Recently — and I’m sure you can all guess why — my mind turned to Odessa’s long history of battling plague and cholera, often by drastic measures. In an article at The Balkanist, Lily Lunch tells the story of the city’s expansive Quarantine Wharf, or Lazaretto, which found its way into many accounts by international travelers, as well as into a stanza of Eugene Onegin’s journey, appended to Pushkin’s novel (here translated by Stanley Mitchell):
Look now — the square has put on motley.
All is alive: the people there,
On business or without, run hotly,
But most of them with some affair.
The merchant, child of cautious daring,
Tells from the ensigns how he’s faring,
Whether he’s favoured by the skies
With sails that he can recognize.
What novel wares from sundry nations
Have entered into quarantine?
Where are the promised casks of wine?
What news of plague and conflagrations?
Of famine or another war,
Or something new, but similar?
But the poem that occurred to me is more somber in tone, a kind of classical epitaph for this fabled spot, which was the site of great suffering and (this being Odessa) chicanery, as well as home to a succession of lighthouses. Its author is Georgy Shengeli, who spent the Civil War years in the region and composed this on November 10, 1920:
The houses move aside, and in the motley clearing,
where the November winds run up the slope and crash
against the earth — I see its ancient outline:
a ruined fortress, overgrown with moss…
Soldiers once drifted through its halls.
The captive plague grew weaker in its fetters.
People were hanged. Then, over massive walls,
the tips of movable antennae soared into the sky
and shot off beams of light into the darkness
that called to ports and vessels hidden from the eye.
Then — everything was gone. Nothing remains:
a vast, chilly expanse — a barren gravesite.
(And even the harsh wind, which plows the waves,
cannot oppress the flat grass of this wasteland…)
I’m moved by this elegiac poem, which shows history taking its usual course. But I’m also reminded that, today, the site of the Quarantine Wharf could not be more picturesque. And to lighten the mood a bit more, let me end with a little bit of Odessan black humor. In 1970, the city was struck by yet another epidemic, this time of cholera. Odessans responded as they usually do — with jokes. Here’s one, which describes a sign on the beach:
Beach Is Closed
1. Cholera in the water.
2. Public health officials nowhere to be found.
3. It’s winter, people!
Let’s all promise each other to take a dip when the ill winds blow over!
Дома уходят вбок, и на просторе пегом,
Где ветер крутизну берет ноябрьским бегом
И о землю звенит, — обрисовался он:
Старинной крепости дерновый полигон…
Солдаты некогда шагали здесь вдоль зала.
Здесь пленная чума в цепях ослабевала.
Потом здесь вешали. Потом над массой стен
Взлетели острия уклончивых антенн
И кисточки огней с них в темноту срывались,
Портам и кораблям незримым откликались.
Потом — убрали все. И ныне — пустота,
Простор иззябнувший – могильная плита.
(Где даже резкий ветр, избороздивший море,
Травы не угнетет в укатанном просторе…)