Odessa History

From the Founding of the City and up to the Revolution (1794-1917)
Odessa is comparatively young and was founded at the end of the 18th century, but the history of the north-west coast of the Black Sea on which the city is situated goes much further back.
In the 1st millennium B.C. and the beginning of the first century A.D. the steppes along the Black Sea coast were inhabited by the Cimmerians, Scythians, Sarmatians and other tribes.
In the 6th century B.C. the Greeks began to colonise the lands that now form part of the Odessa region. Part of their settlements were subsequently turned into large fortified towns specialising in crafts and trade. The best known of these is Tyras on the Dniester River (see the trip to the town of Belgorod-Dnestrovsky).
In the 1st to 3rd centuries A.D. the north-west coast was invaded by Roman legions.
In the 3rd century, according to written sources, the Goths moved to the Black Sea coast from north-west, and at the end of the 4th century the territory had been overrun from the east by the Huns.
The first Slavonic settlements appeared in the 3rd-6th centuries A.D. and in the 8th century Alani-Bulgarian tribes settled in the area between the Dniester and the Danube and were subsequently assimilated by the Slavs.
Ancient Russian manuscripts reveal that the steppe-lands which now form part of the Odessa region, especially the lands between the Dniester and the Danube, played an important role in the life of the Slavs in the days of Kievan Rus (9-12th centuries). Slavs settled in the lower reaches of the Dniester, Prut and Danube, in the beginning of our era, and this gave them an outlet to the Black Sea, which sparked off the establishment of many Russian townships, including present day Belgorod-Dnestrovsky. When the area was captured by the Mongol-Tartar hordes in the mid-13th century, the ties between the steppe-lands and the lands where the Slavs originated were disrupted.
The Mongol-Tartar’rule left the area devastated. However, in some places a permanent Slav population remained. During the 14th century and in the beginning of the 15th, following the division of Kievan Rus into smaller principalities and the Slav population into Russians, Byelorussians and Ukrainians, the north-west coast of the Black sea began to be settled by Russians and Ukrainians. One of their settlements which was sited on the territory of present-day Odessa was the port of Kachibey.
The exact date of the founding of the settlement is unknown, and even its name changes depending on the source of information. The different names seem to be variations of one theme: Kachibey, Kotsyubiyevo, Katsyubeyev, Khadjibey, Gadjibey and Adjibey.
It is first mentioned in 1415 in the manuscripts of the Polish chronicler Jan Dlugosz and by that time it was already a comparatively big port.
In the sixties of the 14th century and for almost one hundred years this territory was ruled by the Lithuanian Kingdom.
In the mid-fifteenth century, following the disintegration of the Mongol State, the Crimean Tartars won independence and for a time they took over the northern Black Sea coastal area. After the Ottoman Empire captured the Crimea in 1475, the Crimean Tartars became vassals of the Empire and the northern coast of the Black Sea became in effect a springboard for attacks on neighbouring lands.
In an attempt to consolidate their position in these captured lands, the Turks strengthened the existing fortresses Ochakov, Bendery, and Akkerman (Belgorod-Dnestrovsky), and built one large new fortress on the Danube, Izmail, and several smaller ones. One of them was built in 1764 on the sheer cliffs of the Khadjibey Bay (now the Bay of Odessa), on the site of the present-day Primorsky Bulvar. This fortress was named Yeni-Dunya (New World), but was also often called by the name of the nearby settlement Khadjibey.
The fortress occupied the territory between the present-day Palace of Pioneers up to the Potemkin stairway and stretched inland to the present-day Krasnoflotsky Pereulok. The fortress was surrounded by a high wall with round towers and embrasures (crenelles). The main tower which was square with a conical roof and also the gates, were in the middle of the wall facing the sea.
The capture of the northern coast of the Black Sea first by the Golden Horde and then by the Turks, meant that Russia was cut off from the Black Sea for a long time.
The Russo-Turkish wars of the second half of the 18th century were the continuation of Russia’s struggle against Turkish and Tartar aggression, for an outlet to the Black Sea, and for the return of the northern coast which had been captured in the 13th century.
