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

 

You Might Also Like

Isaac Babel
  • July 01, 2004

Isaac Babel

Biography of one of the Soviet era's most talented writers, snuffed out before his light shone fully.
A Southern City By the Sea
  • November 01, 2005

A Southern City By the Sea

Had the tide of history turned just a bit differently, Taganrog could have become Russia’s new capital instead of St. Petersburg. Take a visit to this sleepy southern town on the Sea of Azov.
Like this post? Get a weekly email digest + member-only deals

Some of Our Books

Survival Russian

Survival Russian

Survival Russian is an intensely practical guide to conversational, colloquial and culture-rich Russian. It uses humor, current events and thematically-driven essays to deepen readers’ understanding of Russian language and culture. This enlarged Second Edition of Survival Russian includes over 90 essays and illuminates over 2000 invaluable Russian phrases and words.
At the Circus

At the Circus

This wonderful novella by Alexander Kuprin tells the story of the wrestler Arbuzov and his battle against a renowned American wrestler. Rich in detail and characterization, At the Circus brims with excitement and life. You can smell the sawdust in the big top, see the vivid and colorful characters, sense the tension build as Arbuzov readies to face off against the American.
Woe From Wit (bilingual)

Woe From Wit (bilingual)

One of the most famous works of Russian literature, the four-act comedy in verse Woe from Wit skewers staid, nineteenth century Russian society, and it positively teems with “winged phrases” that are essential colloquialisms for students of Russian and Russian culture.
The Latchkey Murders

The Latchkey Murders

Senior Lieutenant Pavel Matyushkin is back on the case in this prequel to the popular mystery Murder at the Dacha, in which a serial killer is on the loose in Khrushchev’s Moscow...
Fearful Majesty

Fearful Majesty

This acclaimed biography of one of Russia’s most important and tyrannical rulers is not only a rich, readable biography, it is also surprisingly timely, revealing how many of the issues Russia faces today have their roots in Ivan’s reign.
Fish: A History of One Migration

Fish: A History of One Migration

This mesmerizing novel from one of Russia’s most important modern authors traces the life journey of a selfless Russian everywoman. In the wake of the Soviet breakup, inexorable forces drag Vera across the breadth of the Russian empire. Facing a relentless onslaught of human and social trials, she swims against the current of life, countering adversity and pain with compassion and hope, in many ways personifying Mother Russia’s torment and resilience amid the Soviet disintegration.
A Taste of Russia

A Taste of Russia

The definitive modern cookbook on Russian cuisine has been totally updated and redesigned in a 30th Anniversary Edition. Layering superbly researched recipes with informative essays on the dishes' rich historical and cultural context, A Taste of Russia includes over 200 recipes on everything from borshch to blini, from Salmon Coulibiac to Beef Stew with Rum, from Marinated Mushrooms to Walnut-honey Filled Pies. A Taste of Russia shows off the best that Russian cooking has to offer. Full of great quotes from Russian literature about Russian food and designed in a convenient wide format that stays open during use.
The Best of Russian Life

The Best of Russian Life

We culled through 15 years of Russian Life to select readers’ and editors’ favorite stories and biographies for inclusion in a special two-volume collection. Totalling over 1100 pages, these two volumes encompass some of the best writing we have published over the last two decades, and include the most timeless stories and biographies – those that can be read again and again.
Life Stories: Original Fiction By Russian Authors

Life Stories: Original Fiction By Russian Authors

The Life Stories collection is a nice introduction to contemporary Russian fiction: many of the 19 authors featured here have won major Russian literary prizes and/or become bestsellers. These are life-affirming stories of love, family, hope, rebirth, mystery and imagination, masterfully translated by some of the best Russian-English translators working today. The selections reassert the power of Russian literature to affect readers of all cultures in profound and lasting ways. Best of all, 100% of the profits from the sale of this book are going to benefit Russian hospice—not-for-profit care for fellow human beings who are nearing the end of their own life stories.
The Little Golden Calf

The Little Golden Calf

Our edition of The Little Golden Calf, one of the greatest Russian satires ever, is the first new translation of this classic novel in nearly fifty years. It is also the first unabridged, uncensored English translation ever, and is 100% true to the original 1931 serial publication in the Russian journal 30 Dnei. Anne O. Fisher’s translation is copiously annotated, and includes an introduction by Alexandra Ilf, the daughter of one of the book’s two co-authors.
Marooned in Moscow

Marooned in Moscow

This gripping autobiography plays out against the backdrop of Russia's bloody Civil War, and was one of the first Western eyewitness accounts of life in post-revolutionary Russia. Marooned in Moscow provides a fascinating account of one woman's entry into war-torn Russia in early 1920, first-person impressions of many in the top Soviet leadership, and accounts of the author's increasingly dangerous work as a journalist and spy, to say nothing of her work on behalf of prisoners, her two arrests, and her eventual ten-month-long imprisonment, including in the infamous Lubyanka prison. It is a veritable encyclopedia of life in Russia in the early 1920s.

About Us

Russian Life is a publication of a 30-year-young, award-winning publishing house that creates a bimonthly magazine, books, maps, and other products for Russophiles the world over.

Latest Posts

Our Contacts

Russian Life
PO Box 567
Montpelier VT 05601-0567

802-223-4955