Stella Ghervas | Odessa on the Edge · LRB 10 March 2022

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?

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