The Black Sea city may lack the pedigree of St Petersburg but it was home to Isaac Babel, and has a storied past as a stopping point for globe-trotting intellectuals.

A slow-moving procession of 500-odd people stretch from the grand, if worn, Literary Museum along to the Opera House, one of the biggest and most opulent concert halls of the former Soviet Union.

Clutching hardback books, e-readers and paper printouts, the group – young and old, male and female – read passages aloud from Odessa’s literary past, sending up a gentle hum into the warm evening air. Behind, the sun slowly dips into the sea.

The literary flashmob, “Odessa Reads. Odessa Is Read”, is celebrating this complex Black Sea city’s vibrant literary past. Isaac Babel – Jewish chronicler of Odessa and victim of Josef Stalin’s purges – takes centre stage. One Ukrainian woman reads passages from Babel’s Red Cavalry in Japanese, a book describing the Polish-Soviet war of 1920; nearby a man reads the same book in Russian. Other languages fill the air – Norwegian, Mongolian, French, Kazakh. A woman in a sundress reads from Odessa Tales, short stories in which Babel reimagines the city as a criminal hub filled with flamboyant gangster Jews. Only here, in freewheeling Odessa, could a Jew become “a lion … a tiger … a cat … [who] can spend the night with a Russian woman”.

The literary scene here is small and underground, so we take what we can

Reading as they walk, the group moves over the Hollywood-style stars embedded in the street, carved not with the names of actors but with Odessa-born writers and poets, such as Anna Akhmatova, Sasha Cherny and the Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky (“But Odessa – that’s another matter: arriving at the Razdelnaya Station, I would already begin to be joyfully excited”). They reach a statue of a whimsical looking Babel, spectacles balanced on his nose and notebook in hand, across from 17 Rishelyevskaya Street, where he once lived.

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