News & Politics

Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams

What makes a city great? Is it the skyline or the cuisine? The weather or the economic climate? The intellectual discourse or the low crime rate? In Odessa, his sterling introduction to one of the most interesting of Europe’s lesser-known cities, Georgetown University professor Charles King makes a case for diversity as an appropriate gauge of a city’s greatness, even if the unity within such diversity turns out to be a volatile thing.

Founded on the Black Sea by Russia’s Catherine the Great three years after Washington’s founding, Odessa blended Wild West lawlessness with port-city commerce and Enlightenment ideals. It was an oasis for mavericks, tycoons, quacks, and criminals. Among those who called Odessa home were Alexander Pushkin—whose dalliances with a local countess provided the spark for his classic novel in verse, Eugene Onegin—novelist Isaac Babel, and Nobel Prize–winning immunologist Ilya Mechnikov. But in an early-20th-century world highly suspicious of dissent and eccentricity, Odessa courted the wrath of Bolsheviks and fascists looking to make a statement.

King—who has written about Eastern Europe for Foreign Policy and the Washington Post—is an able storyteller and delivers this century-spanning tale with a lightness of touch that would make Odessa’s fabled raconteurs proud.

This review first appeared in the February 2011 issue of The Washingtonian.

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Charles King

W.W. Norton & Company