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Anna Misyuk: The 600th anniversary of Odessa? I’m not interested.

About the celebration of Odessa’s 600th anniversary, historical legends, the Jewish character of the city and stereotypes

Anna Misyuk is a custodian, guide and thinker. Foreigners who come to Odessa not by intuition, but with the desire to compare their knowledge of the city with reality, ring beforehand or write to this person, whose name is passed on by specialists from mouth to mouth.

She preserves this city, its history, names and addresses, and gladly gives all this knowledge to any passionate souls and minds.

A pupil of Lotman, she not only dug up a layer of the Odessa literature school, but also became one of the finest specialists on Jewish history and literature.

Her colleagues at the Odessa literature museum say that she taught them to read low-quality literature, because you could also learn something from it.

A person of broad erudition and an analytical type of mind, Anna keenly picks up on trends in various spheres – culture, society, literature, politics – and can read an improvised lecture, for example, about types of brandy, ancient manuscripts, modern TV series…

Do you consider Odessa to be a Ukrainian city?

In what sense? Nowadays everything needs to be specified. Odessa is undoubtedly a Ukrainian city. It is located on the territory of Ukraine, and is one of the Oblast centers of Ukraine. Of course it is a Ukrainian city.

There are debates going on at the moment, and even the President has passed a decision to celebrate the 600th anniversary of Odessa. And although we still consider the year of Odesssa’s foundation to be 1794, now we are being asked to calculate it from the Ukrainian settlement of Kotsyubeevko…

Actually, it was a Polish-Lithuanian settlement. If we assume that what the chronicle of Jan Dlugosz, which was written much later than 1415, is true – then in any case, it was the Polish-Lithuanian principality, the Rzecz Pospolita. Then comes Khadzhibei, which was under the Crimean Tatar rule, and then the rule of Istanbul. But in the 6th century BC there was the Greek colony of Istrian in this location. Why not calculate it from that time?

I think that if we strictly keep to history, Ukrainian nationalism won’t have much scope here. I think that the most important thing is the desire to have some sort of product, so to speak, to oppose the “imperial” project. This is the sort of polemics we have here.

But now history has become the “servant of two masters”: politicians on the one hand, and the entertainment industry on the other. I talked to people from the “Odessa – 600” group, and they are mainly interested in having a celebration: “Well then, another celebration – why not”. In other words, why not invent some historical date which will be useful for politics, and pleasant for people – it will enrich the entertainment history.

We know that Odessa is constantly being “shaken”, and separatist forces benefit from a divide in society. But in this case, I think, the Ukrainian nationalists are acting as the provocative force – by increasing the divide, and shifting the balance. Because among the Odessa supporters of a united Ukraine, undoubtedly, there are many people who believe that the mentality of Odessa is more Russian than anything else. And these are very dangerous games, a disturbance of the fine balance between “East” and “West”.

From their point of view, it’s a reverse process. It’s their reaction to the claim that Odessa is a Russian city, that there were never any Ukrainians here. It’s a defensive reaction. In these conflicts there is no unilateral truth. This knot is always tied from two sides.

In your opinion, is Odessa a Ukrainian, Greek or Jewish city? If we take the language, then is it Russian?

It depends how you look at it. Zhabotinsky found people in Odessa who spoke Greek and Italian. Russian was not compulsory at all for many Odessa residents for quite a long time.

And Ukrainian?

Well, at any rate, back in 1834 a book was published in Ukrainian in Odessa, so there was someone to publish it and someone to read it. One of the first notes (18th century) about our region, not quite Odessa, but its surroundings, was by the Zaporozhian Korzh.

In my opinion, these questions are uninteresting – they’re simple, and I can answer them very simply: with a date, with one note or another, from one decade or another. But I don’t see why a conflict should grow out of this – not from the notes of the Zaprozhian Korzh, or the by Richelieu or Marazli, or the significance for the development of the Odessa port by Greek or Jewish merchants. The modern conflict isn’t taking place because of this. If people want to, let them celebrate the 600th anniversary. I don’t believe in it, because I don’t know anything about it. There is no evidence for this idea – no archeology, no historical data…

How is the age of a city usually calculated– from the first settlement, or from the moment when the city was named?

It’s like this: if this settlement developed into a town… For example, Berlin, the town of the bear, grew from a certain jetty and at some stage received the status of town. They remember that it grew from this jetty, and City Day is the day when it received the status of town. And generally, people calculate things the way they want.

