Showing Off in Odessa
They talk in Western Europe of our duplicity and wily cunning; they mistake the desire to show off and swagger a bit for the desire to deceive. --Alexander Herzen, Memoirs
The Russia Alexander Gerschenkron was born into in 1904 was a vast and varied country of people who had been so frequently abused by tyrants that out of all the misery came a commonality of spirit shared even by Europeanized Russians like the Gerschenkrons. It was with enormous pride that all his life Alexander, known to his family by the nickname Shura (pronounced Shoo-rah, with the r rolled soft), referred to himself as “typically Russian.” Typically Russian behavior was a matter of both style and attitude, a rough-hewn, zestfully counterintuitive approach to living that was evident in many aspects of comportment, from the wordless sounds only Russians made to express their appreciation for something—such as a just-downed glass of vodka—to the uniquely Russian shudder that came over people experiencing strong emotion. It was typically Russian to sleep in stuffy rooms with the windows closed, to enjoy breathing in the air on dusty roads, to insist there was no finer music than the murmur of the samovar, to have political arguments in which you were quietly modifying your position all the time while loudly refusing to concede anything, and typically Russian to look at the schoolboy warning you to rub snow on your nose because it was nearly blue with frostbite and inform him that you preferred it that way. After you had sent the schoolboy packing, it was also typically Russian to think you had spited your nose for the goodof a not-yet-typical child.
At its essence, to be typically Russian was to be “more so.” Though Russians, for instance, were not always energetic—were, in fact, famed for their abilities as sleepers—in his fleeting moments of vigor a typical Russian was more vigorous than anybody. In this way, Russians were “more so” about everything. As a Russian saw it, a Frenchman might be ardent when it came to France—or a Frenchwoman—but he never truly lost his head about anything except a Frenchwoman. (Usually it was someone else’s Frenchwoman.) Germans were even worse. They were so rigidly organized that they never lost their heads at all. Russians, however, believed in losing their heads and aspired to do so. Russians made outrageous claims, traveled to absurd lengths, pushed the limit, and exceeded expectations. Always they wanted to be more loyal, more devoted, more steadfast, more stoic, and—when circumstances called for it—more long-suffering. That was a lot to live up to, and to meet the perpetual challenge typical Russians spent spectacular amounts of time lying around dreaming up magnificent feats for themselves to accomplish. In other words, it was a nation of show-offs.
In Shura’s view, this behavior was rooted in the populist intelligentsia’s long-standing tradition of appropriating and preserving rural values. Russia was slow to industrialize, and into the early twentieth century many social mores still came from the provinces—from the peasantry. Even townspeople like the Gerschenkrons were familiar with tales of peasant heroics: the heavy sacks of grain this mujik had hoisted; the broad fields of ripe wheat that one had cut to the ground by himself in a single day with his scythe. Many of these stories featured men who had allowed so much work to accumulate that everyone said this time, truly, it was just impossible: no man could finish such a job in such a limited time. Whereupon the peasant went out and completed the task in a remarkable lather of activity. Sometimes these frenzied finishes were pyrrhic victories. Among other things, they led to an epidemic of Russian hernias.
Nobody but the afflicted worried too much about that. Far from earning any kind of censure, the reckless approach was prized in Russia, and peasants who betrayed too disciplined an attitude toward their work were scorned as “acting German.” Even in Soviet times, factory workers were notorious for lazing about until the end of a planning period and then compensating with the shturmovshchina—a storm of activity. As a city boy Shura was not obligated to do any physical labor, and he readily admitted that his own heroic displays were “not functional.” Still, he said of his youth that “you were called upon at all times to surprise the world by unusual achievements,” and added that “it was natural to indulge in it, since it was all around us.” That is to say, Alexander Gerschenkron was a moral and a dignified person, but he did not despise a show-off. Indeed, he was one himself.
The years of Shura’s youth were spent in the Black Sea port city of Odessa. Every August the nearby coast became crowded with men unloading boatloads of watermelons freshly harvested from the Ukrainian steppe. Shura never really thought about this until the winter of 1918, when he was fourteen and happened to read a book which described how difficult it was to be a mover of watermelons. Not only were the smallish fruits heavier than they appeared, but they were slick against a man’s hand and had an oblong shape that the book said made them cumbersome even for veteran stevedores. Shura decided that when the late summer came he would show those watermelons.
