City of Rogues and Schnorrers: Russia's Jews and the Myth of Old Odessa

City of Rogues and Schnorrers: Russia's Jews and the Myth of Old Odessa

by Jarrod Tanny


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Old Odessa, on the Black Sea, gained notoriety as a legendary city of Jewish gangsters and swindlers, a frontier boomtown mythologized for the adventurers, criminals, and merrymakers who flocked there to seek easy wealth and lead lives of debauchery and excess. Odessa is also famed for the brand of Jewish humor brought there in the 19th century from the shtetls of Eastern Europe and that flourished throughout Soviet times. From a broad historical perspective, Jarrod Tanny examines the hybrid Judeo-Russian culture that emerged in Odessa in the 19th century and persisted through the Soviet era and beyond. The book shows how the art of eminent Soviet-era figures such as Isaac Babel, Il'ia Ilf, Evgenii Petrov, and Leonid Utesov grew out of the Odessa Russian-Jewish culture into which they were born and which shaped their lives.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253223289
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 09/15/2011
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Jarrod Tanny is Assistant Professor of History and Block Distinguished Fellow of History at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington.

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City of Rogues and Schnorrers

Russia's Jews and the Myth of Old Odessa

By Jarrod Tanny

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2011 Jarrod Tanny
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-35646-8


The Birth of Old Odessa

"I'M GOING TO ODESSA for money!" declared Reb Khaim-Shulim, an impoverished and hapless Jew living in Kishinev during the mid-nineteenth century. Fed up with supporting a large family and living his life from hand to mouth, Khaim-Shulim packed his bags and set off for the wondrous city on the Black Sea, which was then all the rage among the Jews in Russia's Pale of Settlement. But Khaim-Shulim's friend, Reb Haskel, saw nothing but danger in Khaim-Shulim's future: "It's a spoiled, spoiled city I tell you ... there will be dark temptations everywhere; in the cafés, in the theaters. Take a prayer book with you and read psalms in your spare time; it will be edifying."

By the time Khaim-Shulim, a literary character invented by the Russian-Jewish writer Osip Rabinovich, embarked upon his journey to Russia's southern frontier, Odessa was already a town with a notorious reputation: a land of opulence and sin, a city where wealth could easily be acquired and where revelry and decadence lurked around every corner. Reb Khaim-Shulim may have been among the first "shtetl" Jews to travel to Odessa, but he was making a journey of exploration and imagination undertaken and recorded by many actual travelers before him—including Russians, Englishmen, Frenchmen, Germans, and Italians. These sojourners laid the foundations for the myth of old Odessa in their letters, travelogues, and memoirs, creating the discursive blueprint for what would become Russia's foremost city of affluence and dissipation. From the mid-nineteenth century on, Jewish travelers (both literary and real) came to Odessa in droves. Writers like Osip Rabinovich and Sholem Aleichem embraced and appropriated the embryonic Odessa myth and, through their writings, imbued it with elements of Jewish culture and humor.

The first hundred years of Odessa's existence was the critical period in which both Odessa the city and Odessa the myth emerged. From its foundation in 1794 through the nineteenth century, Odessa was transformed from a small Turkish outpost into a large Russian metropolis. The city's size and reputation grew as more and more people streamed in to experience its allure firsthand. Many of those who chose to record their impressions did not find the town of magic they had envisioned. Nevertheless, seekers of Russia's Eldorado kept coming, observing, and recording what they saw, thereby reproducing and reinforcing the city's fabled aura. By 1905, which in Odessa meant revolution, the Potemkin Uprising, and the largest pogrom to occur thus far in the Russian Empire, there already existed a "myth of old Odessa"—a land of wealth, sin, and rogues which was imagined and narrated through the idiom and culture of East European Jewry.

