ODESSA, Ukraine — Savva Libkin, a wonderfully subtle chef, has a keen sense of what’s real and what’s fake, what’s pure and what’s pretentious when he tastes a glass of wine or a finely prepared filet of freshly caught fish. As a citizen of Odessa, that extraordinary pearl of a city on the Black Sea coast of Ukraine, he als0 has an acute idea, too, of the line between repression and freedom.
Now, as his country faces the possibility of a widening civil war, and perhaps an even bigger war between the West and Russia, our conversation at his most well-known restaurant, the Dacha, flows back and forth between epicurean delights and geopolitical threats.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and those around him want to reclaim a huge swath of Ukraine as something they call Novorussia, perhaps linking up with the chunk of Moldova they lopped off years ago and called Transdnistria. Already in the course of this year, Putin’s agents and sympathizers have amputated and annexed Crimea, then incited, aided and abetted the increasingly bloody conflict in the eastern Ukrainian region known as Donbass. In early May, Odessa was the scene of violent confrontations between pro-Russian activists and Ukrainian nationalists that ended with more than 42 deaths, many of them partisans of Novorussia caught in a burning government building. (Editor’s note: This passage was updated to change the description of the parties involved.)
This is not Savva’s Ukraine, not his Odessa. He has spent his life creating extraordinary meals in settings that draw from, and thrive in, the city’s uniquely cosmopolitan atmosphere. Dacha is supposed to recall his own mother’s cooking, Kompot tries to imagine what Odessa would have been like if the Bolsheviks’ October Revolution never happened, and Tavernette serves the simplest and best sorts of Italian food, he explains. But then the conversation turns to the question occupying all minds in Ukraine: Will Putin invade?
Savva says that if the Russian army intervenes to bring Ukraine to its knees slices off the east and the south of the country to call it Novorossia, there will be no place for him or the many Ukrainians who share his vision of life. Novorossia will be, in their view, little different from the separatist enclave in Moldova about an hour’s drive away. “Transdnistria has no good place to eat, it is a dead place, full of grey, sad cafes,” says Savva. “I’d be out of here as soon as it smells of Novorossia.”
The decline of freedom and the rise in violence would destroy the sophisticated, seductive spirit of Dolce Vita that’s at the core of Odessa’s existence. People here learned to stay happy, even when the October Revolution put an end to the Belle Epoque glories of Odessit tourism, even when French and Italian guests in their glamorous light-summer outfits stopped flooding the city’s streets, museums and theaters.
“Odessits learned to joke to disguise their pain,” Savva said. His friend, the famous satirist and a true Odessit living in Moscow, Mikhail Zhvanetsky, once said that joking in Odessa is “not humor, it’s a condition caused by heat and audacity.”
Savva belonged to a group of Odessa city developers working for years to revive the city’s heritage as a haven for those in search of the good life. A decade ago, he found debris covered in high grass around a half-ruined 19th-century mansion. Savva and his good friend, Arsen Chelidze, a talented designer, decided to improvise without a single draft or fixed specification to create a unique home for “a bourgeois man who has not been cannibalized,” which we might take to mean a person of taste eaten alive by life’s experiences.
It took the two friends four months to develop the details of the interior and the garden around it so that that Dacha would epitomize the real Odessa.
“I worked like a film director inspecting every piece of wood, I personally had to believe that the floor of Dacha was old, that it was not fake,” Savva recalled. In fact, everything is new, but today’s atmosphere in the salons called Dacha’s Bedroom, Bathroom, Guestroom and Veranda could date anytime from the late 19th century to the early 1920s. There is no air conditioning, no music. “It is important,” says Savva, “to see the beams of light breaking through these traditional dacha curtains and reflecting on the floor, to hear birds and feel the fresh air from the garden.”
Libkin found old beds to put in the wild-looking garden around Dacha, so couples in love could relax on them after the meal. But today the beds are empty, and so are most of the tables. This great getaway from the cares of the day that used to be overbooked by wealthy and hip Moscow tourists each summer season now sits half empty.
A wider war would cause even bigger damage to Libkin’s businesses, which have lost 30 percent of their profit since the beginning of the Kiev uprising last year. “That’s a horrific figure for us, since for decades we had annual growth of over 15 percent,” says Savva. The end of his restaurant empire would be a dramatic loss for Savva, but the loss of the Dolce Vita spirit in free Odessa that he represents would be a tragedy almost as sad as the passing of the Belle Epoque.