Early in August, he walked down to the water and came upon an energetic scene. Moored in the shallow surf were a number of skiffs piled high with Russian melons of the darkest green. Parked above the beach on the shore road were an equal number of fruit wagons. Between the boats and the wagons stood the watermelon movers. They worked bucket-brigade style in groups of five, tossing the melons up the line to the drayman, who settled them into his wagon. Noticing a team that had only four men, Shura stepped forward, offered his services to the foreman, and was waved into formation.
The watermelons turned out to be as unwieldy as advertised, and in no time Shura had allowed two of them to slip through his grasp and smash at his feet. Immediately he was set upon by the foreman, who marinated him in a thick stream of invective that concluded, “You drop another one and you are out, but before you go, I’ll mend that dirty running nose of yours.” In a rage Shura directed a series of murderous threats of his own back at the foreman, concluding with a guarantee of “utter destruction.” Then he bent his back. He didn’t drop another melon all morning.
At lunchtime he was not required to make good on his vows of mayhem; instead he was given his first short snort of vodka and was otherwise treated with great affection by his new colleagues, including the foreman, who, after inquiring if Shura would like some help changing his diapers, quivered with laughter and announced that he was not such a bad kid after all. Then the foreman proceeded to teach him what Shura remembered as a dazzling multitude of unsurpassable blasphemies. More melons were fumbled that afternoon, but not by Shura, who received his pay and hurried home to fulfill his real purpose in the whole enterprise—telling everyone in the family all about it.
All the Gerschenkrons enjoyed the tales of little Shura leaping across broad ditches or charging through rushing currents yelling “Dvum smertiam nye by vat, I odnoi nye mino vat” (Two deaths cannot happen to one person and one death cannot be avoided). From the time he was four, his parents had him standing up on chairs in front of the company, reciting little poems he’d memorized. As he grew older much of the inspiration for his “achievements” came from the conventional source, the peasants he met while the family was summering in the countryside outside Odessa.
Many educated Russians had sentimental feelings about rural life. That was because in the sweltering summer heat, Russian cities became oppressive places. The air reeked with the stench of sewage and disease, the streets were strewn with garbage, rats and flies moved in bold swarms, and cultivated families packed their trunks and got out of town. They built small houses in clearings, glades, and meadows and took up residence in these dachas for a few short weeks—just long enough for many of them to romanticize the bucolic life.
Shura’s father, Paul Gerschenkron, owned two such properties. There was the dacha that he bought in a moment of prosperity to please his wife Sophie. But Sophie was a particular woman and did not like the cottage. She preferred the family’s pomiestie (small rural estate) eight miles outside the city limits in a forest close to the Black Sea. It was easy to see why. The estate was a charming place. Besides the rustic wooden farmhouse surrounded by a veranda, there were meadows dappled with red and blue wildflowers, walnut trees, tall hedges, livestock, vegetable patches, cherry orchards, a strawberry field, and a garden where the samovar murmured on the table in expectation of the friends and family who were always dropping by for afternoon visits. One day a traveling peasant woman stopped in to ask for some food. While a hamper was prepared for her, she remarked upon the dozens of ghosts she’d seen the night before swirling around in the local graveyard. As soon as Shura heard this, he informed his father that he wasn’t afraid of that graveyard and, furthermore, he would be glad to prove it. His father took him up on the offer, inviting Shura to walk through the cemetery by himself at midnight. After Shura returned home triumphant, his father nodded thoughtfully: “Now you know there are no such things as ghosts,” he said. Shura adored having a father like that. Not only was Paul affectionate; he was always one step ahead of his oldest child, an endless source of incentive.
Shura and his friends were all strong swimmers, well trained in the Russian sailor’s breaststroke, a regional style that involved raising your cupped hand high above your head and crashing it down into the water like a paddle wheel. One aquatic competition involved seeing who dared to swim the farthest distance out into the harbor before turning back. (Shura won, but had to be rescued.) Another stunt they dreamed up required participants to run at top speed alongside a barbed wire fence. Whoever bled the most was the champion. Afterward they followed the old peasant practice of stanching all wounds with cobwebs, a remedy that anticipated the discovery of penicillin, but on these occasions led their French governesses to shake their heads and mutter, “Oh! Ces russes!”