The City by the Sea

Odessa's early history is connected with Imperial Russia's southward expansion. One of Russia's principal achievements during the reign of Catherine the Great was the conquest of a vast swath of territory along the northern shores of the Black Sea. Ever since Peter the Great had built the first Russian navy during the late seventeenth century Russia had struggled against the Ottoman Empire for a foothold in this sparsely populated yet economically and geopolitically strategic frontier region. But it would not be until the last three decades of the eighteenth century when, through a series of wars and treaties, Russia at last gained its long coveted outlet to the Black Sea. What had formerly been an Ottoman lake now became an international seaway which the tsarist regime could exploit and develop to further the growth of Russian commerce. Catherine dubbed these southern acquisitions "New Russia" (Novorossiia ) already in 1764, thirty years before Turkey formally ceded most of these territories. Economic expansion began almost immediately, but the absence of populated cities and efficient seaports compelled the Russian government to fill the region with settlers and to embark upon a massive urban construction program.

Given that city development in New Russia was linked to the regime's desire to build an effective seaport, officials at court expressed divergent views on the best possible location for such a facility. Various coastal towns were suggested and assessed for their relative merits, including Kherson, Nikolaev, and Ochakov. The majority, however, ultimately favored Khadzhibei because of its good natural harbor, which was deep and ice-free for most of the year. Under the command of the Neapolitan Don Joseph de Ribas, the Russian army had stormed and captured Khadzhibei in September 1789, which was then a small Tartar village with a multiethnic population largely engaged in trade and fishing. With Khadzhibei's de jure annexation to Russia in 1794 under the provisions of the Treaty of Jassy, Catherine the Great decreed her intention to transform it into New Russia's foremost seaport and city.

Khadzhibei's annexation was almost immediately followed by its rechristening as "Odessa," a name filled with historical resonance for Catherine. It was believed at the time that Khadzhibei sat on the site of the ancient Hellenic city of Odessos, where, legend had it, Odysseus had stopped during his celebrated voyage. Although subsequent archeology would prove that Odessos had, in fact, been located in present-day Bulgaria, constructing a link between New Russia and classical civilization served Catherine's purposes well. During the eighteenth-century Age of Reason the Ancients were considered the essence of rationality and order, and Catherine's nod to the Greeks was intended to buttress her claim to be a progressive and enlightened European monarch.

With economic growth, population settlement, and city planning paramount on the tsarist agenda, Catherine and her nineteenth-century heirs appointed a succession of able administrators to create a flourishing metropolis out of Odessa. Educated, politically adept, considered progressive-minded, and often non-Russian in origin, Odessa's early rulers are credited with making it into Russia's fourth most populous city and its second busiest commercial port by 1863. Joseph de Ribas presided over the city's planning with the skillful assistance of his Dutch colleague, Franz de Voland, who was charged with building the port. They set the standard for those who followed them, with each subsequent administrator succeeding in acquiring and maintaining various benefits and concessions for both the city itself and its prospective settlers. Consequently, Odessa experienced a period of almost unremitting growth from its founding in 1794 until the mid-nineteenth century.

Because of its strategic location, the government envisioned Odessa as Russia's chief entrepôt of commodities to and from Europe. A significant step forward occurred in 1817, when the Russian government designated Odessa a free port, a status it maintained for forty years. Goods prohibited or heavily taxed elsewhere in the empire could now enter Odessa without duty. Free transit of commodities to and from foreign countries was permitted. In 1829 the Treaty of Adrianople between Russia and the Ottoman Empire granted the right of free passage to ships of all states at peace with the latter through the Bosporus Straits.

Odessa's road to success was paved by Russia's burgeoning role in the international grain trade, with fertile Ukraine increasingly becoming Europe's breadbasket. The upheavals of the Napoleonic Wars disrupted the food supply on the continent, and the warring armies needed to be fed. Between 1815 and 1818 Western Europe suffered repeated harvest failures, leading to a dramatic rise in grain prices. Population growth and the mobilization of labor due to industrialization further heightened the demand for Russian grain. Consequently, commercial activity through Odessa's port increased more than fourfold between 1820 and 1853.

