Maps are sometimes deceptive. You stare at an atlas and see a landmass that's supposed to share one language, ethnicity, and culture. But what if it doesn't work out that way? With the city of Odessa it certainly doesn't. Located in southeastern Ukraine, hardly any Ukrainian is spoken there. But then, you might want to pin down the city's culture by defining it as Russian. But even that isn't enough. Though settled by Russians in the 18th century, it was also settled by Greeks, Germans, Bulgarians, Armenians, and Jews. Oh, and to top it off, for about half a millenium it belonged to the Ottoman Empire and Muslim Turkic tribes. So how did this city manage to be home to at least a half-dozen ethnicities and the three major monotheistic religions? A survey of its founding history in the 18th century will serve to the answer that question.

The history of the city of Odessa, located near the Black Sea in the southeastern part of the Ukraine, can be traced to the war that Russian Empress Catherine II successfully waged against the Ottoman Empire. The city was founded in 1794 on the conquered site of Khadzhibey, near an Ottoman fortress. Up until Catherine's conquest, the area was settled by Crimean Tatars, a conglomeration of Turkic tribes that had descended from the Mongolian Horde's occupation of Russia. The Tatars adopted Islam in the 13th century and had their own independent state, the Crimean Khanate,until it was absorbed by the Ottoman empire in 1475. The Ottoman protectorate passed into the hands of Russia after the Russian-Ottoman war of 1781-1791 and was promptly dissolved. Many of the former inhabitants took off to other parts of the Ottoman empire with only a few remaining in the Crimean peninsula.

The newly founded city of Odessa replaced the outgoing Muslim population of Crimean Tartars with Slavs, Jews, and Christian immigrants from Eastern and Western Europe. The name of the city, Odessa, was chosen to emphasize the city's new Christian roots. The name harkens back to Odes, a 7th century Greek colonial settlement of this same area that eventually gave way to Ostrogoths and the Mongol Horde.(Note: If I could find a book on the history of the Goths on the territory of Modern Ukraine, it would be most fascinating.)

The goal of the new city was to promote trade by welcoming Western European ships into its harbor and exchanging local resources such as wheat, wood, silk, and meat for finished factory-produced goods. To get the trade started-up, the city emerged overnight through speedy construction and urban planning led by Dutch engineer Franz de Voland and Naples-born soldier Joseph de Ribas who stormed the Ottaman fortress at Khadzhibey. Odessa's layout is very modern in that it had a gridiron framework of intersecting streets that made Mark Twain liken it to a modern American city. The narrow twisted European streets were considered inpractical for a city whose chief aim was the transportation of resources to its harbor. Why make the goods-carrying carts twist and wind their way through tiny, careening paths?

The production of wheat and cattle meat that was to be exchanged at the black sea port required an injection of labor. The first city chief of Odessa, Duc de Richilieu, a distant relative of the famed French cardinal, offered subsidies to serfs who would move from the Russian mainland to the new city. Serfs who came not only got money but also freedom. They were no longer indebted to landlords like in the rest of the country. Richilieu also invited German colonists. There were Memmonites who created the settlement of Ulm and the German Catholics who settled the colonies of Kleinliebenstahl and Josephstal.The German colonists, along with the Greek, Albanian, Armenian, Bulgarian, Moldavian, and Swiss arrivals often starved if they arrived in the winter. The summer arrivals were less likely to perish because they were able to provision their food in time for the winter.

The newly Christian character of the city was used to draw Christian settlers from the Ottoman empire. In the era where Greeks were subjects of the Ottomans, Odessa gave them a chance to found their own churches, schools, and cultural associations in the hearth of an empire that shared their Orthodox Christian Faith. They even started a society for Greek Liberation as well as their own schools that taught ancient Greek alongside modern Greek. Escaping the Muslim cultural milieu was also a factor that drew Christian Armenians and Bulgarians away from their Ottoman-controlled homelands to Odessa.

Jews, who were under the Laws of the Pale of Settlement that limited their residence to small towns and prohibited them from living, working, or tilling farmland elsewhere in the Russian Empire, also benefited from moving to Odessa. They were free to cultivate plots of land and sell the harvest as well as work in skilled professions such as carpenting, the locksmith trade, bricklaying, and etc. The Jews were especially active in the grain trade which brought them into competition and conflict with the local Greek community. The Greeks felt their grip on the trade potentially threatened by their Judaic neighbors and hence carried out several pogroms (i.e violence, murder, vandalism) against the local Jews in the 19th century. In all fairness, their fear of being overtaken was not completely paranoid. During the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878, trade between Odessa and Western Europe was disrupted. The sudden loss in profits bankrupted many prosperous Greek traders but left the less wealthy Jewish merchants untouched. The latter continued to be active in trade when it resumed a few years later while many of the Greeks were too ruined to come back.

The presence of these cultural groups can hardly be felt anymore in Odessa since centuries have passed since its founding. However, it's fascinating to know that the city's roots are a lot more diverse than just Russian and Ukrainian.

Unfortunately, the city's architecture doesn't reflect its ethnic diversity as it is mostly in the Roman style. The city's most famous attraction is the huge set of stairs near the harbor popularly known as the Potemkin Steps. They were the setting of the first film that popularized the montage, The Battleship Potemkin by Sergei Eisenstein. But the traces of the city's former Ottoman inhibitants cannot be found within its borders. To travel back in time to that era, you'd have to take a train to Bakhtchisray on the Crimean Peninsula and gaze at its Turkish-style residence of the Khan (the ruler of the Crimean Khanate.)


Herlihy, Patricia. Odessa: A History, 1794-1914. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1986

Zipperstein, Steven. The Jews of Odessa: A Cultural History, 1794-1881.Palo Alto: Stanford University Press.

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