“Look up the street or down the street, this way or that way, we only saw America,” wrote Mark Twain to capture his visit...

“Look up the street or down the street, this way or that way, we only saw America,” wrote Mark Twain to capture his visit to Odessa in 1867. In a way, it’s not too farfetched that Twain saw his homeland in the Black Sea port city. Odessa was very much a modern city with its right-angled streets, buzzing markets, and cultural bricolage. “What Twain saw in the streets and courtyards of Odessa,” writes Charles King in his Odessa: Genius and Death in the City of Dreams, (W. W. Norton, 2011), “was a place that had cultivated like his homeland a remarkable ability to unite nationalities and reshape itself on its own terms, generation after generation.” However, what Twain failed to see King continues “was the city’s tendency to tip with deadly regularity over the precipice of self-destruction.”

Odessa has always been a city of in-betweens. A Russian imperial outpost as it gestured to the north and a “window the Middle East” as it looked south. A Russian city that is closer to Vienna and Athens than Moscow and St. Petersburg. A city that is “in Russia but not of it.” King’s chronicles Odessa’s contradictory attributes and their impact on its identity. He asks how Odessa survived as a city of Enlightenment and Holocaust, high culture and revolutionary violence, multiculturalism and ethnic hatred, a bastion of freedom and victim of military occupation. In all, King concludes that Odessa is one of those cities where perpetually “teetering between genius and devastation may be the normal state of affairs.”

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