The most dramatic, as well as the most diligent, conductor in the world is to be seen in action at the Theater of Opera and Ballet in Odessa. He is an elderly man, but passionate. All around him as he works peculiar things are happening. Behind, in the half-empty auditorium, a constant buzz of homely conversation underlies the score, and three ill-shaven Levantines in the second row seem to be in the throes of opium dreams, squirming and sighing in their seats. In front, the stage is alive with minor mishaps – trapdoors mysteriously closing and opening, fans being dropped, iron accessories clattering, while the cast of La Traviata, none apparently more than five feet high, smile resolutely across the footlights with a treasury of gold teeth.
The driver is unperturbed. Majestically he sails through the confusions of the evening, impervious to them all, sometimes grunting emotionally, sometimes joining in an aria in a powerful baritone, throwing his fine head back, bending double, conspiratorially withdrawing, pugnaciously advancing, with infinite variations of mood and facial expression, and frequently hissed injunctions to the woodwind. Nobody in the socialist block fulfills a norm more devotedly, and nobody does more credit to the hero city of Odessa.
It is not often easy, in Moscow or Kyiv, to respond to the simplicities of the Russian revolution. In such great cities the deliberate vulgarity of communist life, the perpetual aura of baggy trousers, hair-cream, and Saturday night hop, is more depressing than endearing, and you begin to pine, however egalitarian your convictions, for a really snooty upper- crust restaurant, a modiste of infinite exclusivity, or the high-pitched gossip of debutantes. In a smaller provincial center like Odessa, though, it is different. Here, far away from the dreadful workings of State, there still feels some faint suggestion of idealism to the People’s Dictatorship, a sense of simple pride and purpose: and in such a setting it is difficult not to warm to the conscientiousness of the modern urban. Russians, whether it is directed towards a mastery of English vowels or the correction of a wandering contralto.
A century ago Odessa was an urbane seaport of Francophile tendencies raised into eminence by a French satrap of the tsar, the Comte de Richelieu. Though long stripped of its boudoir fripperies, it retains a certain faded elegance. A fine wide boulevard runs above the harbour, and from it descends the broad steps that figured in The Battleship Potemkin – forming a striking parallel, in art as in topography, with the celebrated staircase tumbling out of the Casbah in Algiers that provided a climax for Pepe Le Moko. There is an ornate old Bourse in Odessa, and the ghost of an English club, and the shell of a Credit Lyonnais, and an opera house of lofty, traditional opulence, muse-haunted and nymph-scrolled. There is even the old building of the local Duma, dishonestly identified by Intourist as “yet another former Stock Exchange under the old system.” Wide, straight, and Parisian are the avenues of the city, and embedded in the thigh of a statue of de Richelieu is a cannonball from HMS Tiger, a ferocious visitor to these waters during the Crimean war, but later, alas, sunk by the Russians.
Odessa was built by the Tsars as a southern outlet for Russia, and remains the second port of the Soviet Union. It faces south and east, and its quaysides are embellished with vast, welcoming slogans in Arabic, Chinese, French and English – “Long Live Peace And Friendship,” they proclaim, “Among The Peoples Of The Whole World.” A smell of tar hangs agreeably on the Odesa air, and a fine jumble of shipping lies always inside the moles: a pair of lovely three-masters manned by cadets: two or three smart Black Sea liners running down to Georgia or Istanbul; freighters from Latakia or Alexandria; a queer, squat Russian warship with sloping bulbous funnels. In the summer British and Greek cruising liners, flecked with the Aegean, put in here for brief inquisitive visits; in the winter a fringe of ice loiters around the harbor and most of the ships seem to lie there supine and deserted.
The docks are shut off by high walls and policemen, and you can only peer at their quaysides from an eminence, or skulk about their gateways pretending to meet a comrade; but Odesa anyway feels unmistakably a port – a peeling, rather regretful port, a Russian Trieste. It is a cosmopolitan city still full of Greeks, Jews, Armenians, Georgians, Egyptian seamen, Chinese delegations. The jolliest of old sacristans will conduct you around the decaying synagogue, lending you a white peaked cap for your head, and sallow Mediterranean faces will greet you solemnly in the Greek church. Odesa is a languid southern seaside city, snowless and sunlit, and even the pantheon of communist deities, even the Workers’ Honors Boards, even the blaring loudspeaker from the Central Committee’s headquarters, even the tinny new carillon, ever the nagging suspicion that somebody is following you cannot altogether stifle the relaxed and easy-going nature of the town, like a soft warm breeze across the Bosphorus.
Odessa, though on the regular Intourist circuit, is scarcely a showplace of the regime. It has busy industries, a large university, and a celebrated eye hospital but thanks to the occurrence of a soft subsoil it has none of your towering, tomb-like blocks of flats, and you have only to step through an archway off almost any boulevard to find yourself back in pre-revolutionary Russia, with tumble down apartments around a Shambles courtyard, and women with buckets collecting their water from the communal outdoor tap in the middle.
The city feels small, friendly, and unpretentious. In its big new railway station, dedicated to Odesa’s heroic resistance during the war there is a large noticeboard which, upon the pressure of a button illustrates in illuminated signs the route to any western Russian city, and there is something very appealing to the pleasure this simple toy gives the concourse of people constantly consulting it, the air of wondering merriment that hangs constantly about its buttons, like country festivity at a fairground.
There is also something paradoxically old-fashioned about the place. Its restaurants, though sprawling with greasy young men and loud with brassy jazz, are marvelously fin-de-siècle in appointment. Its public buildings still preserve, beneath their threadbare sloganry, shreds of old decorum. And if you observe a pair of young women sauntering together down the promenade, you will be struck by niggling sensations of deja vu. What is so familiar about them? Where have you seen them before? And then, in a revealing flash, you have a vision of old newspapers lining attic drawers, full of the cloche hats, long coats, and elaborate buckled corsetry of the thirties and you realize that these young ladies of Odesa take you back mysteriously to your childhood like snapshots in an album, like recollection of those devoted parents you used to see, shivering loyal beside the touch line as you self consciously prepared to tackle Richardson Minor.
Justthink! Odessa is the second city of Russia, the gateway of Ukraine, the pearl of the Black Sea; yet it all boils down in my mind, such is the indivisibility of time and experience, to the memory of a prep-school soccer match, dormant for twenty years and more, and only revived by a glimpse of forgotten fashions above the Potemkin steps.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism