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Reflecting on ‘Post-Cosmopolitan’ Odessa

Recently published in paperback, Post-Cosmopolitan Cities: Explorations of Urban Coexistence offers readers an in-depth view into the lives of urban dwellers in six cities, from Venice to Warsaw and Odessa to Thessalonica. Below, volume editors Caroline Humphrey and Vera Skvirskaja reflect on the content of their volume and how the study sites and subjects may have changed in the two years since its original publication.

 

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Our book Post-Cosmopolitan Cities: Explorations of Urban Coexistence contains three chapters about Odessa, the port city on the Black Sea, but they were written before the recent events in Ukraine. We argued that cities famed for their cosmopolitanism, including the ‘merry’, ‘worldly’ Odessa, deserve deeper investigation of what lies beneath the surface and the uncertain effects of the past on the present.

 

In the case of Odessa, the city’s image, which was also a self-image: ‘we welcome other cultures’, co-existed with a long history of violent pogroms. And then we found that whatever cosmopolitanism there was in the past has by now morphed into new forms – sometimes mere tolerance – with new actors and unexpected barriers. So of course the reaction in Odessa to the political polarisation in Ukraine is extremely interesting to us.

 

After the events on 2 May 2014 when a clash between Ukraine-sympathising and Russia-sympathising groups led to the tragic loss of around 50 lives, many people were traumatised. But gradually the majority of Odessans made clear through street demonstrations, new websites, and news interpretations that their sympathies lie largely with Ukraine /the idea of Ukrainian statehood. This does not, of course, mean they support Ukrainian nationalism (which is associated with Western Ukraine). Most people do not trust information that comes from Kiev and have no illusions about or hopes for Kiev-led democratic politics, but they do not want to be a part of Putin’s Russia. Cynicism now reins supreme.The latest news (September 2014) is that Odessa’s laid-back attitudes are re-asserting themselves. A friend brought up in Odessa, Anastasia Piliavsky, sent the following provocative account of her recent visit to her relatives in the city:

 

What struck me about this year’s visit is how people have turned away from any potential ‘trouble’. Not chasing it away, but turning their backs on it, very Odessan. I thought Charles King in his book on Odessa made one compelling point about the city being too ‘pragmatic’ for political action, too pragmatic for standing up against anything (like the mass murder of Jews by Romanians during the Second World War) at the expense of one’s own comfort. I thought in your own account (Chapter 1 in the book) the image of people watching the 1905 Potemkin uprising through opera binoculars was fantastically telling. There is a common local expression: nichego ne znayu, moya khata s krayu (‘I don’t know anything, my house is on the edge’ – i.e. it’s nothing to do with me). And perhaps this is what can allow the pogromists free rein.

 

Odessans, even the most enlightened ones, are often cosmopolitan only as far as the latest fashion in Milan. They will show off a few phrases they know in French (again see Chapter 1) and tell you that they have a world-class opera house. They will show you the wonderful mansions built by Italians, point to the names of streets (Grecheskaya, Frantsuzskii Bulvar, Yevreiskaya, Arnautskaya, Moldavskaya) that suggest this was once (or was meant to be?) a plural city. All these are signs of ‘worldliness’, one could say cosmopolitanism, insofar as they make Odessa look distinctly European or Western. But when it comes to judging real social difference, and to relating across it, I have always found them deeply provincial – laughing at slant-eyed Koreans, mimicking the speech patterns of Jews. There are as many Chukcha and Moldovan jokes here as in Pskov. I remember when my aunt and uncle (both middling Russo-Ukrainians, not unduly bigoted, with degrees, but not intelligentsia – i.e. representative of a very wide stretch of society) visited me in Oxford. We were walking down Broad Street and an elderly man in tweed slipped and fell, and started bleeding. Several of us ran to help him up. Meanwhile, my aunt and uncle were taking a video of the scene! Why? Well, to show back home of course. Here is an ENGLISHMAN in tweed and he also bleeds. Or something like that. He was a piece of exotica for them, too different to relate to, or help.

 

Perhaps this was post-Soviet provincialism. Perhaps it dates further back. After all, Odessa was the shtetl Mecca, the capital of the deepest Jewish provincialism. Do you know the joke?

 

– Rivka, where did you get that dress?

– In Paris.

– Where’s that?

– Oh, a thousand miles away.

– What? So far away from Odessa and they have such fine tailors?

 

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Caroline Humphrey is a Research Director in the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge. She has worked in the USSR/Russia, Mongolia, Inner Mongolia, Nepal, and India. Her research interests include socialist and post-socialist society, religion, ritual, economy, history, and the contemporary transformations of cities.

 

Vera Skvirskaja is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Anthropology at Copenhagen University. She has worked in arctic Siberia, Uzbekistan and Ukraine. Her recent research interests include urban cosmopolitanism, educational migration in Europe and coexistence in the post-Soviet city.

 

Series: Volume 9, Space and Place