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Eye on the News

Paul Starobin
“The History of Odessa Does Not Change”
A proud city maintains its individuality—and seeks new vistas—amid Ukraine’s turmoil.
18 March 2014
Photo by thisisbossi
Alexander Tokarev’s 2002 sculpture of a sailor’s wife overlooks Odessa harbor.

Midnight has long passed at the nightclub Ibiza on the shores of the Black Sea in Odessa. On an elevated platform, two black-leather-clad and muscle-toned young women are dancing to an electronic beat to the delight of alcohol-addled patrons hemmed into a bleached-white, terraced structure suggestive of an igloo or maybe an ant farm. The multicolored rays of a light show bounce off revelers. I watch while puffing on a fruit-flavored water pipe at a poolside bar. I’m ready for bed, but hardier spirits can greet the dawn on a beach by the water’s edge.

It’s just another day in Odessa, said to possess the “best nightlife” in the world. Or so I’m informed by an Australian expatriate owner of a Moscow nightclub, who makes it his business to know where the hot clubs are, from Singapore to Rio and places in between. He partakes of Ibiza with a buddy—a native Colombian financial type who lives (mostly) in New York City, has just returned from Moscow, and is headed for more recreation in Tuscany’s verdant hillsides.

Ukraine, the nation of which Odessa is a part, is of course in the midst of a prolonged political crisis. When Ukrainian protestors, with support from the West, drove from power Viktor Yanukovych—the country’s elected, albeit autocratic, pro-Russian president—an enraged Vladimir Putin refused to accept the new Ukrainian regime as legitimate and fomented a rebellion on the part of Ukraine’s Russian loyalists. A Cold War-flavored conflict broke out between Russia, the United States, and the European Union. It was a remarkable and disturbing drama, marked by violent clashes between pro- and anti-Russian demonstrators in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev. Yet, 300 miles to the south, things remained relatively calm. Odessa, characteristically, saw itself as a place apart. “We say that Odessa is a strana v straneya, a country within a country,” a resident, using a Russian phrase, told me. Odessa “has seen so many different potentates and revolutions” in its history, he observed, that the city “tries now not to do flicks and jerks” whenever unrest strikes Kiev or other parts of Ukraine. “Make love, not war” is a favorite Odessa slogan.

The national crisis has already had an impact, from the plunging value of the Ukrainian currency to the cancellation of tourist visits to Odessa, along with other cities in Ukraine. Many in this city of 1 million people view with dismay the push by Ukrainian nationalists to restrict the use of the Russian language—Russian is widely spoken here—to say nothing of the threat of a civil war or an ethnic breakup of the nation. Still, Odessa, because it has always devoted itself more to commerce and pleasure than to politics, seems well-positioned to survive, no matter what happens—and to continue pursuing its ambition of becoming a global destination city.

Photo by Taras Kalapun

Every city has its signature, and for Odessa, the adjectives all take a similar form: Flashy, tacky, approaching tawdry. (“Sex tourism,” also known as prostitution, is a draw.) But while this reputation is not undeserved, the city retains atmospheric traces of its fabled past as a jewel of the Russian Empire, a place frequented by Voltaire, Byron, and Moliere. “In Odessa you can smell Europe,” Pushkin once said. The city’s classical musical tradition, especially vibrant among its Jewish community, consistently produces world-class violinists. Its opera troupe is one of the best in the world. “It isn’t easy to explain, but there is a quality about Odessa, sadness maybe, or desire, that makes music more beautiful,” a local concertmaster once said.

It is with these qualities in mind that a civic elite aims to recreate Odessa, its grand Imperial-era architecture largely intact, as a twenty-first-century global city—a mecca for tourists, retirees, business visitors, and investors with interests extending beyond glitzy nightclubs. “We want to reinvent the city using its great historical myths and combining them with modern marketing,” Ivan Liptuga, a young businessman spearheading the effort, told me. And whatever happens in the current national political tumult, he noted, “the history of Odessa does not change.” In March, even with Putin maneuvering to assert control over the Crimea, a Black Sea peninsula about 300 miles southeast of Odessa, Liptuga was moving forward with plans to promote the new Odessa at an exhibition in Berlin.