Khadzhibei, Kostubei… it’s just not interesting. These settlements appeared and disappeared… This area was inhabited a very long time ago. Ancient stones are found here… they are found, but nothing remains from Kostubeevo. They were very insignificant posts, they didn’t have their own character or purpose.

By the way, here’s an interesting story. There was a young man who lived in England in the 17th century, John Smith. He was an adventurous boy, and at the age of 15 he ran away from home and went to Holland, which was fighting with Spain for its independence. He also fought and was captured by the Spanish, and then was sold into slavery in Turkey. The young housewife took a liking to the slave, while her husband was away on business. The relatives got worried – the husband would come back, and everyone would be in trouble. And under some pretext the slave was sent away to a distant relative, who at that time was serving in the most remote Turkish settlement on the Black Sea. The young man ran away from there, and for a long time he travelled through the untouched Scythian steppes. He returned to England, but he couldn’t sit still, and once more went on an expedition – to North America. There he was the first commander of a fort, which laid the foundation for the English development of North America. Arbitrarily speaking, he is one of the founders of the United States of America. And now comes the question – where could he have been on the shore of the Black Sea? He didn’t reach the Crimea, judging from his notes. And the most remote fortress of Turkey was Khadzhibei… So we don’t we say that it was from here, from Odessa, that America began?

If people want to look for things, then let them, maybe they’ll find something significant… But I’m interested in something else – what made Odessa a cultural phenomenon.

As a cultural phenomenon, does Odessa have a nationality?

No. The Odessa cultural phenomenon lies in the fact that it has no nationality. Odessa became a new kind of city. I saw people getting excited on Facebook about the fact that our Ukrainian project was overcoming the imperial project. That’s not right, because the entire cultural sense of Odessa is that it is not imperial. Odessa did not fit into the imperial project. Yes, Russia’s political will did reach this shore. But if it had only reached it, then today we’d not be talking about Odessa, but about Nikolaev, Kherson or Sevastopol… Do you feel the difference? It’s quite a different matter. In Odessa an extra-imperial project was carried out. And that’s interesting! And that’s significant!

The idea of a porto-franco, which was once implemented in Odessa, was until recently the dream of Odessans. But now, when politicians are trying to push this project through, many people are worried that this is the path to creating a “free republic” in Odessa, like the Donetsk People’s Republic and Lugansk People’s Republic…

Actually, the same accusations were made from the imperial capitals in the early 19th century – that the new Odessa, which was created in an incomprehensible way, would either be taken back by the Turks, or would split off, or that it should be separated with a wall like the Great Wall of China, and people should forget that it ever existed in the empire… There’s an amusing apology in verse, which was popular in the 1830s, written about the visit of high-ranking Petersburg officials, saying that they shouldn’t think bad of her, that Odessa only looked like a foreigner, and in fact she was faithful to the Tsar.
And as for the porto-franco I only know one thing: a porto-franco, besides all kinds of economic privileges, gives rise to a criminal ring. The fact that Odessa gained the reputation of a city of crooks and criminals was also the consequence of the porto-franco. I’m just warning you [laughs].

There are rumors that UNESCO refused to include Odessa on the world heritage lift because of the modern construction in the historical city center. How would you comment on this situation?

There are two points of view about construction: either the city is turned into a museum, or it develops. We have already said: if we believe that Odessa is 600 years old, then the first 400 years are completely empty, so let’s take 200 instead.
200 years ago, construction was sparse, there were very few buildings, and not even a whole block has been preserved from those times. We can guess what it was like, from the building of the Richelieu lyceum on Deribasovskaya Street, and imagine the appearance of the city from old engravings. Mainly, the center of Odessa is construction from the late 19th century, at this time Odessa turned into a building site. And our eclecticism, which we adore but do not respect, is from the late 19th – early 20th century.

There’s a story that I was told by French architects, whom I am inclined to believe, as they are from a workshop in Paris which works on restoration and reconstruction. After the Second World War, destroyed Europe started restoring its cities. And the question arose: what should be restored? Europe also had several layers of construction. For example, European classicism suffered – these buildings were rebuilt at a later time. Eclecticism appeared – on classicism and even on older baroque buildings. So what was to be restored – the eclectic building or the one that existed before it? And they decided that eclecticism wasn’t so valuable, and that the original versions should be restored.

