The Czarina herself along with the founders of the city
On a warm sunny day in May of 1794, Czarina Catherine the Great stood atop a knoll overlooking a small village on the Black Sea, land that had recently been “acquired” as the result of the successful Russo-Turkish war. The snows had only just melted around the Kremlin and, as she looked out on what must have seemed like a tropical paradise, she thought to herself, “This sure beats the hell out of freezing in Moscow.”
Turning to her ever present entourage, she said “Build me a port city here!” and they did, calling it Odessa. Being situated at the veritable bottom end of the empire, the problem of creating a population was solved by exiling all those pesky intellectuals from Moscow, along with Jews, Armenians, Romanians, Poles and anyone else who didn’t fit into the Imperial Russian mind-set. By the mid-1800’s, the city supported famous writers and exiles such as Alexander Pushkin and Isaac Babel, a literary society, and newspapers published in several languages. Thanks to it being Russia’s primary warm water port, just one hundred years after its founding Odessa was the fourth largest city in Russia after Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Warsaw. Blair Ruble has described the city in its early years as being a “randy mix of nationalities and cultures” that continues to define the city today.
Having largely escaped the almost total destruction suffered by the surrounding suburbs during the sieges of WWII, the architecture of the old city center is a pastel mix of Georgian, Neo-classical, and Art Deco. Originally laid out by an Italian, and then governed by an exiled Frenchman, it truly looks like a European city. The wide shady cobbled avenues simply invite strolling – which we did a lot of – through the quiet green parks, along the busy waterfront, and up to the crazy big flower market by the Privos bus station. We walked down the 200 Potemkin Steps (made famous in the film “The Battleship Potemkin” as the site of the civilian massacre), and then wisely took the funicular back to the top.
The sidewalk cafes are abundant throughout the city, and it was hard for us not to “window shop” the menu as we walked by. One in particular came highly recommended by the young desk clerk in answer to my stock question about restaurants in a city, “Where do you wish your lover would take you for a romantic dinner?” I have to tell you, the food was, indeed, very good and very traditionally Ukrainian, but I can’t remember what it was we ate. The memory of our dessert, on the other hand will stay with us forever.
Since none of the Ukrainian names made any sense, I asked the waitress for a recommendation. She looked at the menu, put her hand over her heart and with a wistful smile pointed at “shokolad salo”. Oh my god, it was to die for! Stay with me here. It was a sheet of chocolate covered with salo (lard), sprinkled with dried apricots and nuts, and then rolled, chilled and sliced into bite size pieces. There were probably 1,000 calories in every piece and enough cholesterol to clog a fire hose, but damn it was good! When we got back to the hotel and told the desk clerk what we had eaten, she got the same wistful expression on her face, obviously remembering romantic dinners of the past, and shared with us the local nickname: Ukrainian Snickers.
Our other real adventure in Odessa was a night at the Opera. The rotund stone and marble opera house sits squarely at the bottom of the avenue we lived on. Impossible to miss. The bronze exterior doors were open as we passed on our first afternoon wander, so we stuck our noses in. Although the entrance to the concert hall was locked, the ticket office was open and there was a performance of “When the Fern Blooms” scheduled for the following evening. It didn’t matter that neither of us had heard of the work, it was an excuse to get gussied up and pretend we were part of the literati.
“When the Fern Blooms” is an operatic-ballet work in three parts written in the 1970’s but banned the day before it’s premier for not celebrating the Soviet ideal. All of the sets and costumes were burned. It wasn’t until 2011 that it was finally performed for the first time. You will have to Google it to understand the story line. It made absolutely no sense to us, and even though we couldn’t understand a word of it, we both agreed that it was a superb spectacle nonetheless. The choir of 80 was on stage for the entire production. The ballet company must have numbered 50 or more, and the orchestra filled the pit. The elegance of the venue only added to the pleasure of the evening.
The Odessa opera house
On our last day in town, we took a marshrutka 130 km out to Mykolaiv to visit “L”, an old friend from graduate school days, and his Tajik wife “N” and daughter “Z”. (For political reasons, real names aren’t being used). “L” is on a fellowship from Georgetown University teaching English to future English teachers (my old gig). He met “N” while working in Tajikistan. Mykolaiv is another city that was almost completely destroyed in WWII, but was rebuilt by the Soviets into a very livable college town with wide pedestrian malls, bustling shopping areas and trees, lots of trees.
We had a wonderful lunch with the family and their Ukrainian friend who heads the local library. Somehow, the citizens were able to protect many of the old books during the war (some dating to the 16th century), and they are working with the local government and the US Embassy to slowly rebuild the inventory. It was an interesting conversation since Kit is working with our local library to build and expand it. One unique feature, hard to understand, is that no one is allowed to check out any books from the library. They can only be read in the library. It was explained as “the old Soviet system.” Change comes hard sometimes.
