New Odessa Final Report

Russian Jewish immigrants founded New Odessa at the end of the 19th century. They proposed a different way of life for their community. Novel ideas influenced their lifestyle, a defining characteristic of utopian thinking. The focus of my original research question was about uncovering these ideas and discovering how they were reflected in New Odessa. But the community dissolved after five years. Ideological disagreement was suggested to be the cause. This facet changed the course of my research, and, thankfully, made it more interesting. In short, I now sought to discover the factors that contributed to both the rise and fall of New Odessa.

The rise of New Odessa was a function of the historical conditions at the time. Russian and Jewish history are two subjects that I am familiar with. Some background is necessary to understanding both the rise of New Odessa, and the rationale behind my research. Europe saw a plethora of “isms” in the 19th century, including anti-Semitism. Jews across Europe were brutally murdered in a series of pogroms. These pogroms took place in Russia and many Jews reluctantly sought refuge outside Europe.

New Odessa’s original members were Russian Jewish immigrants who desired a safer and better life. I learned more about this when I encountered my first exhibit source, a response to a questionnaire issued to the son of an original member. By simply reading the question posed to Theodore Swett, I prepared myself for an intellectual endeavor: “Will you write a page of interesting anecdotes dealing with your parents, ancestors and their generations? Please make a distinction between what you know to be true and what is hearsay.” Sweet commenced his two-page response with the intent to tell how New Odessa came into existence. His account noted how the founders wanted a farming lifestyle in America. Moreover, his anecdotes reflected these ideals present in the rise of New Odessa. But near the end of his response Swett indicates that ideological and political divisions led to the community’s eventual demise. I was unsatisfied with the brevity of this claim, and wanted to know more. Ultimately, my research question developed in order to incorporate the demise of New Odessa.

In researching its demise, I learned how William Frey, the leader of the community, inadvertently caused divisions within his community. Interestingly enough, Frey was non-Jewish yet leading a predominantly Jewish community. I was intrigued by this, because I wondered if this produced cultural divisions between some of the members. Unfortunately, this train of thought was a dead end, because, as I learned throughout my research, the right archives often do not exist. But Frey did cause ideological division due to his continual preaching. Frey was a visionary whose beliefs were rooted in Positivism, a philosophy that shares much in common with utopian thinking.

Understanding the philosophy of New Odessa’s leader was the crux of my research. First, because positivism is characteristically utopian. Gaining some, albeit little, information about what philosophy New Odessa continually heard (besides their farming lifestyle) reflects the ideas present in its rise. Second, I later discovered in my research that it was Frey’s insistence on this philosophy that caused the political and ideological divisions which would later lead to the community’s demise. In effect, William Frey wanted to win members over with positivism, but in the process of doing so he disheartened them.

Reflecting on my research, I am reminded why it is called research and not search. On multiple occasions I found contradictions, questionable citations, or nothing at all. The last result frequently frustrated me. One of the most helpful sources I employed in my research was a graduate student’s thesis about New Odessa. This student wrote a two-page preface about the lack of existing information about New Odessa. Those comments resonated with me as I struggled to locate three sources. I was very thankful for the abundance of sources cited in that student’s work.

My research process was dynamic. I first wanted to uncover the rationale behind New Odessa’s initial success. Sources offered impartial answers, and information worthy of inclusion, but on the condition of a new research question. After refining my question to include both the rise and fall of New Odessa, I discovered that these developments were not mutually exclusive. Actually, they were linked to the divisive ideology/philosophy preached by the community’s leader. And while positivism ultimately reinforced how utopian thinking was reflected in New Odessa, it also contributed to the community’s demise. Like other utopian thinking, New Odessa suffered from a paradox created by its ideas: To win is to lose.