Odessa is a UNESCO City of Literature. What does that mean, especially in times of war? Maya Dimerli from UNESCO City of Literature Office Odessa talked with Annika Depping about literary culture as a flowering garden that is pollinated by bees.
What makes Odessa a City of Literature and since when does it have the title?
The history of Odessa is the history of a multicultural multinational city with a rich literary heritage. There are twelve cities and villages named after Odessa in the world: in US states Texas, Florida, Missouri, Washington, Delaware, Minnesota, Nebraska, New York, Oregon; in Canadian states Saskatchewan and Ontario; in Brazilian São Paulo (Nova Odessa). The works of Odessa authors have been translated into many languages. At different times, writers known all over the world lived and worked in Odessa. Alexander Pushkin was in exile here. He dedicated one of the chapters of the poem Eugene Onegin to our city. Anton Chekhov, Robert Louis Stevenson, Louis Aragon and Elsa Triolet stayed at the Londonskaya Hotel in Odessa.
Mark Twain visited Odessa in 1867 and wrote about our city in his travelogue Innocents Abroad. “It looked just like an American city; fine broad streets. There was not one thing to remind us we were in Russia.” And that's a real fact: Odessa has always been the city of freedom for open hearts and minds. The city of the inspiration, the city of the free enterprise and implementation of the innovations.
In 1850, Nikolai Gogol worked here on his poem in prose Dead Souls. The periods of life and work of Ivan Kotlyarevsky, Adam Mickiewicz, Lesya Ukrainka, Ivan Bunin, Sholom Aleichem, Ivan Franko, Mikhail Kotsiubinsky, Isaac Babel, Vladimir Zhabotinsky, Anna Akhmatova, Nikolai Kulish, Korney Chukovsky, Alexander Dovzhenko, Konstantin Paustovsky, Heinrich Böll, Georges Simenon and many others are connected with Odessa. Such an impressive list. The novel The Twelve Chairs by Odessa authors Ilya Ilf and Yevgeny Petrov from 1933 to 2016 was filmed 22 times by 15 countries, including: Poland, Czechoslovakia, Great Britain, Germany, USA, Sweden, Brazil, Cuba, USSR, Italy, France, Austria, Iran.
In 1977 in Odessa there was established the Literary Museum. In 24 halls of the museum more than 400 writers and poets, who visited Odessa or were born here, are celebrated. The museum contains over 80,000 showpieces — unique books, manuscripts, photographs, etc. The literary history of the city is preserved and presented in museums. The names of writers are immortalized in the names of 32 streets in Odessa and on 34 memorial plaques. From the first years of Ukraine's Independence, annual prizes in the field of literature for adults and children were established and Book and Literary Festivals held annually in Odessa. Odessa was designated as a UNESCO City of Literature in 2019.
With which projects did Odessa apply for the title City of Literature?
When submitting the application, the programs for the creation of the Municipal Library Hub, the Municipal Literary Theater, the Biennale Music of the Word, Odessa Kids' Content Fair, the International Literary Competition of Humorous and Satirical Works, the International Film Festival Literature in Cinema were proposed.
How did the idea for the application come about?
The rich literary heritage and the international significance of Odessa literature themselves dictated the need of formalizing the status of the UNESCO City of Literature. During the year, the Department of Culture, the Odessa Mayor's Office, public literary organizations and writers prepared documents for processing an application in accordance with the requirements of the UNESCO Creative Cities Secretariat.
How did the local literary scene react to the plans for the application?
With enthusiasm and interest.
What does it mean for your city to be part of UNESCO’s Creative Cities? What are the advantages, what are the obligations?
No doubt, this is an opportunity to popularize the literary heritage of Odessa and the work of talented Odessa writers abroad; exchange of experience with colleagues from UNESCO creative cities, the opportunity to participate in numerous residences, festivals, competitions and conferences as part of the UNESCO family.
