Odessa Has Chutzpah
Published: September 19, 2012 (Issue # 1727)
Locals celebrating the city’s Yumorina humor festival on April 1 around the famous Deribasovskaya Ulitsa in the heart of downtown Odessa. Odessa is renowned for its humor.
ODESSA, Ukraine — “The air conditioner is broken, but you’re very welcome to come in,” an attractive restaurant hostess says with a charming smile. “Here in Odessa, you cannot feel let down.”
Situated on the Black Sea in southern Ukraine, the nation’s fourth-largest city is as renowned for its warm water seaport as for its humor.
Native son Mikhail Zhvanetsky, a beloved satirist, once wrote: “In Odessa they joke without end, but this is not humor, it’s a condition caused by heat and audacity.”
Ilya Ilf and Yevgeny Petrov, who co-authored two of the Soviet Union’s most-famous comedies, “The Twelve Chairs” and its sequel, “The Little Golden Calf,” grew up in Odessa. Many of their works poke fun at the Soviet system.
Isaak Babel, heralded as one of the greatest writers of Russian prose, was also born in Odessa. His collections of short stories, including the acclaimed “Red Cavalry” and “Tales of Odessa,” are considered masterpieces of Russian literature.
Zhvanetsky, Ilf, Petrov and Babel were all members of the city’s once-prominent Jewish population, which at the turn of the 20th century made up nearly 40 percent of the populace.
Although pogroms and emigration have left the Jewish community a shadow of its former self, its influence remains clearly palpable in the city’s cultural identity.
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, many Jews moved to New York’s Brighton Beach, settling in an area now called “Little Odessa.”
Russian director Leonid Gaidai noted the similarity in his 1992 comedy, “Weather Is Good on Deribasovskaya, It Rains Again on Brighton Beach.” The title refers to a pedestrian walkway in central Odessa, named after Jose de Ribas, a Spanish nobleman who founded the city while serving as an admiral in the Russian imperial navy.
Odessa’s population is predominantly Russian-speaking. And with a diverse demography including Crimean Tatars, Greeks, Romanians and Turks, many here consider themselves as being of one ethnicity: Odessian.
In a tribute to the city’s uniqueness, street vendors hawk “Russian-Odessian” dictionaries, featuring comical scenarios. In one, a recently widowed Odessian inquires at a funeral home: “How much would a funeral cost? … Oh, and without a body?”
The ideal place to learn the “Odessian” language is at a cafe or aboard one of the old-fashioned trolleys that criss-cross the town.
Conversations about politics and daily life are loud and common, and Russian, Ukrainian and even Georgian leaders are discussed with the same kind of familiarity that someone might use when discussing neighbors.
The name of the modern city of Odessa, founded in 1794, has a disputed origin. Some historians say the then-budding metropolis was renamed to honor the ancient Greek city of Odessos, erroneously thought to have been located here.
But that archaic city was in fact located near the present-day Bulgarian town of Varna, some 400 kilometers to the southwest. Others say “Odessa” is actually a derivation of “Yedisan,” meaning “seven flags,” the Turkish-language title of the imperial Ottoman settlement in the area.
Under the Russian Empire, Odessa became one of the nation’s main ports. It received honorable awards from the tsar after withstanding unified British and French attracts during the Crimean War.
Built by many prominent Russian, Italian and French architects throughout the 19th century, downtown Odessa is essentially devoid of the Soviet architecture that permeates the nation.
A popular warm weather destination among Russians that harks back to Soviet days, the city is now becoming trendy with Moscow’s bohemian crowd.
Tatler magazine’s Russian edition recently called Odessa a “colossal hub of energy” in an article showcasing interviews with celebrities who said they prefer Odessa to France or Spain. In 2011, Odessa was named “best city to live” by Focus magazine.
Many Ukrainians are also moving to Odessa, which is slowly changing the city’s historically mixed demographic. “The city is losing its traditional coloration,” local historian Sergei Valenrod said in an interview. But, he added, aesthetically the city remains relatively unchanged.
With cheaper prices than Russia’s Sochi, Odessa remains a great destination for tourists seeking a warm-weather break from St. Petersburg. According to port authorities, 50,000 tourists arrived in Odessa by cruise ship last year.
