Dear fellow travellers
It’s rare that we are lost for words. But this past couple of weeks we really have been. As we say in the opening lines of the editorial of Issue 66 of hidden europe (which is published on Friday):
“The events in Ukraine have truly shaken us. This is a country for which we have, over the years, developed a great affection. Indeed, it happens to be one of the very few countries to which we have travelled with the explicit intention of taking a real holiday - as opposed to travelling for work-related projects. But relaxation apart we have worked with Ukrainian colleagues, written for Ukrainian media, sung the Divine Liturgy alongside Ukrainians and clinked glasses of Nemiroff with friends. War becomes different when it’s close to home.”
There are no silver linings in the clouds of war. But with the grisly news reports from Ukraine, people across Europe have suddenly discovered that humble sincerity that is so much a feature of the Ukrainian people. And we’ve all honed our pronunciation of Ukrainian place names and heard winsomely beautiful renderings of the Ukrainian national anthem. The opening line of that anthem has a special resonance these days: Sce ne vmerla Ukraina. That’s often translated into English as “Ukraine has not perished.” Indeed she hasn’t.
If pushed to nominate our favourite Ukrainian city, we might well opt for Odesa (also spelt Odessa). The secret to understanding Odesa, a city created from almost nothing in 1794, is an appreciation of Muscovy’s relationship with the Black Sea. It was Catherine the Great who decreed that just where the steppe falls down to the sea, a great port and imperial city should arise. So, on the dry bluffs, Odesa developed and became one of the great cities of the Tsarist Empire - an elegant town of boulevards shaded by chestnuts and acacia trees, of Italianate palaces which in their ornamental extravagance rivalled even those of St Petersburg.
This is a city which from its earliest days was mythologized within Russia. If St Petersburg was the Northern Palmyra, Odesa nudged aside its ancient Syrian forebear in laying claim to be the Southern Palmyra - and, just as the desert Palmyra was a place where cultures mingled, so Odesa developed in the early 19th century into one of the most heterogeneous of European cities: one that, in the mix of ethnicities, religions and cultures stood on a par with Smyrna, Salonica or Trieste.
There were Armenian and Greek voices in the cafés, Tatar and Jewish traders rubbed shoulders on the quaysides and there were Italian and French accents in the streets - and even the governance of the city was in the hands of migrants. The name of Odesa’s principal thoroughfare, Deribasivska, recalls the city’s first governor. José de Ribas was born in Naples of a Spanish father and an Irish mother. Odesa’s founding governor set out a vision for the new city, although his plans were only fully realised by his successor, the French-born Duke of Richelieu who in 1803 succeeded de Ribas and two years later was given a much wider brief as governor-general of the entire imperial province of Novorossiya, which extended from Bessarabia to the Donbas.
It is de Richelieu’s statue which stands at the top of Odesa’s signature landmark - the grand flight of steps sweeping down from the Primorsky Boulevard down to the port. They are known as the Potemkin Steps (and thereon hangs an interesting tale, but that’s a story for another day).
Odesa has always been deeply multicultural. To the Odesa-born Jewish-Soviet jazz singer and actor Leonid Utyosov, the city of Odesa was more than just the ceremonial promenades and the Potemkin Steps. “So you think Odesa is just one city?” he asked in the literary journal Moskva in 1964. “No,” he explained, “Odesa is a federation. The centre is one Odesa. Moldavanka is another and Peresyp a third.” The grittier side of Odesa had its fulcrum in Moldavanka, a part of the city which from the mid-19th century developed as Odesa’s Jewish quarter.
Odesa remains our kind of city. The sort of place that inspires hidden europe. At the moment, the mood is dark. But better times will surely come. As Ukrainians sing in their national anthem “Fate shall smile once more.” On Odesa, we hope, and on all Ukraine and her people.
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)
If you are a subscriber to hidden europe magazine, just be aware that the despatch of some copies was slightly delayed this week, so some readers may receive Issue 66 a few days later than anticipated. If you are not a subscriber, you might consider buying a copy of the latest issue. It’ll cost just €9 (including postage anywhere in Europe) or €10 when shipped to destinations outside Europe.