Odessa's economic boom occurred in tandem with a continuous population explosion that lasted right up until World War I. Between 1794 and 1825 the city's population increased from 2,345 to 32,000. Over the next four decades this number quadrupled to 118,970. In 1904 Odessa's population stood at 511,000. Only St. Petersburg, Moscow, and Warsaw had more people, but none of them could match Odessa's nineteenth-century growth rate. In this sense, Odessa resembled an American boomtown more than a Russian city

The Russian government harnessed all its resources to populate New Russia in general, and Odessa in particular. Catherine the Great and her favorites at court offered prospective immigrants a multitude of incentives to abandon their homes and start new lives down south. Runaway serfs were promised their liberty if they crossed over into New Russia, and various religious dissident groups, such as the Dukhobors, came with the assurance of freedom of worship. Russia's Jews, who were subject to severe residency restrictions and denied freedom of movement in Russia proper, were welcomed in Odessa, and thousands migrated from the crowded shtetls of Poland, Ukraine, and Belorussia.

But Odessa was not merely populated by Russian subjects, as Catherine sought to recruit settlers from abroad. Many colonists came from the Ottoman Empire, particularly Christian minorities whose animosity toward their Muslim rulers could ostensibly furnish Russia with a loyal populace to strengthen this vulnerable border region. This included Greeks, Bulgarians, Albanians, and Armenians, with religious toleration, land grants, and tax exemptions extending to them as well. Western Europeans also came, perhaps following the example of Odessa's first two governors, who were both Frenchmen. Italian virtually served as the city's lingua franca, particularly in the commercial realm, and street signs were in both Italian and Russian for the first half of the nineteenth century.

As the decades progressed and its population grew, Odessa maintained its multiethnic, immigrant character. According to the 1897 census, only 56.7 percent of Odessans claimed Russian as their mother tongue. The remainder spoke a total of fifty languages with Yiddish (32.5 percent), Ukrainian (5.66 percent), Polish (4.48 percent), German (2.61 percent), and Greek (1.32 percent) ranking highest. Although Greeks only made up 1.32 percent of Odessa's population in 1897, this number belies the significant role played by Greek settlers in the city's economic development and cultural life, particularly in the first half of the nineteenth century. A so-called trade diaspora of Greeks had already inhabited the Black Sea region for thousands of years, when, in the 1790s, they started streaming into Odessa. The Greeks quickly became the principal ethnic group managing the international grain trade, amassing personal fortunes while also contributing to Russia's welfare. In the 1810s seven out of the ten richest merchants in Odessa were reputedly Greek. The Greek community maintained their leading role in Odessa until the Crimean War, when Jewish merchants began to displace Greek export firms in the grain trade.

Jewish merchants' rise to prominence in the mid-nineteenth century is part and parcel of the Jewish community's dramatic growth in Odessa and emblematic of a process that had been taking place since the city's founding. By the end of the century the Jews made up one-third of Odessa's population, thus making them the most populous ethnic group in Odessa after the Russians, and the largest Jewish community in Russia with the exception of Warsaw.

Jews had already lived in Khadzhibei under Turkish rule before the Russians conquered the region. Evidence suggests that some had settled there by the mid-eighteenth century, possibly Sephardic Jews who had migrated from the Crimea. Archeological excavations have unearthed tombstones in Hebrew dated between 1765 and 1789. However, most of those who were still living there upon the outbreak of Russian-Turkish hostilities left the area amid the fighting. When the Russians stormed and occupied the city's fortress in the early 1790s, there were a total of six Jews living in Khadzhibei.

