Odessa: how Catherine the Great’s idea turned into a booming city.

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Odessa is a city with a very interesting history. A small village until 1794, it was transformed into Russia’s 3rd largest city in only 11 years, on the orders of Catherine the Great (seen here at the top of the monument, standing on an Ottoman flag). She wanted an important commercial port on the Black Sea and decided to named it after the name of the settlement the Greeks had at this very place in antiquity, Odess. Except she thought there were not enough cities in Russia with women’s names, so she feminized it to Odessa.

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At a time when aristocratic status mattered much more than nationality, she asked the French Duke of Richelieu to build her city (this being only 6 years after the French Revolution, I imagine there were quite a few French aristocrats around Europe looking for something to do). His statue is at the top of the Potemkin Stairs, made famous by Eisenstein’s 1925 movie “The battleship Potemkin”. In fact, they used to be called Primorski Stairs, but were renamed after the immensely successful propaganda movie. You may notice that the stairs appear to be wider at the bottom. In fact, they are, by 9 m.

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This was done to create the optical illusion that the stairs were perfectly parallel, when viewed from the top, where aristocrats lived. Also, at the right angle, you only see the landings from the top, whereas from the bottom, you only see the steps.

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The aristocrats mainly lived on what has become this beautiful promenade, Primorsky Boulevard. But the city almost never happened. Shortly after ordering its construction, Catherine died and was succeeded by her only son, Paul I. He hated his mother and essentially attempted to reverse all her decisions and projects. The city would receive no special treatment. So the distraught merchants ordered a shipment of thousands of oranges from Greece and presented them as a gift to the new Emperor. He was so excited by the exotic fruit that, realizing the commercial port was the only way to obtain such fantastic luxuries, he re-established all the special considerations the new city was getting. This story strangely reminded me of the time people I was travelling with bribed a policeman with 2 apples in Mozambique!

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So this new monument celebrating the event is alternatively called “Monument to the Orange”, or “Monument to the bribe”!

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Development of the city continued at an incredible pace. Since it was an economic free-zone, imported goods were comparatively cheap. As a result, this square lined with shops was built. Known as the Palais Royal, it was the city’s first shopping mall.

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The Odessa Opera and Ballet Theatre, constructed at the cost of 1.3 million Rubbles, an enormous sum at the time. This was very much a case of “if you build it, they will come”. The new city was only 16 years old. Such unusual developments continued throughout the 19th century. After the opening of the Pasteur Institute in Paris, the world’s second microbiology laboratory opened… in Odessa!

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An ornate interior shopping arcade, which reminded me a little bit of the Galeries Royales St-Hubert in Brussels.

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After the aristocrats had built all their houses on Primosky Boulevard, rich merchants built a street of their own, nicknamed the Street of Hope. After the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, it officiously became known as the Street of Lost Hope. In 1903, this house belonged to the Shah of Iran.

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Communism was obviously a total catastrophe in a city built on trade. Factories were built to employ people, although most are closed today. This cathedral, the most important in the region, was destroyed in 1937 under Stalin’s orders. It was rebuilt only recently, at great expense and using very expensive materials (sorry, photography not allowed inside). The clergy here don’t seem to care about flaunting their wealth. Last year, as a venue for his birthday, the Patriarch rented no less than the Opera House for the party!

The communists also destroyed statues and symbols of the monarchy. The big statue of Catherine the Great is actually a replica. During the moving of the monument, it was dropped and it broke. The rest of the monument is authentic. She was replaced at first by a papier-mâché head of Karl Marx, but the strong winds from the sea would sometimes send it rolling down the street. So they built one out of black marble, and it became known as the “Statue of the Ghost of Communism”.

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This statue of Prince Field-Marshal Mikhail Semyonovich Vorontsov remained however. The former Governor of New Russia (in which Odessa was located) became famous for his successes during the Napoleonic and Crimean Wars. The communists tried to topple his statue using a tractor, but it was too solid. Instead of trying with heavier machinery, they simply pulled off the plaque and replaced it with an epigram mocking the Prince. They also removed his and his wife’s remains from the cathedral and threw them out near a cemetery. A local resident recuperated the bones and reburied them in secret, but his neighbour denounced him, so the authorities killed him, and his wife and children.