As an adult, Shura rarely spoke of his youth except to tell what were, in effect, more watermelon stories. That is also the way he wrote about it. Late in his life Shura set down some of his boyhood recollections and fashioned them into a memoir he called “The Uses of Adversity.” Shura’s descriptions of his adventures are often vivid, but what is most striking about the work is how much it doesn’t explain. This is the rare childhood memoir in which the author neglects to name his parents. He is, if possible, even more discreet about his two siblings, and there is scarcely any mention at all of his other relatives or his friends. The family’s religion, political leanings, quirks of character, and peccadillos are all elided. There is no portrait of what Odessa looked like—he never even refers to his hometown by name, identifying it only as “the city”—nor are there descriptions of life around the neighborhood, the house the Gerschenkrons inhabited, their possessions or quotidian activities. Shura is a future historian living through the twilight of imperial Russia, and he never really lets on how he feels about the Revolution. There are shards of him in many of his stories, but few of his dimensions beyond the swagger. In the end, perhaps it is not surprising that a boy who amused himself by proving his firm indifference to hunger, exhaustion, fear, and pain would grow into a man who kept his past to himself. The way it is with show-offs, even the best of them, is that they spend their time letting people know how enterprising and capable they are. It doesn’t do for them to speak of the things that make them unhappy.
Odessa was conceived as a town full of sailors. The Ukraine was long the breadbasket of Russia, but through the eighteenth century exports lagged well behind potential because the region had no natural deep-water harbor. In 1794 Catherine the Great spent 26,000 rubles to construct Odessa harbor on the northern coast of the Black Sea. Soon, out across the horizon went thousands of hulls packed full of wheat grown in the rich black soil of the steppe. Back came the world. Joining the salts and swabs who went shouldering their way up and down Richelieu Street were entrepreneurs, speculators, and merchants from Turkey, Greece, Italy, France, Germany, Arabia, Romania, Hungary, Armenia, England, Spain, Austria, and dozens of other places. With their forty-nine languages and ten religions, the foreign businessmen very quickly made Odessa Russia’s most cosmopolitan city. They settled on the limestone bluff two hundred feet above the waterfront and began to trade. By the mid-nineteenth century, many of them were prospering.
What made Odessa so much more than a commercial boomtown was the exotic artistic culture that developed there. Odessa was geographically at such a remove from the Russian political and population centers that nonconformist sensibilities could thrive. Pushkin wrote portions of Eugene Onegin in an apartment on Italian Street. Trotsky attended an Odessa grammar school. The Moldavanka slum district was Isaac Babel’s childhood home and the inspiration for his edgy tales of urban life, The Odessa Stories. Odessa became a depot on the musical main line, a destination for Liszt, Tchaikovsky, and Rachmaninoff, and home to so many esteemed violinists that a boy like Shura who didn’t study the instrument became the exception; every petty bourgeois set of parents wanted to discover that they had bred the next Jascha Heifetz. Tsarist Russia was a brutally repressive place, but many people in Odessa lived freely and pursued their happiness liberally, as Mark Twain noticed when he came through in 1869. “We saw only America,” wrote Twain. “There was not one thing to remind us that we were in Russia.”
What Odessa had most in common with the United States was the feeling it inspired among European émigrés that they could live there the way they’d wanted to live at home. The settlers tried to imbue the city with the most attractive features of what they’d left behind, and they succeeded so well that Odessa acquired flattering and far-flung nicknames—the Pearl of Russia, Little Venice, Little Vienna, Little Paris. Glistening up on the heights, Odessa became not a distillation of Middle Europe but a sophisticated and notably secular city, with people of many nationalities and religions living together in closer proximity than they did even in New York. The city’s wide boulevards were lined with French and Italian cafes, lavish Beaux-Arts town houses painted in soft yellows, mochas, and blues, and the acacia trees that warded off strong sea breezes. Architects commissioned from St. Petersburg and cities across Europe designed a baroque opera house, a Wedgwood blue-and-white English club, the stock exchange, the famous Potemkin stairway, and also a large downtown synagogue. For tolerant Odessa had many tens of thousands of Jews. One of them was Shura’s father.
