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Secrets of Underground Odesa

The world beneath the city of Odesa

"Odesa catacombs" is a historically established, now traditional, name of the underground labyrinths located near Odesa and its environs. Hereinafter, as is customary in the vast literature on the Odesa catacombs, we will use this term without quotation marks, although in itself it is not correct, and does not reflect the essence of the underground cavities located near Odesa. They have been much in the news as Russia continues its invasion efforts, as a natural defense from invaders and the future home of resistance fighters should they break through.

Partisan Resistance Base in area of Nerubaiskoye Village (Photos by Adam Jones)Partisan Resistance Base in area of Nerubaiskoye Village (Photos by Adam Jones)

Odesa was built with the stones mined underground...

The catacombs consist of several types of underground cavities, sometimes closely connected. Basically, these are underground quarries, in which building stone was mined - sawed limestone. Quarries make up approximately 95-97% of the entire length of the labyrinth of the Odesa catacombs. In addition to quarries, with all their constituent elements - adits, drifts, shafts, breaks, etc., exploratory horizontal and vertical mine workings are known here - adits, pits; military bunkers; underground passages; drainage tunnels; cellars for various purposes (in Odesa they are often called "mines"); storm collector tunnels; water wells; tanks; natural karst and dilatancy caves and so on. All this, combined in various combinations with each other, forms the famous Odesa catacombs.

The most ancient element of the Odesa catacombs - karst caves, arose more than 3.7 million years ago. The absolute dating of the caves was carried out by the paleontological method of geochronology. Other types of underground cavities were formed much later, not earlier than the beginning of the 19th century. At this time, apparently, underground mining of saw-cut limestone began, and the first cellars and underground passages were made. Over time, the number of underground cavities and their types increased rapidly, reaching a maximum in the first half of the 20th century.

The length of the Odesa catacombs is estimated at 2.5 thousand kilometers! This figure is calculated theoretically, but more or less detailed information is available for 1.7 thousand kilometers of underground cavities.

The first known information about the study of the Odesa catacombs dates back to 1846 when paleontologist A. Nordman conducted paleontological excavations in several karst caves unearthed by quarries in the Tarasovsky quarries (Nerubayskoye). Later, in 1869, the same caves were examined and described by the geologist P. Barbot-de-Marny. Several descriptions of quarries made in 1830-1870 have survived, but, being of great interest as a source of knowledge about the catacombs, they are not directly related to the history of the study of the catacombs.

The first expedition to survey the catacombs or "mines" as they were then called, was organized by the city government in 1875. The result of this expedition was the shooting of the quarries and their descriptions. Unfortunately, only the descriptions of the expedition's documents have been preserved, but not the documents themselves, which have not yet been found.

The next expedition to study the catacombs was organized in Soviet times, in 1929. The expedition was created at the direction of the All-Ukrainian Central Executive Committee by the Odessa City Communal Department of the City Council. It included representatives of the City Council, the City Communal Department, the GPU, the military commandant's office, the newspapers Chernomorskaya Kommuna and Vecherniye Izvestiya

The expedition was headed by T.G. Gritsai and worked from September 1929 to March 1930. During this time, 49 catacombs were explored, plans were made for about 40 km of workings, and 45 objects were photographed. The expedition gave a general answer to the question of what the Odesa catacombs are. Later, until the end of his life in 1980, Gritsai was interested in the catacombs and periodically studied them. Regret is the fact that the results of his activities have not been preserved and can be judged only by a few fragmentary documents and indirect data. 

By the way, the graphic and descriptive materials on the expedition of 1929 were also almost not preserved. There are, at least known, only general summaries of the work of this legendary expedition. Apparently, this is the fate of all archives concerning artificial underground cavities, because the same thing happened with the materials of Ignatiy Yakovlevich Stelletsky, the famous explorer of Moscow undergrounds, only general reports on the work of this legendary expedition survive. 

After the expedition T.G. Gritsay, for many years the Odesa catacombs were not studied as a speleological object. There is, however, unconfirmed evidence that in 1932 Gritsai led some kind of Kyiv expedition that examined the suburban catacombs, but there is no clarity on this issue.

After the end of Gritsai's expeditions, the catacombs, of course, were visited, but this was done sporadically, in small areas, and was purely utilitarian in nature. Only those areas were surveyed where it was planned to carry out fixing or mining (driving) works. In the first half of the 1960s, the Odesa Anti-Landslide Administration was created, one of which was to combat the catacombs' harmful effects on the city's buildings and structures. The collection and generalization of information on the catacombs were handled by Arkady Fedorovich Ivanov, who did a lot for a correct understanding of the "problem of the catacombs".

Almost simultaneously with the anti-landslide control, a little later, in August 1965, the Komsomol-youth expedition "Search" was organized to the places of military glory in the catacombs. The organizer, head, and soul of the expedition were Valery Yakovlevich Yudin. Initially, the tasks of the "Search" were to study the events of the war and revolution associated with the catacombs, search for places of basing of partisan detachments and groups related to these periods, and, of course, the search and collection of relics of those times. But very soon, by the spring of 1966, the scope of Poisk's interests expanded and included work on a reconnaissance of the catacombs, their mapping, and collection of information on the technical condition of the workings and the location of the entrances to the catacombs. In general, the study of the catacombs has become complex. 

