The Odessa File

Prince Potemkin, Catherine the Great's brilliant, exuberant and outrageous lover, secret husband and co-ruler, has a way of entering one's consciousness in Odessa in the most surprising ways. It was he who conquered the Black Sea coast for Catherine, who founded many of its elegant cities, and who created Russia's Black Sea fleet. Odessa, more than any of his other settlements along this shore, is his sort of city. It is cosmopolitan, decadent, ebullient, half-oriental yet half-French, Russian yet pervaded by Jewish culture - and defiantly original. Whether it belonged to the Tsars, the Politburo, or the now independent Ukraine, it has always been another country. Odessans, from its raffish gangsters to its lissom girls, are convinced that they are superior in culture and style to anyone in Moscow or London, yet alone the hicks from Kiev, the Ukrainian capital. And they are absolutely right.

Prince Potemkin, Catherine the Great's brilliant, exuberant and outrageous lover, secret husband and co-ruler, has a way of entering one's consciousness in Odessa in the most surprising ways. It was he who conquered the Black Sea coast for Catherine, who founded many of its elegant cities, and who created Russia's Black Sea fleet. Odessa, more than any of his other settlements along this shore, is his sort of city. It is cosmopolitan, decadent, ebullient, half-oriental yet half-French, Russian yet pervaded by Jewish culture - and defiantly original. Whether it belonged to the Tsars, the Politburo, or the now independent Ukraine, it has always been another country. Odessans, from its raffish gangsters to its lissom girls, are convinced that they are superior in culture and style to anyone in Moscow or London, yet alone the hicks from Kiev, the Ukrainian capital. And they are absolutely right.

Soon after arriving in Odessa on my tour of Potemkin's cities, I am sitting on Deribaskaya Boulevard (named after one of the city's founders, de Ribas) at a café eating sturgeon shashlik (that is the delicacy here) and watching this, the King's Road of the city, with my researcher Natalia Kotova, a history graduate of Odessa University. All Odessans, particularly the girls and the gangsters, like to promenade up and down Derisbaskaya all day and some of the night, if they are not at the beaches, casinos or nightclubs. The men dress like flashy boulevardiers and girls wear as little as possible when they do that peculiar strut called "The Odessan". While I have come for the history, it is impossible on Deribaskaya not to notice that the girls here are so strikingly beautiful in a blonde, tanned, long-legged and thoroughly arrogant sort of way that one really could be in St Tropez at mid-jetset-summer, not in a forgotten corner of the ruined Soviet Imperium. "Aha, you've noticed," laughs Natalia, who is herself reddish-blonde-haired, six feet tall and wearing the sort of mini-dress that only an Odessan historian would wear - and yet still seem intellectually forbidding.

"Noticed what?"

"Don't pretend," she says. "We are the best-looking girls in the world and you know why? Potemkin!"

"What's it got to do with him?"

"When Potemkin conquered these lands from 1783 to 1791," she replies, "he found them almost empty and embarked on one of the biggest campaigns of settlement and cultivation ever since before the railways opened up the American West, attracting settlers from Germany to Corsica, England to Sweden. That's why the girls here are so fine - Potemkin's diversity!" Wherever one goes here, Odessans remind me of this bizarre but delightful truth. After our sturgeon, we go to the beaches at Arkadia and there too are Potemkin's beauties. As the sun sinks over the beaches, the Arkadia nightclubs open, scores of them, in rows: there is even a teenage rave bar called Potemkin Steps where the girls dance in hotpants and bikinis in the steamy air. But Odessa is a port and its heart is the seashore so we begin at the cobbled Seaside Promenade outside the Londonskaya Hotel. The Londonskaya, where I occupy a suite, was the grand hotel of Odessa when it was one of Europe's noblest and most cosmopolitan cities, the supplier of grain and Jewish wit to a continent. Now it's a perfectly preserved Regency hotel with its balconies, lanterns and marble staircases.

Outside one turns left and there at the end is an Arabesque palace looking over the sea where Prince Michael Vorontsov, Tsar Nicholas I's viceroy, presided over his vast territories. Here, too, Pushkin seduced Vorontsov's wife, Princess Lisa, who happened to be Potemkin's great-niece. Pushkin loved Odessa's European charm, writing how "the tongue of golden Italy rings out along the laughing street". During his stay here, he praised Potemkin "who won us the Black Sea". Before the Vorontsov Palace stands a statue of what appears to be a Roman in a toga: this is the Duke de Richelieu. At his feet, a long flight of steps, the most famous in the world, runs down to the port: the Potemkin Steps. So there in the steps, statue and dissolute Deribaskaya are the three extraordinary men who founded this unique French-Jewish city on the Black Sea.

On 14 September 1789, Prince Potemkin captured the Turkish fortress of Hadjibey and ordered that a port and city be built there, but he died two years later before anything could be completed. It is a sign of that wonderfully cosmopolitan age that two of his senior officers were a talented Spanish-Neapolitan adventurer named Jose de Ribas, the general who commanded the storming of Hadjibey, and a French aristocrat named Richelieu (the Cardinal's great-nephew). Ribas founded "Odessos", but Catherine the Great feminised it in her own honour to Odessa. His successor, Richelieu, continued the Prince's policy of attracting settlers.

