The subtitle of this book is ‘Genius and Death in the City of Dreams.’ That seems very accurate. Charles King takes us through the relatively brief history of a city that started out full of wondrous potential, that turned to appalling darkness. Odessa is roughly the same age as Washington DC, which for Europe means almost brand new. It lacks a deep history common in so many cities of note. There were no Roman or Greek ruins, no Medieval fortress. The city was built, almost out of nothing, by a motley group of cast-offs, and became home to outcasts and freaks, the oppressed and the dispossessed. For a while, it was beautiful. But darkness lay in wait.
Hero of the American Revolution, John Paul Jones, exile from the French Revolution (and relative of the famous Three Musketeers villain) Armand-Emmanuel du Plessis de Richelieu, the storied Jose de Ribas of Naples, Catherine the Great and more all had their parts to play in the formation of the city. And in its early days, it was a haven for people from around the world, merchants and craftsmen created a society out of disparate languages and cultures. But perhaps the roots of its darkness were always there, growing in the concept of ‘separate, but equal.’ Because groups lived next to each other, but didn’t truly blend with each other, eventually fractures formed, grew wider, and finally erupted into outright violence.
After the early days as an incubator for artists, writers, philosophers, and more, Odessa turned in upon itself, specifically upon its Jewish population, which was substantial. Before the Russian Revolution and the pogroms we’re more familiar with, Odessa set the stage for the horrors of the 20th Century. The early part of the century is a nightmare of violence, murder, ethnic hatreds, and neighbors turning on neighbors.
The book is filled with interesting characters, with unexpected connections to various moments in history. As with any good history book, I found plenty of people and places I want to know more about. I also find that I need to re-watch Battleship Potemkin one of these days. Due to the sad nature of a great deal of the content, I can’t say it was an enjoyable read, but it was an informative one.