Odesa, the hometown of Isaac Babel (1894–1940), was the youngest and most cosmopolitan city of the Romanov Empire. At the time of the writer’s childhood, one-third of the world’s wheat exports went to Western Europe through Black Sea ports, and Odesa was the largest of these, unrivaled on the entire Black Sea. Goods and bills of exchange circulated between East and West thanks to Jewish merchants, the most influential group among them being newcomers from the Galician town of Brody, brokering trade between Volhynia and Podolia landowners and Odesa exporters of wheat, barley and rye.
The writer’s great-grandfather on his mother’s side arrived in Odesa from Brody in 1818. When the railroad was built half a century later, the population began to grow at an incredible rate, reaching nearly half a million in 1900. This made Odesa the fourth largest city in the empire, after St. Petersburg, Moscow and Warsaw. Half of the population was made up of Russians and Ukrainians (according to the terminology of the time: Velikorussians and Malorussians), a third was Jewish, and several thousand Poles and representatives of many nationalities from the farthest reaches of Russia and the Orient also lived in the city. For more than a century, until World War I, the prosperity of the inhabitants of Odesa, “the largest seaport in the Yiddish world,” depended on the prosperity of the international grain trade.
What is the true nature of this city, which today is associated with television reports of Russian bombings and the local gangsters made famous in Babel’s stories, but in the writer’s time was primarily a great financial and intellectual center of Jewish life? How did Odesa shape Isaac Babel? How does his literary vision contribute to the modern myth of Odesa?
Aleksander Kaczorowski is a Polish bohemist, journalist, editor, translator and author of biographies of Václav Havel, Bohumil Hrabal and Ota Pavel. His most recent book is Czechy. To nevymyslíš (Czechia. You can't make it up, 2022), an essay guide to the Czech history, culture and way of life.
Mischa Gabowitsch, sociologist and historian at RECET Vienna, currently Guest of the Institute at IWM, provided commentary and moderated the ensuing discussion.
Katherine Younger, IWM Permanent Fellow and Research Director of the Ukraine in European Dialogue program, opened the colloquium and introduced the speaker.