You haven’t heard about the Odesa Catacombs yet? No wonder, everyone knows the Paris Catacombs, but the Odesa Catacombs are at least as interesting as the ones in Paris or Rome. The underground labyrinth is one of the most interesting sights of Odesa, if not of the whole Ukraine. It’s high time to introduce you to the Odesa Catacombs in a separate article.
What are the Odesa Catacombs?
With a total length of about 2500 kilometers, the Odesa Catacombs are about five times longer than the well-known catacombs of Paris, making them by far the longest underground tunnel system in the world. Nobody knows exactly how long they are, because to this day there is no complete map of the catacombs. They consist of a huge network of tunnels, drainage channels, cisterns, natural caves and bunkers. Some of them are up to 60 meters deep, others run just below the surface of the city.
History of the Odesa Catacombs
The history of the Odesa Catacombs is closely linked with the history of the city itself. When Catherine the Great commissioned the city and the military port at the end of the 18th century, the area had shortly before been conquered from the Ottoman Empire. There was only one problem: there were almost no building materials available. So they had to go underground and get the building materials there. The limestone quickly proved to be robust enough to construct buildings from. Work began under Duke Armand du Plessis, who administered the city from 1803. Piece by piece, digging continued and a labyrinth of shafts soon emerged that could no longer be surveyed.
At a time when there were no refrigerators, the catacombs were also popular cellars for keeping goods fresh for longer. So things weren’t always gloomy here in those days.
A paradise for smugglers and criminals
Odesa had the reputation of a gangster city in the tsarist empire. The city was new and without grown structures, moreover, the port enabled trade and thus also smuggling. The catacombs were ideal for the “underworld” of Odesa, because here the smugglers could store just about anything, be it weapons or narcotics. They were also ideal as a hiding place for escaped convicts. There are countless stories related to the Odesa Catacombs that date back to that time.
One of the most famous revolves around the gangster and revolutionary Mishka Yaponchik (“the little Japanese”). He controlled large parts of the city in the period around 1900 and escaped from the police several times in the tunnels. There is even a Russian TV series about Yaponchik with the English title “Once upon a time in Odessa”. Here is a link to a trailer on Youtube.
The Odesa Catacombs during the Second World War
Odesa was occupied by the Romanians allied with the Germans during the Second World War. In many places in the country the struggle of Soviet partisans against the occupiers raged. But nowhere did the “underground fighters” find such ideal conditions as here. Unlike the occupiers, they knew their way around and the many tunnels were simply impossible to keep under control. And so targeted actions against the Romanians and the Germans were easy to carry out.
However, life underground was hard. Often the partisans did not see daylight for months. Hunger, water and food shortages and, of course, darkness and the constant fear of being discovered characterized life here. The oppressive atmosphere is even said to have led to two rival NKVD groups fighting each other who had been sent underground. Only one man survived and spent a whole nine months alone down here.
The Odesa Catacombs during the Soviet Union
After the Second World War, the Cold War began. Thus, the danger of an American nuclear attack increased for the citizens of the Soviet Union. Protective bunkers were built all over the country. In Odesa, this was not really needed, because the catacombs were already there. And so many of them were converted into bunkers. Thick steel gates were put in, supplies were laid out, warning signs were put up, protective masks were laid out, and Geiger counters were provided. Thank God there was never a nuclear war and you can still admire many of the Soviet facilities today.
The legend of the girl in the Odesa Catacombs
One New Year’s Eve, young Masha is said to have been out partying with her friends. The group thought it would be a good idea to descend into the Odesa Catacombs – despite the darkness and freezing temperatures. Rumor has it that there was a treasure at the entrance to School No. 56, so maybe the group was looking for it.