To be thought of as a “global city” is one of the great prizes of our times, and an academic and consulting industry has sprung up around it. “We ought to go back to city-states,” Philip Kotler, a marketing guru and professor at Northwestern University, told me. His visit to Odessa in 2009, to teach a class called Managing and Marketing in the Age of Turbulence, inspired activists looking to “rebrand” Odessa. “Nations are pretty bankrupt now,” Kotler declared. “They can’t do very much. They don’t have the resources. If we just let cities individuate themselves and develop their personalities, they will make the nation better.”

The idea that a municipal government or civic elite can create a global city by applying a uniform policy recipe is mostly a myth; if only it were that easy. Still, the division between city and nation can be jarring, as it is in Odessa’s case. Once ruled by Tsars in St. Petersburg, then by Soviet bosses in the Kremlin, Odessa these days is presided over—at least for the time being—by the leaders of Ukraine’s new interim government. But Ukraine (population about 45 million) has existed as an independent nation only since the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991. It has struggled since to define whether its orientation should be Western or Eastern, at times seeking refuge instead in a myth-laden Ukrainian nationalism. The unresolved question of national identity also hangs over the current crisis—in part a renewal of the Eastern-Western conflict and in part a protest against economic stagnation and entrenched corruption in Kiev.

In this landscape, Odessa’s powerful sense of individuality manifests itself in several ways. Its residents converse in a distinct, lilting idiom described as a “funny mix of Ukrainian and Russian with a hint of Jewish sarcasm.” And they have a nickname for their city, Odessa-Mama, that conveys both their affection and a sense of protectiveness. Hometown soccer fans chant it in greeting for their beloved team. The nickname, like much else in Odessa, has a bawdy provenance, supposedly originating about a century ago with Odessa’s thriving criminal class, whose members viewed the metropolis as a lucrative source of bounty. But the nurturing feeling that Odessa inspires is real, too, a remarkable byproduct of its nose-bloodied history. The city has survived many traumas, including bombardment by French and British naval vessels during the Crimean War of the mid-nineteenth century. Chivalry, all but extinct in gender-effaced American cities, abounds here—a car door held open for a young woman, her boyfriend’s hand on the small of her back.

Of course, many aspiring global cities won’t make the cut. Odessa has lots of competition—Budapest, Prague, and even Tbilisi and Baku come to mind as cities with distinctive identities that arguably overshadow their respective countries. Odessa is not alone in seeing a storied past as fodder for a marketing campaign; even within Ukraine, the cobblestoned city of Lviv, once a possession of Polish kings, and then of the Austrian-Hungarian empire, and now a center of pro-Western activism, has similar ambitions. Then, too, Odessa suffers from many present-day problems—including decaying infrastructure and an indulgent, stultified political class, whose bad habits, acquired during Soviet times, were reinforced in the free-for-all that resulted after the Soviet Union’s demise. And a psychological malaise—perhaps another legacy of the Soviet period and its aftermath—infects a broad segment of the population.

Liptuga, the third generation of his family to live in Odessa, is well aware of these problems. “This is not a story I like, the sex tourism story,” he said with a sigh when we met in Odessa several months ago (our conversation extended via Skype and email). “Odessa has many beautiful girls with a nice body. The easiest thing to do—they sell it.” Odessa became known after the Soviet implosion as a hub for the global sex trade. Young women flocked to the city from impoverished regions in Ukraine and beyond and were shipped off (some but not all by force) to customers in Dubai on the Persian Gulf among other places. Meanwhile, Odessa emerged as a lure for desperate men from America, Europe, and even Saudi Arabia, who came in hopeful search of “mail-order brides”—while making easy prey for scam artists.

It’s no surprise that Odessa has profited from globalization’s seamier dimensions. But Liptuga is not easily discouraged. He motors about town in a BMW sedan and wears multiple hats, including one as president of the Odessa Tourism Association, a grouping of hotels, restaurants, museums, theaters, and other outfits. “Every modern city competes with every other one” for visitors and investors and attention, he noted without complaint, as if describing a Darwinian law of urban evolution. In this pitiless contest for survival, Odessa’s “special spirit,” he said, is a tangible and potentially winning edge.

The special spirit is complex, though. One element is Old Imperial Russia—the Odessa created in 1794 by decree of Catherine the Great, who ordered the city built on the site of a decrepit Turkish Ottoman fort captured by Russian forces. Catherine’s edict was given form by a French aristocrat, the Duc de Richleau, who served as Odessa’s first governor; by Italian architects, who designed most of the elegant edifices; and by Greek business barons, who presided over a bustling shipping trade in sugars and grains at the port. The splendor of the project can be seen to this day in the so-called Potemkin Steps—the magnificent granite staircase offering a panoramic view of the harbor, built in the early nineteenth century and immortalized in the careening baby-stroller scene of Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 film masterpiece, Battleship Potemkin.

