Dossier: Odessa

by Judith Vöcker

The second morning of our excursion starts off with a strong coffee in one of the numerous picturesque streets of Odessa with Katharina the Great in sight, whose cast-iron arm directs our gaze towards the port and the Black Sea. She seems to point towards Armand du Plessis, at whose feet the famous Potemkin Stairs commence. Two of the most important personalities of Odessa’s long history within eyesight of one another: Seemingly the perfect place to go back in time to where it all began.

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Going back to the ancient days, various Plain-folk settled in the territory where Odessa stands today, amongst them Scythians, Sarmatians and the Thracian tribe. In the early Middle Ages, the first eastslavic tribes inhabited the territory but were quickly suppressed by turkish nomadic tribes. Hence, the settlement Hacibey was founded in 1440 but soon assigned to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Eventually, the territory became a part of the Ottoman Empire in 1562.

In September 1789, Russian troops conquered the area under the command of governour-general Joseph de Ribas in the course of the Russian-Turkish War. As a result, the territory east of the Dniester was given to the Russian Empire in 1792. Two years later, Katharina the Great initiated the foundation the city of Odessa in order to have a highly efficient military harbour for the Black and Mediterranean Sea region. Joseph de Ribas was announced the first gouvenour of Odessa and was succeeded by Armand du Plessis, to which Katharina is pointing to on the previously mentioned Katerynyns’ka Street. Through him, the first infrastructural foundations were laid as well as catacombs built. Though it was not until 1823 that the city magnificently recorded economic growth and cultural and educational institutions such as theatres, libraries and schools were built. Simultaneously, the cities population doubled until 1849.

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What follows are the Russian Revolution in 1905 and the militant foundation of the Ukrainian People’s Republic in 1918 which was not bound to last for long. From 1920 onwards, Odessa became a part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic and accordingly of the Soviet Union after its foundation in 1922. 69 years later, Odessa finds itself in the now independent state of Ukraine, again. Since the annexation of Crimea and thus of Sevastopol, the city has become the headquarters of the Ukrainian naval forces.

How did this long, intense and diverse history leave its marks in the population of Odessa? I’m gazing along Katerynyns’ka Street – it is already vivid and lively during the morning hours: From busy businessmen on their cellphones or clusters of young boys and girls in naval uniform as well as occasional tourists, who enjoy the very last warm days of this particularly mellow late summer.

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Traditionally, the cities‘ inhabitants, who call themselves Odessites, have always been from various ethnic origins and religious backgrounds. Though the foundations were laid by mostly french and Spanish statesmen, the majority of the citizens have been from Russian and Jewish background for most of the cities existence. As a result of the Partitions of Poland in 1793 and 1795, many Jews immigrated to Odessa. Henceforth, the Jewish population grew constantly, reaching up to 30% of the cities overall population in the early 20th century. World War II marks a turning point within the demographic development – Due to the occupation by i. a. Romanian but first and foremost German troops from 1941 until 1944, the majority of the Jewish population either fled or was diminished through numerous pogroms and deportations. Thus today, the biggest ethnical group in Odessa is made up by Ukrainians for the first time in its history.

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Significantly for Odessa is not solely its bustling port or the majestic townhouses and beach strides, but has also been praised and sung about by its former residents. One of the most significant and well known are Isaak Babels ‚Stories from Odessa‘, which is a collection of short stories, published between 1923 and 1924. The short stories take place in the Odessa of the early 20th century, during the last days of the Russian Empire and thus the beginning of the October Revolution. Its main protagonist, Benja Krik, lives in the former centre of jewish life of Odessa, Moldowanka, a quarter which had been mostly associated with crime and criminals, hence described as a ‚ghetto-like‘ area of the city. The atmosphere in Moldowanka is described as if “a heavy fog runs through the city like a fate.” through the windows “flows a gloomy, yellow light, a sort of darkness with a bright core.”

Unfortunately though, we did not get a chance to experience the atmosphere of Moldowanka – one of the many reasons to return to Odessa and relive its history thoroughly besides being reminded of its founders and contributors through over dimensioned metal figures.

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