Primorsky Boulevard, Odessa 's 'front-room'. Postcard. [o]
I want to see the steps of the Potemkin, I said.
We cross the Opera House, the statue of Catherine the Great surrounded by tiny males. Almost twilight then. I went, repeatedly, sat in the Greek Park, then left, walked along the seashore. When dreams come true the atmosphere drums in the brain like a mild drunkenness.
When did I read Isaak Babel for the first time? Red Cavalry was in the window, on offer for 10 pesos. I bought it and finished it that afternoon. I've been stunned ever since. Ten, fifteen times, over the years, and each time it amazes me. Babel interested me, thanks to what Ilya Ehrenburg speaks of intensely about it in The Two Poles: The Third Book of Memoirs. With Ehrenburg you never lose; through his writings I met so many authors: Istrati, Tuwim, Nezval, Roth, Babel . . .
With that antecedent I began to search and I received an edition of Bruguera's, Cuentos de Odessa. It was the end, the spell has caught me. Odessa for me is before Paris, Rome or Athens, or New York. After spending time there I always repeated, and announced to everyone, that this was the city where I would like to live. Where will I live if your apocalypse comes?
It is not Peter the Great, but a grotesque . . . a Gogol doodle, Dickens's Uriah Heep.
I wish to meet the Moldavanka, I asked.
The jewel in the Crown, the pearl of Russia, and today, someone who calls himself Russian, is going to end up with those tree-lined and miserable streets, with buildings that are a hundred, two hundred years old, falling down, little by little. The beauty of architecture that is getting old like things with a soul. I can't imagine bombs in those gigantic inner courtyards where tenements grow in clusters and beautiful women appear. The bandits of the Moldavanka are no longer there to defend it.
Mishka Yaponchik and Benia Krik, in stories by Babel, executed by the commissars, parents of these offspring who today attack, hiring Chechens and Syrians, to end not only Ukraine but Russia. Vladimir Putin is not a new tsar; he is a financial thief, a mobster with pretense of being eternal, a trillionaire willing to do anything, to sink even the pseudo-history he proclaims, for the sake of his ark and vanity. It is not Peter the Great, but a grotesque. Neither Catherine nor Suvorov, Kutuzov, Bagration. Neither Frunze nor Chapayev, but a Gogol doodle, Dickens's Uriah Heep.
The steps of Odessa, I enquired.
There they were. The Black Sea that day wore blue. I sat down. Anastasia hugged me. She had red hair tied back smelling of muscatel. In a youth room they were showing Battleship Potemkin by Sergei Eisenstein in Cochabamba, Bolivia forty years ago. The baby car rolling down the endless stands. Rotten meat with maggots falling down to feed the sailors with them for marine food. On the top step, I bought a Soviet medal from a souvenir seller. We talked about Nazim Hikmet, about Cochabamba. Enjoy Odessa, he suggested, sin and beauty, flowers on the ruins.
Odessa on the Ponto Euxino, the Greek name for the Black Sea. [o]
But on top of the smoking rubble that Putin, the supposed defender of Russia, yearns for, only hatred will grow. Faced with the civil massacre that has been unleashed, the Ukrainian forces announce that artillerymen, and all those related to the bombings, will be butchered. Not prisoners. An extreme right-wing unit fighting in the Sea of Azov smears the bullets in pork fat to put it in the bodies of the Chechens, so death will be horrible and there will be no paradise for the assassins sent by Ramzan Kadyrov, traitor of his town. I think of that and remember the sunny streets of Odessa, full of flowers, never-cut weeds and deciduous trees, coffee with luxury pastries. The red color of blood will replace the crimson borsch of every day. My restaurant Kazán, in front of the cathedral. The central park between the dreamlike buildings of a grandeur that was, but left an aroma.
A criminal clown, associated with the drug traffickers of the world, praised and distracted by and with the hierarchs of the Latin American underworld, flirting with the Chinese, has decided that Odessa will never be again. He began by bombarding Mykolaiv, and then he will advance to the east, trying to cut off the sea. The market will be empty, the dried turbots hidden from view. The red pomegranates quartered and sold on the streets no longer. But Ukraine resists. Destroyed Russian howitzers show it, just near Mykolaiv.
Amphibious assault, it is said, and the land push. Kharkiv is in ruins. Yesterday I watched on television, still intact, the red walls of the University of Kiev, the old park just across the street. I have some photos there, with the yellow walls of a ministry. I was wearing a black jacket, almost a mourning before the debacle. Only a silver bullet will stop the wraith, a wedge of hardwood through his ribs and into a heart so he never revives.
