In the tumultuous final decades of the eighteenth century, Russia became a haven for down-and-out European nobles, bored adventurers, and impecunious philosophers, musicians, and artists seeking patrons in an empire that had only recently discovered its European vocation. Armand Sophie Septimanie du Plessis, duc de Richelieu, was one of them. Born in September of 1766, Richelieu was a member of the great family of French nobles and heir to a long tradition of state service. His great-uncle, Armand Jean du Plessis, Cardinal Richelieu, had been the famous and powerful chief minister to Louis XIII....
As a veteran of courtly machinations in Versailles, Richelieu skillfully weathered the uncertain years following the death of his new patron and the brief reign of the petulant Paul. When Alexander became tsar in 1801, Richelieu was thus in a good position to seek a major role in the reformed administration. Given the growing importance of France—both as a trading partner with New Russia and as an occasional enemy of the Russian Empire—appointing someone with French connections to a position in the south made good sense. In 1803 Alexander named the thirty-seven-year-old Richelieu to the post of gradonachal'nik—city administrator—of Odessa, with responsibility for all military, commercial, and municipal affairs. He soon found himself journeying southward to take up the new assignment on a piece of territory that, as he recalled in his memoirs, probably overstating the case, was still "a desert inhabited only by hordes of Tatars and by Cossacks who, rejecting all civilization, sow terror through their brigandage and cruelties."
When he arrived, Richelieu discovered not so much a city despite the robust commerce, as an architectural drawing—all plan and relatively little substance, with streets and foundations laid out in the chalky dust of the plain. One of de Ribas's lasting contributions had been his insistence on self-conscious urban organization. Odessa is young by European, even by American, standards. A city that we now think of as typically old world was founded three years after Washington, D.C. Both cities' central districts are eighteenth-century fantasies of what a city should be: rationally laid out on a grid of symmetrical streets intersected by long, wide avenues and dotted with pocket-sized parks. The avenue provide edifying sight lines over great distances. The parks are places of relaxation and civic-mindedness, with statues and monuments that extol the virtues of duty, honor, and patriotism. It was a thrill for later visitors to Odessa—such as Mark Twain in the 1860s—to stand in the middle of a broad thoroughfare and see the empty steppe at one end and the empty sea at the other, just as visitors to Washington can connect the dots of the Capitol, the Lincoln Memorial, and other prominent landmarks via the major avenues and open spaces.
20 October 2012
Odessa and D.C., Separated at Birth
From Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams, by Charles King (W. W. Norton, 2011), pp. 57-59: