Rasputin

Odessa, the pearl of the Black Sea

At the time of writing this Odessa or Odesa, depending on whether you prefer the Russian or Ukrainian spelling of the city, has not faced attack by Vladimir Putin’s Russian Army. However, unless the so-called special military operation fails even further, it is almost certain the Odessa will face an attack.

The city’s history goes back to the Greeks but it has been ruled by the Golden Horde, Lithuania and the Ottomans.  Russia captured the area that is now Odessa from the Ottoman Empire in 1789. The city was developed by the Duc de Richelieu, an emigre French nobleman who had served in the Russian army after fleeing Revolutionary France. However, during the late 19th century, the city arguably reached its heights. During the late 19th century Odessa was the fourth largest city in the Russian Empire after Moscow, St Petersburg and Warsaw.

Hotel Bristol in Odessa

Odessa is a strategically important city that is a gateway through the Black Sea to the outside world. It has been fought over many times. It was shelled by the British and the French during the Crimean War. Following the Bolshevik Revolution it was occupied by an Austro-Hungarian force, then a Greek and French force supporting the anti-Bolshevik White Russians. The Soviets then fought the White Russians and the Ukrainian People’s Republic for control, with the Soviets ultimately prevailing. During the Second World War Odessa was attacked by Romanian and German forces and endured a 73-day siege in 1941. Odessa has also been the scene of countless other events in the history of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union including the mutiny of the sailors on the battleship Potemkin, immortalised in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 classic Battleship Potemkin.

It was a very European city with a large Jewish population. It was also the site of an annual mass event from the late 19th century to the start of the First World War. Every year thousands of Orthodox Christians used Odessa to leave the Russian Empire to go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and Jerusalem. They typically were impoverished peasants who travelled from their villages in the interior of Russia’s Empire to the port of Odessa to embark for the Holy Land.

Russian pilgrims at the River Jordan

Russian pilgrims at the Jordan river

The Russian Compound was built in Jerusalem to accommodate the pilgrims. In 1911 10,000 such pilgrims filled the city. One of them was Rasputin the infamous Russian monk. He had been sent away from Russia to get him away from the Imperial family. On his way to Odessa he stopped off at the Pochayiv Lavra monastery. Rasputin wrote an account of his pilgrimage to Jerusalem and wrote (or his ghost-writer wrote for him)

“As soon as I left Odessa, on the Black Sea… there is a stillness in the sea and the soul rejoices with the sea and sleeps in peace; the little swells shine like gold thread, and one desires nothing more.”

Others had different opinions of the conditions on board. The Russian authorities subsidised the boats. However, they were often overcrowded and any poor weather led to seasickness and unbearable conditions on board. Another account by Stephen Graham, the English travel writer, who knew Russia well, and one year travelled with the pilgrims:

All about me clustered and chattered motizhiks and babas, village men and village women, stariks and startiskkas, grey-bearded grandfathers and wizened old grandmothers—all in their everyday attire. They looked as if they had left their native fields and hurried to the boat without changing a garment or washing a limb. They were nearly all in deeply-wadded overcoats (touloopi) or fur-lined jackets (poluskubi), and wore heavy, long-haired sheepskin caps or peak hats; and the women wore bundles of four or five petticoats, and who knows how many layers of thick homespun linen over their upper parts, and with thick grey shawls over their heads. For most of the pilgrims came from the cold interior of Russia and had little notion of the changing of climate.

Once they arrived in the Holy Land, most of the pilgrims would walk from Jaffa to Jerusalem. They were filled with religious devotion and would visit multiple Christian sites in the Holy Land. They would return to Russia in possession of mementoes the pilgrims believed would help ease their path to heaven. These could be shrouds washed in the river Jordan or measured against the stone where Jesus’ body was supposedly washed after his crucifixion. They would also return with earth from the Holy Land, which would be put in their coffin when they died. The influx of pilgrims was a tremendous economic benefit for the city. Candlemakers, icon painters, shroud makers and olive wood trinket-makers worked all year round to meet the demand at Easter. Even though the pilgrims were poor, beggars flocked to Jerusalem during this annual pilgrimage. They left at the same time as the pilgrims returned to Russia.

