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Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams Hardcover – February 28, 2011

4.4 out of 5 stars 31 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In his intricately researched new work, King (The Black Sea) brings to life the stories of the Russians, Jews, Turks, Greeks, Italians, Germans, and Romanians that make up the "quintessentially mixed city" of Odessa. Far from the Russian and Ukrainian seats of power, but close to Europe, Asia, and the Mediterranean states, Odessa has always been both a progressive, cosmopolitan trading port and a lawless outpost given to periods of violence, revolution, and economic depression. King effortlessly moves between the city's high points, like the booming grain trade in the late-18th and mid-19th centuries and urban development under the duc de Richelieu, and its desperate times, including the economic collapse associated with the Crimean War and the city's devastating Jewish holocaust at the hands of Romanian occupiers in the 1940s. King weaves into his history the lives of Alexander Pushkin, Isaac Babel, and Sergei Eisenstein, all of whom had connections to Odessa, a city still struggling to understand its place in the world. King's ability to lay bare the city's secrets— both good and bad—gives a fascinating prism through which to observe. (Feb.)
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From Booklist

Unlike so many other great cities, the foundation of Odessa is not lost in the mists of a distant, legendary past; it was formally founded by a decree of Russian empress Catherine the Great in 1794. Of course, as King illustrates, the spot that became Odessa has a long and fascinating, if often tragic, history. Located along the Black Sea at the nexus of multiple trade routes, the site and the surrounding area have hosted a great variety of settlers and conquerors over thousands of years, including Greeks, Jews, Tatars, Turks, and Germans. The result was a vibrant, diverse port city whose ethnic stew was both a blessing and a curse. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Odessa was a great center of Jewish culture, and King relates how the Jewish population was virtually destroyed by occupying Romanians under Nazi sponsorship. This is a well-written chronicle of a city unfamiliar to most in the West and serves as both a tribute and lament. --Jay Freeman

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; First Edition edition (February 28, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393070840
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393070842
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.1 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (31 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #924,798 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Paul Gelman on February 11, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
One of the most famous visitors to Odessa was Mark Twain. He found a city that was full of people from various nationalities and religions. He had visited the city in 1867 and was one of the many who stepped ashore to see its famous cascade of stone steps, while observing the "city center, buzzing with the business of trade, shipping and exchange". Because of this, he was reminded of his America.
Thus Mr.King starts his fascinating tale of the city's history-a city founded on the shores of the Black Sea. Later on you could find in it everything and everyone: Russians, Romanians, Jews, Greeks, Italians, Germans. The city has attracted all kinds of people. Many of them were prominent figures and they included Alexander Pushkin, Grigory Potemkin, Jose de Ribas, Isaac Babel and various Jewish writers and Zionist activists. It was a city where intellectuals, crooks and raconteurs were living side by side. Like most sea and river ports, Odessa became a haven for the underworld and this thing in itself "became one of the deepest and most enduring features". Criminals, delinquents, Jewish artful dodgers and schemers populated the city, which was built originally by Catherine the Great as a model of Enlightenment. One of the most famous personalities was Illya Mechnikov, the famous immunologist who earned the Nobel prize and whose tragic life is well told here. His story is only part of a greater picture of the terrible and endless plagues which were rampant in Odessa throughout the centuries. This resulted in many quarantines imposed by the authorities on ships and travellers alike. Another plague, that of locusts during the nineteenth century, caused the inhabitants of Odessa to find comic solutions, such as the creation of enough noise to scare the insects away.
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Format: Hardcover
because my memory is my only homeland.
Anselm Kiefer

I've never been to Odessa but I think I've built my own memory of this city out of stories I heard growing up. On July 11, 1896 my grandfather Chaim arrived at Ellis Island. He had left his native city, Odessa, in 1895 and somehow made his way from Odessa to Hamburg and from there to New York. He then sent for his wife and five children. Upon the arrival of the ship his wife told him the five children had died of typhus while in port in Antwerp. They proceeded to have six more children, including my father. Growing up I heard stories from my father that consisted of his retelling of the Odessa stories that he heard from his father. What always struck me was how Odessa sounded so much like New York. It was a noisy, brash, sometimes scary melting pot that because of its natural harbor served as a crossroad of world trade. It was a place of great trade and petty cons, a new city that was proud of being unlike any other city in its country and one that was not limited by hundreds of years of tradition. I heard that Odessa was the one place in the Pale of Settlement (the areas in the Russian empire where Jews were allowed to live) where Jews could break out of the chains of shtetl poverty and make a living. A place that, while not necessarily a haven of political liberty, had a passion for business and trade that allowed people to break out of the economic class that they were born in. Last I heard it was a place of thriving culture as befit a city that took in traders and travelers from around the world. It was no surprise to learn that my great-grandfather was an actor who travelled around the Pale of Settlement putting on Shakespeare's plays in Yiddish.
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Format: Hardcover
This is an excellent example of popular history. It reads well and is accessible to a general audience, but is backed by solid scholarship. The story is of a city that arose to become one of the great diverse and culturally productive cities in Russia - Odessa. In the first, "genius", part, the focus is on the extraordinary cultural vibrancy of the city, stimulated by the many groups living there -- most notably Jews, but also Greeks, Armenians, Ukrainians and Russians among others. The second, "death," part deals with how the city tore itself apart in the 20th century.

As King notes, in 1905 Odessa experienced "the deadliest and most notorious pogrom in Russian history." (p. 160) Research done at the time on the refugees from the pogrom found that "just under a third had lost at least one family member in a pogrom, around 44 percent of them losing one or both parents." (p. 181) The ferocity of these at least partially state-sponsored outbursts of violence against Jews led to the creation of Jewish self-defense organizations. I would have liked to have had a bit more on these organizations, but overall the section on the pogrom and its aftermath was very evocative.

Unfortunately, the pogrom was not an aberration. In what I think is the most fascinating and most important part of the book, King details how the Romanian allies of the Nazis carried out their own section of the Holocaust in Odessa. Although they were not quite as organized as the Nazis, the leadership of the Romanian occupation's willingness to use violence and belief in anti-Semitism rivaled that of the Nazis. As King states, this is an almost unknown aspect of the Holocaust. I'm a Russian historian and taught a class on the Holocaust, and I hadn't previously come across this aspect of the Holocaust.
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