Saturday, January 28, 2012

Odessa Wrap Up

Exactly a century ago, in 1912 Leon Trotsky was living in Vienna publishing a paper called Pravda – his Pravda folded in April, 1912; for Trotsky it was a year of rivalry with Lenin and the Bolsheviks. Trotsky, born Lev Davidovich Bronshtein, lived in Odessa during his school years, from age 9 until around 16; in his autobiography he describes how the cultural atmosphere affected him, such as inspiring him to become a fan of Italian opera. In 1896, Trotsky committed to work towards revolution; by 1898 he was sent to Siberia. Several historians find Trotsky's Jewish-Odessa background relevant to his later life. Having surveyed several other famous Odessans, I thought I should mention him, the most revolutionary of the nonconformists from there.

Evidently, 1912 was an interesting year in Odessa. In Tales of Old Odessa by Roshanna Sylvester, events and conditions in 1912 often features in her narrative. Here are a few examples:

"I.P. fon-Kliugel'gen, head of the local investigative police squad, declared in 1912 that more than thirty thousand 'suspicious characters' lurked in Odessa. While 'shady types' could be found 'in every quarter of the city,' the chief inspector continued, they lived 'primarily in Moldavanka,' where on some blocks 'ever single resident is a criminal.' Moldavanka -- if even a tiny fraction of the stories were true it was unsavory terrain, a quarter filled with dark alleys, filthy streets, crumbling buildings, and violence." (p. 48)

"Old Free Port was one of Odessa's most important avenues, having until the mid-nineteenth century marked the edge of the city limits. In 1912, Old Free Port was the site of 'a mass of charities and other civic establishments that follow each other endlessly around it.' ... the Sretenskii Philanthropic Society.., the city almshouse, the foundling home, the Massovskii night shelter, more than a dozen schools, the civic auditorium, a children's clinic and other such establishments." (p. 50)

"In his 1913 guide to the city, Grigorii Moskvich wrote that the dream of the'essential Odessan' was to strike it rich and immediately acquire a house, a carriage, and eveything else he needed in order to 'transform himself (by appearance, of course) into an impeccable British gentleman or blue-blooded Viennese aristocrat." (p. 106)

"... in the fall of 1912 ... Odessans were treated to an unusual entertainment event involving fifty-five 'Somalians' who arrived in town for a month-long engagement at the club Oginski. Even though Odessans were used to a great deal of diversity in their cosmopolitan city, the presence of the Somalians added to the mix an element of racial difference to which they wre less accustomed." (p. 126)

All the examples play up the wide social variety in the city, including character of the many neighborhoods, inner-city and suburbs; the contrast between those who saw themselves as intellectuals or as westernized Europeans and those who were still Russian; differences between the rich and the poor, and variance between the honest and the criminal. The short era between the 1905 violence and the drastic end of Tsarist times was a fascinating one in the city.

The books I read about Odessa continue the story through World War I, the Russian Revolution, the early Soviet era, and World War II. The large and assimilated Jewish community continued to be productive until the Nazi takeover during the war. The Nazis put the Romanians in charge of the city and in charge of the liquidation of the Jewish community, which was done quite efficiently, as documented in Charles King's book Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams.

As for my reading project, I enjoyed the rewards of reading the historic background before trying to read the famous works of fiction by Odessa authors Babel, Jabotinsky, Ilf, and Petrov. I also feel as if I received some new insights into a sort of experiment in old Russia – what would shtetl Jews have done differently if given more freedom within their native land? The answer is they responded pretty much the way they did when they immigrated to other places, especially to the US. It’s pretty clear that the old regime in Russia didn’t have the potential to sustain a free society within its severe limitations. And I really don’t understand all the things that happened in Russia later. However, I liked my exploration of the Odessa community a century ago and the writers that emerged from it.

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