When my grandmother got through the processing at Ellis Islanda Jewish girl still in her teens in flight from czarist Russiashe left with the Anglicized name of Edith. But her given name wasnt Edith, of course, nor was it actually a Russian name or a Yiddish name or a Hebrew name. It was an Italianized version of an Egyptian name. Her name was Aida.
Once in the States, she went by Edith, or, to her grandchildren, Bubba (mixing the Yiddish bubbe with the Southern bubba, as she improbably ended up in Tennessee when her grandchildren began arriving). It wasnt until several decades ago that my family discovered her actual name, and more recently than that when I came across an explanation of how she became an Aida. I was reading a biography of Trotsky, who, like Bubba, was born and at least partly raised in Odessa, when I came across this sentence: When Trotsky was ten, a mania for Italian opera swept the Odessa upper classes.
Bubba, who was ten years younger than Trotsky, was born and raised in Odessa, where her fathers brother had somehow managed to become very rich through his ownership of sugar plantations and processing plants. Mystery solved; case closed.
But my curiosity about Odessa had been piqued. Then the second-largest city in Ukraine, after only Kyiv, swaddled by a warm climate, perched on the Black Sea, it was almost surely more multilingual, more ethnically and religiously diverse, than any other large Russian city (it was roughly one-third Jewish). By all accounts, its culture, tone, and, if you will, essence, were more European than those of any other Russian city, too. Suffice it to say that the 1917 revolution, the ensuing civil war, and the Nazis greatly diminished Odessas exceptionalism.
Its the specter of that exceptionalism, I think, that most troubles Vladimir Putin. Russias president doesnt really think that NATO, even if expanded into Ukraine (which aint gonna happen in any event), poses a military threat to Russia. Rather, it poses the threat of encroaching Europeanization, the undermining and supplanting of Russian autocratic and neoRussian Orthodox norms by those of liberal democracy. The cordon sanitaire Putin wants around Russia isnt really intended to deter a revanchist and militarily ascendent Germany, as was the case when Stalin installed communist regimes throughout Eastern Europe. It isnt even intended to deter capitalism, since Putin is committed to and reportedly greatly profits from Russias kleptocratic capitalist economy. The Putin Buffer Zone is intended to deter a culture and an ideology: the liberalism of the West, imperfect though the Wests liberalism may be. The real threat he consistently works to suppress is that from more liberal and democratic Muscovites and Petersburgians and, if he can somehow get his hands on Ukraine, Odessans.
Whether keeping Ukraine out of NATO by invading it will advance that cause strikes me as improbable. Hungary, after all, is a NATO member, and looks a little more like Putins Russia with each passing day. Theres currently enough authoritarianism bubbling up in the West, usually in the form of white Christian nationalism and xenophobia, that hed do better to find ways to non-militarily support those regimes, such as Hungarys, and those movements, such as the French right, that share his revulsion at pluralism and liberalism. At least, if his goal is to save Russia from a generation of 21st-century Aida equivalents.