Academic journal article Ethnology

Walking Streets, Talking History: The Making of Odessa

Academic journal article Ethnology

Walking Streets, Talking History: The Making of Odessa

Article excerpt

Through walking streets and talking history, the members of the My Odessa club sense their city as place. History is encountered in buildings, ruins, monuments, and stories as both a diffuse feeling and a dialogic process. The walkers' practice of exploring nooks and crannies of the city and speaking with local residents is informed by a "large family" form of sociality, and a notion of Odessa as courtyard where space is conceived as communal. In walking the city, participants subvert and recreate aspects of Soviet and post-Soviet urban space and generate a sense of their city as distinct from a national space. (Space and place, sensing history, postsocialist transformation)

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Every Sunday in the southern Ukrainian port city of Odessa, between 20 and 30 residents, mainly elderly, gather on a street in "old Odessa," (1) the area built prior to the October Revolution of 1917. With their guide, Valerii Netrebskii, they ramble for two or three hours down a chosen street, stopping frequently to be transported to past epochs by Valerii's layered account of the history of a particular building, empty lot, or courtyard. They discover hidden parts of streets, such as an overgrown block of Champagne Lane. They enter courtyards and speak with residents, as on Cable Street where walkers, some of them Jews, debated with a Jewish resident the pros and cons of emigrating. They ponder the connection of certain places with well-known landmarks, as when Valerii explained how the fish fountains on the Pushkin Monument were made in the Jewish Labor Association's technical college on the corner of Bazaar and Cable Streets. They use motifs from Odessan authors' works in describing their environment, as Inna did in noting how a new metal balcony reminded her of Bezenchyk's coffin in the novel Twelve Chairs. Walkers express wonder when discovering new places, outrage at the poor upkeep of architectural landmarks, irritation when previously accessible buildings are fenced off, and amusement at participants' jokes and interjections.

The walks of the My Odessa club, which I joined from August to November 2002, are about sensing Odessa as place. (2) Sensing Odessa as place as these walkers do is intricately related to sensing history and the experience of sociability. Although the group is relatively small and not overtly political, in that it does not lobby the local administration, through these walks a sense of the urban landscape is transmitted in which Odessa is conceived as Russian, cosmopolitan, cultured, distinct from Ukraine, and more connected with Russia and the outside world. The group's practices are influenced not only by Soviet Odessan concepts of urban space and the formation of a post-Soviet public sphere in which informal groups can organize, but also by the prerevolutionary architecture and geography of the city.

Odessa was founded in 1794 by Catherine II to stabilize, settle, and develop trade in the lands north of the Black Sea that the Russian Empire had acquired from the Ottoman Empire (Herlihy 1986). The city was established a few decades after the remaining vestiges of autonomous Ukrainian political formations east of the Dnipro River had been dismantled; indeed, Ukraine did not attain full political sovereignty until 1991, with the exception of brief periods in 1918-1919. Throughout the nineteenth century, Odessa was one of the most rapidly developing cities in Europe, and by the mid- 1800s was the third-most prominent city in the Russian Empire in size, economy, and cultural importance. Inhabited by Greeks, Italians, French, Poles, Jews, Bulgarians, Germans, Moldovans, Russians, and Ukrainians, among others, the city was cosmopolitan from the outset. It emerged from Catherine's policy of attracting foreign merchants, administrators, and colonists from western Europe and the Ottoman Empire to develop Novorossia (New Russia). By the early twentieth century the city was linguistically and culturally more Russian than a century previously. …

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