections with Turkey, Russia, and even New York – dogs run on the baggage claim carousel. The toilet is down a flight of stairs – inconvenient for someone who arrives with suitcases in hand. Taxi drivers fight for customers.
If you arrive after sunset, your first impression might be that Odessa has been emptied out: the streetlights are turned off or dimmed. Shadows wander along sidewalks that look as if they have not been repaired since the fall of the USSR.
A daytime stroll reveals countless beautiful historic buildings that are rotting away. Some hotels have no heat. Others have no hot water. Or the electricity goes out.
Last spring, Kiev appointed Mikheil Saakashvilli, the ousted president of the Republic of Georgia, governor of Odessa Oblast. City residents are hoping this signals a brighter future. Saakashvilli, some say, has already undertaken important reforms, including firing corrupt policemen and increased the salaries of others, to remove incentives for bribe taking.
And, despite the decay, Odessa retains its beauty. UNESCO is currently considering including the city in its World Heritage list, according to Andrey Shelugin, chief of Odessa’s Cultural Heritage Protection Department. The city’s catacombs – a network of underground passages that reputedly could stretch to St. Petersburg if they were laid in a straight line – also add to Odessa’s uniqueness. Originally dug for the stone from which Odessa was built, the catacombs were later also used by smugglers and by partisans who hid from the Nazis during WWII. Today they are a popular tourist attraction.
Odessa, said historian Savchenko, “is a Russian-speaking city, but it is not in Russia.”
Indeed, the Ukrainian language – the country’s official language – feels imposed here. It is used in museums, and spoken on the stages of some theaters (Odessa has a Russian drama theater and a Ukrainian theater, but strangely not all performances in the Russian theater are in Russian, nor are all the shows in the Ukrainian venue in Ukrainian). But among themselves, Odessites speak Russian.
So is there a danger that Odessa could separate from Ukraine, as happened with Crimea and the Donbass?
“Even those who support unity with Ukraine,” said Khromov, “they will 100 percent say that Odessa is more amazing than Kiev. Their first love is Odessa, and then Ukraine. Moscow wanted to exploit this to create an Odessa republic, like Donbass.”
Indeed, on May 2, 2014, it seemed possible the conflict in Eastern Ukraine would spill over into Odessa.
The day started with fans who came to the city to watch a soccer match, and it ended with almost 50 people dead, most of whom were pro-Russian activists who died after being trapped in a burning building.
Savchenko recalled how he came into town to have a beer with his wife, when he noticed a machine gun sticking out of the bag of the person sitting next to him. They decided to go to another bar.
Shooting broke out downtown, Savchenko said, as Russia-supporters with guns and sticks began firing and throwing Molotov cocktails into a crowd of soccer fans who had shown up to support Odessan unity with Ukraine. The pro-Russians carried banners that read “Beat up the Ukrainians, save Russia!” (“Бей хохлов, спасай Pоссию!”), a modified version of the old anti-Semitic slogan: “Beat up the Jews, save Russia) (“Бей жидов спасай Pоссию”) – which can also be understood as “Kill the Jews, save Russia.” But when they realized that they were outnumbered, the pro-Russian demonstrators fled to a building where they had set up a tent camp. Then, somehow, the building caught fire and they were trapped inside, Savchenko said.
“In that situation, there were different kinds of people,” recalled one observer, who requested anonymity because he feared for his safety. “Some of our people tried to help them climb down from the building. But there were others, who, when people jumped out of windows, they beat them to finish them off.”
While Odessites are quick to describe May 2 as a tragedy for the city, Khromov said there was also a positive outcome of the deadly fire.
“If that had not happened on May 2, Odessa now would be like Donetsk or Lugansk,” he said, referring to the war-ravaged cities in Donbass region.
Odessites did not want to see civil war in their city, he said. “When they saw what Russia did to Donetsk and Lugansk, the majority became pro-Ukrainian, because they understood that it was better that way.”
Before I left Odessa, I called Uncle Isya to say goodbye.
“Where are you off to now, Frog the Traveler?” he asked.
“Because I haven’t been there before.”.
“Where else haven’t you been?” Uncle Isya laughed, as if to say that not having been somewhere isn’t enough reason to go there.
I did not reply.
“Call me when you come back to Odessa,” he said.