This year, for the first time since 1990, I’m celebrating my birthday in the town of my birth, Odessa. I turned eight in 1990 and left the Soviet Union in 1991, a few months before turning nine. Now I’m 37, wandering through the streets, parks, and courtyards of my childhood. They haven’t changed all that much since the 1980s — in fact, they haven’t changed all that much since Babel’s day. That’s certainly the impression one gets when one steps into the courtyard of Babel’s former residence, at the corner of Rishelievska and Zhukovs’koho streets, as Jenny and I did this morning (pictures to come). It was a moving experience, but not as moving as my solo visit to another courtyard, at Ut’osova Street, No. 7, just around the corner from where my grandparents once lived. The street is called Ut’osova precisely because of this courtyard at No. 7, which was once home to Leonid Utyosov, the voice of Odessa, whose jazzy tunes have become the soundtrack for this blog.
I entered the gate without ringing the bell, sneaking in behind a busy young man who seemed to be running late for something — a tea party?
By the time I made it through the tunnel-like entranceway, the young man had disappeared. What I saw instead were two figures: an Odessan granny feeding pigeons in a state of St. Francis-like grace and a dapper song-and-dance man tipping his straw hat. But I couldn’t get a word out of either of them…
If my attention hadn’t been drawn by a grinning cat at the top of a flight of stairs, I might never have seen the sign of the “apartment-museum” (an admirable Soviet tradition), which was founded in 2015 and occupies most of the rooms in which Utyosov spent his earliest years.
I greeted the charming petite cat and hardly had time to knock before the door was opened by a charming petite lady, Valentina Nikolaevna Lys, the museum’s assistant director. Looking a bit fatigued and frustrated by some computer mishap (the young man, it appears, had been rushing to her rescue), Valentina Nikolaevna at first showed little interest in me, but then, without warning, she flipped on the lights and began her tour.
To say that she knows all there is to know about Utyosov’s career and the Odessan cultural scene of the 1910s and ‘20s would be an understatement. As she led me from one framed item to the next, she bubbled over with names, dates, addresses, and anecdotes. Here it all was: photographs of Utyosov’s parents, the Vaysbeyns (the singer took his stage name from the cliffs — utyosy — on the coast of his beloved Black Sea); tickets to theatrical performances at Odessa’s legendary variety theaters; playbills; fragile shellac and durable vinyl records of Utyosov’s hits; his clarinet; and even his podstakannik! (Valentina Nikolaevna, who admitted that she sometimes even pokes around in scrapheaps for Utyosov memorabilia, is still looking for a glass that’s thin enough to fit the podstakannik perfectly.)
As we came to the end of the exhibition, I saw two familiar faces on the wall: Isaac Babel and Mikhail Zoshchenko. Both were friends of Utyosov’s, and in the case of Zoshchenko, Utyosov proved to be a real friend indeed. In the late 1950s, after Zoshchenko was expelled from the Soviet Writers’ Union and made a pariah, Utyosov was one of the few well-known cultural figures who didn’t hesitate to visit him. (I told Valentina Nikolaevna that I’ve translated both Babel and Zoshchenko into English, and she said that she still reads Zoshchenko all the time: “Nothing has changed!”)
When I left the museum, the cat, who hadn’t budged from the railing, gave me a lick of approval at parting.
Then I took a closer look at the statue of the granny and noticed an inscription on its base, the first line of one of Utyosov’s biggest hits, written by the Odessan poet Semyon Kirsanov (1906-1972)…
I sing of a town that I see in my dreams —
if only you knew how I cherish
this town that I found on the coast of the sea,
this town full of blooming acacias —
this town on the Black Sea…