Genius and Death in a City of Dreams

By Charles King

Norton. 336 pp. $27.95

Odessa has always been a study in anomalies: A multilingual port in what is now Ukraine, long dominated by Russia, it occupies the old site of a Tatar village that was conquered by a Spaniard and administrated by a Frenchman in service to Catherine the Great. During World War II, the city was largely populated by Jews and controlled by Nazi-allied Romania.

After a Holocaust-era ethnic cleansing, in which most of Odessa’s 180,000 prewar Jews were either slaughtered or forced to leave, the Soviet Union retook Odessa. Soviet leaders recast it as the birthplace of revolution, the site of the mutiny of the Battleship Potemkin, as crystallized in the famous Sergei Eisenstein film, which was barely grounded in reality. By that time, according to Charles King, the author of this new portrait of Odessa, it was a denuded city, too weak to assert its real identity behind the powerful state-sanctioned myth. With the city having lost much of its historic importance as a commercial port and a gateway to the Middle East, King believes that Odessa is now mostly in the business of nostalgia.

In the West, we mainly know Odessa as the birthplace of people who left it — mostly Jews, from the writer Isaac Babel to the Zionist Ze’ev Jabotinsky to the denizens of Brighton Beach. As the violinist Isaac Stern once pithily described the Soviet-American cultural exchange, “They send us their Jews from Odessa, and we send them our Jews from Odessa.”

The original Odessa, the old-world metropolis whose economic power served to protect its unusual ethnic melange, did not last long. The particulars of the city’s founding and early history, as conveyed here, are dry. King occasionally brings his story to life with famous visitors and residents, such as Alexander Pushkin and Babel, but he would have served his tale better by giving a fuller sense of the life of average Odessans.

As it is, the book comes alive only when the city is engaged in myth-making, particularly when King writes about the filming of “Battleship Potemkin,” or in general suffering, as in a horrifying section on the little-known fate of the Jews. After World War II, Odessa’s Jewish identity lived on in legend, but no longer in fact.

—Alex Remington