Early European governors of Odessa, New Russia’s largest Black Sea port, helped by the czars, did much to develop its economy and welfare. But by the mid-19th century, Russia was suspicious of the city because of its foreign population. Greeks, Bulgarians, Poles and Ukrainians formed secret societies. Jews made up an increasing percentage of the population. And Nicholas I, who ruled from 1825 to 1855, called Odessa “a nest of conspirators.”
Fearing the perceived lawlessness and tumult of this cosmopolitan city, Russian czars began to appoint military governors to oversee the area, and they quit paying for infrastructure there, turning instead to other Black Sea ports. Had Odessa been more Russian, it might have fared better.
Even in Soviet times, Odessa was a city low on the pecking order. Again, as in czarist days, its residents weren’t given to taking edicts from the Russian government all that seriously. One never could be quite sure of Odessa’s Marxist orthodoxy — after all, this was where Leon Trotsky had gone to school and where Mensheviks flourished before 1917. After the 1917 revolution, it took several years for the Bolsheviks to subdue the city.
The Soviet regime increased Russian presence in the region, but Odessa never fully embraced Moscow, and it remained a poor cousin to other Soviet cities. Food and goods were in shorter supply than elsewhere, and first-rate opera and ballet companies rarely played the gorgeous Opera House designed by Austrians in the 1880s.
On Easter Sunday this year, a Russian Orthodox group in Odessa proclaimed the formation of a Novorossiia Republic centered in Odessa. The small band named Valery Kaurov, head of the Union of Orthodox Citizens of Ukraine, president of this imaginary, religion-based republic. Taking refuge in Moscow because Ukrainian authorities have launched a criminal investigation of him, Kaurov addressed the group assembled in Odessa by Skype, imploring them “to promote this historical name, to say and write that ... our land is Novorossiia — an important part of the Holy Russia.”