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Everything is fine in Odessa

© Christopher Pugmire

Known for its exuberant Baroque style, Odessa sits like a half-eaten oligarch’s wedding cake on the Black Sea coast of Ukraine. Ever since the days of Catherine The Great, this city has been a melting pot of characters and cultures. A fragile fever dream of high society and cosmopolitan freedom, rocked repeatedly by wars, pogroms and revolutions.

The dream lives on in Lanzheron. People from all over the ex-Soviet Union flock to the boardwalk to primp and pose. Locals and tourists strut their stuff in a psychedelic carnival of colour and excess. Families in Sunday best. Wasted gopniks in tracksuits. Blondinkas in insane heels. Big sunburned babushkas. Tiny toy dogs. Teenage couples. Ageing athletes. Israeli emigrés. Hare Krishnas. Chinese tourists. Fantasies fuelled by fake champagne, cheap vodka, dried fish and sunflower seeds.

Odessa is an ageing duchess - well past her prime but putting on a brave face under layers of paint. The Odessa selfie is the prize - a fleeting frozen moment of romance and possibilities. This eternal city of dreams and schemes still occupies a special place in the post-Soviet psyche.

Years ago I joined the cast of characters, and every summer I return to faithfully replay my role. The Anglo-French photographer, fake press pass around my neck, spinning tales of access to fashion magazines when caught in the act. Shooting strictly at afternoon’s end, when the sun sets behind the hill and casts a golden light onto the stage. Looking for the perfect pastel postcard to commit to camera.

Today - with the war in Eastern Ukraine, a ravaged economy and the absurd circus of political corruption - the city of dreams is having to dream harder than ever.

Odessa Mama, ya tebya lyublyu.

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