August 27, 2019

Odessa's Underground

Odessa's Underground
Shining a light on Odessa's Underground: the tour guide illuminates a drawing of the tunnels. Katrina Keegan

Odessa (or Odesa, if you prefer the Ukrainian->English transcription) shines a light on the shadows of society. In few other places in Eastern Europe, or anywhere for that matter, will the average cat boldly attempt to climb up your leg, rather than slink into hiding. And it’s not just the cats. As the Russian Empire’s premier center of Jewish life (in the era of pogroms and worse), and as a bustling crime-enabling port, Odessa brings underground history to the surface. 

Metaphorically, that is. Quite literally, much of Odessa’s history is underground. According to our tour guide, the tunnels under the city would stretch to Madrid if laid out in a straight line. They are dark, damp, cold, and so integrated into regular life that the candle-lit main hall of the museum in the so-called catacombs hosts weddings, birthdays, and business parties. Everything but funerals, said our tour-guide, with a straight-faced humor that might well be the driest thing in Odessa, given the city’s placement up against the Black Sea, alcohol-drenched party culture, and, of course, the moist underground itself.

Candle-lit main hall of museum
"“We’ve hosted all sorts of events down here," our tour guide said. "It's a great way to impress your mother-in-law. Funnily enough, the only thing we haven’t hosted is a funeral, but depending on your relationship with your mother-in-law, I’m sure it can be arranged."  / Katrina Keegan

Uniting the commercial port, alcohol and underground is an exhibit of the item that the museum staff discover most frequently during their excavations: bottles. The tour guide picked up the oldest one to display its concave bottom, saying that manufacturers have been trying to deceive customers about the volume of their purchases since the Imperial era. (There are other potential explanations, but it seems fitting the Odessan would choose the one related to money). Next to the bottle display is a dusty table adorned with the money, playing cards, and weapons of Odessa’s imperial-era criminals. 

A suit with bells on it
A demonstration of pickpocket training:
you pass the test if none of the bells ring. / Katrina Keegan

The underground is not actually catacombs. Before it was a wedding destination, it was a Soviet bomb shelter, Great Patriotic War partisan hideout, meet-up spot for criminals and smugglers, and, originally, tunnels for mining. Despite this diverse and rich history, it is legends of lawlessness that have most captured the imagination of the city, which has a dedicated Museum of Contraband. The museum is not exclusively about Odessa – they tell the story of the Boston Tea Party and Al Capone with relish – but that somehow only solidifies the impression of Odessa as a worldwide authority on black trade. 

The city was conquered and rebranded by Catherine the Great, acquiring the name Odessa (Odessos was an ancient Greek port town mistakenly thought to be located there) and immediate status as a Russian imperial port. One of the first things she did was attempt to fight the shadow economy by instituting a league of Cossacks to guard the port. However, even though they were paid a percentage of the contraband confiscated, soon they jumped ship and began participating in the contraband trade themselves. 

Perhaps this explains the nickname Lyubka Cossack, given to the matron of the black trade in Odessa, the historical figure Lyubka Sherman, in a short story by the writer of all things Odessa and Jewish, Isaac Babel. In the short story, she lives in the Moldavanka neighborhood, which still has a less-than-honorable reputation. The woman working at the Jewish museum told us about a family member who significantly lowered the family’s status by falling in love with a girl from Moldavanka. 

Guide at the Jewish Museum
The guide at the Jewish Museum playing a recording / Katrina Keegan

The reality of contraband is, of course, considerably less romantic. The underground trade was, actually, mostly above ground, according to the catacomb tour guide. The network of tunnels were so extensive and uncharted that it was used more as temporary storage and stationary meet-up locations than for actually moving goods. It was also, sickeningly, used for a particularly illegal type of trade. Human traffickers would lock attractive young women up in the complete darkness and silence of the tunnels, torturing them into submission. 

Comparatively, the high volume of contraband snuck through Odessa during the Soviet era – makeup, music records, gauze – seems harmless. In the 1990s the Odessa black market trade became violent again with the illegal import of arms, but after that softened again in the 2000s, this time to focus on cheap Chinese imports, at least for one of the leading figures of contraband, Vadim Alperin. In fact contraband is far from a thing of Odessa’s past. Just this July, authorities caught the largest contraband channel for textiles in Ukraine’s history and hundreds of thousands of packages of illegally imported cigarettes.

Smoking in the catacombs was strictly forbidden, and our guide said that this would just make smokers enjoy a cigarette after the tour all the more. As we were nearing literal light at the end of the tunnel, he told us that having spent time underground would help us appreciate life’s simple pleasures.

One creature doing just that was a stray kitten that had climbed up onto the guide’s chair at the top of the tunnel entrance to take a nap. Odessa is the home of emboldened outcasts, but also a vibrant love of life. Perhaps these things are complementary, rather than contradictory. 

Read more about Odessa’s humor and not-so-funny history in the Russian Life archives (digital subscription required). 

Odessa cat climbing up leg for petting
The author petting a very enthusiastic local cat / Austen Dowell


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