TATYANA DENISOVA / FOR SPT
The monument to the city’s defenders.
What to do if you have two hours
If you stop in Odessa during a sea cruise or simply have a long layover on a flight to Kiev, take a stroll around the famous Deribasovskaya street in the heart of downtown Odessa. Many nice cafes dot the pedestrian walkway.
Then head over to Primorsky Bulvar, with its monument to one of the city’s founding fathers, Armand-Emmanuel de Vignerot du Plessis, better-known as the duke of Richelieu.
The French aristocrat emigrated to Russia after the French Revolution and became a devoted state servant in the court of the tsar. In 1803, Alexander I appointed him governor of Odessa.
The duke earned respect from locals for facilitating trade and investing his own money in the beautification of the city. In 1814, he returned to France, where he became minister of foreign affairs.
The monument is a popular meeting place and tourist destination. Nearby is a picturesque view from atop the Potemkin Stairs.
Consisting of 192 steps, this site was made famous by a scene in Sergei Eisenstein’s classic film “The Battleship Potemkin,” about a mutiny against tsarist officers on the eponymous cruiser in 1905.
In the haunting scene, a baby carriage plunges down the stairs after soldiers shoot into a crowd that has gathered to support the rebel crewmen.
For some fresh snacks for the rest of your journey, be sure to visit the large Privoz market at 14 Privoznaya Ulitsa. Remember, for a good discount, it’s OK to haggle.
What to do if you have two days
If you have a couple of days, check out some of the city’s museums.
The Museum of Western and Eastern Art (9 Pushkinskaya Ulitsa; +380 48-722-4815; www.oweamuseum.odessa.ua), built in 1858, has a permanent display of Italian and Dutch art, including the renowned “Luke the Evangelist” by 17th-century portrait artist Frans Hals.
The painting was briefly stolen from Moscow’s Pushkin Art Museum in 1965, but it was later recovered by the KGB. The story was featured in the well-known Soviet detective novel “The Return of the Holy Luke” in 1971.
Odessa’s Military History Museum (2 Pirogovskaya Ulitsa; +380 48 29 8125) offers an overview of the battles fought in the region as well as mementos from the times. Stormed by Nazi forces during World War II, then liberated by the Red Army in 1944, the city was especially affected by the war.
“You, who have found this note, report that I died not on my knees,” a Red Army soldier wrote in a chilling note displayed in the museum.
But despite the harsh times, Odessa’s trademark humor persisted. To put psychological pressure on the Nazi infantry, locals altered tractors to resemble tanks and sounded ship alarms. The tractor-tanks were called Na Ispug, “for a scare.”
A visit to Odessa is not complete without a trip to Arcadia Beach. Located to the west of the city, Arcadia is home to popular nightclubs frequented by the Russian elite, including billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov.
The area’s private beaches are very clean, with polite personnel, in contrast to the droves of Russian tourists who try to present themselves as masters of the universe.
TATYANA DENISOVA / FOR SPT
Built in 1810, Odessa’s oldest theater is a local architectural landmark.
What to do with the kids
A popular tourist destination, Odessa has plenty of family-friendly attractions. The Nemo dolphinarium (25 Lanzheron Beach; +380 48 720 7070; www.nemo.od.ua) is advertised as the largest of its kind in the former Soviet Union. It has a variety of shows for children and even provides an opportunity to swim with the dolphins.
Interestingly enough, Ukraine has a long tradition of working with dolphins. During the Cold War, it had a secret base for training dolphins for military operations.
With its 1,600 animals, from elephants to Amur tigers, the Odessa Zoo (25 Novoshepnoi Ryad; +380 48 722 55 89; zoo.od.ua) is also a great place to take the kids. Plans for building the park in Odessa, which has mild winters, were made as early as 1889, but the project was completed only after World War I, in 1922.
The zoo also allows visitors to sponsor a particular animal.
Those looking for an all-night party should visit the city’s most popular nightclub, Itaka (Arcadia Beach; +380 0482 349 188; itaka-club.com.ua). The club, which can accommodate up to 3,000 people, has a restaurant that serves European and Mediterranean cuisine as well as a concert hall where popular Russian and Ukrainian pop singers perform almost daily.
