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An Unlikely Love Affair with Odessa, Ukraine

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Photo: Martha Camarillo

History never feels musty or dead in Odessa. Partly that’s because this flamboyant Black Sea port, geopolitically in Ukraine but with a soul and esprit all its own, is such a young city, just over two centuries old. But mainly it’s because Odessites gossip about historical personages as if they had all shared a Soviet communal apartment with them.

Our duke!” proclaims a vendor of sailor shirts, gesturing at the gray Neoclassical statue. We’re on Primorsky Boulevard, the acacia-lined promenade fronting the city’s seaside heights. Our duke is, of course, Armand-Emmanuel du Plessis, Duke de Richelieu—a relative of the famous French cardinal, exile from the French Revolution, and, as the city’s mayor between 1803 and 1814, the man credited with the splendid emergence of this “Pearl by the Sea.”

“Our duke had to flee France,” Comrade Sailor Shirts confides, luridly. “On account of an arranged marriage...to a hunchback dwarf!

His transhistorical scandal-mongering delights me. Suddenly the statue’s stony gaze under his laurel wreath turns a lot less aloof.

My mom and I sit on a Primorsky bench, doing what the locals do—cracking sunflower seeds. Nearby, on the iconic granite Potemkin Steps, my boyfriend, Barry, is gleefully “re-enacting” the famous close-ups from Battleship Potemkin, Sergey Eisenstein’s 1925 masterpiece of cinema (and propaganda fabrication) about a shipboard mutiny. We’ve been in Odessa only a few hours and already our heads are spinning. But that’s why we’ve come: to soak up the outsize lore of this vibrant, garrulous port variously known as Southern Palmyra, Babylon on the Black Sea, or “Odessa-Mama” to its inhabitants. After St. Petersburg (Peter the Great’s northern window on Europe), sunny Odessa (Catherine the Great’s southern window on Europe) is the most mythologized place in Russian cultural history, the birthplace of some of last century’s greatest musicians, writers, humorists, and gangsters. Even if it has formally “belonged” to Ukraine since 1991.

My mother and I bring with us our own Odessa issues. Though born here in 1934, Mom grew up in Moscow, and only knew her native city from her 1970’s seaside vacations with me. Ah, our un-idyllic Odessa Augusts, bivouacking on flimsy cots with mom’s local relatives. In the concrete courtyard of their communal-apartment block, giant underwear flapped, drying, while neighbors fried smelly fish on their Primus stoves. As a kid I regarded Odessa with imperialist Muscovite condescension—and wild curiosity. The Odessites seemed piratical and operatic. They spoke a strangely accented Russian, and answered questions with questions—So? And? They gave directions in negatives: See our gorgeous, glorious opera house? Well, you don’t want to turn there. At Langeron beach we’d spread our meager towels, squeezed amid reddened Socialist flesh. Mom would smear my frail Moscow body with healing mineral Odessa mud, and there I’d lie—an encrusted young mummy—pining for our cold northern capital.

And yet after my mother and I emigrated to America in 1974, I found myself missing Odessa. The myth of Odessa. Now, strolling here again, I recognize Odessa-Mama, and don’t. The new Southern Palmyra seems like another freshly dolled up semi-globalized post-Soviet city of around one million, with the requisite Max Mara boutiques and smiley youths herding at a chain called Top Sendvich. Signs are in Ukrainian now, even if potbellied domino players tell jokes—loudly—in Russian. The Soviet grime and provincial inferiority have been covered up with fresh, blazing pastels—pistachio, custard, sky blue. But still. Off wide, arrow-straight avenues, laundry flaps in crumbling courtyards and melon-bosomed matrons shriek at their husbands: “Moron! DON’T nauseate into my ear!” And once again Mom and I gape at the fantastical trove of architectural detail: lascivious caryatids bare their breasts to the pungent Black Sea breezes; Atlases writhe under the weight of preposterously ornate porticoes. The taste for such flamboyant eclecticism was set in the mid 19th century, when Odessa was so flush from its status as a grain-shipping free port that its bindiuzhniki (draymen) rolled cigarettes from 10-ruble bills. The local populace was eclectic from the start. Greeks, Russians, Italians, Armenians, French, and especially Jews—all flocked to the rollicking port seeking their fortunes. The center’s Neoclassical layout? The work of a Dutch engineer. The cakelike neo-Baroque opera house? Built in the 1880’s by the Viennese architects who designed the Vienna State Opera. Even the Potemkin Steps were a British job.