The unfortunate Masha lost contact with her friends. Perhaps she had only gone to the bathroom for a short while and her drunken friends moved on. Or maybe she was left here on purpose. Masha froze to death or died of thirst in complete darkness. But: the story is probably just an internet rumor. Some time later, a picture of a corpse circulated on the net, but no one could identify it as Masha. Whether the story is true or not, she made Odesites aware that a hidden, eerie world existed beneath their feet. But maybe you will meet the ghost of Masha under the ground …
You already found the story about Masha creepy? There are so many horror stories from the catacombs that you can hardly list them. For example, a gnome is said to live down here, eating rats and bats and scaring tourists. Also, a legendary treasure is said to be buried here. A Ukrainian captain is said to have saved the lives of a ship’s crew in the 1930s and received a model ship made of gold in gratitude. When the war started, he hid it in the catacombs, but fell at the front. And so, perhaps, the treasure is still waiting to be discovered today.
The Odesa Catacombs today
The Odesa Catacombs are used in different ways today. Most of the labyrinth of corridors has fallen into slumber. Parts are used as a museum, others as a garbage dump. Still others are flooded and accessible only to divers. But it is said that there are also people who grow mushrooms or store wine down here. Many also use the catacombs to carve drawings into the wall. Often it is not so easy to distinguish historical drawings from modern ones. There are also underground bars. Our guide Ihor even tells of raves and other parties that are celebrated here. “I’ve even heard of weddings,” he says.
Where to go to the catacombs?
One of the main entrances is located in the Moldavanka district, which used to be known as the district of smugglers and thieves. About Moldavanka already the Jewish Soviet writer Isaak Babel wrote his stories from Odesa. Here is also the entrance of most tours, such as the “Secrets of Underground Odessa”.
Museum of the Odesa partisans
About 17 kilometers outside the city, near Nerubajske, is the Museum of Heroic Partisans. This is where the partisans hid during the Battle of Odesa and from here they carried out commando actions against the occupiers. The museum commemorates the partisans and their life in the literal underground. Here you can admire an underground infirmary, a command post and a kitchen.
The Wild Odesa Catacombs
There are, of course, countless other entrances, many of them not even known to the residents of the immediate vicinity. Moreover, since the Odesa Catacombs extend far beyond the city limits, access is also possible outside the city. On a tour through the wild Odesa Catacombs you will see the underground with your guide and a small group. Here you will also see better what the catacombs are used for today. Also, the guides are real catacomb enthusiasts and know all the legends as well as the real background. We definitely found this tour very interesting. However, you should be fit and appropriately dressed for it.
Orientation in the Odesa Catacombs
Orientation in the catacombs is difficult; beginners lose their bearings after just a few turns. However, markings stand out at many junctions. The catacomb enthusiasts can read them. Also, our guide Ihor reported that he always lets someone know the planned entry and exit times, duration and direction beforehand. “So in case of emergency someone can look for us” he says. I even tell what cigarettes I take with me, because the stalks can also be a trail and the smoke does not go away so quickly.
Can you enter the catacombs alone?
In principle, you can go alone to the Odesa Catacombs. However, this is not a very good idea. It’s dark, some areas are in danger of collapse, others are flooded. And don’t even try calling for help down here or using your smartphone if something happens. And it’s not just Masha’s story that shows us that you can quickly lose your bearings here. People keep getting killed down here. Rumors about Satanists who use the tunnels for themselves are also persistent. And corpses are also said to be dumped here from time to time by their murderers. Reasons enough, therefore, not to dare the descent on your own.
If you still dare to descend into the underworld of Odessa, there are a few things you will definitely need: a flashlight with spare batteries, a helmet, a good map, a lighter. You should also keep in mind that the temperature down here is usually between 10 and 15 degrees, so dress warmly even in summer.
Tours through the Odesa Catacombs
There are a variety of companies that offer tours through the Odesa Catacombs. We found the following ones particularly interesting:
- English tour, two hours*: If you just want to take a quick look at the catacombs and don’t have much time, this tour is just right. The transfer is included, so you can start your tour relaxed.
- Three-hour tour of the secret catacombs*: Also on this tour you will be picked up from your hotel. Unlike the first tour, it departs several times a day. It is also available in English.
- On a tour of the wild Odesa Catacombs, you’ll see the underground with your guide and a small group.