|Select magazine number|
An Ode to Odesa
There is a saying in Odesa: “Whatever there exists in Ukraine, you can come across it in Odesa, but there is a lot of what you can find only in Odesa and not anywhere Else.” Maryna GUDZEVATA, Welcome to Ukraine senior editor, went to Odesa to check out how true or false this saying is.
The locals say that “the best way to see Odesa is by your feet” — that is by walking its streets. I tried it myself, and it worked fine. I am sure it would work even when the weather is not so fine — wet or cold: there are a lot of places in Odesa where you can get warm — in any of the numerous museums or restaurants.
But the best time in Odesa that sits on the seashore, is summer, of course. It is in the summer tourist season that most of the tourists and holiday makers come to Odesa.
They lounge on the beaches, stroll the boulevards, experience the unique atmosphere of Odesa, sample the night life and some (the most romantic) enjoy watching the colorful sunsets and gentle sunrises.
Very few people can remain impervious to Odesa’s charms.
Bits of history
Before I came to Odesa, I had been of the opinion that Odesa as a city sprang on a deserted stretch of the Black Sea coast in 1794 — it was the Russian Empress Catherine II who gave the order to get a city built there.
But what I learnt at the local archeological muse-um radically changed my views of Odesa’s history — for thousands of years the area had been inhabited by the roaming tribes of the Cimmerians, Scythians and Samarians. Long before the ancient Greeks began to build their colonies along the northern coast of the Black Sea.
In later times, the area came successively under the domination of several powers. In the mid-18th century, the Ottomans built a fortress at Khadjibey, the place now occupied by Odesa, but the Russian Empire conquered the large swathes of land along the Black Sea coasts and thus Khadjibey came in Russian possession.
But it would take too much of the magazine space to go too deep into history, and we’ll begin our short overview with the times and people who have contributed to making Odesa what it is now.
Once upon a time, there lived a Spanish adventurer, Don Jose de Ribas, who came to the Russian imperial court closer to the end of the eighteen century. He made an impressive military career. After being appointed the governor of Odesa, he, at an audience with the Empress Catherine II, described advantages of having a big port at that very section of the Black Sea coast. The site had strategic advantages, he said.
The Belgian architect Franz de Vollan was commissioned to provide the layout of the city. He did incorporating of some of the ancient Roman ideas for laying out the city.
Don Jose de Ribas became Osyp Deribas to suit the local speech, and de facto the first “mayor” of Odesa.
The second “mayor” (officially — governor) was also a foreigner, but this time it was a Frenchman. Armand-Emmanuel de Vignerot du Plessis, Duc de Richelieu governed the city for eleven years — in fact, it was under his governorship Odesa became a bustling port city.
The Duke had fled France after the French Revolution to Russia where he joined the army and befriended the Russian Emperor Alexander I who, in 1803, appointed him Governor of Odesa. (later, he became Governor-General of a large swathe of southern territories recently conquered from the Ottoman Empire which included the Crimea too).
The Duke, for what he was doing in Odesa, was much appreciated by the locals. He kept proposing comprehensive reforms to the Imperial government and some of his ideas were actually accepted.
He managed to talk the Emperor Alexander I into giving Odesa the status of a free port and into allowing Odesa to have a university.
Richelieu is credited with bringing the white acacia to Odesa and making it ubiquitous in this city. He was known to love gardening and it was he who had a big park laid out in Odesa, the first of its kind in town. He was reported as walking down the streets and distributing seedlings. He was known to be taking care of the neglected trees or bushes or flowers and watering them, making sure those who could do it and did not, would feel ashamed.
Richelieu’s city policies included inviting foreigners to run important businesses and crafts. Among those who came in particularly large numbers were Greeks, Germans and Jews. The Jews were promised the right for free observance of their religion. Among the newcomers were quite a few of adventurers and runaway surfs. If the newcomer proved he was good at anything, he was allowed to settle down in Odesa. The owners of the runaway surfs, who wanted to get their slaves back, were told that Odesa was a free town and all its citizens were thus free, not slaves.
The grateful people of Odesa erected a bronze monument to Richelieu which was unveiled in 1828 to a design by Ivan Martos. Richelieu’s contributions to the city are mentioned by Mark Twain in his travelogue Innocents Abroad: “I mention this statue and this stairway because they have their story. Richelieu founded Odesa — watched over it with paternal care, labored with a fertile brain and a wise understanding for its best interests, spent his fortune freely to the same end, endowed it with a sound prosperity, and one which will yet make it one of the great cities of the Old World.”
After the Duke returned to France, he pursued his political career and became prime minister. He was known to keep inquiring about the state of things in Odesa, saying that knowing that Odesa was doing well would make him very happy.
The next important figure as Odesa’s governor was again a Frenchman, Count Louis Alexander Andrault de Langeron who won the status of porto franco for Odesa in 1817. He provided Odesa with the running water supply, created a budget committee and set up the first city council.
Then, in 1823 it was the Russian Count Mikhail Vorontsov who was appointed governor of Odesa. But there was still some connection with foreign lands — he had spent his young years in London.
