Odessa – Potyemkin Steps

Having been in Odessa this summer and what’s more having been there at the time of the Literature and the Film Festival meant that I could take stock of its contemporary cultural life. Nonetheless these festivals seemed to point in slightly different directions. The Literature festival was something of a festival of nostalgia- the discussions centred more on Odessa’s past than its present: Isaac Babel was the central figure, looming through the presence of his grandson from the States, or through the expectation (then postponed) of unveiling a monument to Odessa’s greatest literary son and although the names at the festival were impressive it was left to Dimitry Bykov to sound his word of warning about the dangers of nostalgia. The Film Festival, on the other hand, appropriated the present and turned its small scale (compared to the festivals in Moscow, St Petersburg or Sochi) to its advantage. A fine selection of films, a small selection of Ukrainian comedies and some truly worthy guests –Ioselliani, Todorovksy, Soloviev and, of course, its local star Kira Muratova. The presence of John Malkovich after that line-up was, for me, almost a minor fact. The film festival seems to be growing in significance year on year.

Nonetheless, surely there is more to be said returning to literature. How can Odessa avoid nostalgia having had such a fundamentally rich history. If the Babel’s, the Ilf and Petrov’s, the Kataev’s, the Paustovsky’s, the Bagritsky’s etc (the Bunin’s, the Kuprin’s and the Akhmatova’s) were more present than contemporaries can anyone blame the festival? Probably not. Odessa after all played a role as Russia’s third capital and now it seems to have lost this role and not found another definitive one other than an eccentric in contemporary Ukraine.

The disappearance of multi-national empires has been cruel to certain cities and Odessa, in many ways, is living out the same trauma as Trieste did or has. Perhaps, Odessa has been dealt rather different blows to that of Trieste- although both saw their Jewish populations decimated during the Second World War and their multinational character more or less wiped out. Yet they both remain cities which are intensely anomalous in their respective states. Trieste’s italianita’ is a rather paradoxical triumph of emotion over reason and Odessa can only really be Ukraine’s oddball city if a monolingual or monocultural cultural ethos is enforced. They both still demand by their very essence a dissolution of the nation state, a kind of post-national space beyond borders.

What can a contemporary Odessan style consist of? Are there any pointers? Well, Muratova has forged something which is surely universal- her rootedness in this rootless city has forged a new non-nostalgic and fairly ruthless aesthetic which is certain to leave its trace. Odessa was also the home of a very promising playwright – Anna Yablochina (?) – whose life was tragically cut short by the terrorist bomb at Domodedovo airport. It also has a fairly thriving artistic scene which has yet to be discovered – Oksana Mas is perhaps the only internationally recognised Odessan contemporary artist but this in no way reflects the lack of vitality of its art scene. A quick walk around at the Odessa Museum of Contemporary Art should immediately disabuse one of this prejudice. In fact, Odessan art often displayed features which made it a precursor of Russian art in Leningrad or Moscow in Soviet times. All interested in Russian art know of the bulldozer exhibition in Moscow in 1974 but who knows that the first clear sign of an alternative, quasi-underground art appeared a full seven years earlier in Odessa (during the fence exhibition). Jazz was also associated with Odessa and one must also not forget that the great chansonnier (in the Russian sense of the word) Arkady Severnny would develop an unmistakeably original musical style which would influence, amongst others, post-Soviet music like Shnurov’s Leningrad.  Severnny’s Odessa (as well as the more well-known Odessa of Utesov) must also be added to Babel’s Odessa or Muratova’s Odessa as being a unique transmutation of geography into art. 

Odessa as literary, artistic, cinematic legend deserves its spokesman and the city merits a contemporary transfiguration – a new legend to move on from the old and to establish a new tradition. It can only be hoped that Odessa in the twenty-first century will have such a constellation of talent and genius that it had in the twentieth and that new names producing new myths, legends and images of this unique city will emerge.

About afoniya

I am a translator, language teacher, independent film scholar who is interested in many aspects of culture. I have my own blog on Russian and Soviet cinema at http://giuvivrussianfilm.blogspot.com and I have also written for journals such as Film Philosophy and Bright Lights as well as Ribbed magazine. Outside of film my interest runs to language, politics, literature and my world is centred around the Meditteranean, Russia, Southern Ukraine as well as the UK.

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