Becoming a part of the UNESCO Creative Cities is a great success for a city marked by talents in one or more of the nominations offered for application. First of all, it is worth noting that Odessa's talents extend far beyond literature. Odessa is a city where people have always enjoyed eating delicious food and, therefore, residents and guests of the city traditionally have the opportunity not only to satisfy their usual gastronomic preferences, but also to learn and fall in love with dishes from different cuisines of the world. We love to visit each other, to gather around the table, where everyone brings something specially prepared for friends. We communicate, listen to music, watch movies, and share our impressions of the books we read…
Musical tradition is also strong in Odessa. Odessa National Academic Opera and Ballet Theater is one of the four most beautiful opera houses in Europe. The building turns 213 this year. Solomiya Krushelnytska and Feodor Chaliapin, Isadora Duncan and Anna Pavlova performed on the stage of the theater. The names of Odessans — graduates of Professor Stolyarsky Special Music School of Odessa (at present time Odesa State Music Lyceum named after Professor S.P.Stolyarsky) — David Oistrakh, Elizaveta Gilels, Boris and Mikhail Goldstein, Nathan Milstein, Samuil Furer are known all over the world. Odessan Leonid Utyosov was one of the few, but one of the most popular jazzmen in the USSR. He began working in this direction in 1929, despite the fact that it was in the late 1920s and early 1930s that the state began persecuting jazz as a Western bourgeois musical trend. In 1949, in the cartoon Alien Voice the phrase was heard: “Today he plays jazz, and tomorrow he will sell his homeland!” The history of the Odessa Film Studio dates back to 1907… The famous scene on the Potemkin stairs of Battleship Potemkin (silent movie, 1925) by Sergei Eisenstein was shot in Odessa.
In a word, Odessa was originally gifted with the brightest talents in various areas of science, art and culture. And yet, as a result of a hard choice, the city decided to apply for the Literature category. With a strong cultural heritage, we have great opportunities for cross-sectoral collaboration with UNESCO Creative Cities.
At the same time, there are obligations to carry out systematic work together with the municipality, to increase the inclusiveness of the city infrastructure, to create conditions for facilitating the access of readers to literature. The most important mission is to make those, who have not yet discovered the charm of this fantastic invention of mankind, fall in love with reading. And here we also need to show ingenuity, creativity, keep a delicate balance between routine and creative madness, strive for the sky, but not lose the ground under the feet.
What were your first steps after receiving the title?
During the first few months, literary events, presentations and meetings were held in many libraries in Odessa as well as literary readings and meetings with writers were organized. This activity was widely covered in the media and on TV.
Due to the escalation of Russian aggression in 2022, many Odessans left Ukraine as refugees. And that is why it happened that the office of Literary Odessa is being updated today. Despite the great work, done by colleagues since October 2019, today we again have to take the first steps. It is necessary to study, analyze and comprehend all the accumulated information, as well as renew contacts with partners, institutions and colleagues, build new relationships. Prepare a strategy for the development of the Literature Office, prepare programs and implement new creative projects. We hope for success and believe that despite the hard times for our country and a permanent state of uncertainty all the necessary things will be done.
How did it continue from there?
Projects such as #prozanostra for teenagers with E. Andreichikova appeared in the city; Literary readings dedicated to state and city holidays were held; the club Collective of Poets OCLU was organized. Weekly meetings of young writers with professional writers and poets of Odessa were held in framework of Club. We also organized zoom conferences with foreign poets. The most significant event was the International Odessa Literary and Music Festival Music of the Word (March 19–21, 2021). It was attended by more than 60 poets from 10 countries (online).
Which international relations emerged for your city after joining the Creative Cities Network? Which specific international projects could be initiated as a result? Which lasting partnerships and twinnings have developed from there?
Virtual residences and competitions, in which our poets and prose writers took part, made it possible to get acquainted with representatives of the cities of literature in China, Canada, Norway, Denmark, etc.
From now we have plans to stronger relationships with our colleagues from Vilnius and Lviv Literary Offices, create new partnership with friends from Italy and Norway. Just started to work for common projects with Ilya Kaminsky (USA) who is the first Odessan nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature. We also are going to prepare for presentation one project that (as we dream) will enchant the colleagues of all sub network of UNESCO Literature Creative Cities. And it is certain that many our future projects and partnerships will be directed to support Ukrainians who were forced to leave the country as well as those who stood in Ukraine but lost their home.
In your opinion, what are the benefits of such a cultural exchange?