We left Odessa at 10pm, tucked into a cozy first class compartment, on the night train to Kyiv (Kiev). It was the roughest train ride we’ve ever taken! The tracks felt like they were corrugated. We woke up at 7am to a sunny day in Kyiv. In what can only be described as a true stroke of genius, we had pre-booked a room at the Ibis Railroad Station Hotel, literally just outside the doors of the rail station. From a hard train bunk to a soft mattress was a five minute walk.
First class all the way with only two beds and a cloth on the table.
Kyiv is a big city (2.8 million population) and is, frankly, sort of underwhelming. The city was completely evacuated and then demolished by the Soviet Army at the outbreak of WWII to deny the Germans any of the local industry. Before retreating, the Red Army planted more than 10,000 mines with wireless detonators throughout the city. After waiting for the German’s to settle into the abandoned buildings, they detonated the mines, destroying the major buildings and setting a fire that raged in the city for five days. Today, the architecture is a mix of the standard Soviet six story buildings, and newer uninspired high-rise towers. Only the historic old Orthodox churches have been lovingly restored.
We spent our first day just wandering with no real destination, as is our bent, to see what we could see. The area around the front of the train station was cluttered with little one person shops displaying their wares on tables under makeshift tents. All sales are final, and it pays to examine the goods carefully before making the purchase. We stood in wonder watching two older ‘full figured’ women trying on industrial bras over their blouses.
Further on, we discovered a large outdoor velodrome with a group of Ukranian and Georgian riders warming up. Neither of us had ever seen a race such as this with riders coming down off of the high banked ends at incredible speeds. It wasn’t a particularly long race, but it was certainly exciting.
We spent the next three days riding the underground rails, popping up at various metro stations to see whatever was in close walking distance. The St. Sophia Cathedral was hosting a small folk festival where we found this woman playing a portable carillon, and some fantastic views of the city from the bell tower. Nearby, St. Michael’s gold domes drew us down the impossible to pronounce Volodymyrs’kyi street, which in turn led us eventually to discover the old funicular descending the hill by the river, which deposited us on Sagaidachnogo St lined with sidewalk restaurants and some great people watching. Such is the way we discover a city.
By far, our most interesting discovery was Veterano Pizza and it’s owner, Leonid Ostaltsev. We were hungry, it was early, and nothing was open. As we walked downhill from St. Sophia’s, we spied a young woman putting a sign board out on the sidewalk ahead of us. Pizza for brunch sounded just fine. The pizza had a thin crispy crust with just a few well chosen unique ingredients, and the beer was cold. They were both delicious. While we waited for our meal, we read the placemat with it’s story of the business (see below). Items five thru ten really caught our attention, enough so that we went back the next day and sought out the owner.
Heavily tattooed and with the body of a weight lifter, Leonid is soft spoken but very direct. This is his story as he told it to us. He was a cook before volunteering to defend his country. After his discharge, he had only $50 to his name, no job, but a desire to open a pizza shop. Another veteran (an American-Ukrainian) challenged him to come up with a business plan and then spotted him $100 to get his idea off the ground. His first employees were fellow veterans and now with over 100, it is still a veteran run business that also includes the kids of veterans who are working their way through the university.
His unique business plan is simply to offer opportunity and support to fellow veterans, whether it’s in the form of job training, employment opportunities, psychological support, or just cheap pizza. If someone comes to him and wants work, but doesn’t have any experience, Leonid will train him. If he becomes inspired and wants to open his own restaurant, Leonid will help him build a business plan and find financing. We met one of his servers who is planning, with Leonid’s support, to open a “healthy candy” business. It seems oxymoronic, but he thinks he should be able to open in a couple of months.
Besides the five pizzerias and fourteen coffee shops, there are several other businesses operating under the “Veterano” logo – a taxi service, a security business, and a wood working shop among others. If they want to brand themselves as “Veterano” and are willing to uphold his ideals, he franchises the name for $15. If they want to be independent, he still works to support their businesses. And when we touched on the psychological and drug addiction problems so many veterans face in both our countries, he told us that he pays a psychologist to come once every week and work with both individuals and groups. He is a remarkable man doing something remarkable. It was a pleasure and an honor to get to spend some time with him. He has been written up in the NY Times and has given a TED Talk. You can find him on Facebook if you are interested in following his work.
This is Leonid’s Facebook profile picture. We got so involved talking to him that we both forgot to take a picture.