A second ingredient is Jewish Odessa, once a hive for Bolshevik revolutionaries (Trotsky, born Lev Bronstein, lived in the city for a time), Zionist agitators (Vladimir Jabotinsky was born in Odessa and organized a youthful following here), and gangsters in orange pants and chocolate-brown blouses. The writer Isaac Babel, born in 1894 to a Jewish shopkeeper, used his own Odessa neighborhood, the seedy Jewish quarter of the Moldavanka, for his thinly fictionalized portraits of hoodlums like Beyna Krik, “The King.” Babel wrote, too, of Jewish toddlers taken “from the evil-smelling courtyards of the Old Market” and dispatched to learn violin at a “factory of infant prodigies, a factory of Jewish dwarfs in lace collars and patent leather pumps.” Borscht Belt humor came to the Catskills by way of Odessa, a third of whose population spoke Yiddish as a native language at the close of the nineteenth century. Shalom Aleichem, whose Tevye the Milkman stories supplied the basis, decades later, for Fiddler on the Roof, aimed to open a Yiddish theater in Odessa—but Tsarist authorities, ever fearful of “cultural activity” as a guise for “revolutionary propaganda,” nixed the plan.

Above all, Odessa’s special spirit is a cosmopolitan alchemy familiar to many seacoast metropolises—think Hamburg and Marseilles—but of an especially concentrated and exotic type. New Orleans, say, is a peer by this standard, and the parallels are intriguing: both cities enjoy temperate climates, both have endured multiple sovereigns, both feature sharp contrasts between diverse peoples, and both became known for a tolerant, louche, café-culture atmosphere in which arts and entertainment flourished.

From the beginning, Odessa made a stark juxtaposition with the traditional Ukrainian landscape of rustics in wooden huts and Cossacks on horseback. The city’s first wave of colonizers included Russian and Ukrainian peasants escaping serfdom (never practiced in Odessa) and Muslim Tatars, for whom Richleau had built stone mosques. A visitor in the 1840s noted an exotic mélange of headwear: “The modern hat of a Frenchman, the high towering cap of a Persian and the turban of an Anatolian and the fez of a Morean and a Dutch sailor in a wide-brimmed low hat.” In an autobiographical fragment, Babel wrote of attending college in early twentieth-century Odessa with “the sons of foreign merchants, the children of Jewish brokers, Poles of noble descent, Old Believers and many overgrown billiards players.” Even the Acacia trees lining the streets began as imports, from Vienna.

Conflicts, some violent, broke out at times between Odessa’s motley peoples—such as an 1871 pogrom against Jews set off by Greek merchants. Yet Odessa predominantly took the form of a multiethnic melting pot, not unlike America. Mark Twain, a visitor in the 1860s, said Odessa “looked just like an American city.” The satirist and comedian Mikhail Zhvanestsky once said of his hometown, where he was born in 1934:

Jews, Russians, Ukranians,
Greeks, Moldovians!
What else do you have, besides Odessa?
Especially in your soul?

It all sounds impossibly schmaltzy, but paeans to Odessa do abound, often in homage to a kind of transcendent feminine archetype. It’s the city where, after a cleansing storm, the sea breeze “could not be mistaken for anything else. It was as though a girl’s arm, cool from bathing, were brushing my cheek,” the writer Konstantin Paustovsky said back in 1920.

Liptuga was born in Soviet Odessa in 1979, when the city was known mainly as a relaxation spot. The Jewish community was in the midst of a long wave of emigration for places like Brighton Beach and Tel Aviv. (During World War II, many Jews evacuated Odessa for Soviet Central Asia, while some who stayed were slaughtered by the Nazi-aligned Romanian fascists who occupied the city.) Liptuga’s mother runs a literary museum located in a grand old palace from Russian imperial times—a pair of Babel’s owlish spectacles is part of one exhibit—and his grandfather was general director of an immense factory in Odessa producing agricultural machinery from the Soviet Union.

