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Dreams, Death And Jewish Gangsters In 'Odessa'

When Mark Twain stepped ashore in the Black Sea port city of Odessa in the summer of 1867, he found a cosmopolitan crossroads teeming with people from all over the Russian Empire and beyond.

The city's melting-pot nature reminded Twain of home. "Look up the street, or down the street, this way or that way," he wrote. "We saw only America."

Odessa was a young city when Twain arrived. Founded in 1794 by Catherine the Great, it was only a few years younger than Washington, D.C., but already had a rich history. Author Charles King has written a new book about that history, Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams.

Many dreams shaped the city, King tells Weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz. "Mark Twain was standing in a city that was scouted by a Neapolitan mercenary, named by a Russian empress, governed by her one-eyed secret husband, built by two exiled French noblemen," he writes.

In its early years, Odessa sparkled with high society. Gov.-Gen. Mikhail Vorontsov entertained artists like the renowned writer Alexander Pushkin at lavish parties. Pushkin eventually fled Odessa after having a rather public affair with the governor's wife.

The city depended on the grain trade, and when that dried up — due to changing trade routes and the Crimean War — the cosmopolitan dream began to crumble. "The city, in fact, has this kind of double identity," King says, "a place that's liberal, that's relatively open, but a dark and subversive side that appears from time to time over the course of the 19th century, and then, most spectacularly, most tragically, over the course of the 20th century."

That darkness boiled to the surface in a series of pogroms beginning in the 1860s. Odessa's population before World War II was almost one-third Jewish, but as the city's economy faltered and Tsarist authorities began to pursue Jews as possible subversives, violence broke out more and more frequently.

The city's Jewish community was a central part of Odessa's life and spirit. Writer Isaac Babel created fantastic tales of the Jewish gangsters and low-lifes who roamed the city's Moldavanka neighborhood and defined the classic "Odessan" personality.

"The person he's trying to describe," King says, "is someone who, if not Jewish himself, is Jewish in a broad kind of cultural sense. He's a cosmopolitan, he's at home in the world, he's at home in a multicultural space."

But while there had been thousands of Jews in Odessa before World War II, by 1945, there were only 48. "Odessa has lost ... the thing that in many ways made it most distinctive," King says.

You can still get a sense of the old Odessa in the modern city, and even in places like New York's Brighton Beach, often called "Little Odessa." But it's not the same, King says. "It's a kind of sepia-tinged version of its own past. And Odessa, like Brighton Beach, is a tiny bit sad," he says. "But that's kind of part of its identity as well."

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