Northern Illinois University Press

Tales of Old Odessa

Crime and Civility in a City of Thieves

Roshanna P. Sylvester

"A fascinating analysis of the impact of modernity upon the city of Odessa."—Journal of Modern History

"A colorful read that contributes richly to the literature on Jewish culture in late imperial Russia."—American Historical Review

"Engaging ... fillied with colorful characters and fascinating stories. [Sylvester's] analysis is astute and revealing."—Slavic Review

Odessa—founded by Catherine the Great, who insisted that her port on the Black Sea be named in the feminine—earned its reputation for vibrancy. Sophisticated yet untamed, lively but dangerous, Russia’s warm water port for trade flirted coquettishly with the West. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the city had become a volatile modern metropolis with an ethnically diverse population and a growing middle class. Known as the “little Paris” of the tsarist empire, Odessa was distinctly un-Russian in manner and disposition and strikingly unlike other imperial cities.

Tales of Old Odessa reveals the inner life of this remarkable city in the years before World War I from the perspective of the people who lived there. How did Odessans understand the city and their place in it? What cultural influences flavored their sensibilities and shaped their communities? What did modernization mean in Odessa? To answer such questions, historian Roshanna Sylvester turns to popular periodicals and newspapers, which reported on everything from acid-throwing women to villainous “gentlemen-vampires” to a rampaging elephant whose “conviction” and eventual execution formed the basis of a civic epic.

Sylvester uses stories from the popular press not only to bring old Odessa to life but also to analyze broader issues, such as the relationships between self and society, the anxieties provoked by urbanization, the uses of public spaces, and the contests for social dominance in a multicultural environment. Readers interested in urban culture, social history, the Jewish experience, and modern Russia will gain valuable insights from this engaging account of a city that continues to fascinate.

(2005) 254 pp., illus.
ISBN: 978-0-87580-346-3
cloth $42.00

Roshanna P. Sylvester is Associate Professor of History at DePaul University in Chicago.

Table of Contents

Introduction—The Modern Odessan
2—Horrors of Life
3—City of Thieves
4—Under the Cover of Night
5—Making an Appearance
6—The Little Family
7—Revenge of the Queen of Stylish Haridos
8—Iambo's Fate
Epilogue—A Moment in the Sun

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ISBN: 978-0-87580-346-3
cloth $42.00