Odessa on the Edge

Stella Ghervas

Odessa, the palace-city perched on a rocky outcrop overlooking the Black Sea, is staring down a naval flotilla. The ships are not English and French men-of-war, as during the Crimean War; they belong to Russia, the nation that founded the city after defeating the Ottoman Empire in the Russo-Turkish War of 1787-92. My friends in Odessa fear their home is at imminent risk of invasion or, worse, severe bombardment like Kharkiv or Kyiv. Women and children are being evacuated.

The main square was recently repaved. No one imagined the Spetsnaz might soon be tramping over it, their boots still covered in Donbas mud. The Neo-Baroque opera house is surrounded by anti-tank hedgehogs fashioned out of dismembered tram tracks. The statue of Armand-Emmanuel de Richelieu, governor from 1803 to 1814, stands watch over the bay, above the Potemkin Steps that Eisenstein made famous. It’s said that Odessites only learn Russian because French has gone out of fashion. They tend to look down on Muscovites, an attitude that seven decades of Bolshevism failed to cure.

The loftiness is shared by the less well-off inhabitants of the Moldavanka neighbourhood, described in Isaac Babel’s stories. Satirising the Russian central government has been second nature since Odessa’s earliest days under Empress Catherine. The tsarist regime used to send the most restless of its intelligentsia to the city, far enough from the imperial capital not to cause mischief, but still close enough at hand in case they wrote something brilliant.

Under Soviet totalitarianism, Odessites taunted the Communist censors by cultivating a special brand of double-entendre unintelligible in Moscow. Satire and sophistication will not be enough to repel Putin’s aggression. Still, Odessites can put the Kremlin in a tight spot, by pointing out that language and country are entirely distinct matters. Their city has been through war and revolution before. Odessa and its people will endure. But at what cost?


  • 11 March 2022 at 1:25pm
    Jake Bharier says:
    The comment about intelligentsia is interesting. During the Cold War period, Isaac Stern was asked about the difficulty of cultural exchanges between the US and the Soviet Union. he said "it's easy. They send us their Jewish intellectuals from Odessa, and we send them ours."

  • 12 March 2022 at 8:24pm
    Helen Cohen says:
    This piece reads as if Odessa were a Ukrainian city inhabited by Ukrainian-speaking citizens, patriotic and brave. Who, furthermore, 'look down' on Moscovites. I don't know how it is nowadays, after almost its entire Jewish population emigrated in the 70-90s; but before that no one in Odessa spoke any Ukrainian (which was spoken in the countryside), they spoke Russian with a distinct Odessa accent. No one 'looked down' on Moscovites, they were aware of being looked down as uber provincial and whoever could, did obtain Moscow 'propiska' and took their families to the capital. Moscovites went there in August to swim in the Black sea. BTW, the word 'Muscovite' is a derogative term when used by the western (Polish) Ukrainians who call all Russian moscovites, because they consider themselves to be the descendants of Kiev/Kyiv Rus. One cannot learn foreign people's history at a university nor use it for political purposes, especially during a savage civil war. Ukraine is a basket right now and for an intellectual to take sides or pretend to know is borderline immoral.

    • 13 March 2022 at 12:33pm
      Sonia Hammam says: @ Helen Cohen
      History is being rewritten in this article, purely for propaganda purposes.

    • 15 March 2022 at 11:05am
      Rory Allen says: @ Helen Cohen
      Excuse me if this is a stupid question, but I am not sure I understand your comment, Helen. Are you arguing that (a) the conflict in Ukraine is a civil war and (b) that nobody is entitled to take sides in this conflict? I would be grateful for clarification if this is really what you intend to imply. Thank you.

    • 15 March 2022 at 11:28am
      Reader says: @ Helen Cohen
      If intellectuals are not to take sides, then are we all to sit back with folded hands and let any violence and villainy play out in the rest of the world? I am sorry, but I can't maintain your lofty detachment. I would have thought that anyone with any historical sense of the rise of fascism would have better sense than to suppose that we can pretend that ignoring Putin will make him go away.

    • 15 March 2022 at 2:34pm
      Lexa Hypatia says: @ Helen Cohen
      "One cannot learn foreign people's history at a university". Well, I did. Do I understand from your posting that this kind of study is going to be banned when Putin takes over Odessa?

  • 17 March 2022 at 4:31pm
    Rodney says:
    "Borderline immoral" is to take no side in Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

    You seem to have completely (wilfully?) misunderstood the article. Nowhere does Ms Ghervas say that Odessa is a Ukrainian-speaking city.

    "Muscovite" is an English word. It is not an insult. But you seem to be quite happy to strip Ukrainians in the west of the country of their nationality by calling them "(Polish) Ukrainians".

    Whose side are you on?

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