The great Russian writers flocked to Odessa, which now has a museum of literature created by an ex-KGB officer in a palace by the Black Sea…
Perhaps it’s the influence of his stories, with their subtle narrators and exquisite understatement, but to me the smiles on Isaac Babel’s face in the black-and-white photographs in the Odessa State Literary Museum all seem ironic. It’s hard, too, knowing a little about his life and how it ended, not to suspect that one of the ironies Babel might have been contemplating was the transience of success, even the violence that might one day supersede the accolades the Stalinist state had heaped upon him. Looking at the wiry spectacles pinned to the wall, I think of the pair that must have perched on the pale, fragile dome of Babel’s head when the secret police took him to the Lubyanka.
Babel is Odessa’s best-known literary son. But this wonderful museum, housed in a pale-blue tsarist-era palace, isn’t devoted only to Odessa’s own, or to its magical and dreadful history, though it encompasses both. Because of its location—on the Black Sea, at what was the Russian and then the Soviet empire’s sunny southern limit—many of those empires’ greatest authors were exiled to Odessa, fled through its docks, or came here for their health or a debauch. Embracing the transients and flâneurs, this is, in effect, a museum of Russian literature. And, being Russian, it becomes a museum of censorship and repression as well as art: of genius and bravery, blood and lies.
There are lots of museums devoted to famous writers, but fewer dedicated purely to literature. This one was conceived and founded by Nikita Brygin, a bibliophile and ex-KGB officer. He left the KGB in murky circumstances, but remained sufficiently well-connected to secure a handsome venue near the sea for his eccentric scheme—the ceilings are cracking, but the chandeliers and reliefs conjure the mood of the aristocratic balls for which the palace was built. He sent a team of young women across the Soviet Union to secure writerly artefacts for the collection, which is arranged in a suite of bright first-floor rooms reached by a grand double staircase. Opened in 1984, the museum survived Odessa’s transition from the defunct Soviet Union to independent Ukraine. Today, it is overseen by elderly attendants whose sternness yields to solicitous enthusiasm when one of their infrequent visitors approaches. The place runs on love.