Odessa was founded in 1794 by Catherine the Great, in the place of a rather unimportant Turkish fortress. Originally it was planned to build a town and port in a different place, but the military experts convinced her Highness to choose this site. The name was taken from an ancient settlement that was in a completely different place. So, by chance and moods, Odessa got started.
Though Catherine survived the founding of the city by only 2 years her successor kept pursuing the task she had had in mind when deciding to have this seaport come into existence: Supplying Russia with an access to the South and making it a representative of Russian glory and power. Thus, Odessa was planned and built in a very generous way.
The man responsible for the foundation and initial planning of Odessa, José Deribas, was from Naples, of Catalan descendence. It’s first mayor was from France. Under Catherine and her successors people from Germany and many other countries were attracted and settled in Odessa and it’s surroundings. The influence of foreigners has always been characteristic of Odessa, and it’s inhabitants have been proud of this cosmopolitic flair of their city which also has supplied the Russian cultural life with a huge number of artists and writers.
Odessa soon became the most important commercial port of Russia. Greeks, Armenians, Germans, Italians, Jews, Turks and others came to trade here. As I walked through Odessa I noticed the name ’Arnautian’ on two of the streets near a big market, which is the Turkish word for ’Albanian’. When I asked my friends they could not answer what the Albanians were doing in Odessa, but they said, certainly they were merchants, too.
For almost 40 years, from 1819-1858 Odessa was a free port, a ’porto franco’, which further contributed to it’s economic prosperity and independent development. The free port status was abolished after the Crimean War as the Russian rulers came to the conclusion that the establishment of such a privileged port went to the detriment of Russian economy and development as a whole.
In the 19th century Odessa had the highest percentage of Jewish inhabitants of all Russian cities. One of the darker sides of Odessa (which is counterbalancing it’s cosmopolite self-portrait) is that it was the scene of several progroms between 1821 and 1905. After the Romanians took over Odessa in 1941 most of the city’s Jewish population that had not fled in time was exterminated.
Odessa was an important place in the history of the revolutionary movement of Russia. In the 19th century the port of Odessa was one of the main sources for forbidden literature being smuggled into tsarist Russia. In the revolution of 1905 Odessa was the scene of riots which has been commemorated by Sergei Eisensteins film ’Battleship Patyomkin’. During the civil war of of 1917-21 it was for a while occupied by French troops.
In World War II the city was besieged for more than two months by the united German and Romanian troops and it’s inhabitants, enforced by Red Army troops, despite their reputation as merchants and easy-going people, resisted fiercely till they finally had to give in on October 16th, 1941. This resistance, and the partisan warfare led during the Romanian occupation in the underground – using the catacombs of Odessa –, were the reasons why the Soviet government after the war awarded to Odessa the title ’heroic city’.
Nowadays Odessa is still a beautiful city, but it’s economic prosperity and importance are far from what they used to be in former times. The success of a port depends on it’s hinterland. Independent Ukraine has little to sell and little purchasing power. When I was in Ukraine in 1996 the main mechandise being shipped from Odessa was scrap from non-ferrous metal, a good that puts in evidence the country’s bankruptcy and cannot be sold unlimited. And even for these shipments the Greek and Turkish companies who bought it didn’t use the main port of Odessa, but the neighboring port of Ilichiovsk, probably because of lower port fees. Odessa’s port was pretty idle in those days and it is doubtful whether big changes have taken place since then as the economic situation of Ukraine hasn’t improved a lot.
When walking through Odessa I saw a shop which was typical for the economic situation of Odessa: Above the entrance there was a worn out and lop-sided sign with the inscription ’Bee-keeping requirements’. Below it and in the window there were more colorful signs saying ’Money-exchange’ ’Day and night’. On the door there was a big black-and-white sign saying ’Closed’.
In Sergei Eisenstein’s film ’Battleship Patyomkin’ one of the most famous scenes is set on these stairs: The people of Odessa are sympathetic to the revolting sailors of the battleship and gather on the stairs. But the tsarist police is coming from the top of the stairs and on horseback and with drawn sabres chases the people down the stairs, whereas the camera focuses on a deserted baby carriage that’s rolling down the stairs, with a screaming baby inside.
As I’ve been told, the film baby later became a renowned scientist in Odessa.
Text written in 2005, based on photographs made in 1996