THE ODESSAPHILES

Authors on Museums: the great Russian writers flocked to Odessa, which now has a museum of literature created by an ex-KGB officer in a palace by the Black Sea. A.D. Miller, author of "Snowdrops", goes back for more

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, November/December 2012

Perhaps it's the influence of his stories, with their subtle narrators and exquisite understatement, but to me the smiles on Isaac Babel's face in the black-and-white photographs in the Odessa State Literary Museum all seem ironic. It's hard, too, knowing a little about his life and how it ended, not to suspect that one of the ironies Babel might have been contemplating was the transience of success, even the violence that might one day supersede the accolades the Stalinist state had heaped upon him. Looking at the wiry spectacles pinned to the wall, I think of the pair that must have perched on the pale, fragile dome of Babel's head when the secret police took him to the Lubyanka. 

Babel is Odessa's best-known literary son. But this wonderful museum, housed in a pale-blue tsarist-era palace, isn't devoted only to Odessa's own, or to its magical and dreadful history, though it encompasses both. Because of its location—on the Black Sea, at what was the Russian and then the Soviet empire's sunny southern limit—many of those empires' greatest authors were exiled to Odessa, fled through its docks, or came here for their health or a debauch. Embracing the transients and flâneurs, this is, in effect, a museum of Russian literature. And, being Russian, it becomes a museum of censorship and repression as well as art: of genius and bravery, blood and lies. 

There are lots of museums devoted to famous writers, but fewer dedicated purely to literature. This one was conceived and founded by Nikita Brygin, a bibliophile and ex-KGB officer. He left the KGB in murky circumstances, but remained sufficiently well-connected to secure a handsome venue near the sea for his eccentric scheme—the ceilings are cracking, but the chandeliers and reliefs conjure the mood of the aristocratic balls for which the palace was built. He sent a team of young women across the Soviet Union to secure writerly artefacts for the collection, which is arranged in a suite of bright first-floor rooms reached by a grand double staircase. Opened in 1984, the museum survived Odessa's transition from the defunct Soviet Union to independent Ukraine. Today, it is overseen by elderly attendants whose sternness yields to solicitous enthusiasm when one of their infrequent visitors approaches. The place runs on love. 

For me, this is a memento of the years I spent travelling across the former Soviet Union as a foreign correspondent—the most exhilarating, frustrating, sad and privileged years of my life. I loved both Odessa and the museum when I first came in 2006, but the stories I wrote on that trip were bleak ones, about smuggling through the port and sex trafficking through the ferry terminal. A woman from a charity that helps victims of trafficking told me how to spot them among the passengers disembarking the ships from Istanbul: hungry, hangdog expressions; no luggage; clothes ill-suited to the season. The sex trade is the dark side of the licence and loucheness for which Odessa has always been renowned.

Pushkin is partly to blame for the city's raunchy reputation. In the margins of the manuscripts of "Eugene Onegin", which he started writing in Odessa, he doodled portraits of some of the women he slept with here. Facsimiles, complete with lavish crossings-out, are on view in the museum. You look at the sketches and think of the young poet, bored by his own genius. Legend has it that, exiled from St Petersburg by the tsar, Pushkin began an affair with Countess Vorontsova, the wife of Odessa's governor. Another of his local flames, Karolina Sobanska, was also the some-time lover of Adam Mickiewicz (a cherished Polish poet commemorated in the museum), and a long-term spy for the tsarist secret police. Count Vorontsov, the peeved governor, dispatched Pushkin to write a report about a locust infestation, before running him permanently out of town.

You can still sense Odessa's erotic tension and potential in its balmy passeggiata and suggestively latticed balconies. In my novel "Snowdrops", mostly set in Moscow, I send the narrator, Nick Platt, down to Odessa as the dénouement approaches. Nick is a chronic self-deluder and a man of fatally easy virtue. Here, he says, "you can somehow make things seem better than they truly are. You can make things be what you want them to be." Odessa, a breeding ground for fabulists, seemed the right place for him.

Yet, like many ports, Odessa stands for freedom as well as sleaze. Revolutionaries and their ideas have been smuggled in and out along with contraband goods. Each of the museum's rooms represents a period in the city's intellectual history, evoking a particular era through furniture and design, and often concentrating on a characteristic genre. In the room depicting the 1850s and 1860s, there is a run of issues of the Bell, the journal published by Alexander Herzen during his London exile, which was sneaked into Russia through Odessa's docks.

Photograph: A.D. Miller gazes into Ivan Bunin's dressing-table mirror, and wonders how he would have coped with the bloody chaos of civil war (Rafal Milach)

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