think odessa


Like other burgeoning seaports of southern Europe, such as Trieste or Thessalonica, Odessa became a magnet for Jewish enterprise, and by the late nineteenth century Jews constituted a third of its population. They suffered the usual indignities and impertinences of prejudice (‘No Jews are admitted’, blandly says my Murray’s Handbook, 1899, of the Odessa Commercial Club): they responded with perhaps more than the usual vivacity. They never, it seems, realised the commercial and financial dominance that they achieved in Trieste, under the Austro-Hungarian Empire; but during the later years of tsarist rule many of them played prominent parts in the intellectual and artistic society of Odessa. Theatre, literature and opera flourished in the city. Writers, actors and musicians responded to its generous climate, and cultivated Jews contributed largely to the style of a city that was sometimes called the southern capital of Russia, and sometimes the Pearl of the South. King traces this rise to celebrity with vivid portraits of the people who inspired it. There was Grigory Potemkin himself, whose very first show-villages were built to ornament a preposterously grand visit by the Empress Catherine, his lover as well as his boss. There was the French Duc de Richelieu, the first governor of the city, whose statue stands to this day at the head of the Steps; there was also the very Russian Count Mikhail Vorontsov, governor-general of New Russia. There was Alexander Pushkin, the poet, who was exiled to Odessa because of his subversive attitudes and presently had an affair with the governor-general’s wife. And there was Lev Bronstein, who learnt, as a troublesome Jewish schoolboy in this city of cross-currents, some of the insights that would guide him when he became, in later life, Leon Trotsky.

more from Jan Morris at Literary Review here.