Saturday, November 17, 2012

A Writer's Museum In Odessa

The Life Of Russian Writers

An article by A.D. Miller in Intelligent Life magazine gives a personal account of the writer's return to Odessa, a city laden with history and meaning; the city has both a literary history, with its most-famous literary son, Issac Babel claiming birth there in 1894, and a spirit of making do with little. One of Odessa's most interesting pursuits is a museum dedicated to literature:
There are lots of museums devoted to famous writers, but fewer dedicated purely to literature. This one was conceived and founded by Nikita Brygin, a bibliophile and ex-KGB officer. He left the KGB in murky circumstances, but remained sufficiently well-connected to secure a handsome venue near the sea for his eccentric scheme—the ceilings are cracking, but the chandeliers and reliefs conjure the mood of the aristocratic balls for which the palace was built. He sent a team of young women across the Soviet Union to secure writerly artefacts for the collection, which is arranged in a suite of bright first-floor rooms reached by a grand double staircase. Opened in 1984, the museum survived Odessa's transition from the defunct Soviet Union to independent Ukraine. Today, it is overseen by elderly attendants whose sternness yields to solicitous enthusiasm when one of their infrequent visitors approaches. The place runs on love.

For me, this is a memento of the years I spent travelling across the former Soviet Union as a foreign correspondent—the most exhilarating, frustrating, sad and privileged years of my life. I loved both Odessa and the museum when I first came in 2006, but the stories I wrote on that trip were bleak ones, about smuggling through the port and sex trafficking through the ferry terminal. A woman from a charity that helps victims of trafficking told me how to spot them among the passengers disembarking the ships from Istanbul: hungry, hangdog expressions; no luggage; clothes ill-suited to the season. The sex trade is the dark side of the licence and loucheness for which Odessa has always been renowned.
Odessa being Odessa became a spot on the Black Sea where writers went for a reprieve, either from Czarist repression or Communist repression. It is the city where Pushkin lived in internal exile for a year between 1823 and 1824, writing that "the air is filled with all Europe, French is spoken and there are European papers and magazines to read."

The seaport on the northwestern shore of the Black Sea became a haven for many writers, artists and social misfits of society, including many Jews. At the time of Babel's early years, by 1897, Jews comprised about 37% of Odessa's population; it became a symbol, a microcosm of Russia's more tolerant society; although that did not prevent the many pogroms from taking place, eventually driving most of the Jews from the seaport city to Ottoman Palestine.

It is only fitting then that the museum should represent not only the city's history but that of Russia. Miller writes: "And, being Russian, it becomes a museum of censorship and repression as well as art: of genius and bravery, blood and lies."

You can read the rest of the article at [Intelligent Life]