In 1911 the Russian pilgrims were in Jerusalem at the same time as the Parker expedition and their disastrous attempt to find the Ark of the Covenant using a route from the Dome of the Rock. There were riots and Ottoman troops sealed off the Russian Compound in order to ensure that there was no violence against the Russian pilgrims. There were also rumours that the Russian pilgrims had been armed and planned to massacre the city’s Muslims.

Separately Odessa was also the route many Jews escaped from the genocidal pogroms launched by the Russian Tsarist governments in the late 19th century. Tsar Alexander III came to the throne in 1881 when revolutionaries assassinated his father, Tsar Alexander II. None of the assassins was Jewish, but this did not stop the new Tsar from instituting sweeping anti-Jewish laws and encouraging or directing violent pogroms against Jews. Between 1888 and 1914 two million Jews left the Russian Empire, some settled in Europe and 85% went to the United States. Some also went to the Ottoman Empire and many of these used Odessa to flee the persecution. Odessa itself was not spared pogroms and in the largest, the 1905 pogrom, over 400 Jews were killed and 1600 Jewish properties damaged or destroyed.

Who knows what the immediate future will hold for Odessa and Ukraine but it will almost certainly continue to be a critical juncture between Russia and Ukraine and the outside world.

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The connections to Russia

Pilgrims, pogroms a mad monk and the seceding Finns

The Grand Duchy of Finland

Several members of the expedition were Finns and at the time of the expedition Finland was part of the Russian Empire.

Sweden were the rulers of Finland until the start of the 19th century. During the Napoleonic Wars, Russia initially fought against Napoleon. However, after a series of crushing defeats, celebrated in street names and stations across Paris, Russia swapped sides. Russia then demanded that Sweden do the same and ally with them against England. When Sweden refused, Russia declared war and captured Finland. Finland became an autonomous province within the Russian Empire. However, Russian was never adopted as the primary language.

Valter Juvelius lived in Viipuri, a town which today is known as Vyborg, is close to Saint Petersburg and now part of the Russian Federation.

As Finland was part of the Russian Empire it was involved in the First World War against Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empires. Pertti Uotila joined up and became an officer in the Russian Imperial Cavalry. He fought in the disastrous Russian campaigns against Germany.

1916 painting of Pertti Uotila and his brother

Pertti (front) is in the uniform of a Russian Pihkova lifeguard dragoon

Pogroms

The expedition arrived in Jerusalem at a time the city was expanding rapidly. Immigration drove most of this. There were many sources of this immigration, some came from other parts of the Ottoman Empire, but many were from outside and they came from all faiths. Certainly, Jewish immigration was a large driver. The Yemeni Jews were small in number, but they were joined by large groups driven by the same way as the Sephardim several hundred years before; persecution of Jews by Christian European monarchs. In the late-nineteenth century, the ruler was Tsar Alexander III of Russia. Chaim Weizmann described the results:

“I can remember the stampede — the frantic rush from the Russian prison house, the tremendous tide of migration which carried hundreds of thousands of Jews from their ancient homes to far-off lands across the seas. I was a witness in boyhood and early manhood of the emptying of whole villages and towns”

The vast majority of these migrants did not go to Jerusalem or the Holy Land. Between 1888 and 1914, two million Jews left Russia, and of this 85% went to the United States. However, some did come to the Holy Land. In this wave of immigration, between 1881 and 1903, which has become known as the First Aliyah, nearly 35,000 Jews arrived in Palestine.

