Another time in Odessa

In the autobiography of the Russian – or Ukrainian – author Konstantin Paustovsky, there is a relation of how the city of Odessa defeated the blockade of an Allied navy in the wake of the First World War and the Russian Civil War in 1920, with exclusively peaceful methods:

YearsOfHope1968.jpg

If the weeks and months of the blockade could seem peaceful and untroubled to a part of the population, this was only because it knew nothing of what was happening outside the town. In reality, the situation was grim and the new administration had need of all its resourcefulness and self-reliance to cope with the danger to the city.

After the flight of Denikin’s main army, a force of some seventy thousand of his officers and men had been left behind and were concentrated in the various German settlements – Liebenthal, Lustdorf, Marienthal – on the outskirts of the town.

The Allies relied on them to promote an uprising in Odessa, which they on their side would then support with artillery fire from their ships.

Apart from this, there were, at a conservative estimate, some two thousand bandits, burglars, thieves, forgers, fences and the shady characters living in the suburbs of Moldavanka, Bugayevka, Slobodka-Romanovka and Inner and Outer Mills.

Their mood was uncertain. As a general rule, bandits tend to be hysterical and unstable in their attachments. No one could tell what they would do if there were an uprising.

There were very few Soviet troops in Odessa. Meanwhile and Allied squadron was already cruising offshore, having sent the Italian mine sweeper Raccia ahead on reconnaissance.

But an event took place which sharply changed the situation. The Raccia struck a mine when it was beam-on to the Great Fountain lighthouse. All we heard of it in town was the faint echo of an explosion at sea, which alarmed no one.

By order of the Provincial Committee, fishermen from Golden Shore, Great Fountain, the Kovalevsky estate and Lustdorf – all experienced and level headed men – went out in their barges, picked up the survivors and the bodies of the dead, and brought them ashore before the squadron had had time to reach the scene of the shipwreck.

The bodies of the dead were taken to Odessa, and a signal was sent to the Commander of the squadron. It informed him that the city was grieved by the disaster and wished to assume the burden of a solemn funeral for the gallant victims, and it invited him to attend the ceremony and to send sailors’ units to form a guard of honour.

The admiral agreed – there was not much else he could do.

Next morning, unarmed Soviet soldiers and sailors formed up all along the way from the post to Kulikov Field where a common grave had been dug. Mourning flags hung on all the houses, and the way was strewn with flowers and branches of thuya.

A hundred thousand Odessans – almost the entire population at that time – attended the funeral.

Dock workers carried the coffins. After them came sunburnt Italian sailors, rifles pointing down.

The bands of the foreign ships played, as well as the combined Odessa bands. Ours did not disgrace itself, and the heart-rending strains of Chopin’s Funeral March made the sensitive Odessan women wipe away the tears with their shawls.

The bells toiled mournfully from New Athos Church. The roofs were black with watching crowds.

Speeches were made at the grave. The Italians listened and presented arms. Then the distant sound of a salvo at sea mingled with that of a volley of rifle-shots on Kulikov field. A pyramid of flowers rose over the grave.

After the funeral the foreign sailors were given supper at the former Frankoni café. Comrade Agin [chief of the rationing board] dipped into the sacred food reserve for the occasion, and used up most of it.

After such a funeral, how could there be any question of bombardment or of uprising? The sailors of the foreign shops would not have stood for it. They were grateful for the honour paid their fallen comrades and for the warmth of their own reception.

The old admiral (who looked like Giuseppe Verdi) decided that the game was up and ordered the squadron back to Constantinople. It vanished into the gloom of the evening, leaving Denikin’s officers to their fate.

By allowing armed foreign sailors into the town, the provincial Committee had taken a huge risk, but it was an honourable one, and the funeral proved a bloodless victory over the Interventionists.

Soon afterwards, the blockade was lifted, and the first barge loads of apricots sailed into the port from Kherson.

Then, on a cloudless morning, two Turkish feluccas from Skutari, colorful as a picture, tied in at the Quarantine Pier – they were the first cargo ships to reach Odessa.

Next day the papers announced triumphantly that two feluccas had advised from Turkey with a kilo of flints for cigarette lighters, glass beads, gilt bracelets, and a small barrel of olives.

What mattered, of course, was not the kilo of flints, but the fact that the sea was free again. This seemed to me suddenly to alter its appearance: gay under a gusty wind, it shone with such snow-white spray as I had never seen on it before.

Any day now, we would see, in the blue distance to the southwest, the mighty hulls and yellow funnels and strange flags of ocean-going craft, and would hear whistles and rumbling anchor-chains – a sound which promised those who sailed the seas a well-earned rest in a beautiful though foreign land.

Konstantin Paustovsky: Years of hope, 1968

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