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Oleg Gubar

25.11.2014
14:03

The humor of the suffering




Every city is unique, just like every person. Odessa is also unique in its own way, but people talk about this more often.

Let's put aside mysticism, because everything has an explanation, and a rather prosaic one at that.

The main historical feature is that this city – an infant compared with European grandees – constantly sought popularity. Metaphorically, Odessa is the last major city of the “European type”, which appeared relatively recently, and like the young cities of the American West, it was built from scratch, in conditions resembling wartime. But what is natural for a “Western” is quite atypical for elite European cinema. And this lack of conformism with a standard or format is also astonishing in its own way.

The city was created as a major economic project of the Russian Empire, which before its realization was forced to make do with re-exporting its goods by the “international carrier”, England, through northern ports. The gradual annexation of the territories of the Crimean khanate after a series of military campaigns and the divisions of Poland in 1793 and 1795 created all the conditions to form a “military harbor combined with a merchant one”. But to ensure that this project for a military port and trading post was implemented, powerful material and humanitarian resources were required, and specialists were needed who were brought in from various European countries, and given favorable conditions and sizeable bonuses.

Naturally, the undertaking was somewhat risky, as the city not only had to be built from scratch, but in an extremely unfavorable location. At first glance, negative factors would seem to dominate over positive ones: a deficit of fresh water, building materials, fuel, labor, and transport, an arid climate, a range of geotechnical complications, seismic activity, an open sea gulf, epidemic and military threats, and a lack of reliable transport communication with the capital. So the people who came here were risk-takers, “passionary” people, and they had to overcome monstrous ordeals, such as catastrophic epidemics of plague and cholera.

As my dear friend and co-author, the wonderful American historian of Irish ancestry Patricia Herlihy says, the best examples of humor are shown by the people who have suffered the most – the Jews and the Irish. Yes, Odessans of the first generations lived on a powder keg, so to speak, and a large percentage of them were Jews, who can literally be listed by name. Like the Greeks, they played a leading role in carrying out the difficult “Odessa project”.

We shouldn't think that the “pale” was initially a negative thing. On the contrary, the civilized empress Catherine provided enormous territories for the resettlement of Jews from the Rzecz Pospolita, where they were able to realize themselves, and made full use of the opportunity provided. Odessa owes a great obligation to Polish and Austro-Hungarian Jews who moved to the south of the future Ukraine during the “continental blockade” of the Napoleonic era. Europe had been ruined by constant warfare, and needed the Podolskian grain that the Polish nobility exported via Odessa. In a short time, the city had become famous as a world exporter of bread – this is how fortunately things came about.

It was an incredible stroke of good luck when Tsar Alexander I entrusted the management of the southern region to his confidant, the outstanding state figure of outstanding intelligence and honesty Duke Richelieu, who laid the foundation of the city. The Duke worked seriously on the “image promotion” of the young Odessa. Thanks to him, “Odessophile” books and brochures were published in European languages, there were publications in the foreign press, and the city began to fill up with voyagers from European capitals and Russian aristocrats. The duke and his successors – Cobley, Langeron, Vorontsov – continued to attract the finest Russian and foreign specialists, and had a very loyal attitude towards the Jews, Karaites, Krymchaks and Crimean Tatars.

It reached the point that even during the Russo-Turkish War Richelieu petitioned the emperor for permission not to break trade relations between the warring sides. This was unheard of, but far-sighted: the war would end in peace sooner or later, but if commerce was interrupted it might never be resumed – if the demand was not satisfied, then clients might well move to another supplier.

It is here that the native features of Odessa show themselves – a peaceful, commercial, multi-ethnic and healthily pragmatic city, and therefore somewhat apolitical, filled with subtle, long-suffering humor, and sometimes bitter irony. And when difficult times come, and it is deprived of material resources, the run-down city feeds on itself, on its own spirit, its own myth, its own heart. Odessa, it seems to me, only insists on the right to remain itself, no more and no less. While respecting others and for decades giving itself away left, right and center, it can also lay claim to respect. And if not respect, then at least understanding. And if not understanding, then at least compassion.

