Ah, Odessa, The Pearl Near The Sea

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

The largest merchant port in the Ukraine, Odessa, lies on a bay in the north-west corner of the Black Sea, between the Dnieper and the Dniester estuaries. It was founded by Catherina the Great in 1794, on the site of the ancient Greek colony of Odessos. The Greek colony was wiped off 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 Turks stronghold fell to a Russian naval force under Captain Joseph de Ribas. De Ribas, a Catalan nobleman, won the Empress’s favour 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 an idea of converting Khajibei into Russian naval base. Catherine’s new town and port, Odessa, was just established when de Ribas died in 1800. The main street in Odessa, Deribasovskaya, named after him.

At this time, following the French Revolution, Catherina 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 Odessa and the entire northern Black Sea coast, then called “New Russia”. A descendant of the famous Cardinal Richelieu of King Luis XII reign worked very hard developing 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 the World War II they gave shelter to partisan brigades which neither German or Rumanian forces were able to dislodge.

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

Odessa’s heyday was under the third Governor, the Russian Anglophile Mikhail Vorontsov, in the years up to mid-nineteenth century, by which time the flourishing city rivalled 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 Odessa’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.

Although free port status had been abolished in 1849, Odessa 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 Odessa: the new Stock Exchange (1889) and the Opera House (1887) were intended to surpass their European counterparts in splendour – particularly those in Vienna. Nothing was too good for Odessa: 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, Batistini, Jeraldoni, A. Pavlova, and many others. The Odessa National Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet is the oldest theatre of the Ukraine. The most recent renovation of the theatre was successfully completed in 2007 with preservation of its neo-baroque style, luxurious hall in rococo style and unique acoustics.

In this wealthy city jewellery was very much in vogue and jewellers did a brisk trade. One of most crafty of them, Rukhomovsky, caused an uproar among art authority 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 Odessa, including Isaak Babel and Yuri Olesha, whose early, ironic works are now considered classics of Soviet literature. After the city’s suffering in the World War II, Odessa became a rather grimmer city and the emigrants of the 1970s transferred much of Odessa distinctive humour to Israel and New York – where there is now a “Little Odessa” on Brighton Beach. But the satirical tradition has not totally disappeared and some of the best Soviet satirical writers today are native of this sunny, friendly city with its fine harbour and splendid old streets.

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