Odessa Potpourri II

#Names to Reckon By:

* John Paul Jones, we learned in school, was the first great naval hero in American history. Less well known is that he later left America for the greener waters of Catherine the Great’s navy.  He fought against the Ottomans in the Black Sea; he was either a poor and indecisive leader, or he was undone by his conspiratorial colleagues who, among other things, had him sacked for sexual misconduct with a twelve year-old girl. He died broke in Paris. Matters looked up for him later when his bones were carried back to America where he earned a hero’s well-done welcome.

*The Duc de Richelieu, the great-nephew of the famous Cardinal who controlled Louis XIII, escaped the revolutionary guillotine, went east, found a new master, and led the drive to make Odessa that 18th century City on the Hill, Paris of the East, Washington, DC, etc. He established libraries, schools, the first printing press. And he planted those thousands upon thousands of acacia trees to shade the great avenues along which the Great and the Good would walk of an evening once the big money began to flow.

*Prince Gregory Potemkin was Catherine’s lover, a hero of the first Ottoman campaigns, and the architect of the developing Soviet empire called the New Russia. In 1787 he invited Catherine to survey his progress. The Potemkin Village was invented here: as Catherine cruised down the waterways towards Odessa, she could see the facades of new, prosperous villages. She could not see props and sandbags that held the facades upright. Potemkin had a famous battleship named after him. It stars in a movie where everyone dies on the massive staircase that runs up from the port to the City On The Hill. These days young men stop you on the stairs to be photographed with an eagle’s talons grasping your forearm in the gentlest of death-grips.

*The young poet Pushkin arrived in the 1820s, exiled from St. Petersburg. In the east he became involved with the Filiki Eteria, a brotherhood devoted to Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire. He also became involved with Lise Vorontsov, the wife of Odessa’s powerful governor. Vorontsov rid himself of Pushkin by assigning him the task of counting locust eggs so that the city could prepare for that year’s infestation. Pushkin found this occupation demeaning, so he pled for an exile from his exile, and it was granted. He was later killed in a duel with a man he accused of sleeping with his wife. His death deprived Lise Vorontsov’s child a chance to get to know his father.

# The Working Man’s Opera

To celebrate the 125th anniversary of the opera house, the Ministry of Culture of Ukraine and the Odessa National Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre produced a rather spacious production of ‘Aida’ last week. The opera house itself (see photographs below) has a fiery history having burnt down at least once and having been bombed during WWII. Each disaster has been followed by a wellspring of civic pride that restores the theatre to the grandeur that was supposed to accompany all those boulevards and acacias and visions of Paris. Indeed, the view from the opera house is far superior to the view from the Paris Opera or the Metropolitan or La Scala. There is the yellow Archeological Museum with the Museum of Literature tucked in behind it, the long slope down to the port, the ships, the harbor, the Black Sea roiling into the  distance. And the talent was in evidence: the production was conducted by People’s Artist of the Republic of Moldova Aleksandru Samoile. The choirmaster was Honoured Art Worker of Ukraine Leonid Butenko. The coaches included two People’s Artists of the Ukraine and two Honoured People’s Artists.  The Director was an Honoured Art Worker of Urkraine. Radmes, Ramfis, the King of Ethiopia, the High Priestess, and the daughter of he King were all Honoured. Aida herself, strangely, was a nobody. The singing throughout was fine, and the orchestra played wonderfully. The set was appropriately domineering. The direction and acting smacked distinctly of wood. Egyptians and Ethiopians planted their feet squarely, faced front, and declared one great passion after another without moving, until it was time to drop to one knee to swear allegiance to god, country, or love.

#Three Books to Give You a More Sober Understanding of Odessa

King, Charles. Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams

De Waal, Edmund: The Hare with Amber Eyes

Babel, Isaac: Red Cavalry and Other Stories [especially the “Odessa Stories”]

King’s book traces the history of Odessa as if he were writing a biography of the living city and its many fascinating relatives, like Richelieu, Pushkin, etc. He also gives us a complex ethnography, the history of the many nationalities, races, religions that settled, competed, and co-existed here. His chapters on the fate of Jews in Odessa is as depressing and eye-opening as any Holocaust work. Shame on Odessa’s head!  And Romania’s, too. Babel’s stories are wonderful, outlandish, larger-than-life portraits of Jewish gangsters, among other entertaining glances at a past time when the energy needed to survive made heroes of the most common men and women. The Hare with Amber Eyes combines history, autobiography, art history, economic history, family history, a quest story. Beautifully written, it traces the spread of influence of the Ephrussis, an Odessa Jewish family that so prospered that it established a banking empire in Vienna, Paris, and Berlin, inter-married with the Rothschild’s, patronized all the great Impressionist and post-impressionist painters, was destroyed by the Nazis. It all starts with the family patriarch essentially cornering the Ukrainian wheat market. Curiously, the Ephrussi family is not mentioned in King’s book.

One thought on “Odessa Potpourri II

  1. Dear Peter, I have spent a pleasant half hour looking at pictures of eagle on line. Your friend is some kind of “booted eagle”. Just look at his magnificent pantaloons. I think he/she is what Russians call an орёл-карлик/ oryol-karlik or dwarf eagle. Not to belittle the eagle. They have about a four or five foot wing span and powerful talons. Falconers train them for hunting. He must have had quite a grip. You’re lucky he decided to let go.

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