Visitors fall in love with Odessa in about five minutes. All it takes is a warm sea breeze and one glance at the eager crowds moving up and down the shady, tree-lined boulevards. Never mind the elegant palaces with their peeling facades and the hint of squalor on every corner — like all southern cities, Odessa is beloved for its sunshine, colour and soul, and not its sense of order. Behind the busy port and frantic holiday zone lingers a childish energy unknown in the rest of Ukraine, paired with a rich legacy of poets, mobsters and dukes. The backdrop of grand monuments and high culture only accentuates all the cheap amusements characteristic of seaside towns: jewellery stands, ponies, street clowns, balloon-sellers and dancing monkeys. Step away from the sidewalk theatre and you’ll find a world of hushed courtyards, barking dogs and sleepy parks. Somehow it all fits together, making it Odessa.
The exact origin of Odessa’s name is disputed, but it’s most often attributed to the ancient Greek colony of Odessos (today’s Varna in Bulgaria). In an attempt to bestow ancient Greek credentials upon her new Russian empire, Catherine the Great borrowed the name. Others believe she simply feminised the name of Homer’s hero Odysseus and fancied herself as a classical heroine. For several centuries prior to this, the Crimean Tatars, followed by the Turks, controlled the natural harbour with their fortress Eni-Dunya. The Russians finally conquered the region in 1789, in the midst of the Russo-Turkish wars, envisioning a great commercial and naval port. At only 200 years old, Odessa is one of Europe’s youngest cities, and yet it looks far more ancient than most of the other cities in Ukraine. The frilly Baroque architecture dates back to Russia’s gilded age and the influx of European ideals and style. In 1803, Tsar Alexander I committed the governorship of the city to the Duke de Richelieu, in gratitude for his leadership of the Russians against the Turks at Izmail. The young Frenchman is now revered as the father of Odessa, and his statue stands at the top of the famed Potemkin stairs, draped in royal Greek robes and looking visionary. Committed to aesthetics and fast growth, Richelieu slashed trade duties and officially dedicated one-fifth of the port’s income to ‘making the city beautiful’, a task in which he was highly successful. Granted the status of a free port in 1815, Odessa swiftly rose to third place for population and affluence in the Russian Empire, after Moscow and St Petersburg. Opportunity and very relaxed laws attracted a mixed crowd of political refugees and entrepreneurs: freed slaves, Christian dissidents, Ukrainian Cossacks, sailors, Germans, Marxists, Bulgarians, Greeks, Jews and Albanians. The mid 19th century witnessed a boom in Ukraine’s grain exports, carried by rail to the loaded docks of Odessa. Rich ethnic diversity and plenty of jobs secured the city’s independence from the otherwise highly centralised Russian Empire. Odessa remains fairly cosmopolitan today, boasting over 100 ethnicities.
Odessa’s role in the Russian Revolution was not a small one since workers’ unions had already been around for nearly 30 years before the famed uprising of 1905, led by the sailors from the battleship Potemkin (see page 281). Odessa was heavily bombed during World War I and suffered immense damage during the civil war. Still, the city’s love for all things bourgeois allowed General Denikin’s White Army to make Odessa its stronghold before finally succumbing to the Bolsheviks in 1920. The act of defence was repeated in 1941 when the city’s inhabitants held out against the Germans for 73 days, after which the region was placed under Romanian occupation. By the end of World War II, Odessa’s dominant Jewish population had been decimated. In the latter part of the Soviet era, Odessa was the country’s busiest port and a popular holiday destination, hence its rows of hotels and bcachside resorts.
Odessa’s super-strong urban solidarity tends to supersede any national allegiance and that has changed little under independent Ukraine. By reputation, ‘Odessites’ are incorrigible jokesters, smooth talkers, and a little shifty — it is no coincidence that the city celebrates April Fool’s Day like no other place on earth. People smile, laugh out loud, and talk with their hands — a common sight of two park benches turned to face one another reveals that lively conversation is this city’s favourite pastime. Odessa also features its very own and rather specific Russian dialect that strikes the rest of the country as somewhere between the speech of a gangster and that of a comedian. With capitalism in its blood, local business is thriving, and instead of pronounced Soviet names, the ordered boulevards all hark back to Odessa’s golden age — hence French Street, Polish Street, Greek Street and Jewish Street. Whichever one you walk down, and no matter the time of day, you will find buskers and businessmen out on the prowl. This is a city that never sleeps — it just takes intermission.