Giant steps

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Odessa is back in business, Condé Nast Traveller, September 2002

I felt a sensation close to complete happiness to be back in Odessa. I had first visited the city, four years earlier, at the end of a hallucinatory boat trip from Kiev down to the Black Sea. I had been badly in need of dry land and had looked joyfully at Odessa’s tree-covered cliffs and the great panorama of yellow mansions at the top of the Potemkin steps. I had fallen for the city with its beautiful broad avenues, crumbling piecrust houses, and discreet courtyards with their tottering stonework and immaculate gardens. It seemed, if not quite an idyll, graceful and airy enough to be an urban ideal.

Now I was back, and even before I had left the grey confines of the airport, I could feel stirrings of the same pleasure. The first sight that confronts the visitor, stepping outside the airport building, is an immense avenue lined with billowing chestnuts. Where a western city would have juggernaut-sized billboards, Odessa has trees. All you see on the way into the city are trees and more trees and only then the beginnings of buildings. It is as though the city has been built in a wood. Then come intersections, trolleybuses, factories and still the chestnuts and acacias and eventually the magnificent plane trees that parade down Pushkinskaya Street.

It is not just the trees. Odessa, by virtue of both location and design, is devastatingly beautiful. From the time of its foundation in 1794, this was a port and a vista twice over. Captains approaching from the Black Sea were confronted by limestone cliffs that rose to the commanding heights of Primorsky Boulevard and its line of Italian mansions. Travellers approaching from the hinterland also had to cross an empty “sea” of steppe before they beheld the great merchants’ houses rising to view, and the magnificent bustle of the city. A French visitor in the 1830s wrote simply: “Odessa seemed as if created by a magical wand.”

Picture the city radiating from that clifftop, with early nineteenth-century mansions painted in the postcard colours of a Mediterranean rather than Soviet port, and fine, straight, shaded streets. Then double the width of the boulevards, the ornateness of the houses and the softness of the shade falling on their walls; and you will probably still have an inadequate sense of the city’s openness. Its immensely broad streets, where once you could see sea at one end and steppe at the other, were made for economic expansion. Odessa’s second governor, the duc de Richelieu, a great-nephew of the Cardinal and a refugee of the French Revolution, must take most credit for the city’s enlightened design. Catherine the Great named the city capital of her booming new southern territory, Novorossiia. Two hundred years later, ask any Russian what “New Russia” means and they will tell you, with a resigned expression, that it is a euphemism for the post-Soviet racket economy. Odessa – as anyone who has witnessed the blacked-out Mercedes V12s hurtling down Pushkinskaya knows – is booming again.

I met Alla in the high marble lobby of the Londonskaya Hotel. From June to October she worked as a guide on river cruises on the Dnieper, all day every day, without a break for five months. Interpreting for me for a few days was a holiday, although she was usually slightly cross-looking until her fatalistic sense of humour was provoked.

It was early evening as we walked up to Deribasovskaya, Odessa’s main street. The onshore breeze wafted the smell of salt up the Potemkin steps There were plasterers and painters working on towers in Potemkin Square; more restoration was underway on the boulevards. It was all the work of speculators, Alla explained, scowling.

As a major port with historic connections all over the Middle East and Mediterranean (it was to Odessa that the British spy Kim Philby defected on a cargo boat from Beirut), the flow of money and goods was always difficult to control. When the Soviet Union imploded, the city became, overnight, the southern headquarters of the New Russian mafia. On my previous visit, I had seen the racketeers’ limousines doing the rounds of their clients, only slowing to kerb-crawl a pretty girl. Since then, the atmosphere seemed to have calmed, and I suggested to Alla that the people making big money had become more subtle. She agreed that this was the case. Meanwhile the racket had diversified from restaurants and nightclubs into real estate. So far Odessa’s buildings had enjoyed conservation by neglect, their fabulous frontages losing stonework and stucco by the handful, but mercifully untouched throughout the years of Communism. The city had the air of a shabby Sleeping Beauty, being kissed awake by a man in a black Mercedes wearing a whacking great Rolex.

On Deribasovskaya there was an uninterrupted ribbon of Marlboro umbrellas over the café tables. Odessans, by necessity one supposed, are enthusiastic pedestrians and it was a pleasure just to sit and watch the street bustle. Buskers and street photographers were at work: you could have your picture taken with an impoverished student in a Puss in Boots costume, or with an ark of real animals: rabbits, puppies, kittens, a donkey, a python, chimps, lemurs, chinchillas, or a snapping green caiman. Alla and I had dinner on the terrace of a new German-style restaurant, the Steakhouse. On the pavements, the metropolitan Western fondness for black seemed to have infected the female population. Where Odessan men seemed content with rough greys and browns, women had taken the London PR look to military extremes. They looked like cabaret stormtroopers in their short jackets, exceedingly short skirts and sharp stilettoes.

“It is military,” Alla said. “They are fighting for their lives.” This was the combat phase of capitalism, she explained, only the fittest survived.