The Potemkin Steps, the Soviet name for the Giant Starcase built in 1837-1841 as a grand entrance to the city from the shore. [o]
Deep bass voices come out of the gloomy churches, icons of Andrei Rublev or whoever they were. The whole Ukraine and a good part of Russia murmur death wishes: that Putin disappears, vanishes, sink into the mud that spring brings, the one that tormented Napoleon and Hitler, and that begins to get between the wheels of the invasion. They call it the “Rasputitsa,” the sea of mud that Alexei Savrasov painted, seen in news from India to Brussels sinking war tanks, denying the tyrant who tries to spread the message that an orange blossom veil has been unfolded over Ukraine. With mud and bullets, Ukraine must persist; the GDR spy, no.
Beside me are three bottles of red wine that I wish I could finish. Say hello to Odessa from this mountain sun with ice decoration. I got tired of the cold, I was already sailing in my mind towards the Ponto Euxino. I even have a melancholy for the ugly city airport, nostalgia that one begins to accumulate when he knows that death has arrived. Last words, breath that escapes from the hands that want to keep it. Do cities have a soul? We don't have it, but the streets, maybe not. I imagine that a mortar shell will hit the monument to Babel, that a flood of missiles will destroy the steps down which Eisenstein was descending, camera in hand.
Wasn't it that the despot yearned for an immense little mother Russia? It could be a cannibalistic action, but it is not. Vladimir Putin is a skinny and fearful thing, not even earthworm food for eels. ≈ç
Scenes from The Battleship Potemkin by Segei Eisenstein (1925), including the set-up to the Odessa steps scene at 2:56.
Eisenstein bajo las bombas
Quiero ver la escalinata del Potemkin, dije.
Cruzamos la Ópera, la estatua de Catalina la Grande rodeada de machos diminutos. Casi crepúsculo entonces. Luego fui, en repetidas ocasiones, me senté en el Parque Griego, a la izquierda, caminé a orillas del mar. Cuando los sueños se hacen realidad la atmósfera tamborilea en el cerebro como leve borrachera.
¿Cuándo leí a Isaak Babel por primera vez? Caballería roja estaba en la vitrina, oferta de 10 pesos. Lo compré y lo terminé en la tarde. He quedado embobado desde entonces. Diez, quince veces, a lo largo de los años, y cada vez me asombra. Me interesó Babel gracias a lo que de él intensamente habla Ilya Ehrenburg en Los Dos Polos: Tercer Libro de Memorias. Con Ehrenburg nunca se pierde; por sus escritos conocí a tantos autores: Istrati, Tuwim, Nezval, Roth, Babel…
Con ese antecedente me puse a buscar y recibí en edición de Bruguera, Cuentos de Odessa. Fue el fin, me ha atrapado el sortilegio. Odessa para mí está antes que París, que Roma o Atenas, o Nueva York. Luego de pasar un tiempo allí siempre repetí, y anuncié a todos, que esa era ciudad donde me gustaría vivir. ¿Dónde viviré si llega su apocalipsis?
Demonstrators holding a huge Ukrainian flag march along the street in Odessa, Ukraine, Sunday, Feb. 20, 2022. They said they were prepared to defend their city if needed. [o]
Deseo conocer la Moldavanka, pedí.
La joya de la Corona, la perla de Rusia, y hoy, alguien que se dice ruso, va a terminar con esas calles arboladas y pobres, con edificios de cien, doscientos años cayéndose de a poco. La belleza de la arquitectura que se va poniendo vieja como las cosas con alma. No puedo imaginar bombas en esos patios interiores gigantescos donde en racimo crecen conventillos y asoman mujeres hermosas. Ya no están los bandidos de la Moldavanka para defenderla. Mishka Yaponchik, Benia Krik en Isaak Babel, fue ejecutado por los comisarios, padres de estas crías que hoy atacan, contratando chechenos y sirios, para acabar no solo con Ucrania sino con Rusia. Vladimir Putin no es un nuevo zar; es financiero ladrón, mafioso con ínfulas de eterno, trillonario dispuesto a todo, a hundir incluso la seudohistoria que pregona, en aras de su arca y vanidad. No es Pedro el Grande sino un esperpento; ni Catalina ni Suvorov, Kutuzov, Bagration; ni Frunze ni Chapayev sino un garabato de Gogol, el Uriah Heep de Dickens.
