The dark epiphanies of Odessa (thoughts from Liguria)

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I wrote some reflections in early May as a response to the tragic events in Odessa. I did not know the facts surrounding the event and my inability to access the internet meant that the context of everything which had happened in Odessa that awful day were not well known to me. But the sense of my ignorance only deepened my sense of distraction and loss that death should come on such a scale to the city of Odessa.

Very little internet access in recent weeks meant a kind of abstraction from the present as well as a loss of concentrated view of present events. After over a year in Russia my trip to Italy (and more recently to the UK) meant that I have found it was also hard to adjust to the European distance and indifference to what was happening in Ukraine. Each country, each reality is prey to its own obsessions and its own realities but the situation over the Ukraine had occupied my thoughts so intensely in Moscow. In Italy these thoughts were somehow distracted. Tragic forebodings about Odessa in a Ligurian resort.

Genova – Odessa’s twin city – yet living such different realities. Forebodings of a civil war while relaxing at the fountain in Piazza de Ferrari – thinking of the day when Arkady Babchenko came to the elegant surroundings of the Palazzo Ducale (four years ago) and told his Genoese audience: ‘There is no way I can get across to you the reality that in five maybe ten years civil war will come to Russia and you will be walking down the streets with an ice cream in your hands’. Babchenko’s words came back to me. The civil war was emerging in neighbouring Ukraine but the indifference of Europe was just as grossly sad as Babchenko had foreseen.

I am writing this from a small Italian village. A village, almost isolated for centuries, but which two generations back, would ‘generate’ a large amount of merchant sailors. Many of these merchant sailors would sail to the port city of Odessa. My grandfather was one of these (and my great grandfather had sailed there too) : I remember an advertisement placed on the panel board of the local Communist Party in his village in the early eighties about a cruise to Odessa and the Crimea. My grandfather then about eighty was so excited about the idea of returning to Odessa and wanted to take me along. Our trip never materialised. But I remember his love for the city of Odessa which he once visited as a merchant sailor (I’ve never been able to ascertain exactly when- maybe in the 1930s or maybe after the Second World War, my great grandfather may have travelled there in the first decade of the 20th century, or the last decade of the 19th). The links between Genoa (the city from which the merchant sailors of my village sailed from) and Odessa have always been strong. If my memory serves me there is, I believe, still a Genoa street in Odessa. Genoa and Odessa are twinned cities.

Predrag Matvejevic

For me the most moving thing I have read is Predrag Matvejevic’s description of how he went to meet his relatives in the city of Odessa in July 1972. In Italian it’s available in a volume of his scattered writings entitled “An accursed Europe” . It takes up five pages in his account of a trip to the Soviet Union. From his relatives he learned of how the tragic twentieth century had taken its toll on their lives. Relatives who had been to the gulags- one who had returned and others who hadn’t. Another relative living in dire poverty when Predrag Matvejevic visits – who Predrag’s father had always referred to as the beautiful Tusja. Family memories are confronted with the traces of the terror and poverty that people lived through. Wars took their toll too. An unbearably tragic family history which goes on for four pages and which Predrag learns about in one visit. At the end of Predrag’s visits he walks through the streets of Odessa and then sits down by a railing and starts to cry. He then talks about his walk through the city of Odessa and his return to the Writers’ Union hoping that noone has seen what had happened on his face-he remarks that they didn’t even look at him. He concludes that nothing was important about the rest of of his trip to Moscow and return to Yugoslavia. “I no longer saw anything and I have remembered nothing. I stopped writing.”

The arson at the Trades Union Building causing the loss of over 40 lives.

I read Predrag’s piece some years ago – and I read it again after I heard about the fire that claimed the lives of over forty people in the trade union building in Odessa. My two readings were so different. After my first reading although I had visited Odessa I had not lived there for any period of time. My second reading was suffused with many new memories of my own. While I live in the suburbs of Moscow, Odessa was always the city where I most wanted to be. In 2001 when I first came to Moscow to study Russian I told myself four months in Moscow and then off to Odessa. Things kept separating me from a life in Odessa. All I could do was to travel to the summer film festival and then stay there six weeks one recent summer. The links have been mainly nostalgic and immaginary or let’s say symbolic rather than real links. But real enough, perhaps, to have walked the streets, made friendships there and have done something which approaches grasping the everydayness of the place such as searching for an apartment (even though an attempt to work in Odessa didn’t bear any fruit).

An art work by Stefania Galegati in the city of Genoa which says ‘To tell this story one must start from Odessa’

Scores of people lost their lives in Odessa (in early May) and I trudge through the streets of another city in another country. I am separated from this reality- firstly from the physical streets of Odessa and secondly even from the comments of people in Odessa whom I know. I have only the books of my small library here in Italy – and I have only found the words of Predrag Matvejevic any consolation (Matvejevic is one of the greatest moral voices in Europe today partly because of the personal sincerity of his voice and his persona). His words have an extraordinary quality and his books on the Mediterranean and Bread are works which have few equals. Matvejevic escapes all the traps of writing falsehoods because his gaze is fixed otherwise and it feels as though his archaeology of knowledge is different from others. Moreover, not only has he seen his own former country (Yugoslavia) being torn apart by wars of secession but his fathers birthplace (Odessa) now too is threatened by massive strife (I don’t know if the term civil war is the one to use here- this idea is too terrible to contemplate).

Yesterday (May 3rd) I was in Genoa – another city which I dearly love and it almost mirrors my love for Odessa. Or maybe Genoa was my first experience of this southern Europe- it has childhood memories of a particular intensity. And yet these days I remember something that Arkady Babchenko said when he came to present the Italian edition of his book on his experiences in Chechnya at a kind of week long public university which takes place in Genoa’s Palazzo Ducale each year. There was a kind of unease in Babchenko about talking about Chechnya in the luxurious setting of Genoa’s most central Palace. How could he speak of Russia and Chechnya here? After many questions he stated how in these surroundings it wasn’t really possible to grasp realities. While the Genoese would be walking down eating their ice creams through the beautiful, elegant streets of the centre one day in the future, Russia would be in themidst of a civil war. How could one explain the death and destruction of Chechnya in a spring evening to a middle class Genoese audience who would then after the talk strut off to have a nice meal in a restaurant down the road. I thought of Babchenko’s words that day in Genoa yesterday when, as I walked with my partner and my child through the streets of the city, Odessa seemed to be contemplating the prospect of civil war. Near Palazzo Ducale a group of riot police were blocking the entrances and preparing to clash with a small group of protestors denouncing the racism of Lega Nord who had come to hold a meeting there. Genoa wasn’t exactly calm and the massive police violence, the assassination of Carlo Giuliani and their use of torture in July 2001 means that this is a city with its own wounds. Some Genoese even in recent history have experienced the reality of violence and repression but it seems that cognitive and other dissonances don’t always join up the experiences of violence and repression and the continuing need for a kind of ignorance. Genoa and Odessa march to different rhythms and their wounds seem to have different narratives. The fountain at Piazza de Ferrari spurts out a green dyed water while Odessa is bracing itself for a possible descent into strife that it hasn’t known for decades.

Genoa’s Piazza de Ferrari

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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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