The literary history of Ukraine’s Black Sea port city of Odessa is the focus of British novelist and journalist A.D. Miller’s article on the Odessa State Literary Museum “The Odessaphiles” at The Economist’s Intelligent Life. It’s a nice introduction to the city’s mythical place in Russian history, literary and otherwise, especially in regard to Isaak Babel, who conjured it up so brilliantly in his work.
Most interesting is how this museum, founded by a former KGB agent in 1977 (is there anything in the former Soviet Union not founded or run by a former KGB agent?), is not exactly forthcoming on the fact that 20th century Odessa literature was stifled by the Soviet authorities – they downplay the state murder of Babel during the Terror and there was the censorship which ended the brilliant career of writers like Yury Olesha.
Miller writes: “And so, in a mild form, the museum is itself an example of the censorship that both thwarted and stimulated its subjects. Nikita Brygin, its founder, knew that about his project from first-hand experience. Party bosses, reputedly nervous about the enlightened atmosphere Brygin was creating, forced him out of the museum before it opened. He died in 1985 without ever seeing the finished article.”
He ends the article on an odd note though, writing, “I love the city, the museum and Russian literature; but, in the end, they aren’t and couldn’t be worth it. They aren’t worth all the blood that has gone into them.” But I love humanity, and it isn’t worth all the blood that has gone into it either. I don’t think you get to choose. The blood, unfortunately, is a given, so you might as well have a strange, evocative city and a great literature to go with it, along with a museum in a crumbling villa with grouchy old ladies sitting around staring off into nothingness to pass the time.
House of Russian literature
Another trace of Russian literary history comes by way of another of John Freedman’s articles tracking down Russia’s neglected cultural history on the streets of Moscow. I recently linked to his piece on realizing a familiar apartment building had housed the legendary Russian/Yiddish actor Solomon Mikhoels. This time the building also is connected with the 20th century theater through Meyerhold associate Nikolai Erdman and a number of their colleagues. Freedman also discovered that the writer Boris Zaitsev had lived in the building from 1916. Zaitsev emigrated to Paris in 1922 and died there 50 years later.
Photos – from The Odessa State Literary Museum