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My Odessa family. John Sergeant is horrified by Russian attacks on the great city, home to his mother and grandmother

Blog | Jun 24, 2024

When we conjure up visions of the great Black Sea port of Odessa today, we aren’t likely to see the elegant French-style boulevards, the grand, honey-coloured buildings and the proud Russian Orthodox churches. We see dead bodies, twisted metal, piles of rubble and wanton destruction.

The battle for Odessa, which the Russians would dearly like to win, is far from over. But were he catastrophically to win, Vladimir Putin might feel justified in claiming victory in his terrible war with Ukraine.

For most people in Britain, Odessa is a faraway place, of which they know little. I have known about it all my life.

We shared our home in Oxfordshire with my Russian grandmother, who had escaped with her family from Odessa just before the October Revolution of 1917. My mother was born in Odessa four years earlier.

My father was vicar of the small parish of Great Tew and also an expert linguist. Our large Georgian vicarage would often echo with the sound of Russian being spoken.

I was the youngest of three children and we assumed – correctly – that the grown-ups might well be talking about us. Even in later life, we never managed to learn Russian.

Ukraine, with its vast wheatfields, used to be described as the breadbasket of Russia. On the British side, my mother’s family came from Lincolnshire, where the wheatfields were early to benefit from the farm machinery that emerged from the Industrial Revolution.

My family were so successful in exporting these machines to Ukraine that once, when my great-grandfather returned from a business trip to Odessa, his carriage horses were uncoupled and he was pulled though Lincoln by cheering crowds.

The family business established a base in Odessa with dockside buildings and offices. My grandfather settled there and married the daughter of a local Orthodox priest but, before long, this booming, cosmopolitan city was caught up in the revolution of 1905. Demonstrations encouraged by mutineers from the battleship Potemkin were savagely put down by Tsarist forces.

Many protestors were caught and killed near the giant stone stairway in what became known as the massacre on the Odessa Steps.

It was made famous across the world in Battleship Potemkin, the silent film directed by Sergei Eisenstein in 1925.

The great outdoor staircase, constructed by a British engineer, was designed to provide a dramatic route from the upper level of the city to the harbour below.

From the family jetty, my grandfather had a clear view of the historic event. To his relief, the revolution was short-lived, and he decided to stay on.

It was not until the summer of 1917 that the family made their move, travelling to St Petersburg before leaving for Britain by boat. My grandmother was told that the man they saw addressing vast crowds was Lenin, soon to become the first leader of Bolshevik Russia.

In my childhood, Odessa was transformed by the descriptions of my mother, who longed to go back, into a mystical presence, a shimmering city on a hill, shrouded in mystery.

She eventually made brief visits as a tourist guide for rich Americans. But my grandmother never returned. She spoke about it when I saw her for the last time in a care home near Berkhamsted. At least, I think she did. She insisted on speaking to me entirely in Russian.

Twenty years ago, after I left the BBC, I was contacted by an agency which supplied speakers to go to Ukraine from funds provided in Brussels by the EEC.

We could talk generally about current affairs, and I jumped at the chance to go to Odessa, to see for myself. The agency had not known of my family connection. I went with my wife, Mary, and was primed by my mother. I had details of how my grandfather had fully integrated into his adopted city and had even provided funds to build the second largest church.

I imagined I might be greeted as a prodigal son, a welcome reminder of a long-lost family link. But it did not turn out that way.

My speech, mostly a gentle stroll down memory lane with words added in favour of Europe and democracy, was interrupted by a small group of pro- Moscow agitators. They protested at what they saw as Western interference.

Fortunately, we managed to leave the meeting hall without difficulty and had a couple of days enjoying what remained of the charm and old-fashioned style of Odessa.

We phoned my mother to say it was a thrill to be there. But the more I learned about local history, the more I was grateful for their move to Britain. Civil war, famine, the Nazi occupation, the mass killing of Jews ... Odessa suffered a complete breakdown.

Only in recent years was some of the old glory restored. Now that is under threat from Russian missile attacks. Uncertainty and fear haunt the city.

The once great port is in danger of losing for ever the title bestowed on her in the past: Odessa, the Pearl of the Sea.

And part of my family history would be buried with it.

John Sergeant was chief political correspondent of the BBC and political editor of ITV