Words by Mona Chatskin Art by Carla Mosqueda
There were many things I thought before I arrived in Odessa, Ukraine.
I thought that I would feel unsafe. I thought that I would feel disconnected. I thought that I would feel happy my family left all those years ago. Although a few of these assumptions were true to some extent, I also felt so much more.
Odessa is a port city on the Black Sea in the south of Ukraine. It is a Russian-speaking city, which poses many to question: “I thought you’re a Russian Jew? How are you from Ukraine?” This is one of the many complexities and confusions that has been left in the remnants of the Soviet Union. Communism fell in 1991 – and with it the Russian empire – but this doesn’t mean all Russian speakers vanished from the now independent countries that were formerly part of the USSR. 1991 was also the year my family left Odessa, so unlike other Odessa residents, their identities remained as Russian Jews. As for those who continued to live in Odessa following the collapse of communism, they are now Russian speaking Ukrainians.
It is a city that I have been told tales of since I was born. About its sea and its parks, its delectable fruits and vegetables, its spectacular opera theatre. It’s beauty unlike any other.
I was also told about the incessant anti-Semitism that existed there. The anti-Semitism which caused my mother to get into playground fights. Which stopped my father from getting the grades he deserved; which then caused him to suffer bullying during his army service. Which caused my grandparents to have prejudicial slurs thrown their way in a city which was always their home.
There were also other negative things I heard about the Soviet Union. How anything that was delicious or special was hard to come by, and how it could only be sourced if you had contacts. This ambiguous mix of positives and negatives made my arrival to Odessa all the more uncertain.
Touching down in Odessa, all my uneasiness culminated when I saw an abandoned and very much disintegrating Soviet plane sitting at the end of a crumbling runway. It looked like the perfect setting for a zombie apocalypse film Driving through the outskirts of Odessa made it look no more welcoming.
During one point in our journey, we drove past an enormous piece of land lined with towering green trees which spilled beyond the tall, brick fence which surrounded them. The main cemetery of Odessa. Directly opposite, was an aging, concrete and barbed wire fence which partially obscured an ominous grey building from site. The Odessa prison. This facetious contrast is not missed by Odessa residents, they even have a phrase for it.
“On one side we sit, on one side we lie.”
The cemetery pitched against the prison is one of many contradictions in Odessa. You don’t have to wear seatbelts while driving – in fact, some taxis I rode in don’t even have seatbelts for passengers – but you can’t have a beer with dinner if you’re behind the wheel. The extravagant beach side restaurants juxtapose again the crumbling Soviet apartment blocks, found just outside the city centre. The farmers’ market boasts some of the freshest produce of I’ve ever tasted, and at its entrance there are elderly couples digging through bins in search of food.
The monthly wage for pensioners is $1,500 Ukrainian hrynia ($75 Australian dollars). After discovering this information, it became clear why well-dressed people were even digging through dumpsters in the first place.
As a tourist, Odessa is the place to be. Mornings are spent lounging on the beach. Where the Black Sea water is as warm as it is clean. Further up on the sand, lounge-beds can be hired not unlike ones in Bali’s most covetable bars. Doing the produce justice, restaurants of every cuisine have popped up on Derybasivska Street; the city’s main street. Some of the best food I ate in Europe was in Odessa.
The contrasts of Ukraine’s third most populated city also stem to its people. A family friend had trained to become a paediatrician, yet changed professions to a sailor after making little to no income as a doctor.
Odessa also seems to be in the middle of a tumultuous exchange between old and new. Near the historic Potemkin stairs from 1841, gleams the iconic opera theatre whose neo-baroque and rococo architecture rivals against some of Europe’s most famous theatres. Then, along Arcadia beach, a tacky Vegas-wannabe strip runs down along the water. Everything from strippers, arcade games, overpriced restaurants, flashing lights and clubs can be found there. Picture every stereotype you’ve heard about tacky Eastern Europeans and plop it there. Many of the locals gush about the ‘new’ Arcadia, when it reality is seems incomparable to the historic charm of old Odessa.
The ‘new’ Odessa is even harder to be fond of when seeing the poverty intertwine itself through the city. It isn’t felt as strongly inside the city centre, but the poor infrastructure of the roads, the unhappiness of many older locals, and how cheap everything is implies the poverty does exist. How can lush restaurants and clubs be opening continuously? And how can they be booming when so many are barely making ends meet?
At the end of our week-long trip to Odessa, I asked my parents if they regretted leaving. It was the happiest I’d ever seen them; surrounded by their childhood friends in their birthplace. It truly is a beautiful city. Yet without even a moment’s hesitation, they both firmly said that although it was hard leaving their friends, all the positives of Australia far outweigh that. The difficulty of migration is overshadowed by opportunities my grandparents and parents wanted to give to future generations of our family. And although I’m happy my family made the decision to immigrate, it felt truly special to see Odessa and experience all its beauty.