Odessa is justly called the “forge of Jewish talents”, a “Jewish city”. A list of outstanding Jews from Odessa would be a long one – Oistrakh, Gilels, Bagritsky, Kirsanov, Zhabotinsky, Babel, Utesov, etc., etc. The southern Palmira is a “nursery of talents” for a broad number of ethnic groups, but why are so many of them Jewish?

There are many reasons, and they are all quite obvious and convincing. We have already discussed the first of them. The grandiose “Odessa project” drew almost all of Ashkenazi Jewry, especially the most mobile, healthy and determined of its members. This was a unique chance for self-realization, including creative realization. These bright prospects were not available in any other place: to start one's own business, find a job in a growing, unusual city, and to grow along with it, aspiring to the role of a full citizen, to give one's children full classical education and reach a new plane. And these hopes were justified to a large degree.

I already discussed the patronage of the central and local administration. It not only manifested itself in formal decrees, but also real deeds – for example, the creation of the first Jewish state academy. Jews received land plots for building and the same privileges as members of other religious beliefs, they could take out loans at the public assistance board, they had their own autonomous self-administration, and on land given to the “Jewish society” they built prayer schools, synagogues, charitable institutions, took part in public auctions on contracts, opened banking and notary institutions, major commercial offices, were elected to the State Duma, where they made up a third of the members (legislation simply did not allow any more) etc. As for the so-called Brodsky community, it not only served as a powerful investor for a number of important projects, but also Europeanized, as we would say today, the less advanced masses of Polish-Lithuanian “archaic Jews”.

Not in a single city, not only in Ukraine, Belarus, or Russia, but probably in the whole of Europe was there such a large Jewish community, such strong Jewish institutions and resources, and such a powerful Jewish lobby in the municipality. It would be strange and even unnatural if in such circumstances and with such an incredible drive for self-realization and education, Jewish talents had not cropped up one after another. Especially against the background of the progressive growth of local cultural and educational centers and establishments, including state and private gymnasiums, academies, lyceums, and the university, the Society of fine arts, theaters, music classes, the conservatory and so on.

Of course, less wealthy Odessa Jews did not have the opportunity of educating their children abroad, in the medicine and pharmaceutical field, for example, and so they chose fields that were not connected with state service. Taking into account the initially high level of musical culture, the presence of excellent performers and teachers, primarily Italians, we should not be surprised that many Jewish children expected a future as violinists, pianists or cellists. Again, no other city had such a proportion of professional teachers and Jewish parents who yearned to send their children to them. This is not an oddity, it is a real fact.

The “ascent of talents” was not seen immediately by any means – and not only among the Jews, but among Odessans in general. You won't be able to name any Odessa child prodigies who became famous before the end of the 19th century. There is nothing surprising about this, as full maturation of talents requires time. For the city to give results, a long time had to be spent investing in it. Many decades were invested in Odessa, and then it blossomed, very impressively, bearing the fruit of long years.

Difficult times came, and the “Maritime Gomorrah” began to produce talents for export, for here, in the province by the sea, they could not properly develop. We expect more new Akhmatovas and Zhvanetskys from Odessa, but we may never see them. For interest accumulates from an investment. If you constantly withdraw from the account, then you may go bankrupt.

In the best years, 75% of the city budget consisted of customs takings. This was also the case in the years of the free port. Duty-free trade is a myth. It's another matter that customs duties were only a fifth, and later two fifth of the duties in ports with a traditional customs system. But this was more than enough not only to maintain decent conditions, but also for the positive evolution of the city. So we must understand that in many ways the Jewish emigration was caused by the lack of prospects for creative self-realization, and in the broadest sense. Odessa will wither away in one direction, and it will not be saved by lone sponsors, including Jewish ones. The time has come to launch a new grandiose “Odessa project”, on the scale of the first one, at state level. Otherwise, the “Pearl by the sea” will degrade into a truly backward “province by the sea”. And who needs that...

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