Odessa has a Greek Street, an Italian Boulevard, and a French Boulevard. But “the queen of all streets,” to quote one native son, is Deribasovskaya—named after José de Ribas, a Neapolitan (of Irish and Catalan stock) who in 1789, while in the service of Catherine the Great, conquered the dusty Ottoman fort that would become Odessa. We watch the action on the cobblestones below from the second floor of Café Kompot. Belles in stilt-high stilettos; bêtes in black leather jackets; oldsters in panama hats—everyone eventually ends up here at Kompot, the grand café named after the idyllic fruit compotes of our Soviet summers. At the bakery counter, airy Gallic brioches preen beside dense Ukrainian poppy-seed rolls. The bi-level space itself is a canny mash-up of U.S.S.R. nostalgia and flea-market chic straight out of Brooklyn or London’s Islington. At our antique wooden table we chase spoonfuls of bracing solianka, a meat soup zesty with capers and olives, with shots of devilishly warming horseradish-and-honey vodka. “Just like my grandma’s!” Mom moons over the plump syrniki (farmer-cheese patties).

Kompot’s co-owner, local restaurant czar Savely (Savva) Libkin, stops by. Fiftyish, wiry, and dapper, Libkin exemplifies your post-Soviet biznesman, but with savvy and soul. Like me, he grew up in a crammed Soviet apartment with a grandfather who “didn’t have one bad word for Stalin.” In 1993, “still pre-koka-kola,” he opened Odessa’s first pizza chain, then graduated to far more stylish concepts such as Kompot, the nostalgic Dacha, and the haute-rustic Steakhouse nearby. “Moscow?” he snorts. “The poor can’t afford it; the rich spit on it.” Libkin himself jets to Paris or Piedmont, Italy, on eating research trips. And yet hearing him talk about old Odessa’s Jewish cuisine you can practically taste the garlicky wallop of his grandmother’s kotleti (Soviet burgers) or picture his grandpa laboring over forshmak, the iconic local chopped herring. Libkin espouses a mission: “To return Odessa cuisine to the Odessites.”

His hipster daughter, a fashion photographer living in Tokyo, turns up. “Papa,” she says, “I need a severed head for a photo shoot.”

Nyet problem,” Papa replies. “Human or animal?”

We bid them good luck and zoom off to the opera. From our orchestra seats, the interior of the recently restored theater resembles a red-velvet-lined hatbox inside of which a delirious prankster has exploded a bag of gold dust. Plaster angels throw their limbs from high perches. How opera-crazy are Odessites? So crazy that moms used to name their girls Traviata (never mind the connotation in Italian). On tonight’s bill is Iolanta, a Tchaikovsky caper about a blind princess. The soprano shrieks; the tenor bleats; but still I’m overcome with emotion. This is the building where my grandfather proposed to my grandmother. Anna Pavlova, Enrico Caruso, and Sarah Bernhardt all roamed this stage. During World War II bombardments, radio bulletins began with, “The opera house is still standing.”

Next day, we’re off in Libkin’s black Audi for a tour of the famous Privoz Market, which dates from the early 19th century. Libkin laments recent modernizations—“all that’s left is the cheating”—but I’m fascinated by the cacophonous sprawl. On teeming sidewalks Moldovan gypsies hawk potions (herbal Viagra, anyone?). Inside the vintage meat hall, Mom and I swoon first at the pristinely preserved Stalin-era artwork of Soviet “abundance,” then at the porcine extravagance: kielbasa garlands, mosaics of quivering headcheese, fat-studded blood pudding sold by hulking dames in outrageously frilly aprons. After trying 17 iterations of salo (that wholesome Ukrainian lardo), I suddenly realize:

Today is Passover.

Nyet problem: a guy next to me piles bacon slices onto a piece of matzoh and merrily scarfs it all down.

The produce aisles resound with endearing Odessa vernacular.

Rybonka, my little fishie! Stop touching my cucumbers already. They won’t get any harder!”

We stroll on, lost in this post-Soviet melting pot. Carpathians with their briny blocks of creamy-white feta. Northern Caucasian vendors peddling cheremsha (pickled ramps) next to Tajik boys with gold teeth and high cheekbones and amber pyramids of sun-dried Central Asian apricots. In the dairy hall, ruddy-faced babushkas from the Ukrainian hinterlands proffer samples of thick village smetana (sour cream) and ryazhenka, fermented milk slow-baked to a caramel tan.

“Remember the Soviet dairy grift?” Savva hoots. “Smetana-diluted-with-buttermilk-diluted-with-milk-diluted-with-water?”

As if on cue, a shopper shrieks at a dairyman: “Your milk’s watered down!” 

“Madame,” he retorts. “It rained heavily just now!”

“And? So?” she bellows back. “You couldn’t get your cows an umbrella?”

Ah, Odessa-Mama.

That night we have an ecumenical seder at Libkin’s best restaurant, Dacha. On leafy French Boulevard, which is lined with 19th-century summer houses, he has restored a cream-colored mansion set in a rambling garden of poplar and fruit trees. The warm twilight is scented with apple blossoms; Soviet sixties pop wafts moonward. Waiters greet customers with herbal vodkas, garlicky house-made pickles in wooden tubs, and yes, more Ukrainian lardo.

Oy gevalt! My childhood, I’m gonna faint,” an old matron gulps, touring the cozy rooms decorated with sentimental knickknacks from Soviet apartments.

