Monthly Archives: October 2012

Odessa’s meshchane estate

From Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams, by Charles King (W. W. Norton, 2011), pp. 134-136:

From the perspective of the tsarist state, Russian society was divided into identifiable and highly regulated “estates,” or sosloviya in Russian. Membership could be fluid, at least across several generations, and in many cases one’s estate was never as predetermined or immutable as one’s sex or eye color. But it was still a fundamental part of a Russian subject’s social identity. In contrast to what Marxists would identify as “class,” an individual’s estate membership had little to do with his or her place in the hierarchy of economic production, much less with wealth or income. Like for the impoverished nobles in the works of Tolstoy or Chekhov, estate status was part of one’s birthright, the genetic code of Russian society as a whole, not a reflection of economic power. When the state came to sort and categorize its own citizens, the labels that presented themselves in the late nineteenth century were clear: nobles, clergy, military, civil servants, and a group known as the meshchane—by far the largest estate in Odessa.

The meshchane—a word that might be translated as the petty bourgeoisie—were the large group of semi-skilled workers, tradesmen, shopkeepers, and Russian subjects caught between the castes of large-scale landowners and their former serfs living in grinding poverty in the close-in suburbs. They eked out a living on the fringes of Odessa’s trading economy, vulnerable to the pendulum swings of commerce and the periodic blights afflicting agriculture. Unlike the wealthiest members of society, they had little recourse when times were hard, other than to join the day laborers hanging around the docks or hoping to pick up a job as a porter at one of the city’s bazaars. Unlike their peasant neighbors, they had few real connections to the countryside that might allow them to weather economic fluctuations in town. Already by the middle of the nineteenth century, Odessa was largely a city of these vulnerable meshchane. In 1858 the nobility comprised 3 percent of the city’s population, merchants nearly 5 percent, foreigners (that is, people who were not Russian subjects) just over 4 percent, peasants nearly 4 percent, and the military under 7 percent. The remainder—nearly 70 percent of the city’s total—were meshchane.

With a transient foreign population and a constant stream of newcomers arriving by ship and overland carriage—far moire than in the empire’s twin capitals, St. Petersburg and Moscow—Odessa was ripe for the kind of swindles, trickery, and palm-greasing that helped ease the economic burden of the petty bourgeoisie. When visitors complained of the hotelier who charged extra for bedding, the cobbler who charged twice to repair the same shoe, or the droshky driver who charged different rates for the same ride, it was the city’s huge estate of meshchane who were the makers of the city’s reputation. They could be found in virtually any profession. In 1892 over half the city’s 607 prostitutes reported that they were meshchane by estate.

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Filed under democracy, economics, labor, Russia, Ukraine

Odessa, a “Russian Chicago”

From Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams, by Charles King (W. W. Norton, 2011), pp. 109-112:

Until the 1860s, Odessa was the breadbasket for much of the Western world, feeding a hungry European and, increasingly, global market. Foreign consuls sent breathless dispatches to European capitals about fluctuations in the prices of wheat and barley. Foreign ministers contemplated the effects of diplomatic squabbles on the supply of foodstuffs. Only with the discovery of oil farther to the east, in the Russian Caucasus and the Caspian seaport of Baku, was Odessa’s chief cash export exceeded by that of a rival Russian city.

Odessa’s commercial success lay in its position at the intersection of flatlands and seascape, where the produce of the former could be sent to markets across the latter. But a series of fortunate accidents allowed the city to enhance this natural gift. Talented administrators such as Vorontsov argued for maintaining the freeport status, which was a considerable inducement to foreign and local entrepreneurs. Improvements in the harbor allowed larger ships to enter and lie safely at anchor. The fall-off in plague outbreaks around the Black Sea reduced much of the time that ships, goods, and passengers spent in quarantine. When the Peace of Adrianople was signed between the sultan and tsar in 1829, ending nearly a decade of diplomatic bickering, trade squabbles, and outright war, Russian secured a historic set of concessions from the Ottomans, including an end to the Ottoman practice of boarding and searching Russian merchant ships. The period of relative peace that followed—from the late 1820s to the early 1850s—provided ease of shipping through the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits.

