Ironically, in the 19th century when there actually was a Novorossiia, Odessa was known for its ungodly ways. There were fewer Orthodox Churches per capita there than in any other large city in the Russian empire. And the members of a Jewish synagogue there shocked more pious Jews by installing a pipe organ. A Yiddish expression held that the fires of hell burned around the city for its lack of piety. Worldly, materialistic, commercial, impudent, entrepreneurial and ethnically diverse, Odessa was an exceptionally cosmopolitan and non-Russian city.
It’s easy to understand why Putin would covet and wish to annex Odessa and other southeast Ukrainian cities, but calling them Russian cities evokes a history that never was. In the 1920s, when Vladimir Lenin made the region officially a part of Ukraine and granted the Ukrainian Socialist Republic a veneer of autonomy, he said he was doing so “to avoid Great Russian imperialism and chauvinism.” Vladimir Putin clearly sees nothing wrong with these traits.
Patricia Herlihy is a professor of history emerita at Brown University and an adjunct professor at the Watson Institute for International Studies. She is the author of “Odessa: A History, 1794-1914” and “Vodka: A Global History.” She wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.