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Murderers, Cuckolds, Traders Adored Odessa: Manuela Hoelterhoff

The cover jacket of
The cover jacket of "Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams," by Charles King. Source: W. W. Norton & Company via Bloomberg

March 29 (Bloomberg) -- Odessa: The name throws off a mysterious dark glitter befitting a city on the Black Sea.

Catherine the Great commanded its construction in the late 18th century as she beat up the Ottomans and built up her fleet. French aristocrats fleeing the revolution and mercenaries like John Paul Jones -- who would be sent packing for raping a 12-year-old girl -- eagerly joined her service.

Jews, Europeans, Russians all preened and haggled on Deribasovskaya Street. Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein sent a famous baby carriage bumping down the immense staircase that leads to the harbor during the massacre in "Battleship Potemkin.”

“Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams,” by Charles King, a professor of government and international affairs at Georgetown University, is a captivating history starting with the Greeks and ending in New York’s emigre enclave of Little Odessa in Brighton Beach.

We spoke at Bloomberg’s New York headquarters.

Hoelterhoff: I was surprised to find Mark Twain visiting Odessa in the 1860s. So was it a popular destination, part of the Grand Tour?

King: It was where the Grand Tour Plus might end up. If you were a little more adventurous, then after Venice or Rome you would tack on Istanbul, and if you were in Istanbul you might as well head across the Bosporus and hit the two big places that he goes to in the Russian Empire: Odessa and Yalta.

Odessa was very well-known around the world by then. And if you were in shipping or the global grain trade, you really knew Odessa.

Pushkin’s Mistress

Hoelterhoff: Interesting characters abound. There’s the Neapolitan de Ribas whose name would become imbedded in Deribasofskaya Street. And Pushkin, who was exiled here for a while, and probably wandered along that street hoping for a glimpse of his mistress, the countess wife of Odessa’s governor-general.

King: That was a great love triangle: Vorontsov, his wife Lise Vorontsova, and Pushkin, the likely father of one of her children.

She probably inspired Tatiana in his famous “Evgeny Onegin,” who at the end of the day chooses her husband over passionate love.

Hoelterhoff: I enjoyed Vorontsov’s imaginative revenge.

Revenge Is Mine

King: Yes. He sends Pushkin, who was in the social service, to deal with a locust infestation. Even worse, not just to deal with the locusts, but to write a report. The great poet is sent to write a report on locust infestation.

Hoelterhoff: And then sent away, back home to his mother. Thanks to another famous visitor, Odessa’s steps are memorialized for all time when Eisenstein sends the soldiers down the stairs shooting everyone in their way.

King: The baby buggy is one of the most copied sequences in film history. Everyone from Brian de Palma to Terry Gilliam has had a version of this.

In “The Untouchables,” Kevin Costner saves the baby. See, that is the American version. In the Russian version, the baby’s probably dead.

Hoelterhoff: What’s it like to walk through town today?

King: A lot of buildings have been refurbished. The grand opera house was just renovated a few years ago along with the old philharmonic hall.

The director of the Odessa Philharmonic is an American who is doing really well with the local orchestra. There’s a great musical tradition, with its violin school and its conservatory.

Hoelterhoff: You mention that old joke associated with Isaac Stern: “They send us their Jews from Odessa and we send them our Jews from Odessa.” How would you describe Brooklyn’s Little Odessa?

In Amber

King: It’s an Odessa of the late Soviet period that will probably never change because the people who built Brighton Beach today came then.

So it’s almost like going into a time machine: Brighton Beach is like Odessa frozen in amber.

“Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams” by Charles King is published by Norton. To order the book in North American, click here.

(Manuela Hoelterhoff is executive editor of Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Any opinions expressed are her own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)

To contact the writer on the story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Beech at mbeech@bloomberg.net.

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