Las escalinatas de Odessa, requerí. Ahí estaban. El mar Negro ese día vestía azul. Me senté. Anastasia me abrazó. Tenía el cabello rojo amarrado atrás oliendo a moscatel. En una salita de juventud pasaban El acorazado Potemkin, de Sergei Eisenstein, en Cochabamba, cuarenta años atrás. El coche del bebé rodando por las interminables gradas. Carne podrida con gusanos cayendo para alimento de marinos. En el último escalón compré de un vendedor de recuerdos una medalla soviética. Conversamos de Nazim Hikmet, de Cochabamba. Disfruta Odessa, sugirió, pecado y belleza, flores sobre las ruinas.
Con barro y con bala, Ucrania ha de persistir; el espía de la RDA, no.
Pero encima de los escombros humeantes que ansía Putin, supuesto defensor de Rusia, solo crecerá odio. Ante la masacre civil que ha desatado, las fuerzas ucranianas anuncian que artilleros y todos los relacionados con los bombardeos serán carneados. No prisioneros. Una unidad de extrema derecha que combate en el mar de Azov, unta las balas en grasa de cerdo para meterla en el cuerpo de los chechenos, así la muerte será espantosa y no habrá paraíso para los asesinos que ha enviado Ramzan Kadyrov, traidor de su pueblo. Pienso en eso y recuerdo las soleadas calles de Odessa, llenas de flores, de hierbajos nunca cortados y árboles caducos. Café con repostería de lujo; el rojo de la sangre reemplazará el carmesí borsch de cada día. Mi restaurante “Kazán”, enfrente de la catedral; el parque central entre los edificios oníricos de una grandeza que fue pero dejó aroma.
Un payaso criminal, asociado con los narcotraficantes del mundo, alabado y distraído por y con los jerarcas del hampa latinoamericana, meneándose con los chinos, ha decidido que Odessa nunca más. Comenzó a bombardear Mykolaiv y luego avanzará hacia el este, tratando de cortar el mar. El mercado estará vacío, los rodaballos secos, escondidos. La roja granada cuarteada y vendida por las calles no ya. Pero Ucrania resiste. Destruidos howitzer rusos lo muestran, justo cerca de Mykolaiv.
Asalto anfibio, se comenta, y el empuje por tierra. Kharkiv está en ruinas; ayer miraba en televisión, todavía intactos, los muros colorados de la universidad de Kiev, el parque añejo apenas cruzando la calle. Tengo algunas fotos allí, con las paredes amarillas de un ministerio. Llevaba chamarra negra, casi un luto antecediendo la debacle. Solo una bala de plata detendrá al espectro, una cuña de dura madera que le atraviese las costillas hasta un corazón para que nunca reviva.
[Left to right] Mikail Koltsov, Isaak Babel and André Malraux as guests of Maxim Gorky in Crimea, 1936. Photo from History Odessa [o]
Voces de bajo profundo salen de las penumbrosas iglesias, iconos de Andrei Rublev o de quien fueran. Toda Ucrania y buena parte de Rusia murmuran deseos de muerte: que desaparezca, se esfume, hunda en el cieno que trae la primavera, el que atormentó a Napoleón y a Hitler, y que comienza a meterse entre las ruedas de la invasión. Le llaman la “Rasputitsa”, el mar de lodo que pintara Alexei Savrasov y que se ve en noticieros desde India hasta Bruselas hundiendo tanques de guerra, desmintiendo al tirano que intenta difundir que sobre Ucrania se ha desplegado un velo de azahar. Con barro y con bala, Ucrania ha de persistir; el espía de la RDA, no.
A mi lado hay tres botellas de vino tinto que desearía terminar. Saludar a Odessa desde este sol montañés con hielo decorando. Me cansé del frío, ya navegaba en mente hacia el Ponto Euxino. Incluso tengo melancolía del feo aeropuerto de la ciudad. Nostalgia que uno comienza a acumular cuando sabe que ha llegado la muerte. Últimas palabras, aliento que se escapa de las manos que desean conservarlo. ¿Tendrán alma las ciudades? Nosotros carecemos de ella pero las calles tal vez no. Imagino que un mortero hará impacto sobre el monumento a Babel, que una riada de misiles destrozará las gradas por las que descendía Eisenstein cámara en mano.