“You mean the girl with the shortest skirt and the highest heels gets the man with the most money?”

“Of course.”

I enquired whether the girls were looking for husbands, or sugar daddies.

“Some of them. But some of them are just the right girls.”

“What do you mean?”

“The right girls. You know.” She grinned. “If you want to play, you have to pay.”

I slept badly, having been given a room directly over the Londonskaya’s casino. The music throbbed up through the floor until 3 a.m. The following morning, unwilling to go through the upheaval of moving me, the hotel management pretended to study an almost blank page of reservations and pronounced the hotel, sadly, full. This attitude to customer relations may well have been a hangover of the Soviet period in which, as a matter of course, the customer was always wrong. I became obdurate, and when it was at last clear that I was not going to abandon my case, I was moved to a room in the hotel’s quieter wing. Both the Londonskaya, at $190 a night, and its sister hotel the Krasnaya, where I also spent a couple of nights, were an appalling rip-off. They were clearly mafia-run, with an additional blast of Communist indifference to the idea of service – it felt as though a rather amateurish member of whichever gang ran the city’s hotel interests had made the comparison with similar hotels in London and Vienna and reported back that there was a fortune to be made, simultaneously overlooking the purpose for which a hotel existed, i.e. rest and comfort. As a consequence, both hotels were practically empty.

The Londonskaya, however, had one undeniable attraction, which was the pleasure of being able to step onto Primorsky Boulevard after breakfast and to smell the sea air, to walk the length of the plane trees’ shade to the top of the Potemkin steps and look down to the passenger dock at Morsky Voksal and the massed cranes of the port, and out over the misty waste of the Black Sea, the texture of paint.

The next morning, after dropping in at the Pushkin Museum and the Museum of Western and Oriental Art – as much for the magnificence of its plastered and parqueted interior as its collection of exhibits – we took the bus to Arkadia. On the way to the bus we passed the monstrous baroque lump of the Opera & Ballet Theatre, which was sinking. It turned out that its soaring domed mass had been erected at a vulnerable point above the city’s miles and miles of tunnels which had been quarried underneath it to provide building stone for the city’s construction. The first attempt to shore it up, by pumping molten glass into the catacombs, had been a disaster, inducing new instability. The plan now was for 400 pillars of varying lengths to be sunk underneath the building: the only problem was that each pillar cost $1000 and the city could only afford a quarter of that number. I noticed that a seat in the stalls now cost £8 instead of the 24p of my last visit – it was heartening to see that economic reality had finally dawned.

Such economic realities abound. Odessa has miles of uninterrupted beaches: Arkadia is only the best known on a shoreline that used to be crammed to overflowing with holidaying northern workers. Today the Odessa riviera is half-deserted, shunned by New Russians who prefer to tog out their children in Romanov sailor suits and take them to the Côte d’Azur, and beyond the reach of families who can no longer afford a holiday in the new economic climate. Arkadia Beach was a pretty, wooded bay with a promenade of shuttered restaurants, and in the park behind there were dogs and accordions and the smell of shashlik.

A few minutes after we sat down at a café table, an ugly 80s-era white Mercedes with cheap self-adhesive smoked film on its windows entered the park, cruising to each of the kiosks and bars in turn. We watched the driver get in and out of the car, a junior drone in cheap jewellery, employed to collect the week’s racket.

Alla explained that a character known as Carabas – a Ukrainian named after a figure of fear in a Russian fairy tale – had controlled almost everything moving in and out of Odessa for a decade. Then, in the spring of 1997, he made a bid to control the oil supply. The Russians, who supplied Ukraine, refused. Carabas continued in his efforts to dominate the oil market, so one morning he was shot in the street. After his death, there were many shootings.

When the Odessan dust had settled on this phase, the city was divided up between four groups, Ukrainian, Russian and – beneficiaries of the turf war – Armenian and Chechen. Between them these four groups controlled everything: shops and restaurants, shipping and port facilities, real estate, offices, agricultural produce. One aspect of Carabas’ death had indicated his extraordinary influence: he had had no family, apart from his prostitutes and henchmen, but the latter had bought him an ostentatious headstone and arranged a plot for it, and him, in the most sought-after area in the city cemetery, next to the church buildings.

There was no longer much resistance to the gangsters. Boris Derevyanko, the editor and publisher of the newspaper Vyechernyaya Odessa, had been the last high-profile victim in 1997, although killings among rival gangs continued. A fearless denouncer of corruption under Communism, Derevyanko had turned his attention to the racketeers. After running an outspoken anti-mafia campaign in his newspaper, he had been shot in the street on his way to work by a single gunman. After his death people erased the subject of the rackets from public conversation.