And in 2022, these searches became the basis of reviving their shelter purpose;

For many years, the speleological organizations of Odesa, headed by L.N. Sukhoveyem conducted research. Special studies in the Odesa catacombs are occasionally carried out by the Odesa National University, the Center for Engineering Research of the Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, and other scientific and industrial organizations. 

A completely new page in the study of the catacombs was opened in 2001 by the production and service company "Hydrogeoservis" headed by Yu.G. Didenko. The company has developed and applied a comprehensive, remote study of hard-to-reach underground cavities, which includes the latest geophysical methods, drilling, telemetry, and so on. The author had the opportunity to get acquainted with the results of these works, in one of the most difficult areas of the Odesa catacombs. The results exceeded all expectations. I was shown not only sufficiently detailed plans and sections of workings inaccessible for direct study, but also video recordings of these cavities, allowing you to clearly see the drawings on the walls of the workings, made with charcoal over 100 years ago.

Another significant achievement in the field of the study of the catacombs is the successful work with the use of diving equipment in the workings completely flooded with water, carried out under the general supervision of R. Zelenyuk.

Since it is impossible to cover all the issues related to the catacombs in one small article, no matter how detailed, we will focus only on some of them.

In September 1995, in honor of the 200th anniversary of Odesa, a record-breaking passage through the catacombs from Nerubaysky to Odesa, to the area of ​​​​Keramichna Street, was carried out. For 27 hours of continuous movement, about 40 km were covered along the workings. In a straight line, the distance was 9.5 km. This event served as an impetus for the beginning of mapping of the main, largest area of ​​the Odesa catacombs. At the end of October, complex work on the study of this area began. Work was started on the south side of the huge labyrinth. This section of the catacombs was so little known that it did not even have its own name, but only the regional index K-29.

The entrance to this area is a mine shaft 32 meters deep. Being the only entrance to the catacombs of the K-29 area, the shaft is rather inconvenient for the descent. Despite the well-preserved concrete cladding, the ceilings and stairs are heavily rusted and rotted in it, which poses a danger to people.

In addition, starting from a depth of 9 meters, there is "eternal rain" in the trunk. This happens due to the fact that the lining of the trunk is not airtight and groundwater, which lies above the limestones, is filtered into it by whole streams. A side effect of this is a large number of large dirty yellow stalactites, up to 20 cm long, growing in the trunk. The bottom of the workings under the shaft is flooded with water 30-80 cm deep, but further the workings are dry. Therefore, you have to go down into the trunk in waterproof jackets,

Work in the K-29 area was carried out for two and a half years. During this time, a plan was drawn up, on which 156 km of underground workings were plotted. A continuous survey covered a section of the catacombs with a length from north to south - 2460 meters and from west to east - 1640 meters. This is still the largest single-mapped part of the Odesa catacombs. All objects or phenomena of interest are shown on the plan by special numbers and brief descriptions (notes) are made for them. A total of 353 notes were made. In the process of carrying out work in the catacombs, microclimatic, hydrogeological, geological, historical, archaeological, and other observations were made.

It was established that the K-29 area, within the boundaries of the mapped part, consists of 21 quarries knocked together into a single mining field. The development of these mines was carried out from 1884 to 1962. Of the large mines, whose names are known, here are the mines "Krivaya Balka" - "4"; "6"; "7"; "eleven"; "11 bis"; "13". The names of the other small mines have not been preserved, and, most likely, they did not exist. Mines in those days were usually called by the names and surnames of their owners.

All found entrances, except for one, an inclined shaft, are vertical mine shafts. It is impossible to determine their shape and size, since at present they are all filled up, except for the shaft of the mine "Krivaya Balka 11 bis" (Кривая Балка 11 бис), restored by the Soviets in the mid-1980s.

The quarries that make up the K-29 area differ greatly from each other in their configuration, the density of the network of workings, the size and shape of the pillars, and the dimensions of the workings themselves. The most densely indented sections are the quarries of the 1880s and the second half of the 1940s. Accordingly, here are the smallest pillars. On the contrary, the mines of 1904-1915 and 1955-1962 have the most correct mining system - straight, even passages, the correct shape of the pillars.

Most of the area is single-tier workings, and only in 3 places are 2-tier quarries found. The height difference between the tiers reaches 2.2 meters. In total, in the mapped part of the K-29 area, 3 tiers of workings can be conditionally distinguished. The main tier occupies approximately 95% of the total working area. Single-level workings do not actually lie on the same level but have an elevation difference of at least 2.5 meters. This is confirmed by the fact that some workings are flooded right under the roof, while others are completely dry. A small upper tier of workings laid 1.5 meters above the main one, is located in the northwestern part of the region. The lower tier is laid 1.5-2.0 meters below the main tier. These workings are located in the northeastern part of the district.

