A blue tram, with a broken windscreen, rattles and sparks its way past my table. Finding a decent cup of coffee in this city of dust and dry bread seems to have acquired a disproportionate importance. I persuaded the café owner to turn off the soft porn he was watching in favour of some anonymous football. It was a little much for 8 am. This city is awash in a tide of sex, as if men having nothing better here to do here but to let the women, work or beg, clean, cook, have children, be gawped at, pawed, hit, abused and ignored. This moral torpor is not unlike the canker crawling across the neo-classical buildings, which will spread until the last kind stone of the beautiful city by the sea has been replaced by a creeping carapace of concrete, sweeping over the plaster work and pargetted delicacy that makes this city famously beautiful. Johanness Ebert, the Goethe Institute chief, told me that some workmen came to repair the ceiling of his elegant flat in Ky’iv. Part of the ornate stucco work was slightly cracked. Before he could protest, the builders had started to hammer the sculpted wall away.
“Stop it, that’s history.”
“What’s the problem, you can just get a fiberglass replacement at the store…”
Nina Goncharenko’s husband died last year. She told me that there is a real crisis. The men still expect that their women do absolutely everything, whilst they sit around, playing chess and drinking. Walking around the city, I see that she is right women running shops, driving trams, looking after children, cleaning, chatting over a broom. I see men drunk, fighting, squatting on the pavement, bumming cigarettes and leering at the passing girls. I am disgusted with my sex.
On the corner of one street, a woman who looks like my grandmother is unsuccessfully trying to sell some limp tulips. It is a cold morning, and she is bundled up in a thick dusty overcoat and a headscarf that all but completely covers her face. Her lips are almost blue with cold, and she rocks backwards and forwards on her uncomfortable plastic stool, singing to herself. She looks eighty, but life is hard here; she might equally be fifty years old. At the end of the day, she is still there, and her bucket of flowers is as full as it was in the morning. Aramand Richelieu would be appalled; despite its cosmopolitan ‘feel’, the city was abandoned everything that he founded it to be, in pursuit of western ideals, the fast buck, the underclass, and large scale child abuse, hiding behind the barely more respectable screen of vice.
As I watch, two policemen on a street corner pull over an old couple driving a rusty car. They force them out, spread their belongings on the pavement, before ‘booking’ the driver for every minor vehicular offense which they can invent, including, and I saw it tested, not having a properly functioning car horn. Not twenty yards away, a black Mercedes with smoked window idles by the kerb, whilst a cluster of the ‘beautiful girls of Odessa’, mostly, as far as I can see, fifteen or sixteen-year olds, and one fragile looking boy, pass money in through the window of the car. The old couple succumb to the inevitable, and pay the bribe. The policemen tear up the report form and let them go, laughing. This was a reality that the elder Richelieu, the Cardinal, Armand’s ancestor would have recognized, and maybe even applauded, but the Great Nephew would have held hiss head in hands and wept at the end of his wonderful dream.
Diary Entry Odessa 1999