The possibility of interaction in a benevolent environment of a creative cities network, specially created for the emergence of a synergy effect in the processes of cultural exchange, cannot be overestimated. This allows us to promote the names of participating cities in the international community not only in the declared nomination, but also to carry out cross-sectoral cooperation, unlock creative potential, enrich each other with the unique features of our cultures and ideas of creative cities. In other words, it looks like a flowering garden that is pollinated by bees. We know that the free flight of cross-pollinating bees determines the future harvest of beautiful fruits that everyone can enjoy, whether they were in the gardening industry or served the community in other areas of the economy. But if we compare the fruits of culture with juicy fruits, then the psycho-emotional health of society depends on their quality. And it is quite obvious that without cross-pollination, flowers do not get the next stage of realizing their magnificent potential – becoming a fruit. In our difficult times, it is very important to be able to provide and receive the support at the international level for amazing people who have dedicated themselves to the service of culture.
What tips and suggestion do you have for Bremen’s application?
Odessa received the status of a UNESCO creative city in 2019, and soon the world was covered by a wave of a pandemic. During this period, not only the cities of the literary subnet, but the whole world felt for itself what it means to act in conditions of uncertainty and prohibitions on personal meetings. Perhaps many entrepreneurs and creative people have realized that in order to have a chance for the future, it is necessary to become more creative in their field of activity. As for Odessa and other cities of Ukraine, after a short period of lifting quarantine restrictions in 2021, we entered a new, more terrible reality, starting on February 24, 2022. We believe in the support of the democratic countries of the world, we believe in the victory of Ukraine. And yet, until now, we cannot plan any events in full or be sure that at the very last moment, due to unforeseen circumstances, we will not have to cancel everything. In this regard, it is rather difficult to give any advice, except for one thing: celebrate life in all its creative manifestations, support the real and authentic in culture, turn to eternal ideas that unite people at all times, cultivate humanity in people. And be sure to feel free to seek advice and help from more experienced colleagues and friends from creative cities. Many colleagues already have a history of successful implementation of plans and development programs, which means they have invaluable experience of making mistakes.
Do you know the city of Bremen? What do you associate with Bremen?
It seems that there isn't any person in the world who would not be familiar with the fairy tale of the Brothers Grimm The Bremen Town Musicians. You can't help but wonder: But how could they foresee back in the 19th century that Bremen would want to join the UNESCO Creative Cities of Literature network in the 21st century (just kidding)?
In my childhood, many children and adults were in love with the beautiful 1969 musical cartoon The Bremen Town Musicians. In this version of the story, the Troubadour was added to his friends — a donkey, a dog, a cat and a rooster. He fell in love with a beautiful princess and together with her they fled from the palace. The main idea of the cartoon is not to leave friends, tempted by personal gain, and also to bring joy and laughter to people. The idea of the Brothers Grimm was superbly complemented by fun adventures and filled with kindness and humor. Vinyl records with a fairy tale were very popular. So, since the 1970s, and quite possibly to this day, many children in Ukraine have been familiar with the name of the city of Bremen.
Bremen is an ancient city with a rich history, part of which rhymes with the history of the relatively young city of Odessa. If Bremen was called “Northern Rome”, then Odessa was called “Little Paris”. Both cities were in exceptional positions at different times: Bremen was a Free City, and Odessa had the status of a Porto Franco, which implied active international cooperation and contributed to the rapid development of their economies and cultures. Bremen, like Odessa, is a port city. And the historical monuments of Odessa, like Bremen, are included in the UNESCO cultural heritage list.
The cultural features of the city are made up of a whole set of components. Here an important role plays the quality of education that citizens and foreign students can receive at local universities. This is an urban infrastructure that implies equal opportunities for all. This is the presence of libraries, annual cultural events and festivals, islands of art in unexpected places: music and poetry that residents and guests of the city meet in the evenings in bars and cafes, a reminder of literature in creative monuments. Care for the city's history and monuments of the city. All these qualities are typical for the city of Bremen.
And yet, it is our secret — whether Bremen has become a City of Literature UNESCO already, however no doubt it is a City of Literature. We wish you good luck in this activity!
Thank you for inviting us to share our thoughts and the word about Odessa with you.
was born in Odessa in 1973. She is a poet, writer and translator. She was co-organizer of the literary flash mob Odessa Reads. Odessa is Read, prepared for the birthday of Isaac Babel on July 12, 2017. The flash mob gathered over a thousand participants. Excerpts from the works of Odessa authors were performed in thirty languages. In january 2023 she startet as heading of Odessa – UNESCO City of Literature Office.