In the early 1990s, the opinion at the Odessa city council was that our eclecticism is not valuable, that it was imitable, epigone construction, and from that time the architectural ensemble of Odessa was doomed, it began to be torn down. But there are no simple questions and no simple answers. When UNESCO first took an interest in Odessa, it was interested in it as a preserved city ensemble of the 19th century, which does not exist in Europe. There are quite large fragments (usually combined with older ones) in the old city plan, but in Odessa it is intact, it still stands there the way it was built. When they came here, they found that there wasn’t much old stone, that there was too much new construction in the historical center. Because even if we did restore old buildings, they were restored with new stone. And so UNESCO rejected us.

So it’s important what’s under the plastering? There has to be old limestone?

Even if it’s new, then it should be of a certain size. And there must be some part of the old stone. There are certain requirements and methods.

So now everything can be destroyed and rebuilt?

Yes, if we don’t value it and don’t love it, then we can destroy it.

But Odessans will oppose this. The city has its own face, and if we destroy it, then we’ll get New Vasyuki…

This is why I don’t agree with this “Odessa 600” group. They are very active in their lack of love for the city. That’s just what it is – a “lack of love”. They feel indifferent about this space. And if tomorrow Odessa was turned into a second Cherkassy, Sumy or Rovno, they would be happy. But I don’t understand why Ukraine needs a second Cherkassy or Sumy.

The paradox is that Odessa, which I hope supports a united Ukraine, has found in itself in opposition to this group of people who also support a united Ukraine, but do not value the uniqueness of our city.

Yes, but they do not understand that Ukraine needs Odessa – not Kotsyubeevo, but Odessa The reality, I think, is more important than phantoms, even those that are the most sympathetic to our national idea. They impoverish the county in which they live. I repeat – not Kotsyubeevo, not Khadzhibei, not Catherine, not Richelieu or Paul proposed the city that became Odessa. Incidentally, after Catherine’s death, Paul intended just to keep a porte-de-relache here – a place where boats could escape from storms, and go for urgent repairs, but nothing more than this. So supporters of “Odessa 600” wouldn’t even have to argue with anyone today…

But reality intrudes from all these sides.

I often hear young people say: we are fighting against the Odessa myth. What is this battle of an ant against the Gothic style?! What does it actually mean – to fight against a myth?! Think about it – a myth doesn’t appear by accident. “Now we’ll create a new myth.” All right then, go ahead and try. I’d like to see it. You can create a new political slogan, but not a myth. Odessa really is the home of a city myth. Not all cities have their own myth. [laughs] Odessa has this “fame” not because more crimes were committed here. There is another meaning in this. And of course Babel didn’t invent it. There are books about criminals of Kiev, criminals of Moscow – and at the same period that Babel wrote in “Odessa Stories”, but for some reason these cities did not gain this criminal reputation. So think about this – what is the cultural meaning of this myth? Odessa is a city which lived and was built according to its own cultural vector – despite the empire on the territory of which it was born. This is why, thanks to this cultural vector, that this miracle arose, when the entire country was moving backwards, a miracle because of resistance. A miracle which takes root in some cracks, which is not subordinate to legislation, or a common paradigm, but gives rise to its own paradigm, its own form of activity, form of relationship, form of communications.

Perhaps that’s why Odessans were always inclined to smile, because they always saw life from sides – the way you were supposed to live, and the way it was worth living.

You are one of the authors of the “Guide to Jewish Odessa”, published by the “Migdal” center. Recently you said that if it was reprinted, you would have to make corrections to it, because some of the historical monuments were no longer there. Which ones are they?

For example, the first Jewish school was demolished, the business center “Troitsky” now stands there. Some information has also changed. History, in my opinion, is a sacerdotal science, it studies what has happened. But people constantly try to make it obey the slogan “Historians, let’s make the past better!”

You’ve been holding guided tours of Odessa since 1995. How did the tour of Jewish Odessa come into being?

People started ordering it. Before that there was no mention of Jews in tours of Odessa. There were approved texts of the Bureau of tour guides, and there weren’t any Jews there. Or rather, there was mention of famous people of Jewish ancestry, but not about the Jews as a group, as a part of Odessa history. But when the times changed and tourists started asking questions, the guides, as they told me, were at a loss. And they showed the first clients the following: the Great synagogue, which was a gymnasium; the Brodsky synagogue which was the Oblast state archive, the London hotel where Ehrenburg stayed, the house where Babel lived – and that was it. And when some firm hurriedly published a booklet, it included a site which was called Blank’s house. I couldn’t understand for a long time what this was. It turned out that this was the house where Dmitry Ulyanov lived – Lenin’s brother. And as their grandfather had the surname Blank, this house was included as a Jewish site. No one knew back then that Chaim-Nakhman Byalik and Iegoshua Ravnitsky lived in this house, and that Ilya Ilf spent his adolescence there.

