Odessa Story: Reading Isaac Babel in Ukraine
The Ukrainian Black Sea port has lost most of its Jews, but not the vestiges of the muddled, criminal city Isaac Babel imagined
Odessa was the epicenter and staging ground not only of the Russian Jew’s secularization but also of his masculinization. The great voice and chronicler of this dual evolution was Issac Babel, whose stories I re-read with great pleasure while sitting in cafés on tourist-thronged Deribasovskaya Street, in a post-Soviet Odessa that has lost most of its Jews but is in many ways unchanged from the city that Babel described with such pungent and precise language, and to such mythic effect. The title character of the “Rabbi” story in Babel’s Red Cavalry cycle is the crooked and ancient Hasidic Rabbi of Zhitomir. This wizened last representative of a dying dynasty tartly interrogates the protagonist of the story—a traveling Jewish war correspondent who has dropped in to share a Shabbat meal and to drink the wine that “won’t be offered”—about “where this Jew has come from?” The answer, “Odessa,” propels him into knowing perorations of lyrical exasperation: “The Godly city, the star of our exile, that reluctant wellspring of all our troubles!”
The rabbi’s sickly-idiot son is in the corner of the room desecrating the holy day by smoking. It is apparent even to our passing Jewish war correspondent that he will be of no use in continuing the family line or propagating the law. The rabbi and the other men in the room spit words of toxic condemnation on him but the traveling war correspondent pleases the rabbi with his erudition—“What did this Jew study?” he is asked; “Bible,” he answers—and his comportment. The pathos of the scene is to be found in the mutual understanding between the rabbi and the soldier-intellectual, one lucidly perceiving the new path his people must take, the other regretting the passing of ancient traditions. At the end of the story the war correspondent returns to his unit of the Red Cavalry to write an article for its newspaper. Like me, he is behind deadline and he must spend the entire night at his typewriter.
Yet Odessa was never just the wellspring of all our troubles. Built by Italians and Greeks, its original ruling class was the cream of mendicant European Aristocracy. (The first several governors were French.) Populated to this day by hundreds of nationalities, it was the Black Sea gateway to Constantinople. It was the regional outpost of European trade and thought, and every idea, innovation, caprice, and whim of Europe was there taken up, second hand, from the holds and decks of the ships docked in the port on their way to being spread, along with the occasional bout of plague, throughout the Russian Empire. Demographically the most Jewish city besides Minsk at the edge of the empire, Odessa was the only place inside the pale of settlement where Jews weren’t prohibited from living in town. In fact they had been actively incentivized to do so, and Odessan Jewry was among the most emancipated and disabused throughout the Russian Empire. Babel’s ancient rabbi was not wrong to be suspicious of his guest.
The “star of our exile” is, along with Alexandria, Thessaloniki, New Orleans, and Naples, one of a constellation of glittering and flamboyantly raucous port towns that fascinate and inspire the continuous composition of enough history books and reminisces to fill whole libraries. Odessans are curators of their own mythic past par excellence. One Soviet-era Odessa professor made his vocation in writing 30-odd books about “Criminal Odessa.” (Naturally , I was warned off by other historians from using these as source material, as half the stories had been made up.)
The latest English addition to this literature and an excellent guide to the city is Charles King’s 2011 chronicle, Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams. A readable distillation of Odessan folklore and yarns nimbly unspooled by an academic clearly having fun on his sabbatical abroad, it is a treasury of salty anecdotes, such as the unlikely tale of the Sioux circus performer traveling with a Russian troupe in the Crimean port town of Sevastopol. The native American had found himself sacked after a night-long vodka-fueled bender; the circus had departed, and his costume had been stolen so he walked naked through the city. The British Consul took pity on him and lent him the ferry money to Odessa, where, as a member of the Sioux nation, he was entitled to services from the American consul. The American diplomat then took him to see an Orthodox Jewish tailor who made him a new costume. We know all this from diplomatic archives: The consul had requested an official reimbursement of $75 from the State Department to cover the cost of the costume.
King’s book also unearthed for me the amazing fact that Catherine the Great’s 1792 campaign to wrest control of the Crimea and the surrounding territories from the Turks was waged by a ragtag assortment of regular army, irregulars, conscripts, and mercenaries that also included “a company of Jewish lancers” drawn from regional farmers who owned horses. Jews of what would become the Odessa region were in fact the first Jewish soldiers in the Russian Army.
Built on the dusty steppe amid borderland anarchy and casual banditry, Odessa retains the entrepreneurial scheming spirit that has always been its most beloved characteristic. Babel’s most famous and adored literary creation is the swaggering wiseguy Jewish gangster Benya Krik of the Odessa Tales. As the scene of some of the worst pogroms of the Russian Empire, Odessa harbored Jews who had to get tough fast. Marvelously, and sometimes not, much of the character of the city remains unaffected: Picaresque kleptocracy and violent crime have remained steady features of Odessan life for two centuries. The talk of the town this summer was renewed efforts by the local authorities to expropriate businesses and redistribute them to members of the president’s Party of the Regions. From the largest corporate enterprises to my fiancée’s friend’s graphic design shop with its four employees, no one was safe. The tax police come first asking for the receipts, and the goons arrive shortly thereafter.
The current president of the country, Victor Yanukovych (aka the head of the so-called Donetsk mafia) has been tried and convicted and jailed for multiple violent crimes, including assault. After the 2004 uprising known as the “orange revolution,” 2007 marked the Ukrainian public’s one concerted effort at democratic intervention into a political process it feels it has no control over. Viktor Yushchenko’s ineffectual reign, after clawing back the presidency in the wake of mass demonstrations over a rigged election, and the collapse of the government from infighting between him and fellow revolutionary, braided former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, dampened any further enthusiasm for democratic politics amongst the Ukrainian people. Tymoshenko’s politically motivated trial for corruption in signing off on Russian natural gas contracts as prime minister was this summer’s televised grand spectacle. (Sample dialogue from the proceedings: Judge: “You will stand when addressed by this court and refer to me as ‘your honor’ as legislated by the Ukrainian Law codex!” Tymoshenko: “Honor cannot be legislated; it must be earned.”) This month, she was sentenced to seven years in jail.
Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus” is a greater symbol of freedom’s light than the Statue of Liberty