Opera and ballet lovers will be delighted to see Odessa’s national opera and ballet theater (1 Chaikovsky Pereulok +380 487 80 15 09; opera.odessa.ua), which stages such operas as “Prince Igor,” “Aida” and “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” The theater building is a masterpiece of its own, built in 1887 by top Austrian architects who also designed theaters in Budapest and Dresden.
Where to eat
Compote (70 Panteleimonovskaya Ulitsa; +380 482 345 145; www.compot.ua), which takes its name from a drink made of fruits stewed or cooked in syrup, is one of the most popular local restaurants serving traditional Ukrainian cuisine.
But the food is as eclectic as the interior, which features cozy sofas and pictures of Hollywood celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe and Humphrey Bogart. An average meal with wine will cost you $30.
Another local food option is Dacha (85 Frantsuzky Bulvar; +380 48 714 3119, www.dacha.com.ua/ru), built inside an old country mansion with an interior straight out of the 1960s. In the summer, guests can dine under white umbrellas on the veranda, surrounded by greenery. An average meal for two with borshch, dumplings and homemade vodka will cost you $45.
Where to stay
The five-star Bristol hotel (15 Pushkinskaya Ulitsa. +380 487 9655) in the heart of Odessa is one of the most elegant and stylish buildings in the city. Built a century ago, the hotel was a favorite of many prominent dignitaries, including American novelist Theodore Dreiser and Russian poet Ivan Bunin.
Rooms range in price from $200 for a single to $1,400 for the presidential suite.
Another option is the reconstructed two-story mansion (30 Rishelyevskaya Ulitsa; +380 048 785 1653; derishele.od.ua) also located in the center of the city, a former guest house of the duke of Richelieu. The mansion has a cozy and relaxed atmosphere and is situated within a quiet courtyard. A single room costs $45.
TATYANA DENISOVA / FOR SPT
The Potemkin Stairs, immortalized in the film ‘The Battleship Potemkin.’
Any Odessian will be pleased if you compliment the city and mention novels by well-known local writers. If you ask someone on the street for directions you may just find yourself immersed in a long conversation — on any subject.
How to get there
Trains to Odessa run three or four times a week from St. Petersburg’s Vitebsky Station. The journey takes about 35 hours. A roundtrip will set you back $325.
Rossiya operates four flights a week to Odessa, while S7 Airlines and Serosvit offer indirect flights from about 7,000 rubles ($225) one way. A nonstop flight takes about two-and-a-half hours.
Population: 1 million
Mayor: Alexei Kostusev
Main Industries: seaport, tourism, heavy machinery
Founded in 1794
Interesting Fact No. 1: The paving stones in the famous Deribasovskaya street were made out of lava from Italy’s Mt. Vesuvius two centuries ago.
Interesting Fact No. 2: Red Army Marshal Georgy Zhukov, credited with liberating the Soviet Union from Nazi occupation and conquering Berlin, commanded local military forces and played a lead role in cracking down on criminal gangs in the city.
Helpful Contact: Svetlana Boyeva, head of the foreign relations department in the city council (+380-48-725-3297).
Sister Cities: Varna (Bulgaria), Baltimore (U.S.), Rostov-on-Don (Russia), Split (Croatia), Marseille (France)
• Krayan Holding Company
(2 Kosovskaya Ulitsa; +380-48-738-0831; krayan.odessa.ua). Founded in 1863, the crane producer became one of the leading enterprises in the Soviet Union, shipping heavy cranes throughout the nation and exporting them abroad.
• LUKoil Refinery Plant
(1/1 Shkodovaya Gora; +380-48-236-6003; luk-odnpz.com/main/default.asp). Built during Soviet times, the refinery now belongs to LUKoil and has undergone a major renovation.
• Odeskabel (144 Nikolayevskaya Doroga; +380-48-716-1123; odeskabel.com). The biggest cable producer in Ukraine.
• Odessa Champaign Factory
(36 Frantsuzsky Bulvar; champagne.odessa.ua). A well-known maker of sparkling wines.