During the Russo-Turkish war of 1768-1774, Russian armies moved towards the Danube. In the summer of 1770 the Russian fleet destroyed the Turkish Fleet in the battle in the Bay of Chesmen in the Black Sea. Under the 1774 Kuchuk-Kainarji peace treaty, Russia received an outlet to the Black Sea through the area between the mouths of the Dniester and the Yuzhny Bug. The Crimean Khanate no longer depended on Turkey and was joined to Russia.
Turkey’s attempts to regain the lost lands led to another war with Russia in 1787-1791, a war that ended in victory for the Russian forces.
It was during this war that the Russian army led by General Ivan Gudovich and Vice-Admiral Josef Deribas, together with a unit of Cossack troops, laid siege to the Turkish fortress Khadjibey. On September 14th, the fortress was captured, and in December, 1790 the Izmail fortress, the largest on the Danube, was stormed.
In December, 1791, Ottoman Turkey was forced to sign the Jassy peace treaty under which Russia consolidated its hold on the Crimea and the entire northern coast of the Black Sea (from the Dniester to the Kuban, and the primordial Slav lands between the Yuzhny Bug and the Dniester, including the greater part of the present-day Odessa region). Russia’s long struggle for an outlet to the Black Sea was crowned with success. This outlet was of immense economic, political and military significance for Russia.
The country got down to settling the area and one after another new towns and ports were founded; Kherson (1778), Nikolayev (1789) and Tiraspol (1793).
Astute statesmen of those days immediately recognised the excellent facilities offered by the Bay of Khadjibey and decided to build a fortress and port on that site.
The great Russian military commander Field-Marshal Alexander Suvorov (1730-1800) was very active in the settlement of the new lands. It was he who directed the construction of the fortress and building work in the new town, so he is quite justly regarded as the founder of Odessa.
The new fortress, designed to defend the town from enemies coming from the sea, was built in 1793 not far from the ruins of the old Turkish fortress. Star-shaped with five bastions, it was surrounded by a moat and earthen mounds. The new garrison was comprised of 2,000 men with 120 cannons. Soon, however, the fortress lost its military significance and was turned into a medical quarantine area. It stood on the spot where today the Shevchenko park lies, and all that remains now is part of the stone wall with seven archways and a round watch tower.
On Suvorov’s initiative, the military engineer Franz Devo-lan drew up plans for the harbour and town of Khadjibey. In his report he stressed the excellent facilities of the bay, noting that shipping would be possible “all year round regardless what wind blew”. The harbour would provide excellent shelter for the fleet in times of war, and for trade in times of peace.
His report and plan were submitted to the Empress Catherine the Great and on May 27th, 1794, orders were given to build the town.
The first piles of the port were sunk on August 22nd (September 2nd new calendar), 1794. This day has become the birthday of Odessa.
In the beginning it was called Khadjibey, but from the beginning of 1795 the name Odessa can be found in official documents.
There are many legends about the origin of the name. The most likely version said that the town owes its name to the ancient Greek colony of Odessos, once situated on the north-west coast of the Black Sea. When Odessa was founded no one knew exactly where that colony had been, but it was believed to be somewhere on the shores of the Khadjibey Bay. This prompted the renaming of Khadjibey into Odessa. Today, however, it has been definitely established that the ancient Odessos lay where the present-day Bulgarian port Varna is sited.
Another legend says that when it was suggested to Catherine the Great that Khadjibey be re-named Odessa she replied, “Let Khadjibey bear the Greek name, but in the feminine gender, let it be known as Odessa.”
The new town grew and developed rapidly. From the very beginning it was well planned, taking into account the relief of the terrain. Some of Russia’s best architects worked in Odessa such as Avraam Melnikov, Jean Thomas de Thomon, as well as Franz Boffo, Georgi Torichelli, Felix Gonsiorovsky, Alexander Bernardacci, and Fyodor Nesturkh. As you walk through the city you will notice that its streets are straight and wide (the main throughways are 30-32 m), its squares spacious and its architectural ensembles elegant.
At the end of the 18th century and beginning of the 19th, work on the harbor continued, while in the vicinity dwelling houses, warehouses and shops were built.
Odessa owes its rapid growth chiefly to geographical factors; the deepness of the Bay of Odessa, the fact that it freezes very rarely, and the closeness of the mouths of the big navigable rivers, the Dniester, Dnieper and Danube. Because of this, there was always a very big cargo flow through the Odessa port. Some fifty odd years after its foundation, in 1850, Odessa with its population of 100,000 ranked as the third largest town in Russia.
