Ah, Odesa, the Pearl on the Black Sea

Outstanding historical architecture, laughter, luxurious hotels, first-rate restaurants and clubs, sophistication, friendly atmosphere, and magnificent sunny beaches - all of these are Odesa!

The largest merchant port in the Ukraine, Odesa, lies on a bay in the northwest corner of the Black Sea, between the Dnieper and the Dniester estuaries. It was founded by Catherine the Great in 1794, on the site of the ancient Greek colony of Odessos. The Greek colony was wiped out by Turkish Huns in the third and fourth centuries, and eleven centuries passed before people came to live here again. The trading town of Kachibei sprang up first and was later turned by the Turks into the powerful fortress, Khajibei.

In 1789, the Turk's stronghold fell to a Russian naval force under Captain Joseph de Ribas. De Ribas, a Catalan nobleman, won the Empress's favor by distinguishing himself in Russian service.

He proved his courage and military skills when he took part in the storming of Izmail, another Turkish fortress on the Danube - a picturesque account of which is given by Byron in Don Juan. Shortly afterward, in 1794, de Ribas had the idea of converting Khajibei into a naval base. Catherine's new town and port, Odesa, was just established when de Ribas died in 1800. The main street in Odesa, Deribasovskaya, is named after him.

At this time, following the French Revolution, Catherine the Great willingly accepted supporters of the French regime into Russian service and it was Armand Emmanuel du Plessis Duc de Richelieu, who in 1803 was appointed the first Governor-General of Odesa and the entire northern Black Sea coast, then called "New Russia".

This descendant of the famous Cardinal Richelieu of King Luis XII's reign worked very hard to develop the port during his twelve years in office. Ordinary houses began to be built of the local yellow "shell" limestone and the intensive quarrying that continued over the next century left a vast, entangled network of catacombs under the city, like those in Rome. During World War II they gave shelter to partisan brigades that neither German nor Rumanian forces were able to dislodge.

Statue of the Duc de RichelieuStatue of the Duc de Richelieu

In 1815 the Duc de Richelieu returned to France. A monument of him, made in 1828 by Russian sculptor Ivan Martos, was erected in Odesa on Primorsky Boulevard overlooking Odesa's harbor and 192 steps leading down to the sea. The Odesa steps are immortalized in Sergei Eisenstein's classic film, The Battleship Potemkin, and called the Potemkin Steps.

Odesa's heyday was under the third Governor, the Russian Anglophile Mikhail Vorontsov, in the years up to the mid-nineteenth century, by which time the flourishing city rivaled other large cities of the Russian Empire, coming fourth after St. Petersburg, Moscow, and Warsaw in wealth and population. A passenger steamship line was set up and the first newspaper, in both Russian and French, came out in 1827.

Many of Odesa's architectural features date to Vorontsov's governorship period. Some of them are the Potemkin Steps, the Governor-General's palace, the Stock Exchange, and Naryshkina's palace. Three years before he died in 1856, a monument was erected by the city to Vorontsov.

Gagarin PlazaGagarin Plaza

Although free port status had been abolished in 1849, Odesa continued to thrive. Its turnover was comparable to that of St. Petersburg, Russia's main port, and banking - and smuggling - flourished. The nouveau riches displayed their wealth by beautifying Odesa: the new Stock Exchange (1889) and the Opera House (1887) were intended to surpass their European counterparts in splendor - particularly those in Vienna.

Nothing was too good for Odesa: if a touring opera company was invited, it had to be the best that Italy could offer. Many famous artists performed on the stage since 1887, among them P. Tchaikovsky, N. Rimsky-Korsakov, S. Rachmaninoff, P. Sarasate, F. Chaliapin, S. Grushelnitskaya, A. Nezhdanova, L. Sobinov, T. Ruffo, Battistini, Jeraldoni, A. Pavlova, and many others. The Odesa National Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet is the oldest theatre in Ukraine. The most recent renovation of the theatre was successfully completed in 2007 with the preservation of its neo-baroque style, luxurious hall in rococo style, and unique acoustics.

In this wealthy city, jewelry was very much in vogue and jewelers did a brisk trade. One of the most crafty of them, Rukhomovsky, caused an uproar among art authorities in Europe. In 1896, he offered the Vienna Museum what he claimed to be a golden tiara of the Scythian king, Saitafern, supposedly found among the ruins of the ancient Greek city of Olbia.

The museum was saved from buying a fake only because of the prohibitive price demanded, but the tiara - after experts had declared it genuine - was bought in France for 200.000 francs. The truth came out in 1903. The tiara was transferred from the Louvre to the Museum of Decorative Art but soon returned to the Louvre, to be hidden away in one of its vaults.

In the Revolutionary years, 1910 - 1920s, a group of original young writers and poets emerged in Odesa, including Isaak Babel and Yuri Olesha, whose early, ironic works are now considered classics of Soviet literature. After the city's suffering in World War II, Odesa became a rather grimmer city and the emigrants of the 1970s transferred much of Odesa's distinctive humor to Israel and New York - where there is now a "Little Odesa" on Brighton Beach. But the satirical tradition has not totally disappeared and some of the best Soviet satirical writers today are natives of this sunny, friendly city with its fine harbor and splendid old streets.

From the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Odesa port attracted bold and enterprising people of all nationalities and Odesa became a lively mix of Greeks, Italians, Jews, Russians, sailors, and visitors from all over the world. All contributed to their specific brand of humor. Since 1972 Odesa is the hosting venue for the annual international festival of comedy films and humor, Humorina, at which the winning entry is awarded a small copy of the Duke's statue. Many of the ex-USSR generations, know Odesa Mama as the "capital of humor" for its own, Odesa, humor and distinctive local dialect, something that not many cities have. Odesa has been and always will be famous for its jokes.

Outstanding historical architecture, laughter, luxurious hotels, first-rate restaurants and clubs, sophistication, friendly atmosphere, and magnificent sunny beaches - all of these are Odesa!

Odessa map 1892Odessa map 1892

Map Legend: a) Vorontsov Lighthouse; b) Richelieu monument on the top of the Giant Stairs; c) the Duma and Pushkin's statue, one end of the Primorsky promenade; d) the other end of the promenade, the palace of the governor; e) statue of Catherine the Great; f) Gagarin Palace; g) the Passage; h) Richelieu 11, the center of the Jewish cultural societies; i) Osipova 9, Josef Klausner's literary salon

— Nina Spring lives and works in the UK. She likes to write about historical places and nature. She usually indulges in gardening and site-building. Along with writing on historical places and nature, Nina Spring writes about gardening and coffeemakers.