Paul Gerschenkron was a Russian businessman and a true Micawber—the lifelong victim of pecuniary liabilities to which he was unable to respond. His father was a lawyer, a kindly, witty man who suffered from tuberculosis and often spent time away from his family, “taking the cure” in Finland. As a child, Paul often did without. His fortunes turned when a wealthy Odessa industrialist named Samuel Gourary took an interest in him. Gourary’s great beak of a nose and overgrown beard made the deep-set eyes behind them look like twinkling seeds. Sweet-natured and very fond of children, Gourary was also religious enough that, during a period when he manufactured railroad ties, he consulted “the rebbe” before making bids on lumber contracts. Paul became his protégé. Gourary considered Paul to be such a courtly and intelligent person that after Paul completed the university in Odessa, Gourary sponsored his graduate schooling at the Sorbonne and the London School of Economics, and then made him a junior director of his business at age twenty-four. The boss asked Paul to conduct many of his foreign negotiations. That made sense: besides Russian and Ukrainian, Paul spoke Arabic, Hebrew, Turkish, Romanian, Polish, German, French, Italian, and English. He learned new languages so quickly that people said he could reach out and pluck them from the air like balloons on strings.
Paul also had a common touch. He ran a strict shop, but he did not subscribe to old Russian industrial theories linking steady production with the infliction of steady beatings. He got to know the laborers and treated them with sympathy and respect, giving his own money freely to workers’ funds and to individuals who came to him with long faces and sad stories. He was a popular boss.
Paul may have been born a Jew, but religion carried little importance for him. He married a Russian Orthodox Christian woman—Shura claimed his father converted to do so, his sister Lydia says not—made donations to the Quakers, and told his children that he didn’t care what they believed in as long as they treated other people with respect. Shura was out one day with his father when a man with whiskey breath and gaunt cheeks stopped Paul outside a tavern and told him that his wife had a fever in her liver. Paul handed him fifty kopeks, “for tea,” he said lightly. “At its best,” Paul liked to ask, “what is religion but good manners?”
Once Paul had money, he wanted to own fine things, and the large salaries he earned as the manager of tobacco and match companies in Odessa, Kirov, and Moscow flowed out of his hands. He became a familiar figure in the smart shops along Daribosov Street, Odessa’s Champs-Élysées. Paul was always commissioning accessories: a solid gold box to hold his cigarettes, a tooled leather case for his hairbrushes, and one of the city’s first showers so that he could more easily be the rare Russian who washed every day. (Even in the cold months it was a notoriously noisome country.) No Savile Row swell had anything sartorial on Shura’s father. He wore brushed felt bowler hats, kidskin spats, pince-nez, silk cravates, collars cut at the most fashionable angles, and he dressed this way even when all he was doing was sitting at home in the evening, smoking a cigar and reading a blue novel.
From his father Shura inherited his gift for languages and his gift for enemies. Paul Gerschenkron was someone who looked forward to confrontations and then resolved them with a theatrical stubbornness that could have been expected from the opera buff he was. A customs man tried to cadge too a high a tariff for the four bottles of excellent French perfume Paul was bringing back to Russia from Paris as a gift for his wife. The official may have been anticipating a counteroffer, but Paul did not negotiate with scoundrels. Squinting steadily at him from behind the pince-nez, Paul poured each bottle out onto the floor of the customs house. If the tailor gave him a date to pick up an order and the clothes weren’t ready, Paul rapped his cane on the counter demanding the suit “as it is.” He had no truck with shoddy railway conductors or theater ushers either. When Paul was led to a seat on a train or to a box in the opera house and then touched on the shoulder a few minutes later and told that, regrettably, there had been a mix-up, he always refused to move. If, however, he arrived to find his seat taken, he was wildly indignant and might grab the intruder bodily while howling, “To the gendarme! To the gendarme!” Paul was a frequent visitor to Bucharest, where the best restaurants all had house string quartets. It was common in these establishments for the first violins to step forward and serenade pretty women. Paul was married to a very pretty woman. “If you don’t go away at once, I’ll break your violin over your head,” was his way with fiddlers.