When the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic collapsed in the early 1990s, Liptuga was just 12—and at risk of being part of a lost generation in a failed city in a failed new state. The dominant Western narrative of Soviet collapse tends to triumphalism, underpinned by the comforting assumption that people in “non-Russian” republics like Ukraine celebrated their liberation. The sober reality was that Odessa and its people felt more than a little frightened. An exhausted city faced the ruin of its most valuable economic assets—not least the Odessa-based Black Sea Shipping Co., in its heyday among the world’s largest commercial fleets. Odessa lacked the intellectual and economic capital to create a path forward—let alone rebrand the city.

Any city revitalization project is by definition a trial-and-error process, even for the West’s smooth, marketing-savvy operators. Odessa’s master plan is to shift local tourist activity away from the beachfront amusement district, known as Arcadia—where nightclubs like Ibiza (and many tackier ones) are located—to downtown, the site of the Opera House and other landmarks. When I first visited Odessa, back in 2002, Arcadia struck me as honkytonk and kitschy, like something out of 1940s Coney Island. A decade later, the downtown hosts events like the summertime Odessa International Film Festival, launched in 2010 and attracting 100,000 annual viewers—more than showed up for a similar event in Moscow. Films screen in the open air on the Potemkin Steps, and the awards ceremony takes place at the Opera House. Promoters highlight Odessa’s rich film history, which includes the Russian Empire’s first film studio, founded in 1907. The event is bankrolled by a rich parliamentarian in Kiev whose wife is the festival’s president; one instance, at least, of Kiev offering something of value to Odessa. And even amid the present unrest, “the festival is to be held for sure” as scheduled this July, promoters declared on Facebook.

Odessa’s determined boosters are just getting started. The cruise-line business, renowned for its hordes of fast-culture consumers—a museum here, a monument there, a snapshot for the Facebook page, a bite to eat, back to the ship—is a prime target. Odessa is currently a port of call on a 13-day Black Sea cruise embarking from Rome and operated by the Italian company Costa, which touts the city on its website as a “pearl of the Black Sea” and “once an important cultural center.” (Ouch.) The company’s promotional video for the one-day Odessa excursion starts, inevitably, with the Potemkin Steps. Royal Caribbean also plans to make Odessa a home port for its Black Sea cruises.

Before the recent political upheaval, Odessa was attracting about 1 million foreign visitors annually—not bad, but high-value visitors from locales like Western Europe and America have been lacking. About 85 percent of visitors are Russian speakers from the Russian Federation and from countries, like Belarus, in which Russian is the predominant language. Foreigners from outside the Russian-language world can easily be taken advantage of here. My Russian skills were sufficient to talk down cabdrivers eyeing “the American” as an easy mark, but their confidence told me that they’re often able to ratchet up their fees by four or five times what a native might pay. (Odessa has no subway system because of the soft limestone on which the city rests.) Hotel clerks—in return, apparently, for kickbacks—sometimes support such jacked-up fares. Fleecing the foreigner is a common game in cities everywhere, but Odessa seems particularly adept at it.

To walk about today’s Odessa is to be confronted with an essential in-between-ness—to wonder whether the city is rising into the future or sinking into the past. A steaming bowl of chicken soup with domashnyaya lapsha—homemade noodles—at an outdoor café stirs optimism. The weedy and cracked pavement of Shevchenko Park, a few blocks away, prompts equal cause for doubt, though it’s mitigated by the sight of parents pushing babies along in strollers. A fruit-and-vegetable stand at the park spills over with plumb eggplants, tomatoes, peaches, and watermelon.

Down the street stands the Odessa National Maritime Academy, marked by a pair of black anchors whose chains wrap around its front pillars. A maritime education offers a path to stable employment for young Odessans—jobs for seafarers are plentiful aboard Dutch, German, and other vessels. A ship’s captain can make as much as $15,000 a month on a four-month cycle. The port of Odessa, sprawling over nearly 350 acres on a plot about five miles north of Arcadia, is attracting foreign investors; a German container-terminal operator has pledged some $100 million.

Numerous city buildings, it’s true, look to be in disrepair and neglect, ripe for the wrecking ball or a foundation-to-roof restoration. Yet construction scaffolding can be seen in many parts of Arcadia. I’ve passed by road-paving crews of pot-bellied men in blue vests, cigarettes dangling from their lips, the smell of asphalt thick in the air.

Perhaps most hopeful are the signs of market opportunity springing up—such as the enormous outdoor bazaar, a rinok, on the outskirts of the city, touted as the largest such market in all of Europe and the former Soviet Union. The market attracts sellers from China and Turkey, and shoppers pour in from Belarus, Moldova, and elsewhere. Stalls packed with socks, shoes, underwear, and ribbons flank racks of mink coats and vests fashioned from fox fur. While the bazaar is, admittedly, not the vision of global Odessa that the Odessa Tourism Association promotes, the giant market is a sign that, after the long Communist freeze, Odessa’s venerable appetite for trade is returning.

