City of Rogues and Schnorrers: Russia's Jews and the Myth of Old Odessa

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Old Odessa, on the Black Sea, gained notoriety as a legendary city of Jewish gangsters and swindlers, a frontier boomtown mythologized for the adventurers, criminals, and merrymakers who flocked there to seek easy wealth and lead lives of debauchery and excess. Odessa is also famed for the brand of Jewish humor brought there in the 19th century from the shtetls of Eastern Europe and that flourished throughout Soviet times. From a broad historical perspective, Jarrod Tanny examines the hybrid Judeo-Russian culture that emerged in Odessa in the 19th century and persisted through the Soviet era and beyond. The book shows how the art of eminent Soviet-era figures such as Isaac Babel, Il'ia Ilf, Evgenii Petrov, and Leonid Utesov grew out of the Odessa Russian-Jewish culture into which they were born and which shaped their lives.

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Note On Transliteration

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For Russian transliteration, I have adopted the Library of Congress System. For a handful of personal names known to English readers, I have used the more familiar spelling (such as Isaac Babel instead of Isaak Babel'). For transliterating Yiddish, I have used the YIVO system. In the case of individuals and terminology that are rendered differently in Russian, Yiddish, Hebrew, and English, I have used the most common spelling, in the interest of clarity and consistency.

 

Introduction

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DURING THE CHAOS of the Russian Revolution and civil war, Konstantin Paustovskii witnessed a curious and somewhat comical incident. Observing a street-corner queue in Odessa, Paustovskii noted the presence of

a short, old, Jewish gentleman in a dusty bowler and a worn black coat reaching to his ankles. Smiling and nodding benevolently, he observed the queue through unusually thick spectacles. Now and then he took out of his pocket a small black book with the Star of David embroidered in gold on the cover, read a page or two and returned the book to his pocket.

Paustovskii was certain that he must have been “a scholar, perhaps even a tsaddic, an old philosopher from Portofrank Street,” a figure not uncommon in early-twentieth-century Ukraine. Suddenly, a young rather insolent-looking man appeared wearing a black skullcap and canary-colored leather shoes. “The young man,” Paustovskii continues,

was wondering how to jump the queue without causing a fuss and a row. He saw the old gentleman with the book, and naturally took him for the very embodiment of mildness and non-resistance to evil. Making up his mind, he skillfully inserted his shoulder between him and his neighbour in the queue and, pushing the old man, muttered casually:

 

Chapter 1: The Birth of Old Odessa

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“I’M GOING TO ODESSA for money!” declared Reb Khaim-Shulim, an impoverished and hapless Jew living in Kishinev during the mid-nineteenth century. Fed up with supporting a large family and living his life from hand to mouth, Khaim-Shulim packed his bags and set off for the wondrous city on the Black Sea, which was then all the rage among the Jews in Russia’s Pale of Settlement. But Khaim-Shulim’s friend, Reb Haskel, saw nothing but danger in Khaim-Shulim’s future: “It’s a spoiled, spoiled city I tell you … there will be dark temptations everywhere; in the cafés, in the theaters. Take a prayer book with you and read psalms in your spare time; it will be edifying.”1

By the time Khaim-Shulim, a literary character invented by the Russian-Jewish writer Osip Rabinovich, embarked upon his journey to Russia’s southern frontier, Odessa was already a town with a notorious reputation: a land of opulence and sin, a city where wealth could easily be acquired and where revelry and decadence lurked around every corner. Reb Khaim-Shulim may have been among the first “shtetl” Jews to travel to Odessa, but he was making a journey of exploration and imagination undertaken and recorded by many actual travelers before him—including Russians, Englishmen, Frenchmen, Germans, and Italians. These sojourners laid the foundations for the myth of old Odessa in their letters, travelogues, and memoirs, creating the discursive blueprint for what would become Russia’s foremost city of affluence and dissipation. From the mid-nineteenth century on, Jewish travelers (both literary and real) came to Odessa in droves. Writers like Osip Rabinovich and Sholem Aleichem embraced and appropriated the embryonic Odessa myth and, through their writings, imbued it with elements of Jewish culture and humor.