After lunch we took a minibus back into town. The minibuses are cheap, privately operated services in competition with the public transport system. Everywhere Odessa was struggling to reinvent its commercial viability, while avoiding the example set by the sinking Opera. What was remarkable, in the circumstances, was the atmosphere of almost brazen lightheartedness. The inhabitants seemed unburdened by the dictates of lifestyle. I imagined that if they had come across an advertising billboard for Calvin Klein underwear or a new model Vauxhall, informing them in the usual subtle jargon that their life wasn’t yet quite good enough, they would simply have laughed.

One of the greatest pleasures of Odessa was simply walking under the trees on Primorsky Boulevard or, after I had moved hotels, along Pushkinskaya up to the city gardens and Deribasovskaya. There were four or five different ways to go, past the Opera and through a garden of acacias, through Potemkin Square, or straight up to Greek Square and the main bus terminal – or you could come round in a wide swing, approaching from the opposite direction. I know no city in Europe more agreeable to walk in; there is still not very much traffic, and it’s a pleasure that can be replicated anywhere in the city.

It was at the same restaurant on Deribasovskaya, after a concert at the Opera, that we met Irina. She was a beauty, marvellously fair-skinned, a Tatar angel with eyes that drilled you with curiosity. Irina was a sociology postgraduate who worked 16-hour days at the restaurant to finance her studies. I liked the way she looked at me as though I was an imbecile when my English was too complicated for her. She also screwed up her face when she said “sociology”. When did her course finish?

“This summer.”

“What will you do when you finish studying?”

“I don’t know. There is no job in Ukraine for a sociologist” (scowl).

“Will you carry on being a waitress?”

Scowl. “I hope not.”

I suggested to Irina that we met for a drink after she finished work. A few hours later we walked back through the wonderful midnight gloominess and emptiness of Potemkin Square. In the bar of the Londonskaya, I asked Irina what she really wanted to do. She could not decide whether to trust me with her dream; then she eventually confessed that she wanted to be an actress but that it was impossible to earn a living doing this in Ukraine. She knew this: she had worked as a dancer. She suddenly stood up.

“I can have dreams, but I must earn a living.”

I arranged for the hotel driver to see her home. She was appalled – he wanted 20 grivna, about £3.20 – and tried to insist on paying half. She had told me that she earned £62 for a month of 16-hour days; not a bad wage, about the same as an experienced surgeon could expect, but even a surgeon could not afford a day’s pay for a hotel taxi.
This scraping for survival – combat capitalism – has left Odessans with little choice but to shelve their ambitions temporarily unless their interest is solely in large sums of money, in which case the only option is to offer themselves for employment in the mafia economy and not mind what tasks they are asked to carry out.

The next day I went to Odessa’s Privoz market and saw hangar after hangar, row after row of fresh produce, livestock, fish, mountains of vegetables and fruit, barrels of pickles, encircled by stalls and vans selling clothes, shoes, consumer electronics. Privoz is vast, the size of four football pitches, so big it has its own jail, a barred compound full of all the thieves and pickpockets rounded up that morning. I bought three pickled gherkins for 1 grivna (16p) from an old lady and told her to keep the change, but she insisted on pressing a fourth into my hand.

I suddenly understood that Odessa has always been a market economy. The difference is that now everyone has to trade: the next deal could be the difference between survival or not.

The truth is that Catherine the Great’s southern capital – Europe blowing in on the Black Sea breezes – has been in a state of flux since its first days. Before Richelieu’s era of enlightenment, the city had been more of a pirate colony than a city. Two hundred years later, it felt obvious that Odessa couldn’t be run forever along mafia lines. But whatever you thought about the gangsters, they were not inactive. Everywhere the new masters of the Soviet universe operated, there was a potent atmosphere of change. And these circumstances, from what I could see, were only part of the picture. They weren’t all of it. Beneath the fluttering Marlboro umbrellas on Deribasovskaya there might be no economic substance to speak of, but on the street it felt as though there was any number of dreams.

I left on the overnight train for Simferopol, there to catch the trolleybus over the mountains to visit friends in Yalta on the Crimean coast. Alla left for Kiev at the same time, to begin her summer on the cruises.

When I returned to Odessa a week later, several changes had taken place. A number of buildings, including the hotel where Pushkin had lived, now the Pushkin Museum, had sprung fresh façades in the city’s base tones of yellow and ochre, and the new French-built marina, catering for the growing number of New Russians with yachts, had been opened for business. I rang Irina.

“Oh! I want to talk to you. I’ve left my job.”

We met in the city gardens, where Odessa’s painters sold their mystical southern landscapes.

“I’ve started in acting school. I go every day. I’m tired out because I’m studying for my sociology exams too. But it’s good.”

I congratulated her and made her promise to write to me if there was anything I could do to help. As Irina walked away down the wide avenue of chestnuts I had a hunch that she might, despite all the obstacles, make it. Odessa at that moment was a highly unlikely place to launch herself, but why should that stop her? It might even help her to start out in this city, where she could be completely herself – this beguiling city, which has one foot in the past and one foot in the future, and where the frontier between the two is a moveable feast.

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