The economic results were immense. Grain exports from all the Russian Black Sea ports stood at a yearly average of under two million chetverts (a unit of Russian dry measurement equal to 5.77 U.S. bushels) before 1813, but by the 1860s that figure had risen to over sixteen million chetverts. Over half those exports were coming solely from Odessa. Between the 1840s and 1850s, the annual volume of grain exports to Italian ports more than doubled, while the French were importing ten times as much Odessa grain at the end of that period as at the beginning. After the late 1840s, the easing of restrictive import laws in England the introduction of hardier wheat varieties in Russia opened new markets for Odessa’s produce, well beyond the traditional Mediterranean destinations. By the middle of the century, well over a thousand ships were leaving Odessa each year. The number of British ships sailing into the Black Sea increased sevenfold between the mid-1840s and the early 1850s, with Britain accounting for a third or more of all destinations of vessels exiting the port. Wheat, barley, rye, and other grains filled the holds of long-haul sea vessels flying flags of most major European powers.

Of all these goods, the queen was wheat. Ninety percent of Russian wheat exports flowed out of the empire’s Black Sea ports, and many of the sights, sounds, and smells of Odessa derived from its production and sale. Immense herds of cattle provided manure for fertilizer in the countryside and pulled the thousands of wooden carts that bore the harvested grain from field to storage centers….

Some carters would return north with cloth, wine, or other imported goods offloaded from merchant vessels in the harbor, while others chose to transform their infrastructure into capital. The dried dung could be collected and sold as fuel to poor families, and the animals could then be given up to slaughter for meat and hides. The sweet smoke of burning, grass-rich manure mingled in the air with the reek of tallow vats and the sharp odor of tanneries, the factories that produced the bricks of processed fat and bundles of unworked leather destined for Turkey, Italy, or France.

With hundreds of thousands of head of livestock coming through the city each harvest season, dust and mud were constant features of Odessan life. Choking, white-yellow clouds, stirred up by hooves and swirled about by the prevailing winds, powdered residents like talcum. Rain turned inches of accumulated limestone grime into impassable sloughs….

An open, brick-lined drainage system, about two feet deep, ran alongside the major thoroughfares, crossed by occasional footbridges and wooden planks. But the rivulets they contained—the wastewater runoff and solid offal of houses and hotels, as well as animal dung and mud from the streets—could gag even the toughest pedestrian. The blooms of acacia trees and oleander fought back with their perfume, but it usually took a change in wind direction, blowing off the plains and toward the sea, to unburden the city of its own stench.

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Filed under Britain, economics, food, France, industry, Italy, Russia, Turkey, U.S., Ukraine

Odessa, a “Russian Cincinnati”

From Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams, by Charles King (W. W. Norton, 2011), pp. 107-108:

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.

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Filed under Germany, industry, labor, language, migration, nationalism, Russia, Ukraine

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:

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.

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John Paul Jones in the Russian Navy

From Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams, by Charles King (W. W. Norton, 2011), pp. 43-47:

His work for the newly independent United States now finished, [John Paul] Jones traveled eastward to serve as commander of a Russian squadron in engagements with the Ottoman navy. Jones had made his reputation in America through a series of successful attacks on British warships; he is today revered as the founding father of the U.S. Navy, his remains encased in a lavish shrine in Annapolis, Maryland. But Potemkin was unimpressed. “This man is unfit to lead: he’s slow, lacks zeal and is perhaps even afraid of the Turks,” he wrote to Catherine. “He’s new at this business, has neglected his entire crew and is good for nothing: not knowing the language, he can neither give nor comprehend orders.”

Jones had been a brilliantly successful captain in the Atlantic, but his skills were essentially those of a pirate: the ability to lead a small contingent of men aboard a single ship in order to confront a single adversary. His abilities as a commander in a more complex struggle—especially among the haughty, intrigue-ridden, and multilingual European officer corps into which he had place himself—were questionable. “Jones was very famous as a corsair, but I fear that at the head of a squadron he is rather out of place,” wrote Charles of Nassau-Siegen, another foreign officer in Catherine’s employ. Jones reacted petulantly to any perceived slight from his aristocratic brother-officers and spent much of his time in Russia arguing over rank and chain of command. “Never, probably, did any commanding officer commence service under circumstances more painful,” Jones complained. “My firmness and integrity have supported me against those detestable snares laid by my enemies for my ruin.”