“In Odessa we had like a hundred nationalities,” declares Sasha, the suave service manager, as he loads our table with appetizers. “Our passion for feta, a Greek legacy. Roasted peppers, a Moldovan touch. Grilling from the Armenians; borscht, vareniki dumplings, and stuffed cabbage from the Ukrainians.” Dacha’s stuffed cabbage is succulent and petite as a pinkie. And here are the Jewish specialties we’ve been promised: velvety hand-chopped forshmak of fat herring; poached rooster suspended in flavorful aspic. And sheika, that ur-babushka treat. “Sheika is not a dish; it’s a project,” Sasha declares. “You haggle for a hen at Privoz; skin and bone it; stuff it with minced chicken meat and many eggs....” I nod, my mouth full of this Jewish chicken soufflé.

We finish with majestic kambala, the meaty, snow-white Black Sea turbot sizzled on an iron griddle.

“The piscine equivalent of a Kobe-beef porterhouse!” Barry coos, while Mom abandons all decorum and loudly sucks the rich, fatty flesh around the bones.

On our last day we diet on museums—and cultural myths. Our morning perambulation takes us past a tawny-yellow Neoclassical building. Anxious kids haul cello and violin cases inside. This is the Stolyarsky Music School, I realize—a legendary production plant of young virtuosi named after the early-20th-century violin instructor Pyotr Stolyarsky. According to local lore the maestro himself could barely play, but he taught David Oistrakh and Nathan Milstein. Other exports from this music-mad city include pianists Shura Cherkassky and Emil Gilels. “They send us their Jews from Odessa,” quipped Ukrainian-born American violinist Isaac Stern about U.S.-U.S.S.R. cultural exchanges, “and we send them our Jews from Odessa.” Frenetic Paganini passages soar from a Stolyarsky window. I think of another Odessa virtuoso: Isaac Babel, the magician of the Russian short story. Born in the Jewish neighborhood of Modolvanka in 1894, Babel captured Odessa’s brash kolorit (atmosphere) in compressed, pungent prose that’s electric, almost violent, with metaphor. A “factory that churned out child prodigies,” Babel wrote, hinting at Stolyarsky, “of Jewish dwarfs in lace collars and patent-leather shoes.”

Reminiscences about Babel draw us to the Odessa Literary Museum, founded in the late 1980’s, near the Opera, by a (bitterest irony) book-loving KGB officer. Inside the powder-blue 19th-century palace, sumptuous rooms host displays on Odessa’s cultural eras and the writers who were either born or wrote here. Gogol, hypochondriac gluttonous master of the grotesque, worked on his ill-starred second volume of Dead Souls during his stay in 1850. Chekhov, we learn, gorged on local ice cream. The green hall dedicated to Pushkin is the museum’s crowd-pleaser; Russia’s Byron still enjoys rock-star status. Pushkin spent a year of political exile in Odessa in the 1820’s, immortalizing the city in the so-called “Odessa stanzas” of his verse novel, Eugene Onegin. Immortal too is the gossip: how Pushkin cuckolded the regional governor, who got him back by giving the poet the assignment of making a survey of locust infestation.

The Soviet century had a different plague in store for writers and poets. We halt before the museum’s most chilling artifact: the signature wire spectacles of Isaac Babel. The writer had worn glasses since childhood. He was, he wrote, one of that tribe with spectacles on their noses and autumn in their hearts. The NKVD (the KGB’s predecessor) came for him in 1939, torturing and then killing him. The last photo of Babel shows him in captivity, battered and—so piercingly—without his glasses. We walk out into bright sunshine wiping away stabbing tears.

The city’s greatest fiddlers, litterateurs, gangsters, and wits were Jewish, of course. And so we devote our last hours to Migdal Shorashim, the tiny Jewish museum. Being within the czarist Pale of Settlement, the cosmopolitan port attracted Jews from all over the empire, fomenting Jewish commerce and intellectual life. “By the early 20th century,” explains the museum’s doleful curator, “Odessa had the world’s third-largest Jewish population after New York and Warsaw.” The Gateway to Zion, it was called. This is where native son Vladimir Jabotinsky developed his firebrand right-wing Jewish nationalism because cosmopolitan Odessa also suffered some of Europe’s ugliest pogroms (my own great-grandparents’ baby was murdered in front of them in 1905). Some 100,000 Odessa Jews perished in World War II; starting in the 1970’s thousands emigrated to Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach, establishing a parallel myth—a Little Odessa frozen in late-Soviet aspic. Today, Odessa’s Jews number only around 35,000. “But we’re still a vibrant community,” declares the curator.

We peruse the cramped little museum’s dense ethnographic hodgepodge. A century-old cleaver has my mom flashing back to her grandmother Maria’s gefilte fish.

“Next year in Jerusalem,” the mournful man salutes as we leave. “No! Next year I want to rent an apartment here in Odessa!” my mother exclaims. “Can it be?” she wonders to me. “After 79 years, I’ve finally fallen in love with the city where I was born?”

T+L contributing editor Anya von Bremzen is the author of the memoir Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, out next month.

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