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With Communism came corruption and this bridge, built in 1967, was nicknamed the Mother-in-Law Bridge. There is another pedestrian bridge not very far, and the usefulness of this one is questionable. However, the mayor at the time had a mother-in-law who was an outstanding cook, and he would eat at her house all the time. Along with other communist leaders, he lived in the palaces of the murdered aristocrats and the bridge is located directly in line from his house to his mother-in-law’s!

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And corruption didn’t go away with the fall of the USSR. This massive renovated mansion is an illegal nightclub. How can that be, you ask? If it is illegal it should be in some discrete basement. Not if you know the right people. The nearby residents have won every required legal battle against the improperly zoned business… and nothing has ever happened.

What about today’s history? As I write this, Ukrainian forces encircle cities in the east of the country, where pro-Russian forces have seized Government buildings and key infrastructures. I saw almost no signs of the trouble of trouble in Odessa, and the ones I saw required a bit of knowledge to recognize them.

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Warships. This is not a military port, but a commercial one. These are the few ships that managed to escape from the Ukrainian naval base in Crimea before the Russian annexation, or in some cases were allowed to leave afterwards. Of course, if you look at it in a larger context, you could ask why Russia didn’t try to keep all this Soviet military hardware, or even Crimea itself, in 1991. I was told the reason is that these important strategic issues were completely overshadowed at the time by Russia’s number one military priority; repatriating all the thousands of warheads and intercontinental ballistic missiles located in the three brand new countries, born as de facto nuclear superpowers (Belarus, Kazakstan and Ukraine).

So far, Odessa is quiet. Some nationalist “militias” did come from other cities and started chanting slogans. People ignored them and bars tried to drown them out by blasting music as loud as their systems would play. You see, first of all, Odessa is again a city of commerce and business, and political uncertainty is very bad for business. Second, the city is a bit of an exception in Ukraine, it has a large ethnic Ukrainian majority, but the dominant language is not Ukrainian, it is the regional language of business, Russian. Third, the city has a large and influential Jewish population (back in the 1900’s, Odessa was the 3rd largest Jewish city in the world, with Jews accounting for 40% of the population). As I was told, Odessa Jews stay out of this kind of politics. I think that’s the case in many places. Apart from Israel and modern western democracies, no matter what problem a country has ever had, political, economic or even natural, someone has always found a way to blame the Jews for it! So probably better for them to stay out of protests.

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Odessa is known for its strange architecture. The style is called Southern Russian Eclecticism. It often looks like the architect wrote the name of 100 features on 100 little pieces of paper, put them all in a hat, and picked 20 at random!

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The city’s first interior shopping mall, with its Gaudi-like balconies.

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This house is famous for looking like a fake facade.

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But it was simply built on a strange parcel of land.

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In most of the western world, people put little plaques on historical buildings to explain who lived there or what happened on the site. In Odessa they always put these big sculptures. This building belonged to the Tolstoy family (not the immediate family of the writer). It is now falling apart. This may be due to city legislation. If you renovate a historical building, you have to respect a number of rules. But if the building has fallen into a state of complete disrepair, you can just tear it down. Solution for the patient investor. Hold it long enough for it to fall apart (drilling a few holes in the roof will help a lot), and you can build whatever you want on the site.

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Pedestrian streets and a cafe culture; enough to make me like any city.

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Old Odessa conveys an image of wealth far in excess of the richness of the country. Some signs give it away. People from the countryside come into town on these beat up old truck and sleep in them, staying in town until all the potatoes and carrots and cabbage they brought are sold at the market.

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Like in Budapest, the city doesn’t want people to instal love locks on the bridges, so they built this heart-shaped structure to lock them on, right next to the “Mother-in-Law Bridge”.

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And finally, Odessans like to pimp up their little rides with spoilers! Maybe they do it to impress the girls.

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But the girls don’t look very easy to impress; young or old!

PS: If you want to buy a travel guidebook to Odessa, you can find a very old one on the market: “The Innocents Abroad”, by Mark Twain, published in 1869 (might want to double check on the restaurant recommendations before going).

#Ukraine

2 thoughts on “Odessa: how Catherine the Great’s idea turned into a booming city.

  1. I see the need to patent the double barreled mace spray. Clearly these women need to have at least one hand free whilst being attacked.

    • Right, to take a selfie. This is on my list of business ideas for when I finally take a break from travelling. We also live in a society very focused on victimhood. Maybe I should develop the bi-directional mace. You fend off your attacker AND mace yourself, thus almost certainly getting a chance to appear on day time TV!

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