Whatever reputation Jones managed to salvage from his Russia years was in large part owed to the good judgment, operational savvy, and decorum of one of his lieutenants, another mercenary name José de Ribas. During the war with the Ottomans, de Ribas proved far more adept than the storied American captain at securing his fortune on the Russo-Turkish frontier, as well as his place in history as Odessa’s true founding father. His mixed background and improvised life were emblematic of the city he helped to establish….

De Ribas was present at one of the most important and most gruesome episodes of the Russo-Turkish conflict, an engagement in which he served alongside the disoriented and indecisive John Paul Jones. In midsummer of 1788, de Ribas was Potemkin’s liaison officer with Jones at the Battle of Liman, an encounter on the Dnieper estuary before the ramparts of two fortresses, Ochakov and Kinburn. The former was held by the Ottomans, the latter by the Russians; the twin outposts faced each other across a narrow water inlet connecting the Dnieper with the Black Sea. Jones was given command of a detachment of oar-powered boats outfitted with small cannons. Their task was not to engage Ottoman warships head-on but to lure them into the shallows, where they would be stuck fast in the mud and offer easy targets to Russia’s heavy guns and incendiary bombs. “Humanity recoils with indignation and horror from seeing so many wretched creatures perish in the flames,” Jones wrote to de Ribas during the fighting….

Despite his role in these events, Jones ended his Russian career in ignominy. After numerous run-ins with Nassau-Siegen and other aristocratic officers, he was transferred from the southern fleet by Potemkin and returned to St. Petersburg. With the war still raging, he was drummed out of Russia altogether, accused of forcibly deflowered a twelve-year-old girl. His defense was not to disown the affair—a matter usually glossed over by American historians—but rather to deny that it was rape. He admitted in a statement to prosecutors that he had “often frolicked” with the girl for a small cash payment, but that “I can assure you with absolute certainty that I did not despoil her of her virginity.” He died in penury in Paris a few years later, a broken man in a faded uniform, still pestering foreign diplomats with plans for new naval campaigns in faraway lands.

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Cossack Pirates on the Black Sea

From Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams, by Charles King (W. W. Norton, 2011), pp. 33-34:

Pirates from north of the Black Sea frequently targeted Ottoman ships, even hitting the Ottoman heartland in Anatolia and occasionally menacing Constantinople. These raiders grew up out of the frontier society that defined the coastal borderlands of the empire—a mixture of former Polish-Lithuanian or Muscovite peasants, local Muslims, and nomadic herders, some of whom coalesced into distinct communities given the catchall label “Cossacks.” Cossack groups emerged in the mid-sixteenth century as a key power at the intersection of Polish-Lithuanian and Ottoman authority, offering their services as freebooters—the word “Cossack” probably derives from kazak, a Turkic word for “free man”—to whichever sovereign could pay the highest fee. Although a substantial livelihood came from raiding and piracy, Cossacks were a true multipurpose frontier people, farming, herding, and fishing in the grassy lowlands and estuaries of the Dnieper and other rivers.

The French artillery engineer Guillaume de Beauplan, who witnessed Cossack raids in the seventeenth century, left a graphic description of the Cossacks and their waterborne lives, painting them not as the legendary cavalrymen they would eventually become, but rather as able and daring seamen, commanding small rivercraft that could be reoutfitted for voyages across the sea. As he wrote in his Description of Ukraine:

Their number now approaches some 120,000 men, all trained for war, and ready to answer in less than a week the slightest command to serve the [Polish] king. It is these people who often, [indeed] almost every year, go raiding on the Black Sea, to the great detriment of the Turks. Many times they have plundered Crimea, which belongs to Tatary, ravaged Anatolia, sacked Trebizond, and even ventured as far as the mouth of the Black Sea [Bosphorus], three leagues from Constantinople, where they have laid waste to everything with fire and sword, returning home with much booty and a number of slaves, usually young children, whom they keep for their own service or give as gifts to the lords of their homeland.

As the Cossack raids illustrated, in the seventeenth century at least, the Ottomans exercised little direct control north of the Black Sea, except during seasons of war when troops might descend on local villages to burn crops or requisition livestock.

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Filed under military, piracy, Poland, Russia, slavery, Turkey, Ukraine