It's a hot night in late autumn, and I'm on a chartered minibus in Odessa crushed between a Eurovision Song Contest winner and an unsmiling Belarusian water filter tycoon. We're on our way to a late night party at Mikheil Saakashvili's dacha. The minibus rumbles along Odessa's boulevards of broken concrete until we arrive at our destination. We disembark and file inside but our host, Saakashvili, the current governor of the Odessa region and former president of Georgia, is nowhere to be found. Instead we're greeted by a grove of trees strung with tea lights and immoderate amounts of high-quality champagne.
I'm here because a friend has kindly invited me to join him at this somewhat mysterious, spontaneous late-night gathering. Before being cleared to attend, all I had to do was give one of Saakashvili's handlers my name and email address. The other guests are unfailingly polite, but I still feel like an impostor among the politicians, the diplomats, the dissidents from Moscow, the businessmen and the coterie of impossibly perfect and perfumed models. We stand around talking a little nervously in small groups, speculating about how Saakashvili, the consummate PR-savvy showman, will make what will undoubtedly be an absurdly theatrical entrance.
Suddenly the show begins. Floodlights come on full blast and the Euromaidan anthem Vstavay by Ukrainian band Okean Elzy begins to play. Seconds later, Saakashvili emerges from the shadows sweating in a rumpled suit. He positions himself behind a podium decorated with the coat of arms of Ukraine. The music fades and Saakashvili, the Kremlin's arch nemesis, a man who was recently stripped of his Georgian citizenship, starts to speak about the future of Ukraine, and of Odessa.
Odessa has always been a city of outsiders, often ruled by outsiders, making the Georgian ex-president's presence here a little less of an oddity than his many detractors might have you believe. The very first governor of the Odessa region was the Duc de Richelieu, in exile from Napoleonic France. A bronze statue of the Duke stands at the top of Odessa's iconic Potemkin steps, also known as the Richelieu steps, and was the city's first monument. And Deribasovskaya, the city's main pedestrian drag, was named after Odessa's first mayor, Admiral Joseph de Ribas of Spain.
Saakashvili, an old acquaintance of Ukrainian President Poroshenko from their student days at the National University of Kyiv, was appointed governor of the Odessa region in May of 2015. His official task was to stamp out corruption in the notoriously graft-ridden port city.
Odessa has always been a city of outsiders, often ruled by outsiders
But Saakashvili has some other, characteristically outsized ambitions for the region: to build a new highway to the border with Romania, and to transform the city into a major business hub and magnet for foreign investment. The dacha party I attended was held to court potential foreign investors, many of whom had been flown in from Israel. Saakashvili had hoped to capitalise on their desire to participate in the transformation of a city with a celebrated Jewish heritage.
Prior to taking Ukrainian citizenship and political office in Odessa, Saakashvili served as the president of Georgia from 2004 to 2013, where he became a darling of the west for going to war with Russia in 2008, sending Georgian troops to Iraq, and his advocacy for NATO enlargement. Saakashvili befriended George W. Bush, and received a controversial nomination for the 2005 Nobel Prize from Senators Hilary Clinton and John McCain.
Despite his widely heralded anti-crime crusade in Odessa, Saakashvili himself faces criminal abuse of power charges in his native Georgia. His many defenders in the west maintain that these charges are politically motivated. Ukraine has said it will not honour Georgia's request for his extradition, so Saakashvili remains safely ensconced in Odessa for now.
Catherine the Great ordered the creation of Odessa on the sparsely populated steppe in 1794. The strategically-positioned Black Sea port was built by Greeks, Jews, Bulgarians, Germans, Romanians, Italians, Moldovans, Turks, Albanians, Ukrainians and Russians. As such, the new settlement of Odessa could not be claimed as the ancestral homeland of any one European nationality. A starry-eyed Mark Twain was struck by the city's diversity and sense of possibility during a visit in 1867. “Look up the street, or down the street, this way or that way,” he wrote. “We saw only America.”
Pride in a provincial cosmopolitanism is one feature of regional “Odessan” identity, distinct from Ukrainian national identity. The city's status as a free port during the 19th century contributed to this sense of separateness. Other characteristics of being “Odessan” are the perceived ability to coexist with different groups, a privileging of aesthetic enjoyment over more prosaic concerns, and a disdain for politics.