Grain made Odessa rich. The Richelieu Steps were built in 1841 to commemorate the Frenchman, who returned after Waterloo to be prime minister of France. But in 1905, the warship Potemkin (named after the Prince) mutinied in Odessa harbour and ignited the first Russian revolution. When the Bolsheviks came to power, they renamed the steps after Potemkin and soon there was Potemkin Square (behind the Londonskaya). Today there are bars, even an electrical shop called Potemkin. The Potemkin Steps of course entered our cultural vernacular in Eisenstein's movie Battleship Potemkin, which feature that massacre scene that has been reused so often, most recently in The Untouchables.

After I have worked in the Odessa State Local History Museum's archives, I am fortunate enough to be lent a car and driver-bodyguard, armed with mobile phone and Makerov pistol, by a friendly shipping tycoon, and set off for Sebastopol on my Potemkin Tour. After Ochakov, the Turkish fortress he took in 1788, we stop at Kherson, the first city Potemkin founded in 1778, soon after the end of his passionate love affair with Catherine when she had finally released him to become the statesman he was so qualified to be. "My Colossus of Kherson!" she dubbed him. I visit his marble grave at St Catherine's Church. We stay in a ghastly Khrushchev-era Intourist Hotel (sheets and walls black with insects) close to Potemkin's old town, where he launched the first ship of Russia's first Black Sea fleet. Sure enough, on the quay, there is an ugly Soviet monument, not unlike our own Blue Peter insignia.

After visiting his huge city, Nikolaev, we head north on an eight-hour drive into south Ukraine to visit Potemkin's capital, Ekaterinoslav (now called Dniepropetrovsk), passing villages where the men driving horse-drawn carts wear high boots, padded tunics and smocks; the women sport colourful scarves and costumes, nut-brown faces with snub noses. Calves and geese wander the road. Except for the many crippled farmworkers, limping relics of the negligence of Soviet machinery, it is as if the Soviet Union never happened. Finally arriving in this city, we visit Potemkin's church and his huge neo-classical palace. Bizarrely, Ukraine's only five-star hotel is here, an absurd white elephant in a town no one visits. But I have to stay at the Grand Hotel Ukraina, a converted 1910 merchant's mansion with its own casino, £197 per night. The service is snarling. It is empty, yet, for a surreal Marie Celeste experience, it is hard to beat.

We head south to the Crimea which Potemkin called his "Paradise". It was the Prince who annexed the Crimea - then ruled by Tartar Khans - for Russia in 1783, and founded Sebastopol as the sea-fortress for his new fleet. We drive through the Perekop isthmus that joins Crimea to the mainland. Initially, Crimea seems disappointingly flat and stark, but the countryside changes into rich, lush, sumptuous hills, vineyards, woods and orchards that roll down to a glistening sea. Sebastopol, which fell to the Anglo-French in the Crimean War and the Nazis in the Second World War after long sieges, remains a closed naval city, illegal to enter without police permission. So my driver-bodyguard drives us in through the back roads and down to the harbour.

The moment Potemkin saw it he realised this was the seaport he had been looking for and he at once founded his city here. It is impossible when viewing all these cities not to marvel at Potemkin's achievement, yet he was so unjustly remembered for creating fake settlements - "Potemkin Villages" - when he built cities. I admire the mass of grey warships: when the USSR broke up, Potemkin's great fleet was divided between Russia and the Ukraine so, strangely, this is now the headquarters of two rusting fleets, evoking the doom of the submarine Kursk.

Back in Odessa again is like returning to Paris after visiting the provinces. Staying again at the Londonskaya, swaggering around louche Deribaskaya, I dream I am in one of Isaac Babel's stories that tell adventures of his Jewish gangster, Benya Krik. Babel was Odessa's own genius, the Soviet de Maupassant killed by Stalin. My tycoon friends arrange for me to meet a real Benya Krik. "All the gangsters here are still Jewish," explains my friend, "just like in Babel - but now they also have palaces in Bishops Avenue, London. We call Hampstead Little Odessa." I am invited out to dinner (sturgeon, naturally) at a sumptuous, golden-tapped steambath, guarded by Runyonesque men in check suits with cloth caps. My host is a suave, quiet, but chilling gentleman who is one of the city's traditional Jewish godfathers, now called " avtoritei", the Authorities. This Authority, whom I shall call Lazar for the sake of my health, is served by an array of Odessan Venuses, his molls bearing Turkish sweets, Jewish cakes, Russian caviar. All look like supermodels, but with that Odessan insolence. "Potemkin brought we Jews to the Black Sea," lectures the Authority, "as well as the mix of bloods that gave us our women. Let us drink to Potemkin."

We all down goblets of Crimean champagnski toasting "POTEMKIN!" The molls grin sneeringly: Odessan girls, those svelte descendants of Potemkin's settlers, are much too chic to shout.

'Prince of Princes - The Life of Potemkin' by Simon Sebag Montefiore is published on 21 September by Weidenfeld & Nicholson at £25. To buy 'Prince of Princes' at the special price of £20 including postage and packing, call 01903 828503, quoting reference HWPOP

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