Ukraine’s Culture Is Bloody, Splendid and Chekhovian

In 1794, Catherine II, empress of Russia, having triumphed over the Ottoman Turks, commanded that the new port city of Odessa rise from the shores of the Black Sea.

Loftily she still gazes out over Ekaterininskaya Square holding that ukase, her bronzed coat glittering after a restoration, a few years ago, that displeased a faction of anti-Russians who scorn the woman who bequeathed them this spacious town with tree-lined avenues and a stately staircase.

Sergei Eisenstein made Odessa’s 200 steps world-famous in his 1925 film “The Battleship Potemkin,” when he sent a baby carriage careening down to the harbor as the mother bleeds to death.

Bobbing in the background is the Potemkin, a battleship in the Imperial Russian fleet whose abused sailors rose up in 1905 after a meal of maggots.

When the mutiny spread to town, tsarist troops took revenge, though Eisenstein relocated the massacre to the steps for dramatic effect. Rifles in position, the robotic troops move down the stairs. Below, enthusiastic Cossacks finish off survivors.

Ukraine’s Breadbasket

The Potemkin mutiny thrilled Lenin, who viewed it as a dress rehearsal for his better organized revolution of 1917, which did not benefit Ukraine. After years of bloody fighting, the Soviet Union captured Ukraine’s breadbasket, leaving a few crumbs for others.

Novels, plays, poems and films provide windows into Ukraine’s messy history of shifting borders and changing overlords, who extracted maximum pain from people who lived there.

Once the Soviets departed the capital of Kiev during World War II, the occupying Germans focused on murdering the Jews, dumping 30,000 plus in the ravine of Babi Yar.

Their cries are heard in Shostakovich’s 13th Symphony, which incorporated poems by Yevtushenko (“I become a gigantic scream/ Above the thousands buried here”) and greatly displeased Soviet authorities, though both artists were allowed to live.

Cities changed names or disappeared behind the Iron Curtain, agitating the memories of the departed.

I think of Gregor von Rezzori (1914-1998), who was born in Czernowitz, Bukovina, in the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. By 1958, when he published “An Ermine in Czernopol,” the real Czernowitz, renamed Chernivtsi, languished in the Soviet Union (after a brief Romanian period).

Now it’s part of western Ukraine, whose inhabitants dream in euros, unlike their neighbors in the eastern realm.

No More Laughing

Rezzori’s hucksters laugh a lot. Their descendants are not joining them right now.

Thinking about Ukraine’s disastrous attempts at independence over the centuries, one needs to drink a lot. Luckily, the country is a famed producer of pepper vodka. Imagine the terror average Ukrainians feel these days at the prospect of Barack Obama dithering over their future instead of keeping up his humorous TV appearances and helping Syria. At least Vladimir Putin offers gas instead of hot air.

As our global strategists furrow their brows, here’s a selection of readings illuminating the past.

The Crimean War

Crimea: Transferred to the Soviet republic of Ukraine by the USSR in 1954, but without the resident Soviet navy. The current potentate wants it back, unsurprisingly.

Before this turn of events, the Crimean was known for the war that soaked the water from 1853 until 1856, when Russia was beaten by the combined forces of Britain, France, the Ottoman Empire and Sardinia. Countries were better organized back then, you might say.

For a report from the field, read “Sevastopol Sketches” by a young Tolstoy, who witnessed the port’s year-long siege as a second lieutenant in the artillery. Later imagining the carnage at Borodino in “War and Peace,” he had plenty of material.

Florence Nightingale’s detailed letters describe the fighting that kept her busy bandaging. “It is quite true that a sortie of 8,000 Russians was repulsed by 1,500 of ours. One man killed 14 Russians with his own hand.”

Back home in London, Alfred, Lord Tennyson was at his breakfast table when he read about an unfortunate communication mishap at the battle of Balaclava and turned it into “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”

Try acting it out with utensils!

“Cannon to right of them,/ Cannon to left of them,/ Cannon behind them/ Volley’d and thunder’d.” However, the 1936 movie with a dazzling Errol Flynn is splendid.

Chekhov’s Yalta

Yalta: A handsome town unfairly blighted by the 1945 conference that consigned Eastern Europe to Soviet slavery for almost 50 years.

The weak-lunged Anton Chekhov moved here in 1899, building himself a villa surrounded by fruit trees that inspired “The Cherry Orchard.” For a snapshot of local life and marital infidelity read “The Lady with the Dog,” which Vladimir Nabokov called “one of the greatest short stories ever written.”

Pushkin’s Odessa

Alexander Pushkin started “Eugene Onegin” in Odessa, though he spent most of his time pursuing the wife of the governor, who took creative revenge by ordering the poet, then in the social service, to write a lengthy report on an infestation of locusts.

Charles King tells the funny story in “Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams.” Sadder was the fate of the Jewish Isaak Babel, author of “Odessa Tales,” who also had an unsuitable affair -- with the wife of Yezhov, an official in Stalin’s secret police.

A later era drifts into focus with the Ephrussi banking family, who became immeasurably rich trading grain and oil throughout Europe. Then the Nazis stole everything in 1938 except for a treasure trove of tiny Japanese carvings that a devoted maid secreted in her mattress. Edmund de Waal turned their discovery into a wistful, delicately fashioned family memoir, “The Hare With Amber Eyes.”

More poetry and prose inspired by Putin and company will surely come soon.

(Manuela Hoelterhoff is an executive editor at Bloomberg News. Any opinions are her own.)

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