¿No era que el déspota añoraba una inmensa madrecita Rusia? Podría ser una acción caníbal pero no lo es. Vladimiro Putin es una cosa pelada y temerosa, lombriz ni para alimento de anguilas. ≈ç
Eisenstein and Babel on the set of Bezhin Meadow, a 1937 Soviet propaganda film that Babel co-wrote. [o]
Timeline of Odessa
13th to 17th century
1240 - Tatars begin settling herds in the region.
1415 - a settlement of Kachibei (Khadjibey, Hacıbey, Kotsiubiyiv) was first mentioned.
15th century - Khadjibey ceded to Lithuania.
1529 - Ottoman conquest.
1764 - Fortress Yeni Dünya built at Khadjibey by Turks.
1789 - Russian forces take fortress.
1791 - Khadjibey annexed to Novorossiya.
1794 - Odesa founded by decree of Catherine II of Russia.
Cathedral of the Transfiguration founded.
1802 - Population: 9,000.
1803 - Duc de Richelieu in power.
1804 - Commercial school founded.
Odesa becomes administrative center of New Russia.
Russian Orthodox church built.
1808 - Troitzkaya Church active.
Opera house built.
1812 - Plague.
1814 - Population: 25,000.
1816 - Louis Alexandre Andrault de Langeron in power.
1817 - Richelieu Lyceum established.
1819 - Odesa becomes a free port.
Church of the Dormition built.[
Pogrom against Jews.
1824 - Odesa becomes "seat of the governors-general of Novorossia and Bessarabia."
1825 - Archeological Museum founded.
Fyodor Palen in power.
Jewish school established.
Richelieu Monument unveiled.
1828 - Imperial Rural Association for Southern Russia founded.
Public library established.
Vorontsov Palace built.
1838 - Plague.
1841 - Giant Staircase constructed.
1846 - Londonskaya Hotel opens.
1847 - Novobazarnaya Church built.
1850 - Population: 100,000.
Crimean War begins.
Roman Catholic Church rebuilt.
1854 - Anglo-French fleet attacks Odesa.
1856 - Russian Steam Navigation and Trading Company established.
1857 - August 15: Free port status revoked.
1859 - Pogrom against Jews.
Odessa Military District established.
Vorontsov Lighthouse built.
1865 - Imperial Novorossiya University established.
1866 - Odesa-Balta railway begins operating.
Pogrom against Jews.
Russian Technical Society, Odesa branch, founded.
1873 - Population: 162,814.
1874 - Theatre Velikanova built.
1875 - Tzar visits Odesa.
1876 - Turkish forces attack Odesa.
1880 - Horse tramway begins operating.
Steam tramway begins operating.
Pogrom against Jews.
1882 - Population: 217,000.
1887 - Theatre built
1894 - Odesa Committee of the Social Democratic Workers Party organized.
1895 - St. Panteleimon church consecrated.
1897 - Lutheran Church built.
General Post Office built.
Bristol Hotel opens.
1900 - Population: 449,673.
1902 - Cadet School active.
June: Potemkin uprising.
Pogrom against Jews.
Municipal Library built.
1907 - Myrograph film studio in business.
Electric Tram begins operating.
Trade fair held.
Sergiyev Artillery School active.
1917 - City occupied by Ukrainian Tsentral'na Rada, French Army, Red Army, and White Army following the Bolshevik Revolution.
13 March: Odesa occupied by Central Powers.
Odesa becomes capital of Odesa Soviet Republic.
Polytechnic University established.
December : Odesa occupied by the French Army
1919 - Odesa Film Studio founded.
1920 - Red Army in power.
1921 - Odesa State Economics University established.
Odesa State Medical Institute established.
Odesa Zoo opens.
1924 - Odesa Philharmonic Theater opens.
1926 - State Odesa Russian Drama Theatre established.
1928 - Spartak Stadium opens.
1933 - School of Stolyarsky established.
1935 - Kosior Memorial Stadium built.
The Filatov Institute of Eye Diseases & Tissue Therapy founded.
Dynamo football club formed.
August 8-October 16: Siege of Odesa.
October 17: Axis occupation begins.
October 22–24: 1941 Odesa massacre.
Odessa becomes capital of Romanian-administered Transnistria Governorate.
April 10: Red Army takes city; Axis occupation ends.
ODO Odesa football team active.
Odesa State Maritime Academy founded.
1945 - Odesa designated a Hero City of the USSR.
1952 - Railway Station rebuilt.
Odesa International Airport built.
Pushkin Museum opens.
1963 - Avangard rugby club formed.
1965 - Population: 735,000.
1973 - April 10: Humorina festival begins.
1979 - Population: 1,072,000.