Easter Pilgrims

As well as people who came to live in Jerusalem, there were the pilgrims who visited the city briefly. The biggest group of these were Russian pilgrims. Every year thousands of Russian Orthodox Christian pilgrims would flock to the city. They were mostly impoverished peasants who travelled from their village in the interior of Russia to the port of Odessa to embark for the Holy Land.

The Russian government subsidised the boats. They were often overcrowded and any poor weather led to seasickness and unbearable conditions. Once they arrived in the Holy Land, most of the pilgrims would walk from Jaffa to Jerusalem. They were filled with religious devotion and would visit multiple Christian sites in the Holy Land. They would return to Russia in possession of mementoes the pilgrims believed would help ease their path to heaven. These could be shrouds washed in the river Jordan or measured against the stone where Jesus’ body was supposedly washed after his crucifixion. They would also return to Russia with earth from the Holy Land, which would be put in their coffin when they died.

The mass of pilgrims was a tremendous economic benefit for the city. Beggars flocked to Jerusalem during the annual Russian pilgrimage and disappeared again when the last boat has gone home. This influx was even though the Russian peasants were poor themselves. Candlemakers, icon painters, shroud makers and olive wood trinket-makers worked all year round to meet the demand at Easter. Not all returned to Russia. Some died in Jerusalem, happy in the belief that this would also speed their passage to heaven. Others fell victim to the temptations of the city. Rasputin, who performed the same pilgrimage in 1911, and who knew more than most about temptation, said that nuns should not go to Jerusalem ‘so huge is the seduction, so envious the enemy’. Many sadly ended up in poverty or prostitution.

Rasputin

After the members of the Parker expedition were discovered digging in the Dome of the Rock riots broke out and wild rumours flew around. One of these was that the Russian pilgrims had been armed and planned to massacre the city’s Muslims. At the same time after one day of disturbance troops sealed off the Russian Compound in order to ensure that there was no violence against the Russian pilgrims.

Finnish Independence

In 1917 following disastrous battlefield losses Russia experienced two revolutions. The second one brought the Bolsheviks to power and ended Russian involvement in the First World War. Finland took advantage of the instability and declared independence from Russia. This led to a bloody civil war in Finland, with Red versus White. As with most civil wars, it was brutal, with atrocities committed by both sides. The war also drew in the Bolsheviks, the Germans and the Allies. Pertti Uotila fought for the right-wing Whites, who eventually proved victorious.

After the Finnish Civil War, Uotila fought against Bolshevik Russia for several more years in the so-called Tribal Wars. The British opposed the Bolshevik Revolution and supported those fighting against it. They landed a force in Murmansk in Northern Russia to help in the fight. Winston Churchill said the policy was ‘to strangle at birth the Bolshevik State’. Many groups were fighting here and their identity was not always clear. Uotila’s friendship with the Old Etonians, made in the heat of Jerusalem, now proved crucial in the cold of the Arctic Circle. The British did not want any weapons they provided to local forces to reach either Bolsheviks or the Germans, so they were initially suspicious of a group of Finns fighting in German-supplied uniforms. Out of these strange-looking soldiers stepped Uotila to help sort matters out. He negotiated with the Royal Navy officers and convinced them that they should supply his Finnish forces with arms and munitions. His connections to the British establishment were vital in persuading the Royal Navy officers they could trust him. One of the foremost proponents of Britain’s policy in Russia was Winston Churchill, former First Lord of the Admiralty. In 1918 he was minister of munitions. Pertti had spent time in Jerusalem with Gordon Wilson, who was married to Winston Churchill’s aunt. This was not Uotila’s last fight with the Russians. After the Soviet Union signed the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact with Nazi Germany in 1939 Hitler invaded Poland. Two weeks later, the Soviets marched into Eastern Poland, as agreed with Germany. They also invaded Finland, and the two unequally matched nations fought the three-month Winter War. Uotila, now almost sixty, rejoined the Finnish Army. Despite the mismatch, the Finns were largely successful in defending their country.

Pertti Uotila

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