How many Jewish historical sites can you show to tourists now? I understand that the routes are drawn up according to the clients’ wishes, but what is the potential?

If you calculate it by the memorial plaques, for example… Here we need to clarify things. In the late 19th-early 20th century Jews accounted for over 33% of the total number of city residents. And this was the time that all the city structures of Odessa became established and flourished – its science, art, and the establishment of its own literary generation… So among the celebrities of Odessa there are many Jews, and of course there is the temptation to include Oistrakh and Gilels in Jewish Odessa, as well as Ilf, and Mark Krein – a mathematician of world renown… But these people are more interesting and important as professionals who achieved great things in their sphere of activity. But I think it’s more important to include people in a tour of Jewish Odessa who were Jewish cultural or public figures. That is, the life of the Jewish community and figures who played a role in the history of the Jewish people.

These memorial plaques appeared, and there are so many of them that even when a book was published about the new monuments and memorial plaques of Odessa, the editor stopped the writers and said that there were too many Jewish plaques, and they didn’t all make it into this collection.

But to give a brief list, we have: the historian Semyon Dubnov, the poet Chaim-Nakhman Byalik, the poet Shaul Shernikhovsky, the historian Iosif Klauzner, Vladimir Zhabotinsky – a great son of Odessa – a writer, poet, journalist, public figure, one of the founders of the state of Israel, Meir Dizengof, the first mayor of Tel-Aviv… And Lev Pinsker – a doctor, journalist, founder of the Palestinophile movement – the word “Zionism” did not yet exist then. Pinsker, of whom Theodore Herzl said: “if I had read his book at the right time [“Auto-emancipation”], I could well have not written anything more”. We also have Sholom Aleichem, Mendele-Moikher Sforim, who was the head of the Odessa Talmud-Torah, the first classic of Yiddish literature. Incidentally, there is not a plaque for this Talmud-Torah, there is no plaque on the building where the Odessa Palestinian Committee worked for over 30 years, and played an enormous role in the return of Jews to Eretz-Israel. There is no plaque because Nechipurenko Lane is scheduled for demolition, and memorial plaques aren’t put up there.

And of course, our tour includes community buildings, synagogues, schools… There are very interesting buildings – for example, there is a house where the committee for Jewish aid once worked, which made the decision to move to non-European and non-Asian countries… Where?

To Argentina?

It’s interesting that many people are stumped by this, and name Antarctica or Africa… [laughs]. For some reason no one thinks of America.

But people who order the tour “Jewish Odessa” (I don’t mean specialists who know where they are going and why), what do these people expect from the tour?

There have been time when people who ordered Jewish Odessa thought that they’d be shown criminal sites. Well, you can’t change the lyrics to the song: on Moldavanka – the most criminal district of Odessa, and because Moldavanka was connected with smuggling, it was outside the porto-franco – Jews accounted for around 70% of residents. And the percentage of Jews who were criminals was accordingly very high. And there’s also Babel with his incredible Jewish gangsters, whom journalists are constantly unmasking. Unmasking literary heroes is a wonderful activity! [laughs].

You’ve been holding courses for guides for around 15 years – at the Literature Museum, at the “Migdal” Jewish center, and other places too… What’s the approach to the program?

Wherever I hold courses, I try to give three topics: Historical Odessa (survey), Literary Odessa and Jewish Odessa.
And all these years there have been people who find this interesting…

Yes. Sometimes I even find it strange that the more the city is destroyed, the greater the interest in it. It’s so strange…

Are there young people among the students? I get the feeling that there is no one from among young architects who love this city.

That’s true. Unfortunately. We see this from the example of how Arkadia was divided up. This is why the polemics about Odessa-600 seem strange to me. There’s a mention from the end of the 15th century in Dlugosz’s chronicle that bread was sent from Kotsyubeevo to Constantinople – this has been known for a long time. No one kept it a secret it. If you open any monograph about Odessa, it is mentioned everywhere, and the information can be found at the area studies museum.

They plan to bring it to the museum in a ceremony on 14 May.

What are they planning to bring? As I said, there’s no commemoration, no picture, no object…


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