Cockburn slummed it on Friday night at an elegantly appointed penthouse on Park Avenue in Manhattan. The host was Martin Peretz, a singularly influential intellectual entrepreneur for decades, notably as the publisher of the New Republic when it was worth reading.
Peretz threw the party to celebrate the publication of From Odessa With Love, a new collection of political and literary essays by Vladislav Davidzon. A European cultural critic for Tablet, Davidzon, who moved to Ukraine in 2015 to found the Odessa Review, was in his element as Peretz’s protégé.
Like Oscar Wilde’s, Davidzon’s credo appears to be that you can never be too overdressed or overeducated. Indeed, Peter Pomerantsev, in his preface to From Odessa With Love, describes first meeting Davidzon at a conference in Kyiv. Among the staid attendees, we are told, there was ‘a somewhat carnivalesque and fantastical figure. Dressed like an Edwardian dandy, in silk socks and bright trousers, maybe even wearing a boater of the type that Venetian gondoliers perch on their heads as they croon down the canals, he spoke in a transatlantic drawl I couldn’t place.’
Since then, Davidzon’s ship has come in, though it took the long way from Brighton Beach to Park Avenue. He has navigated his way through the currents of Ukrainian politics and history to deliver not simply an account of modern Odessa, but a love letter to it.
Davidzon isn’t interested in Odessa; he is consumed by it. Located within the Pale of the Settlement in the Russian empire, Odessa was, as Edmund de Waal observes in The Hare With Amber Eyes, a port city on the make, pullulating with grain merchants and traders, including the legendary Ephrussi family whose property and bank were seized by the Nazis after the annexation of Austria in 1938. Odessa also seemed to produce great classical musicians by the bushelful such as the violinists David Oistrakh and Nathan Milstein. Alas, this marvelous entrepot was badly battered in 1905, when local Jews were assaulted by right-wing Black Hundreds militias. Then came World War Two. Invading Romanian hordes allied with the Nazis gleefully massacred some 80,000 Jews.
Himself the descendant of Ukrainian grandparents, Davidzon, who grew up in Brighton Beach, a magnet for Russian émigrés to America, wants to show that, far from being a relic of the past, Odessa remains a subject of absorbing interest. His childhood in Brighton Beach proved to be good preparation for immersing himself in all things Odessan. He offers vivid portraits of the spies, mobsters, thieves, artists, hustlers and politicians living in this colorful metropolis.
There is an epistolary quality to Davidzon’s reporting — confiding, intimate, humorous. More often than not, he delivers the goods. He covers the strange entry of former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvilito to Odessa in 2016, when he was appointed governor, explaining that the ‘moment was characterized by the most glorious parties, continuous frenetic happenings and anti-corruption conferences that were bizarrely filled up with oligarchs and mobsters’. His rollicking essay on the Danish businessman Thomas Sillesen, who was imprudent enough to purchase a building in Odessa, only to become involved in protracted negotiations with the local mafia fueled by drink and food, and then more of the same, is alone worth the price of admission.
The truth is that when he first traveled to Ukraine some 10 years ago, Davidzon fit right in. Simon Sebag Montefiore reports in his foreword to Davidzon’s book, ‘Odessans are still the graceful and elegant and playful products of their city’s amazing history. The flamboyant men and the gorgeous women still walk with the swagger that distinguishes only the citizens of this great city.’