Odessa could further develop itself as a seaside retirement and resort community, especially for Russian-speaking Jews apt to find the city congenial. In fact, Jews from America and Israel, as well as ethnic Russians from Russia, have been buying expensive properties and constructing houses here. The total number of visitors to Odessa, Kotler said, shouldn’t be a fixation: “You don’t want mass tourists, you want class tourists” who stay longer and spend more money. He envisions Odessa as a Black Sea version of Cannes or Nice.

But even if Kiev somehow manages to get its act together, and Putin stops his rumbles, Odessa will struggle to make progress without more enlightened and vigorous municipal governance. City Hall has been, at best, a bit player and at times a hindrance in Odessa’s quest for regeneration. Far from being a public ambassador for a new Odessa, the mayor, Alexey Kostusev, seemed to shrink from his public role and hunker down in a Soviet-style, media-resistant crouch. Several months after my visit, newspapers reported that Kostusev had resigned; he was said to be linked to a fallen parliamentarian and tycoon in Kiev who had been arrested on charges of physical abuse of a political opponent. Kostusev scooted out of the country, supposedly for a few weeks’ rest. Odessa’s residents aren’t shocked or even surprised by such spectacles; one well-educated young woman told me that she found the mayoral drama “hilarious and sad” and assured me, “we can handle it.”

Nor is Odessa apt to move forward without more sustained and productive involvement from the Oligarchs—the shadowy business magnates whose capital “O” is well-earned. These are the power brokers who conceivably can make or break a new Odessa. Big urban projects in post-Soviet territories tend not to get far without their self-interested support. Odessa is part of a twilight quasi-capitalistic landscape in which backroom players seem to call all the shots. There is no end of rumor and mystery to the planned expansion and modernization of the city’s small, drab, Soviet-era airport—an essential project for establishing Odessa as a global hub for visitors, who would prefer to fly there directly and not, as they typically do now, via a connection through Kiev, Frankfurt, Istanbul, or even Moscow. Construction is underway, but at a maddeningly slow place.

Odessa also could benefit from an exhibition hall for staging large-scale business conferences, such as are routinely held in hospitality-oriented cities like Las Vegas. But whether Odessa gets that facility, and maybe also an adjoining sports center and hotel, appears to rest in the hands of an oligarch, Igor Kolomoisky, a graduate of a metallurgy institute in Ukraine who has holdings of oil-storage containers in Odessa and in the political tumult was recently appointed governor of an industrial province in Ukraine. Kolomoisky, who is active in European Jewry causes, is “quite serious,” Liptuga said hopefully. Odessa may also seek more support from a native son made good: the billionaire Len Blavatnik, born in Odessa in 1957 and now an American citizen living in New York. He named his 164-foot yacht Odessa and contributed $100,000 to help pay for a city monument to Isaac Babel.

It’s easy to find doubters of Odessa’s plan to refashion itself as a modern, high-toned global city. Biting cynicism and crusty pessimism are also components of the city’s special spirit. Odessa is afflicted by a primitive and vulgar “consumer culture,” a “run-amok materialism,” Vitaly Oplachko, a local business executive, told me. And the globalized, interconnected marketplace that Odessa hopes to exploit may wind up defeating its ambitions: with expanded opportunities, the young may choose to live elsewhere.

But it’s too soon to declare post-Soviet Odessa a failure or a success; its in-between-ness could prove abiding. Its energies, in any case, are best spent not on efforts to master dubious formulas for global city-state building, but rather on the less glamorous struggle to overhaul its outmoded infrastructure, like the shoddy airport, and to improve its political governance. Stricter oversight of taxicabs and other measures to prevent rip-offs would be a good, tourist-friendly start.

Such measures might sound trivial at a moment when militants with guns and banners parade around stretches of the country as political leaders in Moscow and Washington eye each other warily. But Odessa remains on the margins of Ukraine’s searing conflicts. The city is wise to seek an independent, self-reliant future as a protective barrier to Ukraine’s seemingly permanent chaos. A proud and cohesive civic identity, a mythic past of which discernible remnants remain—these are urban treasures for locales fortunate enough to possess them.

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