The dimensions of the workings vary greatly, averaging 1.8 meters in height and 3.5 meters in width. The highest workings - the hall "Sergey Berezovoy" and the gallery "Passage" have a height of up to 5 meters. The largest width of the workings is 5.2 meters. Along with these workings, as a result of collapses and backfilling, many passages turned into manholes 25-30 cm high and 50-70 cm wide.

The mining technical condition of the workings of the K-29 area is extremely different. Many sections of the workings are well preserved, but there are also large areas heavily littered. The height of the collapse reaches 4-5 meters. Part of the workings in the central part of the region (under the upper reaches of the Krivaya Balka) are heavily silted with earth applied through the old entrances.

In the southern and eastern parts of the region, large areas of workings are flooded with the waters of the Pontian aquifer. The water depth ranges from a few centimeters to 2 meters.

Microclimatic observations showed that the air temperature in the area is 12-14°C, water - 13-14°C. In some areas, very intense air movement was recorded at times. The strength of the wind was such that it blew out the flames of candles and lighters.

Of the interesting geological and karstological observations, one can note the discovery of six new, previously unknown karst caves, of which one - "Odintsovskaya" was unique for its rare and beautiful sinter formations. They were represented by transparent stalactites, stalagmites, ridges, and covers of a slightly yellowish color. At present, there are leaks in the "Odintsovskaya" cave, named after the geologist, associate professor of OSU, I.A. Odintsov, destroyed by would-be speleologists from the USA.

Directly in the quarries, small beautiful translucent stalactites of a pale yellow color, pure white, yellow, and reddish-brown streaks were also found. As well as unusual stalactites, consisting of a mixture of clay and petroleum products. The most interesting find, along with outcrops of rare varieties of Pontian limestone, was the discovery of huge caverns up to 20 meters in size, filled with red-brown and gray-green clay.

In the central part of the K-29 area, a find unique for our time was made. A well-preserved untouched underground camp of one of the little-known partisan detachments of 1944 was found here. Apparently, this is the camp of the M.I. Bardanov (М.И. Барданова). The underground camp was so well preserved that the kerosene lamps left in it by the partisans could be lit and burned. Equipped living and staff rooms, household items have been preserved, and remains of equipment, etc. 

A specialist in the history of the partisan movement in Odesa, V.G. Golovchenko, compiled a detailed description of this camp. It is interesting that a decayed bag with several hundred cartridges from the times of the First World War, thrown behind a rubble wall, was found on the territory of the camp. Apparently, they were thrown out because they were unusable or rather did not fit the weapons that were in service with the detachment. From the weapons of the Patriotic War, an RG-33 grenade and 6 rifle shells were found. Unfortunately, it should be noted that this underground camp is currently heavily damaged by the same unfortunate speleologists who ruined the "Odintsovskaya" cave.

In the workings of the K-29 area, in the process of work, about a hundred different shapes and colors of bottles of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were found; the same number of glasses from kerosene lamps, of various shapes with a wide variety of brands, a cache of 1904 with four bottles of kerosene hidden in a rubble wall; pieces of pre-revolutionary newspapers with a well-readable text; matchboxes from the beginning of the century with labels; colorful smoking paper covers and much more. In addition, many inscriptions, dates, and drawings from different times were found on the walls of the workings. These are miner's inscriptions from the time of the quarry development, made in red ocher and green chalk, and military and household inscriptions and drawings, made with charcoal, graphite, chalk, etc. All of them are fixed on the map and copied.

Part of the interesting objects of the K-29 area is shown in the documentary film by A. Vinogradov, dedicated to the Odesa catacombs.

Despite the large amount of work carried out in this area, we have not even reached its northern and eastern borders, that is, in the future, we still have to move more than 7 km to the north. But the work done on the southern flank of the catacombs is, of course, enormous, and in this regard, I would like to note P. Lavrenko, K. Pustovetov, and V. Pronin, who made the greatest contribution to the study of K-29.

In October 1998, similar work began on the northern flank of the largest section of the catacombs, namely in Nerubaisk. By November 2001, 57 km of workings had been mapped there. The section of the mapped and studied workings stretched from north to south for 1100 meters, and from east to west for 1070 meters. Three known areas of the catacombs have already fallen into the scope of work - "Nerubayskaya Church" (Z-22), "Wooden Gates" (Z-63 ), "Nerubai catacombs" (Z-15).

These quarry areas are, of course, very different from the southern site. They are more easily accessible, all entrances to them, and there are dozens of them, horizontal adits or shallow sinkholes. In the process of work, many interesting observations were also made here. There are already 318 notes on the map alone. Workings are being studied according to the scheme adopted for the previous section.

Unfortunately, the volume of the article does not allow even a brief description of the results of work in the Nerubai quarries, so they will be presented in other articles. For now, I want to emphasize that thanks to the active work of dozens of members of the Poisk club and speleologists, 213 km of underground labyrinths have already been put on the map in the vast unified field of the Odesa catacombs.