Odessa was built mainly by Ukrainians and Russians and they made up the majority of its population, but from its very inception the town also served as a haven for refugees fleeing the countries enslaved by the Ottoman Empire: Bulgarians, Greeks and Albanians, as well as people from many parts of multinational Russia seeking a new and better life. This accounts for the variety of nationalities inhabiting Odessa.
From the very first years of its existence Odessa became a center of revolutionary and national-liberation movements. The names of many of the first Russian revolutionaries (those who took part in the 1825 December uprising against the Tsar) are linked with Odessa; Pavel Pestel, the Muravyev-Apostol brothers, Sergei and Mikhail, Sergei Volkonsky, etc.
It was in Odessa in 1814 that the secret revolutionary society of Greek patriots “Philiki Eteria” was founded; this society played a big part in preparing the Greek national-liberation revolution of 1821-1829.
In the middle of the 19th century Odessa became one of the centers of the Bulgarian social and political movement. The Bulgarian poet and revolutionary Georgi Rakovsky lived and worked in Odessa, the national hero Christo Botev studied there, and many other prominent figures in science and culture lived in the town. In the 1850’s an organization of democratic emigrants was founded, “The Bulgarian colony”, which later became the center of Bulgarian social and cultural movements.
The Italian revolutionary Guiseppe Garibaldi visited Odessa several times.
Odessa grew into an industrial and cultural center of Russia, in addition to being a trading center. In 1817 The Richelieu Lyceum was opened, the forerunner of the University. This was followed in 1829 by the opening of one of the first public libraries in the country. Earlier, in 1809, the city theater began performances and shortly after local newspapers started publication and book-publishing began.
In the 1870’s, the working class of Odessa, like in other industrial centers of Russia, launched its revolutionary struggle. The first strikes were held at factories and the first workers’ groups were formed. In May 1875 the first workers’ revolutionary organization in Russia was set up. It was known as the “South-Russian Workers’ Union”. Its organizer and ideological leader was Yevgeny Zaslavsky, a student who linked his destiny with that of the working class.
Members of the organization carried out revolutionary work among the workers, they organized strike action and disseminated and publicised revolutionary literature.
Zaslavsky set up a print shop, where apart from legal literature, he organized the printing of manifestos and leaflets, not only for Odessa, but also for other towns in Southern Russia. The Union maintained ties with many other Ukrainian towns. Although the organization did not exist for long, it left its mark on the revolutionary movement in the country.
1898 saw the organization of the Odessa Committee of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party on the basis of existing social-democratic circles and groups.
Odessa Communists are particularly proud of the fact that their delegate to the third Congress of the RSDLP in London in 1905 was Vladimir Lenin.
The struggle of the Odessa working class during the years of the first Russian revolution (1905-07) was a glorious page in the history of the revolutionary events in the city, and included the first mutiny in the Russian Navy, the battleship Potemkin. In June, 1905, the battleship entered the port of Odessa flying the Red Flag. The tsarist authorities sent a naval squadron against the Potemkin, but its sailors refused to fire at it and the government was unable to suppress the mutiny. “The most it has been able to achieve so far,” Lenin wrote at that time, “is to hold back the fleet from actively going over to the side of the revolution. Meanwhile the armoured cruiser Potemkin remains an unconquered territory of the revolution.
Throughout the second half of the 19th century Odessa continued its advance in the fields of culture and education while the face of the town also changed. The theatre, burnt out by fire, was replaced by a new building, ranking among the best of that time. A stock exchange was built, as well as banks, hotels and shops. Villas and other holiday homes went up along the coastal strip and improvements were made in the streets as new pavements and roads were laid. The town began to get its drinking water from the Dniester, and the first horse-drawn trams were introduced.
The opening in 1865 of the University, initially known as the Novorossiisk University, was a major event in the life of the city. The University Professors founded a number of scientific educational societies and institutions. 1871 saw the opening of the Odessa Astronomical Observatory, while somewhat earlier, in 1866, the bacteriologist llya Mechnikov founded the first bacteriological station in Russia.
The theater, music, literature and art played an important role in the city’s cultural life, and the Museum of Fine Arts was opened in 1899.