Book Review: Charles King’s Odessa

Chad Ensley is a graduate student in Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program. When Mark Twain visited the port city of Odessa in late summer 1867, he felt right at home. As he stepped ashore, Twain encountered a bustling and vibrant city of commerce and culture that appeared to have woven a mosaic of ethnicities and ...

554861_odessa7.jpg
554861_odessa7.jpg

Chad Ensley is a graduate student in Georgetown University's Security Studies Program.

When Mark Twain visited the port city of Odessa in late summer 1867, he felt right at home. As he stepped ashore, Twain encountered a bustling and vibrant city of commerce and culture that appeared to have woven a mosaic of ethnicities and nationalities into a single social fabric.  In Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams, Charles King captures this world and a history, like that of Twain's own land, marked by periods of peace, turbulence, revolution, poverty and prosperity. King's Odessa is an engrossing historical narrative of political and social development from relative geopolitical obscurity, onward through the growth pangs of revolution, and into the bleak misfortunes of the 20th Century.

King, a professional historian who teaches international relations at Georgetown University, manages a narrative, fluid style that makes Odessa's history intellectually accessible to the layman.  He punctuates a broad historical narrative with occasional biographical anecdotes, challenging the reader to reflect on how to best understand the world's great cities.  I found myself pondering whether these geographical points should be defined by their political evolution, their unique literature and culture, or by the lives of the people who occupy them and shape their history. In the end, King persuades that all three are necessary to understand Odessa, whose challenges and triumphs make it a place not wisely disregarded.

Chad Ensley is a graduate student in Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program.

When Mark Twain visited the port city of Odessa in late summer 1867, he felt right at home. As he stepped ashore, Twain encountered a bustling and vibrant city of commerce and culture that appeared to have woven a mosaic of ethnicities and nationalities into a single social fabric.  In Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams, Charles King captures this world and a history, like that of Twain’s own land, marked by periods of peace, turbulence, revolution, poverty and prosperity. King’s Odessa is an engrossing historical narrative of political and social development from relative geopolitical obscurity, onward through the growth pangs of revolution, and into the bleak misfortunes of the 20th Century.

King, a professional historian who teaches international relations at Georgetown University, manages a narrative, fluid style that makes Odessa’s history intellectually accessible to the layman.  He punctuates a broad historical narrative with occasional biographical anecdotes, challenging the reader to reflect on how to best understand the world’s great cities.  I found myself pondering whether these geographical points should be defined by their political evolution, their unique literature and culture, or by the lives of the people who occupy them and shape their history. In the end, King persuades that all three are necessary to understand Odessa, whose challenges and triumphs make it a place not wisely disregarded.

King paints a portrait of a cosmopolitan melting pot — replete with aristocrats, gangsters, heroes and villains — that has both thrived and suffered from its incubation of a progressive and diverse citizenry within otherwise conservative and socially rigid Eastern Europe.  King writes of the good, the bad and the ugly of Odessa across centuries, when it was a pivot point around which civilizations swirled, from ancient Greek travelers, to menacing Ottoman armies, to modern day geopolitical rivalry among great powers.

The beginning of what we would come to know as Odessa emerged from the 1792 Battle of Khadjibey, a seemingly uneventful skirmish from the Russo-Ottoman war in which the garrison site — then called Hacibey — fell to Russian forces amid Ottoman apathy.  Several years later, one of Catherine the Great’s most gifted and loyal soldier-bureaucrats, Jose de Ribas, recalled the promising tract of land he had once besieged.  He convinced Empress Catherine that this was the ideal spot on which to plant the southern jewel of her empire. The Empress agreed.  The city was to be called Odessa.

Amid shifting geopolitical power centers at the close of the 18th Century, Odessa exhibited significant strategic value.  Fortified under Ottoman rule, Odessa sat near the mouths of several major rivers, some of the most navigable in all of Europe.  Moreover, Odessa’s position was a natural gateway to inland farms and grazing herds, while offering entrée to the distant trade routes of the Baltic Sea.  De Riba understood that with proper planning, a bustling, ice-free port city could offer anchor with easy access both to the open sea and overland trade routes into Europe. 

The Odessa of the 19th Century was a multi-national city, but with an increasingly Jewish character. Odessa was unlike any other Jewish community in the Russian empire.  Whereas most of the region severely limited the types of vocations permitted the Jews by the terms of the 1791 Pale of Settlement, Odessan Jews served as an economic engine. King writes interestingly that Odessa on the one hand was a hub of Jewish prosperity and freedom within an otherwise constraining system, yet also a restrictive place on the Turkish frontier that denied Jews the ways of the shtetl, the traditional Hasidic learning centers of Eastern Europe.

While the trajectory of Odessa’s early history was marked by hope and growth, the 20th Century ushered in a dark era for its Jews. Occasional mob violence, largely a visceral reaction to deteriorating economic conditions, was often infused with anti-Semitic avidity.  Political exigencies demanded a scapegoat for these attacks, leading government tacticians to blame pogroms on "Jewish treachery and venality."  It was within this violently suppressive milieu that a new generation of political activists was born. Figures ranging from Leon Trotsky to Vladimir Jabotinsky emerged as a new class of Jewish dissenters who came to see "revolutionist" as a respectable profession. The crumbling of Odessan cosmopolitan structures of the early 20th Century gave rise to Jabotinsky’s conception of Nationalist Zionism, the Jewish political philosophy that shaped the emergence of the state of Israel.

During World War II, Odessa’s occupation by the Nazi-aligned Romanian military brought about horrific atrocities.  While many Odessans, especially the Jewish citizenry, chose to flee as Nazi forces approached, a large number remained with hope of enduring the pending occupation. Many did not survive. As King describes, "killing Jews was not a primary goal of the Romanian soldiers and gendarmes as they headed east, but it was a side project pursued with some of the zeal, if none of the organization, of the Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS."  As for the Jews who chose to evade the occupiers, their mass movement catalyzed a diaspora across the Soviet empire that, while not rendering Odessa a "blank slate," ultimately erased  the city’s Jewish character.

Modern-day Odessa, while continuing to serve as an important Ukrainian commercial entrepot, has returned to its former solitary distinctiveness.  Even while the 2005 Orange Revolution was unfolding in Kiev, Odessa remained largely quiet, content to focus on the nostalgia of its cosmopolitan past rather than dive into the political fervor of modern times. Tourist brochures casually use the phrase "My Nationality is Odessan!" — an ode to the city’s appreciation of the uniqueness that Mark Twain noted more than a century before.

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