1984 - Deribasivska Street pedestrianized.
1985 - Population: 1,126,000.
1989 - Outdoor market relocates to Odessa-Ovidiopol highway.
1992 - BIPA-Moda basketball club formed.
Eduard Gurwits becomes mayor.
New music festival begins.
1998 - Rouslan Bodelan becomes mayor.
1999 - Odesa Numismatics Museum established.
2000 - Quarantine Pier designated free economic zone and port.
2001 - Al-Salam Mosque opens.
2003 - Rebuilt Odesa Cathedral consecrated.
2005 - Eduard Gurwits becomes mayor again.
2007 - Pryvoz Market rebuilt.
2010 - Odesa International Film Festival begins.
Chornomorets Stadium built.
FC SKA Odesa formed.
Aleksey Kostusyev becomes mayor
2014 - 2014 Odesa clashes.
2014 - after Crimea annexation by Russia, Odesa become the main naval base of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
2018 - Population: 993,831 (estimate).
— Courtesy of Wikipedia
Isaak Babel (1894-1940)
Members of the Central Committee, and later the head of the Comintern, complained that the style of Cavalry was "unacceptable." Stalin, on the other hand, believed that Babel wrote about "things that he did not understand." Viktor Shklovsky put it in a peculiar way: "Babel saw Russia the way a French writer seconded to Napoleon's army could see it."
But Babel was under the patronage of Maxim Gorky, which guaranteed the publication of the book. In response to the attacks by Budyonny [a lauded Russian cavalryman and military commander during the Russian Civil War and close political ally of Stalin], Gorky stated: “Attentive reader, I don’t find anything “caricature-libelous” in Babel’s book, on the contrary: his book aroused in me both love and respect for the cavalry soldiers, showing them as real heroes — fearless, they deeply feel the greatness of their struggle. And Budyonny evaluates Babel's work from the height of a cavalry saddle."
With the tightening of censorship and the onset of the era of the Great Terror, Babel was published less and less, and focused on translations from the Yiddish language. Despite his doubts about what was happening, he did not emigrate, although he had the opportunity. From September 1927 to October 1928 and from September 1932 to August 1933 he lived abroad in France, Belgium, Italy, and Germany.
In May 1939, four agents from the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD) came to his home. He was charged with Trotskyism, terrorism, and spying for Austria and France. At his trial in January 1940 that lasted twenty minutes, his last record words were: 'I am innocent. I have never been a spy. I never allowed any action against the Soviet Union. I accused myself falsely. I was forced to make false accusations against myself and others... I am asking for only one thing — let me finish my work.' The next day he died by firing squad.
Claudio Ferrufino-Coqueugniot answers
The Wild Culture Scribbler’s Questionnaire
1 What is your first memory and what does it tell you about your life at that time and your life at this time?
Walking with my father to an international soccer game when I was 3.
2 Can you name a handful of artists in your field, or other fields, who have influenced you — who come to mind immediately?
Isaak Babel, Marcel Schwob, Victor Hugo. The Doors, The Clash, Latin American folk. Chagall, Soutine, Jawlensky.
3 Where did you grow up, and did that place and your experience of it help form your sense about place and the environment in general?
Cochabamba, Bolivia. Yes, it did.
4 If you were going away on a very long journey and you could only take four books — one poetry, one fiction, one non-fiction, one literary criticism — what would they be?
Emily Dickinson, Red Cavalry by Isaak Babel, Danube by Claudio Magris.
What was your most keen interest between the ages of 10 and 12?
At what point did you discover your ability with poetry?
Do you have an ‘engine’ that drives your artistic practice, and if so, can you comment on it?
No, I do not. I write when I can.
If you were to meet a person who seriously wants to do work in your field — someone who admires and resonates with the type of work you do, and they clearly have real talent — and they asked you for some general advice, what would that be?
Write and then let it sit for a while before publishing. Edit and rewrite if needed.
Do you have a current question or preoccupation that you could share with us?
What does the term ‘wild culture’ mean to you?
I am not sure. I did not follow your publications yet.
If you would like to ask yourself a final question, what would it be?
No final question.
CLAUDIO FERRUFINO-COQUEGNIOT is a Bolivian writer, poet and journalist. In David Copperfield he found “the deep sadness, the absence, the love.” The experience led to reading the Russians, the North Americans, and the Argentines. The absence of comedy, the overdose of drama. He is the author of many books, the most recent of which is Dead Living City (2018). He lives in Cochabamba, Bolivia. View Claudio's website.