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The Many Ends of Old Odessa: Memories of the Gilded Age in Russia’s City of Sin


Old Odessa has been mythologized as Russia’s gilded city of sin, a multi-ethnic southern seaport bustling with international trade, where exotic goods and people saturated its markets, taverns, and beaches, imbuing the landscape with glitter and color. The city developed an infamous reputation for its brothels, criminal dens, and dissolute inhabitants – a pleasure-drenched utopia of debauchery on the wild frontiers of the Black Sea. But old Odessa is considered “old” because old Odessa is over; its golden age of opulence, wily Jewish gangsters, and relentless revelry has passed into history, and this imagined past is nostalgically commemorated as a vanished paradise, a realm solely reachable in the present through legends, folk songs, and anecdotes. But when exactly did Odessa become “old?” An analysis of the Odessa myth from the early nineteenth century to the present demonstrates that Odessa’s golden age has been mourned for its apparent passing from the city’s very inception. Old Odessa’s inaccessibility has always been an integral part of its allure, as it embodies an implausible oasis of abundance and hedonism amidst frigid, barren, and hungry Russia.

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