 

Chapter 2: Crafting Old Odessa

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In 1911 the Russian humorist Arkadii Averchenko published a description of his recent journey by steamship to Odessa. Having never visited Odessa before, Averchenko struck up a conversation with a fellow passenger, as he wanted to hear all about the city from an authentic “Odessan” (odessit). Averchenko relates the following dialogue:

“Excuse me,” I said turning to him, “are you an Odessan?”

“Why would you think such a thing? Perhaps I stole your hat and put it on instead of my own?”

“Uh, of course not, what are you talking about?”

“Perhaps you think,” he asked with alarm, “that I surreptitiously slipped your cigarette case into my pocket?”

“What are you talking about? Cigarette case? I’m just asking if you are from there?”

“Really, that’s it? Well, then, yeah, I’m an Odessan.”

“Is it a nice city—Odessa?”

“You’ve never been there?”

“I’m going there for the first time.”

“Hmm … You look like you must be thirty years old. What have you been doing all these years that you haven’t seen Odessa?”

 

Chapter 3: The Battle for Old Odessa

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The Bolsheviks took power in Odessa for the third and final time in February 1920, after three turbulent years of political chaos, social upheaval, and economic collapse. They immediately announced the dawn of a new era for the city, promising an end to the crime, debauchery, and frivolity of “old Odessa.” With Marxism as their guiding ideological framework, they slated Odessa for transformation into a model Soviet city—proletarian, industrious, and cultured. There was to be little tolerance for the bawdy “Odessa nights” described by Jacob Adler, the womanizing and swindling of Leon Drei, and the vulgar music of Sashka the Fiddler. For the Bolsheviks, the uninhibited revelry of the prerevolutionary Moldavanka was rooted in a combination of petty bourgeois criminality, destitution, and ignorance, all of which had no place in their envisioned workers’ paradise. Through a relentless struggle, “Odessa-Mama”—the maternal bosom that nurtured thieves and rogues—would be no more; in its wake would emerge an Odessa of beauty, a pearl by the sea stripped of its most ideologically objectionable elements.

 

Chapter 4: Revival and Survival

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The anathematized myth of old Odessa outlasted Stalin and the cultural frost of the General Secretary’s twilight years. The subsequent “thaw” in Soviet politics and culture melted the layers of ice that had inhibited the commemoration of Russia’s gilded city of sin, and it was not long before the roguish Odessit publicly surfaced, armed with an array of amusing tales from his frivolous homeland. The limited de-Stalinization of the 1950s and 1960s did not, however, signify old Odessa’s rehabilitation, let alone its official endorsement, antithetical as it was to the regime’s conception of a healthy culture.1 But it did give mythmakers some room to maneuver, a gray discursive area straddling the middle ground between state-sponsored culture and the world of the forbidden. New technology augmented this public space, with the advent of the tape recorder in the 1960s, a medium through which bootlegged recordings of criminal folksongs and stand-up comedy were produced and disseminated. A new generation of mythmakers also emerged, a fresh cohort of film producers, actors, writers, humorists, and musicians who filled the vacancies left by those who had died, such as Isaac Babel, Il'ia Il'f, and Evgenii Petrov. Most were too young to have personally visited Gambrinus and Café Fankoni, to have observed Mishka Iaponchik’s ostentatious banditry, or to have read Odesskaia pochta’s sensationalistic vignettes. But this did not matter. The legends had endured as collective memory, and they were bequeathed to the young by those elder mythmakers who had not perished, most notably Konstantin Paustovskii and Leonid Utesov. Self-professed witnesses to a bygone age, Paustovskii and Utesov resuscitated the slumbering Odessit and the notorious city he came from.

 

Chapter 5: The End of Old Odessa

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In 1986 the Soviet filmmaker Vladimir Alenikov received tentative permission to produce a television mini-series based on Isaac Babel’s Odessa Stories; Babel’s irreverent Jewish gangsters had not appeared on screen since the silent movie Benia Krik was withdrawn from circulation nearly six decades earlier. But as the year wore on and Alenikov heard nothing further from the studio, he asked the editor-in-chief for an explanation. The ensuing exchange between the editor and the director captures the uncertainty of the early days of Glasnost and Perestroika, when Gorbachev’s government was cautiously laying the foundation for political and cultural reform in the USSR. Alenikov describes the exchange:

[The editor] lowered his voice and confidentially told me: “Vlad, you are a talented person, and we understand that you’d produce a good film. But understand our position—how could we allow it? Look at who all these characters are!”

“What are you talking about?”

 

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