Sophie Gerschenkron, slender and pink, always knew just how to respond to her husband’s displays: “You handled that so nicely,” she would say to Paul. She was an intelligent woman and understood that his obstinate streak was born of his feeling that the surrounding world was highly insecure and essentially hostile. To give in was to be destroyed by the inimical forces. It’s also true that in his hopelessly Russian way, Paul lived to inspire Sophie’s awe.
So did her eldest son, so she had two of them out there working full-time to impress her. Shura went to great lengths to one-up his father, not easy, given that Paul was prone to grand gestures, coming home, for instance, to tell his wife that he’d had a good run lately and so he’d bought her a little dacha out in the country. Shura countered with elaborate displays, and sometimes these schemes were too effective. Once he enlisted his younger brother Tolia’s help in staging a hanging. Nooses were cinched, red liquid was splashed about the room, loud cries resounded, and chairs were kicked over. Sophie hurried into the room, looked at her two dangling children, and collapsed on the spot.
It was hopeless; Sophie Kardon was a fainter. She was the child of a brief liaison between a French governess at the imperial court and one of the tsar’s economic advisers. (Shura had economics in his bones.) Both of Sophie’s parents died when she was an infant, leaving her to be raised in a Bessarabian convent. She came to Odessa to study medicine, but was forced to switch to history and mathematics because she kept passing out during postmortems. Sophie was a tiny woman with a beautiful singing voice and piles of lush brown hair to go with her creamy complexion. Her husband loved that hair. When she decided in middle age to cut it off, Paul staggered about in a daze for weeks. His responses to her pregnancies were similarly distraught, and Sophie was much praised for the consideration she showed him as she went about the business of bringing forth their three babies. Shura, Tolia, and Lydia were born six years apart, and always on the weekend, giving Paul maximum recovery time from his traumas of childbirth.
Although she spent her childhood among the nuns, Sophie shared Paul’s religious skepticism. “Don’t have anything to do with the clergyman,” she cautioned her children. “Thugs, the lot of them.” Paul’s older sisters were observing Jews, and in deference to them Sophie allowed each of her two sons to be circumcised and bar mitzvahed. Sophie’s own system of beliefs had more to do with the occult. She was an extremely superstitious woman who feared broken mirrors, grew queasy at the sight of a dinner table set for thirteen, and counseled her children never to refuse coins to a beggar because he might be a saint. Shortly after Shura was born, an elderly friend of Sophie’s warned her that it would be bad luck not to raise her firstborn under the eyes of the Lord. So Shura was the only Gerschenkron child with a true religious upbringing, albeit one that would confuse anybody. He was brought up as a Russian Orthodox Christian by a pair of freethinkers who packed him off to the synagogue whenever his pious Jewish aunts came for a visit.
Many people who have been exposed to a number of religions come to feel that the grain of all faiths amounts to the same thing—treating others with the kindness you would like them to extend to you. That was how the Gerschenkrons thought. They were enlightened humanists, far ahead of their time in tsarist Russia, a notably bigoted country where artificial biological distinctions between the “white” bones of the aristocrats and the “black” bones of serfs were contrived by the ruling class to reinforce the fiction of inherent superiority. To a very real degree, Shura was raised on an ecumenical creed with tenets best expressed by Pushkin in his poem “I Built a Monument Not Made With Hands”—the last verse in particular:
Long will be remembered by the nation
That of the good in men’s hearts I did speak—
That I praised freedom in this age of deprivation
And called for mercy for the frail and the weak
Those lines were quoted so frequently in the family that all the Gerschenkron children knew them from memory, none better than Shura. “This poem Shura worshiped,” says Lydia. What the entire family admired was both the nerve of the rebel poet standing up to tyranny wherever he saw it, and his belief in a moral and compassionate life. Paul and Sophie Gerschenkron were the unusual wealthy Russians of that time who were truly liberal, who sympathized with the workers and the oppressed, dispatched their children to prisons to read to “the little unfortunates,” as Sophie called them, and made genuine friendships with people from lower social classes such as Sophie’s dressmaker.
Their personal ethics were also progressive. Many upper-class Russian boys in their midteens had their first sexual experiences with a young peasant house girl