Scandal at the Severnaia; or, Sex and the "New Man" in Late Imperial Odessa
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Scandal at the Severnaia; or, Sex and the "New Man" in Late Imperial Odessa

In the years before the fall of tsarism, the Black Sea port city of Odessa was one of the Russian Empire's most vibrant and perilous locales. Founded in 1794 by Catherine the Great, the city was a "little Paris" alive with possibilities, not all of them savory. As Odessa evolved and its notoriety grew, so too did its residents' insistence that they were unique. Some scholars have argued that such claims to distinctiveness are significant because Odessans throughout their history have used local identity as a means to resist meaningful attachment to larger imperial or state affiliations.1 But the assertion of local difference is also of scholarly interest to historians who explore the variety of experiences we have come to identify collectively as "modernity."

As I and others have argued, Odessans from the late imperial period onward considered themselves to be more cosmopolitan, modern, Western, and secular than their peers in Russia, despite spectacular examples of anti-Semitism, particularly in 1905.2 This collective Odessan sense of self was nurtured within an urban milieu that was characterized by the distinct lack of an ethnic majority, the determined pull of commerce, and the universalizing [End Page 225] yet flexible prescripts of a multidimensional middle-class culture that wedded Western notions of bourgeois "correctness" with Russian intelligentsia ideals of moral development. And yet perhaps most essential to the definition of "Odessanness" was a sense that the city and its residents were dangerous, that they lived by their own rules with a wink and a smile.3

Odessan journalists, social commentators, literary writers, and others have long associated their city's distinctiveness with Odessa's notorious criminal underworld, particularly the Jewish gangster element in Moldavanka.4 Not yet explored, however, is the role that male (hetero)sexuality played in the years before the Russian Revolution in the articulation of an Odessan variety of modernity centered on an emerging idea of middle-class manhood that was defined in part by public transgressions of propriety in terms of men's behavior toward women.5 This article represents a preliminary foray into such an examination. The set of sources under analysis are mainstream newspaper accounts of sexually charged scandals that took place in the waning years of tsarist rule in Odessa's high-profile central city nightclubs and cafés. Of particular interest are reports of incidents that featured public confrontations between men of the respectable classes and the women they encountered in entertainment venues.

Focusing on interpretation of episodes in which masculine heterosexual desire was front and center enables consideration of two interrelated phenomena. First, it permits examination of how the press constructed the parameters of normative middle-class manhood and the role that male sexuality played within them. Second, it invites rumination about the definitions of masculinity that men themselves asserted through their "scandalous" behavior and how those ideas may have been incorporated into the idea of Odessan distinctiveness. The evidence suggests several conclusions. Most obviously, journalists and other social commentators often used stories about middle-class men caught in scandals with a sexual twist as devices to strip [End Page 226] away offenders' claims to respectability and hence impugn their credentials as gentlemen. Perhaps more surprisingly, alternative readings of newspaper texts suggest that a man's reputation precisely as a man, especially in the eyes of other men, was in some cases boosted by scandal, particularly if the incident took place in one of the city's better cafés. Café culture enticed men with a menu of sensual pleasures, inviting patrons to indulge their desires and perform their passions. At least some middle-class men chose to exploit the opportunities afforded them in café venues in ways that challenged Victorianesque sensibilities. Collectively, their actions can be interpreted as constituting new forms of masculinity that were in some ways distinctly modern, linked in precocious ways to rising fascination with the criminal underworld and emulation of gangster manhood.

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