In 1993 I visited the Black Sea port of Odessa for the first time. It was not only a new country for me but a new country period. Ukraine had re-formed from the dissolution of the USSR only three years previous, it was to all intents and purposes still a Soviet ghost state. It was autumn when I arrived, the trees had already shed their leaves and a gloomy mist added to the general air of neglect that prevailed. I walked up the long Potemkin steps made famous by the Eisenstein film battleship Potemkin onto a small square. On the sides of the steps were hawkers selling old Soviet medals, military uniforms, Russian dolls, religious icons and whatever else they could find. Walking through the faded elegance of the streets I came to the main center of the town on Deribasovskaya Street. Imposing yet uninviting Victorian buildings lined both sides of the cobble-stoned thoroughfare. There were no shops as such, kiosks here and there sold cigarettes and vodka, and old soviet style restaurants that seemed as inviting as a dose of swine flu on a jumbo jet.
Down a set of steps I spied some old cameras in a window. I ventured into what was an Aladdin’s cave of religious icons, soviet history and old Russian cameras. I fell in love and bought a 1920′s Russian medium format camera from the young guy in shop. After handing over $20, I hurried back to the ship with my new purchase. Fifteen minutes later, chilly but pleased with myself, I was at the port entrance. I was stopped by a Ukrainian customs officer in an unfeasible large hat, who informed me he needed to search my bag. No problem I thought, it wasn’t as if I was smuggling out any important Soviet historical items. Only apparently I was! According to Comrade Hat, the barely working 70-year-old camera was a vital connection with Ukraine’s communist history and as such had to be confiscated. Of course being young(er) naive(er) and above all stupid, I handed the camera to him, instead of the $5 he really wanted.
|What would have Pushkin made of it all?|
Fast-forward 18 years to Odessa today. Deribasovskaya Street is still the center of the city, but today it’s where the Ukrainian nouveau riche go to exhibit their faux leopard skin stilettos with 8 inch heels, Armani suits and latest accessory dog. The less wealthy (the vast majority) are chomping on almost beef-burgers in McDonalds or swigging half-liter beers at 40p a bottle. The streets from Potemkin to the center have been lavishly but tastefully refurbished. Designer shops, attractive restaurants and bars fill the Victorian buildings, the cars are BMW’s and Porches nearly always the 4 wheel drive variety, although this is mainly because although huge money has been spent on the buildings, the roads still exhibit some startling Soviet tendencies, such as three foot pot holes.
Overall the misty faded post Soviet old city has developed into a beautiful, wealthy metropolis, albeit with poor roads. I have to say, I like it, I like it a lot. But then I live here.