Catherine the Great's fervent desire to populate Odessa with anybody who wished to come and contribute to the economy meant the prospect of vast opportunities for Russia's impoverished Jews. Most of the one million Jews who lived in Russia at the end of the eighteenth century were crowded into the shtetls and cities of Ukraine, Belorussia, and Lithuania; they were in a sense "newcomers" to Russia, as they inhabited the territory the tsarist government had annexed during the late-eighteenth-century partitions and dismantling of the Polish state. For perceived reasons of security, economic necessity, and perhaps a bit of Judeophobia, Catherine and her successors imposed severe residency restrictions upon the Jews. The Jews were largely compelled to remain within these newly acquired Polish territories—subsequently known to history as the Pale of Settlement—and were prohibited from settling and traveling in Russia proper, despite their poverty and congested living conditions. Accordingly, when the Russian government decreed that sparsely populated New Russia was open to Jewish settlement, thousands took up the offer and came to Odessa and its neighboring towns en masse in a continuous torrential flow of migrants, which lasted for most of the nineteenth century.

With destitution pushing the Jews out of the shtetls and the expectation of economic success pulling them southward, Odessa's Jewish community grew exponentially, both in absolute terms and in their share of the city's total population. Settlement began immediately, even before the city was officially renamed "Odessa." In 1794 there were already 244 Jewish settlers, more than 10 percent of the city's aggregate population. By 1829, 12,000 of the city's 52,000 residents—over 15 percent—were Jewish. By 1873 the Jewish share of the population had risen to more than one-quarter of Odessa's 193,000 inhabitants. And in 1912, on the eve of World War I, the Jewish community numbered 200,000, with one out of every three Odessans being Jewish.

Jewish population growth in Odessa was matched by the creation and flourishing of cultural and religious organizations. A large synagogue was built in 1795, and by 1849 there were four, supplemented by nineteen smaller prayer houses. The first Talmud-Torah opened in the 1790s, and by the mid-nineteenth century there were over fifty schools for Jewish children. In 1809 Odessa's first Rabbi, Itskhok Rabinovich, arrived from Bessarabia. A Jewish hospital opened in 1802, complementing the Jewish burial society that had been organized in the previous decade. Communal institutions were thus in place to ensure that Odessa's Jews received education, spiritual ministration, and health care from cradle to grave.

But such institutions only present part of the picture: Jewish cultural achievements in Odessa are tied to the rise of a secular intelligentsia, with Odessa becoming an important center of the Haskalah, or "Jewish Enlightenment," and the Jewish publishing industry. The Haskalah in Odessa began with a group of settlers who migrated to the city from Brody, a town in Austrian-controlled Galicia. Initially attracted to New Russia because of its commercial prospects, Galician merchants started arriving in the 1820s. Taking up prominent roles as middlemen in the grain trade, they ascended the ladder of economic success. In 1840 they opened up the Brodskii Synagogue, the first "modern" synagogue in Russia whose service was patterned on the reforms then taking place in Germany. The Brodskii Synagogue subsequently became famous (and infamous in traditional circles) for its melodies rather than its liturgy: German-influenced choral music replaced medieval Hebrew compositions under the direction of celebrated cantors and with the accompaniment of an organ, whose use was regarded as anathema among Orthodox Jews. By the mid-nineteenth century it was often said that the "fires of hell encircle Odessa," a saying attributed to the Hasidic Rebbe of Savran, and adopted by others who condemned Odessans for their religious laxity and pursuit of secular knowledge and culture.


Excerpted from City of Rogues and Schnorrers by Jarrod Tanny. Copyright © 2011 Jarrod Tanny. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents

A Note on Transliteration
Introduction. Why is This Town Different from All the Rest?
1. The Birth of Old Odessa
2. Crafting Old Odessa
3. The Battle for Old Odessa
4. Revival and Survival
5. Rewriting Old Odessa
Epilogue. The End of Old Odessa

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Swarthmore College - Robert Weinberg

Traces the emergence, development, and persistence of the myth of Odessa as both Garden of Eden and Gomorrah, a unique Russian/Soviet city that promised its residents easy money and all pleasures of the flesh. . . . A joy to read—well crafted, cogently argued, and compellingly written.

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