Odessa is a city obsessed with surfaces
The war in eastern Ukraine has diminished Odessa's long-celebrated regionalism. Many of the city's inhabitants now feel a unified Ukrainian national identity needs to be asserted in the place of any regional identification. But Odessa remains a bit of an oddity. Despite the passage of Ukraine's controversial decommunisation law banning Soviet symbols in April of last year, the monument to the mariners of the Battleship Potemkin still gets a thorough and regular power-washing. The well-cared for monument, which is inscribed with a quote from Lenin, honors the crewmembers of the battleship who rebelled against their oppressive superior officers in 1905 after being given vermin-invested meat for dinner. Two decades later, the mutiny was dramatised in Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin, which features one of the most iconic scenes in Soviet film, set on Odessa's Potemkin steps.
The city centre of Odessa is filled with 19th-century neoclassical and Art Nouveau architecture. One tall building in the centre still has big red letters with the words “Glory to Labour” painted on one side. Streets are named after the many Russian writers who spent time in the city: Gogol, Nekrasov, Pushkin and Mayakovsky. Other streets are named for the many nationalities that first settled here.
Odessa is a city obsessed with surfaces. A permissive, pleasure-seeking port town, Odessa is probably most famous for beautiful women, sex tourism and scam bridal agencies.
It’s almost impossible to escape the sex industry in Odessa. I used to live in a flat situated between a lingerie shop and a strip club called The Office. The checkout counter at the corner store had business cards advertising escort services. One night, I ended up at a crowded restaurant sharing a table with an American guy who turned out to be Roosh V, the world's most notorious pick-up artist (PUA), sex tourist and author of the e-book Bang Ukraine, which has been described as a “rape guide”. (Later, after I recounted the bizarre encounter on Facebook, a mutual Odessa acquaintance told Roosh that I’d “trash talked” him. Roosh proceeded to call me “an American bitch” on Twitter).
Odessa has a longstanding reputation for rampant anything-goes sex, but this quality used to be associated with forbidden love and subverting repressive social norms rather than the retroactive and exploitative preoccupations of Roosh V and others of his ilk.
A Soviet film from 1943 called Two Combatants tells the story of a pair of soldiers fighting the Nazis during the Second World War. “Why do we need to part from each other? Why can't a sailor from Odessa live together with an ironsmith from the Urals? In our detachment, we have no lad who is more beautiful than you, Sasha,” the Arkadii character from Odessa says.
Today, Odessa’s preoccupation with sex, beaches and fashion can give it a bit of a Los Angeles feel
In 1871, when painter Wassily Kandinsky was five years old, his family moved from Moscow to Odessa, where his mother Lidiia was able to get a divorce and marry a new man with whom she had four more children, despite the prevailing Victorian mores of the day.
In Scandal at the Severnaia; or, Sex and the ‘New Man’ in Late Imperial Odessa, author Roshanna Sylvester writes that local newspaper articles from the early 20th century indicate that men in Odessa “were involved in constructing a new form of masculinity… that challenged Victorianesque sensibilities”.
Today, Odessa's preoccupation with sex, beaches and fashion can give it a bit of a Los Angeles feel, though the city was called the “Russian California” as early as the 19th century because some inhabitants were getting rich so quick they started likening their ripening fortunes to another gold rush. In the 20th century, Odessa was often called the “Hollywood of the Soviet Union” in part because of its famous film studio, where Eisenstein started experimenting with montage for the first time while working on Battleship Potemkin.
Back at the governor's dacha, it's getting late. Everyone is drunk. A well-fed tabby cat stalks the verdant grounds, trying to fend off unwanted attention from the many intoxicated guests. A man from New York is stumbling around declaring the current confrontation between the west and Russia a “battle between good and evil”. Loitering around a table littered with glasses of Ukrainian wine, I meet Saakashvili. As we pose for a photo, I introduce myself and tell him I'm from California. “I love the USA,” he says convincingly.
I'm ready to go home, as I'm light-headed from all the champagne and small talk. But one charming model is encouraging me to accompany her and her friends to a secret after party for Saakashvili's guests, which is being held at a secret, soon-to-be-disclosed location. I opt not to join them, and take a cab back to my apartment on Greek Street.
At home, I learn the location of the secret after party when I check my email before going to bed. “SPECIAL AFTER PARTY LOCATION” is the subject line of a new message blaring in all caps in my inbox. I open the email, which reads:
We would like to disclose the location of the after party for tonight. We are waiting for you at Ibiza Night Club.
Looking forward to seeing you there.
Ibiza is the most exclusive beachfront nightclub in the city. The outdoor venue had recently closed to the public because Odessa's vaunted summer season had officially ended. Saakashvili and his eccentric list of guests would have the entire sprawling, multi-level venue to themselves.