ODESSA by Charles King


Genius and Death in a City of Dreams
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A history of the site, from its geological structure to its often fragmented, usually fractious, frequently bloody human occupation.

King (International Affairs and Government/Georgetown Univ.; Extreme Politics: Nationalism, Violence, and the End of Eastern Europe, 2010, etc.), who has written extensively about the region and speaks Russian and Romanian, ably glides through Odessa’s history, geography and geopolitics. The city of Odessa, situated on the Black Sea’s northwestern coast and currently in the hands of Ukraine, was founded in 1794, near Khadjibey, a village of uncertain origins. It began as the ambitious plan of José Pascual Domingo de Ribas y Boyons, who convinced Catherine the Great that the site could become “the jewel of her new southern possessions.” Though Catherine died shortly after approving the start of construction, the project kept moving. King highlights the stories of numerous significant individuals whose biographies link to Odessa’s. Alexander I appointed Richelieu as city administrator in 1803, and he distinguished himself as a battler against the plague, which continually visited this port city. Pushkin lived and wrote in Odessa. The Charge of the Light Brigade was about 500 miles east along the shore. Isaac Babel, whom King labels “Odessa’s greatest writer,” wrote about the city. Sergei Eisenstein filmed his 1925 classic Battleship Potemkin there, with its classic scene on the Odessa Steps (King notes how little of the film is accurate). The author also carefully follows the fate of the city during the mid-20th-century’s turmoils—control shifted from Soviet to Romanian/German to Soviet to Ukrainian. No history of the city could be complete without an accounting of the vicious, murderous treatment of its Jewish population, a subject King handles well, allowing horrific statistics and wrenching individual human stories to carry the grim message. The author observes that the city today seems more interested in fanciful mythology than in historical memory.

A sharp, graceful account of a fascinating place.

Pub Date: Feb. 28th, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-393-07084-2
Page count: 352pp
Publisher: Norton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15th, 2010


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