Count Vorontsov brought with him a truly aristocratic entourage, never seen before in Odesa. He and his Polish wife made sure that they were being paid aristocratic visits from Russia and Poland. The city was given a neat and aristocratic appearance. In addition to being the most important Black Sea port, it had grown to be the third largest city in the Russian Empire, after St Petersburg and Moscow.
One of the governors of Odesa in the nineteenth century was a Greek, Gregory Marazli. He was of a local Greek stock, and he knew what the city needed well.
It was he who introduced to the streets of Odesa trams pulled by horses, a new park, a children day-care center, first of its kind, a bacteriological center and a chemical lab to check the quality of food products, plus dozens of schools, hospitals, libraries and museums. The theater this governor built was one of the best in the Russian Empire. And it was his own money that he donated toward the construction and maintenance of many of these facilities.
Streets of Odesa
The names of many streets in Odesa reveal which ethnic communities used to live there — Greek Street, Bulgarian Street, Jewish Street, Estonian Street, Polish Uzviz (street), French Boulevard, Italian Boulevard, Arnauts Street (Turks called Albanians “Arnauts). Similarly, some sections of town such as Moldavanka (the place of Moldavians) also suggest the locations of ethnic communities.
Nowadays, there are no parts of town where certain ethic communities would concentrate — they are evenly dispersed all over town. It is this mix of cultures and ethnicities that creates the very special aura that Odesa is famous for.
Even I, who had never visited Odesa before, knew of the existence of such places as Derybasovska vulytsya (street), Prymorsky bulvar (Seaside Boulevard), Potyomkinski skhody (Potyomkin Staircase), Operny teatr (Opera theater) famous for their connection with historical or cultural events. When I stared at the Monument of Richelieu, it felt as though I was gazing at someone who was of my personal acquaintance.
There was one thing though that came as a sort of surprise — the city was not dominated by the presence of the sea the way such seaside towns usually are.
There are no long seaside promenades good for strolling and gazing into the watery distance. There are no good beaches close to the downtown part of Odesa — the locals say that it is better to go to such places as Arkadia, Luzanivka and Lanzheron, located on the shores further away from the city center, and known for their beaches.
I found out that Derybasivska was free from automobile traffic and full of cool and fashionable cafes, each of which tries to attract customers with unusual design, or in-house made cookies, or humor-themed decorations. Misky Sad (City Park) is the place that locals and visitors go to enjoy leisurely strolls, or food and drink at any of the numerous restaurants and bars, some of which are cozily located in the picturesque corners of the park. The park does make you feel like you’re away from the city bustle.
But I found that the best place for me to take walks in was Prymorsky bulvar (Seaside Boulevard), particularly at the eventide. It is not only the closeness to the sea that is enjoyable — the architectural styles of the buildings lining the boulevard are also an attractive feature of that place.
At the end of the stroll, you come to the famous Odesa staircase that features in many films, and you are also awarded with a great view of the busy Odesa sea port.
In fact, the impressive staircase got its name, Potyomkinski skhody, from a 1920s silent film, about the 1905 mutiny on the Battleship Potyomkin. The film was directed by Sergey Eisenstein (1898-1948), a Soviet motion-picture director and theorist who experimented with the intellectual and expressive possibilities of editing to create a revolutionary new form of cinema. The expressiveness of the film and unusual montage made the film a noticeable event in the history of cinematography.
If you descend all the way down to the port, you can get back by The Funicular (cable railroad) to make the ascent not too tiring.
From a provincial soviet town Odesa is developing into a place of a more international appeal, yet without losing its very special Odesa atmosphere.
The local theater burned down in 1873 and two Viennese architects, Fellner and Gelmer, were commissioned to provide the design. They did not come to Odesa though to get the details right and local architects adjusted the design to the place where the Opera House was to be erected.
The theater in grand European style was finished in 1887. It is regarded by many as one of the world’s finest theaters. Its luxurious hall follows rococo style. It is said that thanks to its unique acoustics even a whisper from the stage can be heard in any part of the hall. The theater was provided with steam heating, an innovation at that time.
The architect Fellner, who did come to the unveiling, was ecstatic in his praise. The construction had cost a lot of money and some of the money was donated by people of Odesa.
Much later, the foundation began to develop cracks because of the shifting ground underneath and repair and restoration were urgently needed to save the theater from collapse. The most recent renovation of the theater was completed in 2007. The Museum of the Opera House presents the story of the theatre and technical details of the way the foundation was fortified.
Unfortunately, I did not get to see a single performance — I hope I will during my next visit to Odesa.
By the end of my visit, I had collected enough proof of the saying that there are a lot of things in Odesa that cannot be found anywhere else.
WU magazine thanks the Board of Culture of Odesa City Council and the Journalist Association Turystychny pres-klub Ukrayiny for invitation to come and for organizing the sojourn.
The Building with Atlantes.
The monument to The Wife of a Sailor in the Odesa Sea Terminal.
The autumnal afternoon in the Misky Sad Park.
The Monument to The Duke – Armand-Emmanuel de Vignerot du Plessis, Duc de Richelieu.
The Grand Opera House of Odesa. (3)
A sculpture from The Garden of Sculptures of the Odesa Literature Museum.
The Potyomkin Stairway in Odesa. Photo on a postcard of the end of 19th century.
In the restaurant Clarabara in the Misky Sad Park.