Saturday 8 December 2012

Picture post number twelve - Odessa - the Atlases of Gogol Street

Odessa by Yekkes

I visited Odessa back in 2009. I liked it. I liked the relaxed atmosphere of this seaside, port city. I liked the remaining buildings from the 19th and early 20th centuries. I stayed at the famous Londonskaya Hotel which I also liked with its interesting history, crumbling breakfast courtyard, my fantastically large bedroom and the jaw dropping staircase and lobby (which I understand have been "renovated" - which is a worry). Odessa has some fabulous cafes and patisseries, a surprisingly active Jewish presence given the devastation visited on the community both in the Second World War and under the Soviet period, a couple of good museums and a literary history that any city would be proud of.

A number of writers connected with the city are commemorated through having streets named after them. The two gentlemen pictured here live on Gogol Street and are known as the Atlases of said street. As well as holding up the earth,  they stand guard over a stunning apartment building constructed from 1900-01 by architects Lev Vlodek and Symen Landesman. It originally belonged to a German aristocratic family the Barons von Falz-Fein. Following the 1917 Revolution, the family fled and the building was nationalised. Vlodek was also responsible for another famous Odessa landmark - the Passazh (passage) shopping mall, built in 1899 and which links two important streets - Deribasivskaya and Preobrazhenskaya.

The city has many literary links. Gogol and Pushkin both spent time here and have streets named for them. I also ran into Pushkin in Eritrea of all places - his great grandfather was African and there is a statue to the writer in Asmara. Isaac Babel was born in the Moldovanka district of Odessa - the former Jewish quarter and setting for his wonderful "Odessa Stories" including the adventures of Benya, king of the underworld. Like many other leading Jewish intellectuals, he was executed in 1940 during one of Stalin's purges. A plaque to Babel can be found on one of the buildings he lived in, in Odessa. Other significant Jewish writers born in, or connected with Odessa include Chaim Nachman Bialik who became Israel's national poet and Vladimir Jabotinsky, who eventually became the leader of the more right wing "Revisionist" strand of Zionism and fore-runner of the Herut and Likud parties of later years. Jabotinksy's novel, The Five, is a great record of bourgeois Odessa during the late 19th century and includes scenes set in the building that now houses the Literary Museum.

Odessa still has a wonderful and active opera house, classical music concerts and theatres but the former cultured atmosphere of the city seems to have declined somewhat. I asked about classical concerts at my hotel's information desk one night during my stay. I receive an answer in perfect English "I have a list of night clubs that you would like". I declined politely pointing out that I was interested in concerts, to receive the reply "these clubs are very nice, English gentlemen always like them". I took the list out of courtesy and spent a nice evening reading in a cafe...

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