It’s only fitting that we begin our story of cosmopolitan Odesa with the Greeks. Not only is the name “Odesa” of Greek origin, archaeologists discovered a 2600 year-old Greek settlement on the hill above the port. The next time you’re strolling down Prymors’kyi bul’v. imagine toga and sandal wearing Greeks bustling about an outpost on the edge of a mighty empire. Odesa’s Greek heritage is not linked only to ancient times. Many Grecians immigrated during the industrial boom of the 19th Century. Political exiles and freedom fighters found a welcoming urban centre ideal for concealing and coordinating uprisings. Filiki Eteria (Society of Friends) was secretly formed in 1814 at a safe house located on Chervonyi prov. Their objective was independence for all Greeks from Turkish occupation. From humble beginnings in Odesa, they went on to play a critical role in the victory over the Turks in the Greek War of Independence (1821-29). During Soviet times, authorities attempted to deport all Greeks from the region; however, this was not to be the final chapter in Odesa’s Grecian saga. A handful of Greeks survived this era of tyranny, and a small community continues to call Odesa home.
The inscription on Odesa’s original coat of arms (1798) was written in four languages: Russian, Greek, German, and Italian. Each of these groups played significant roles in shaping this amazing city, and the Italians deserve much of the credit for the actual shape. Just as in St. Petersburg, Italian architects left an elegant mark on Odesa that continues to delight travellers, and inspire artists and writers. Names like Franz Frapolli and Francesco Boffo will be forever embedded in the city’s history. Designed by Frapolli, the Felix de Ribas House (Deribasivs‘ka 13) has remained intact for nearly 200 years. Boffo designed the Potemkin Stairs, the city’s most recognized feature. He is also responsible for the Vorontsovs’kyi Palace, which is not only beautiful, but apparently indestructible. On April 10th, 1854 the structure withstood an Anglo-French bombardment of more than 200 cannonballs, one of which is still embedded in a wall on the ground floor. As with the Greeks, a small community remains, and a new wave of Italian prospectors has come seeking fortune in contemporary commercial markets.
While perusing centre, you’ll notice that the Italians, Greeks, French, Jews and even the Poles have streets named in their honour. But what about the Germans? Surely, their contribution to marvellous city warrants recognition in the form of a street name. It turns out that there was a street at one time, but the name was changed. The Nazi occupation of Odesa is still a sensitive issue locally; don’t expect the name to be restored any time soon. That said, the contribution of Odesa’s German community cannot be overlooked. Thousands immigrated from Germany, Austria and Switzerland in the 19th Century and made an immediate impact as coach makers, gunsmiths, watchmakers, bakers, printers, photographers and druggists. Brewing also fell to capable German hands; brands such as Santsenbauer and Kempe became regional favourites.
The Gates of Zion
From “Odesa Mama” to “Hero Town”, locals have many terms of endearment for their beloved city. The Jewish community refers to Odesa as “The Gates of Zion”. Throughout the first half of the 20th Century, Jews set sail for Palestine from Odesa’s port. But Odesa was not just a layover; it has had a large established Jewish population since the early 19th Century. During these trying anti-Semitic times, it was believed that only Odesa offered Jews the possibility of a normal life. And what did Jewish Odesians do? Everything and then some. They worked as shopkeepers, craftsmen, salt dealers, shoemakers, grain vendors, dockworkers, moneylenders, jewellers, lawyers, engineers, doctors and artists. Odesa continues to be Ukraine’s centre for the Jewish community, and Jews continues to play an inseparable role in the city’s growth and prosperity.
Don’t be distracted by the champagne with the Frantsuzskiy Bul’var label, the contribution of French Odesians extends well beyond winemaking. Armand Emmanuel Sophie Septemanie du Plessis, duc de Richelieu (say that five times fast) was exiled to Russia by Marie Antoinette in 1790. After serving valiantly in the Russian Imperial Army, he was appointed governor of Odesa by Tsar Alexander I in 1802. A progressive planner, Odesa blossomed under his leadership. De Richelieu’s compatriot, Louis Alexandre Andrault comte de Langéron, took over as governor in 1815. He established Odesa as a duty-free international trade zone. As a result, the city boomed, and prosperity flowed to all levels of society. In light of their tremendous contributions, it’s no surprise that their names have been immortalized in tributes including a statue of de Richelieu (Prymors’kyi bul’v.), Rishel’ievs’ka and Lanzheronivs’ka streets, Dukovskyi Garden and Lanzheron Beach. Many other Frenchmen found welcoming niches. For example, the first banks belonged to Frenchmen, and Odesa’s first newspaper was the Messager de la Russie Meridionale, ou Feuill Comerciale.