When foreign travelers ventured across the Eurasian steppe, it was difficult to know which was worse: bouncing along rutted roads in a hired wagon careering along at breakneck speed, or stopping in a fly-blown inn where a meal was little more than moldy bread and rough wine, and one's bed a straw mat covered by a ragged blanket.
It was all the more surprising, then, when travelers came across a small slice of Germany that had been transplanted to the windy flatlands. Small wooden houses were gathered in neat rows around a plain stone church. Doorposts were painted with simple but elegant flower motifs. Blooming flowerboxes decorated the street-facing windows. A visitor was greeted with a friendly but wary "Guten tag," and if he asked for onward directions to another village or city, he should be sure to know its name in German rather than in Russian. "How agreeably was I surprised to see the advanced state of agriculture as we travelled southwards," wrote the wife of a Russian officer not long after Odessa's founding, "and to find this mighty empire, which, I own, judging from its vast extent, I supposed to be thinly peopled, covered with populous villages and waving corn [wheat]." Germans, especially members of the reclusive Mennonite Christian denomination, had been invited by Catherine the Great to set up farms across New Russia shortly after her acquisition of the territory from the Ottomans. Germans brought agricultural skills that were lacking in a frontier peopled mainly by nomads and Cossacks. In turn, they received land, exemption from military service, and ready outlets for their produce in the burgeoning Russian ports along the Black Sea.
Odessa was founded by foreigners in Russian service, and that heritage reproduced itself generation after generation. Niche industries abounded. If you were a well-to-do merchant, your barber was likely to be an Armenian, your gardener a Bulgarian, your plasterer a Pole, your carriage driver a Russian, and your nursemaid a Ukrainian. "There is nothing national about Odessa," recalled one visitor disapprovingly. Some could describe it only by analogy—as a Russian Florence, a Russian Naples, a Russian Paris, a Russian Chicago, even a Russian Cincinnati.
20 October 2012
Odessa, a "Russian Cincinnati"
From Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams, by Charles King (W. W. Norton, 2011), pp. 107-108: