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In Ukraine's Odesa, a Soviet-era writer remains a powerful figure


Russia's war against Ukraine has prompted Odesa to remove symbols of its Russian and Soviet past. But a writer who, writing in Russian, immortalized the city's Jewish community remains as visible as ever. NPR's Joanna Kakissis sends us this postcard from Odesa.


OLGA AVIGAIL MIELESZCZUK: (Singing in non-English language).

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Isaac Babel was born in 1894 in Moldavanka, then the center of Odesa's Jewish community. Back then, more than a third of the city was Jewish, and its Russian dialect was inflected with Yiddish and Ukrainian. In Moldavanka's crowded courtyards and markets, Babel found his characters for "Odessa Stories," first published in the early 1920s.

BORIS DRALYUK: What a Babel caught was the sense of freedom that Jews experienced in Odesa. Although he's writing about Odesa at the tail end of the czarist regime, a regime that repressed Jews in particular.

KAKISSIS: Boris Dralyuk is a Ukrainian American writer and one of Babel's translators.

DRALYUK: He depicts the crushing antisemitism to which Jews were exposed. He also presents Jews as an incredibly resilient people, as intellectuals as well as warriors, as well as gangsters, as well as shopkeepers. He's writing about a people for whom the only means of attaining what they need is, in many instances, through crime.

KAKISSIS: Babel's most memorable character is Benya Krik, a larger-than-life gangster who was charming and ruthless and known as the King of Moldavanka. Odesa tour guide Artyom Vasyuta says visitors are obsessed with Benya Krik.

ARTYOM VASYUTA: Even today, 100 years later, it's the first thing they want to see in Odesa. They want to speak about these Odesa legendary criminals.

KAKISSIS: Vasyuta's walking tour of Moldavanka takes me back in time, past two-story buildings with colorful laundry hanging out the window, the dovecotes where families once housed their pigeons and the shared courtyards, including one that inspired a famous wedding scene in "Odessa Stories."

VASYUTA: All the Moldavanka was on it.


VASYUTA: And you see the - how big it is. And I can't believe it.

KAKISSIS: Inside, an 80-year-old-woman, who only gives her name as Maria, sits in a foldout chair, her head wrapped in a flowered scarf.

MARIA: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: She says at night, her neighbors gather in this courtyard to gossip, just like they did in the time of Babel. Today's readers of Babel's stories compare his characters to someone out of a Tarantino movie or "The Sopranos." And this is where Vasyuta, the tour guide, gets upset.

VASYUTA: It's Russian Soviet myth that Odesa, it's, like, only great for criminals. Why? We have a lot of things that we can show to the world.

KAKISSIS: Like so many writers and scholars in Odesa who wrote in Ukrainian. Yet even Vasyuta says it's hard to take Babel out of Odesa. Babel's translator, Dralyuk, who is also from Odesa, compares the city and the writer to Siamese twins.

DRALYUK: I'm not sure exactly what place Babel will occupy after this war is won, but I know that there's really no getting rid of him. What he promised was to bring a little bit of Odesan sunshine to the world, and he managed to do that before his own sun was dimmed.

KAKISSIS: Babel was swept up in the Stalinist purges and executed in 1941. Many of Odesa's Jews were murdered by the Germans and the Romanian allies during World War II.


KAKISSIS: Babel's last residence in Odesa is an elegant apartment building that's known locally as Babel's House. He was here in this courtyard.

VASYUTA: Yeah. Yeah. So he was going through this courtyard. Yeah.

KAKISSIS: There's a cafe nearby, a mural showing him playing the violin as a child and also a monument depicting the writer in his trademark spectacles, scribbling in a notebook.

NATALIA OSTROUKHOVA: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: I meet Natalia Ostroukhova as she's walking out of Babel's House. She's lived in the building for more than 30 years. She says she gets asked about the writer every day.

Do you think he's a Russian writer, a Soviet writer or a Ukrainian writer or something else?

OSTROUKHOVA: Classic. Being classic. (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: Isaac Babel, she says, belongs to the whole world.

Joanna Kakissis, NPR News, Odesa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.

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