Odessa as Local Color.

I’m now on Victor Terras’s chapter, “The Twentieth Century: 1925-53,” in The Cambridge History of Russian Literature (see this post), and thought I’d quote this passage on a couple of poets of the 1920s and ’30s (neither of them known to me):

Among the constructivists, there were at least two major poets: Eduard Bagritsky (pen-name of Eduard Dzyubin, 1897-1934) and Ilya Selvinsky (real given name: Karl, 1899-1968), who practiced a pointedly functional approach to poetic composition, seeking to integrate every level of their text — sound, rhythm, imagery, lexicon, syntax — with its intended meaning. Both Bagritsky and Selvinsky used slang, argot, regionalisms, local color, the rhythms of folk poetry whenever a poem’s theme demanded it. Bagritsky’s “local color” was that of Odessa and the Ukrainian countryside. His Lay of Opanas (Duma ob Opanase, 1926), loosely patterned after the Ukrainian folk ballad (duma), tells the story of the peasant Opanas, who chose the wrong side in the civil war and paid for it with his life. When Bagritsky moved on from themes of the revolution to topics of the Five Year Plan, his poetry retained an air of genuine revolutionary romanticism.

Ilya Selvinsky travelled widely, pursued several different professions, participated in a polar expedition, and projected his varied experiences into his work. He was one of the first Soviet writers to do serious research toward his literary projects and to view composing poetry as a goal-directed, rational activity. Like Bagritsky, he adapted his language to the subject at hand, using technical jargon, thieves’ cant, Odessa Yiddish, gypsy, and whatever other idiom was required. Selvinsky’s best poetic work is the verse epic The Ulyalaev Uprising (Ulyalaevshchina, written in 1924, published in 1927), which describes the rout of a counter-revolutionary uprising by Communist forces.

The more I read about Russian literature, the more impressed I am by the role Odessa has played in it, from the 19th century (Pushkin wrote chunks of Eugene Onegin there) through the great 20th-century Odessans like Babel, Olesha, Ilf and Petrov, and others; you can read about it in this New Yorker piece, which I’m happy to see includes Vladimir Jabotinsky’s Pyatero [The Five]: “It’s not very famous. But it is the most nostalgic, sweet description of Odessa. He was a great patriot of the city, he loved it. He spoke eleven languages—the normal Odessan, back then, spoke four or five, but he spoke eleven.”


  1. I am following several writers and poets in or from Odessa, and it looks like the city still has a vibrant flourishing literary culture. In fact, they just had a local festival of poetry with some very good entries.

  2. I’m glad to hear it!

  3. Seeing “ODESSA” in all caps, I initially thought of something other than the city.

  4. What was that?

  5. The Organisation der Ehemaligen SS-Angehörigen, assuming it actually existed.

  6. And speaking of secret organizations, the real-life James Bond, a “Russian-born Jewish adventurer”, may have been born in Odessa. Or not.

    My favorite acronymic name for a (fictional) criminal organization: SPIDER, the Secret People’s International Directorate for Extra-legal Revenue.

  7. Ah, I see I should have been reading more Frederick Forsyth. Thanks!

    My favorite acronymic name for a (fictional) criminal organization: SPIDER, the Secret People’s International Directorate for Extra-legal Revenue.

    I’m still recovering from the shock of discovering SMERSH was a real organization; decades ago, when my brother and I were reading James bond, I said it was obviously made up. Then I studied Russian history…

  8. “He spoke eleven languages”

    Am I the only one around here who winces at such remarks?

    One Robert Crawford has written a new biography of T. S. Eliot in which he says that after Eliot returned from his year in Europe he not only read French, but “he also read Patanjali in the original Pali, the ‘Upanishads’ in Sanskrit, Heraclitus in Greek, Kant in German, Dante in Italian and Spinoza in Latin.”

    I have decided that next time somebody asks me how many languages I speak, I am going to say “Oh, I dunno, about fifty.”

  9. “I’ve forgotten how many languages I speak. When I hear one of them, I speak it.” —Rufo in Heinlein’s Glory Road.

  10. J. W. Brewer says:

    Not quite SMERSH, but . . . one of my college classmates (we were in an English class together as freshmen but I didn’t really otherwise know him) subsequently published a roman a clef with a campus setting, which was read by someone else I know who attended the same school a decade-plus later. There was one student group in the novel with a sufficiently preposterous name that she (the younger reader) assumed it was obviously fictional/parodic, but I had to tell her “no, he didn’t make that detail up; that was the real name of a real group on campus because certain undergraduates circa 1985 were perhaps insufficiently self-aware of just how preposterous it sounded.”

  11. Along the same lines as SMERSH etc, when I first heard of Soviet first names from the 20’s and 30’s, I thought it was a joke – Dazdraperma?


  12. John Cowan, you’ve made my day! I forswear my earlier resolve and will steal that.

  13. From e-k’s link:

    These strange names had their moment of glory between 1917 and 1940, but after that, traditional names returned. […] Vaterpezhekosma: Valentina Tereshkova – pervaja zhenshhina-kosmonavt (Valentina Tereshkova is a first woman cosmonaut)

    Ah yes, a reminder of the long-forgotten Soviet space program of the ’30s!

  14. In the 30s, Tereshkova was busily being born.

  15. And already a cosmonaut! Thus we see the precocity and patriotism of the Soviet infant!

  16. Secret People’s International Directorate for Extra-legal Revenue.
    Reminded me about Nongovernmental Tax Agencies so prolific in 1990s Russia.

  17. Odessa had a huge role in Soviet pop music as well. One of the first stars, Leonid Utesov, was from there and many other singers and composers.

  18. David Marjanović says:

    Not quite 20 years ago, my Russian teacher told us she had once known an Elektronovich; somebody born in the 1920s or 30s was evidently called Elektron.

    “He spoke eleven languages”

    Am I the only one around here who winces at such remarks?

    Yes. 🙂 With enough time and effort, I could probably get to eleven myself.

  19. It brings to mind Bulgakov’s Полиграф Полиграфович Шариков (Heart of a Dog)

  20. For the benefit of non-Russian-speaking readers, I should point out that in Russan, полиграфия [poligrafiya] has nothing to do with lie detection but means ‘the printing trades.’

  21. I’ve just discovered the port of Izmail on the Danube, hard up against Rumania, which Wikipedia describes as a “historic city”. It actually belongs to Odessa oblast and it seems to share the characteristics of other places in this part of the world. The fortress of Izmail was built by Genoese merchants in the 12th century and since then it’s changed hands many times, with the usual changes of ethnic makeup.

    Before 1920, the population of Izmail was estimated at 37,000. During that time, approximately 11,000 of the population were Jewish, 8,000 Romanians and 6,000 Germans. Additional members of the population were Russians, Bulgarians, Turks and Cossacks.

    But the current estimated population is around 85,000, with ethnic Russians forming about 42.7% of that total, 38% being Ukrainians, 10% Bessarabian Bulgarians, and 4.3% Moldovans.

    According to a “citation needed” note, During the Soviet period following World War II, many Russians and Ukrainians migrated to the town, gradually changing its ethnic composition.

    So many places, so little time (sigh)…

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