The Potemkin Steps

Odessa Travel Blog

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The sculptures of Odesa
With our unexpected extra morning in Odesa, we had a glorious sleep in and enough time to wander into town, meander around the Opera House (built in the 1880s in Viennese baroque style) and the Potemkin Steps and have lunch at the Love Cafe, and still get back to our hotel before the rest of our group arrived, all hot and bothered from the long drive from Moldova.


Once they were ready, we went on a city tour of Odesa. Odesa was part of the largely unoccupied nomadic steppe until Russia won the second Turkish-Russian war over access to the Black Sea. Catherine the Great gave the job of settling the region as "New Russia" to her one-eyed lover Grigory Potemkin. He attracted new settlers and founded cities. Odesa was founded on 2nd September 1794 around the small Turkish fortress of Khadzhibey, which guarded a good natural harbour.

The streets of Odesa
The name derives from a ancient Greek settlement on the site, Odessos, which was feminised in Russian to become Odessa (Odesa in Ukrainian). Odesa was largely built by de Richelieu (governor from 1803 to 1814, and the great-great-nephew of the Duke de Richelieu from “The Three Musketeers”), who relied on recruiting foreigners with cheap land (and an interest-free loan on the condition that they built a house) and religious toleration, filling up the region with Bulgars, Serbs, Modlovans, Greeks, Armenians, Jews, Swiss, Germans and minorities from within Russia. Until the 1905 pogroms started it was the third largest Jewish city in the world, after New York and Warsaw. It was made a Free Port in 1819 (duty free for fifty years), and quickly grew into the fourth imperial city of Russia (after St Petersburg, Moscow and Warsaw) and the second port of the empire (after St Petersburg, with three million tonnes of cargo per year, but it never became a naval base).


As the city was a planned city (by a Dutch Colonel engineer), it has a grid-like structure, many parks and a good public transport system.

Obelisk to the Unknown Sailor, Odesa
The most sought after apartments are the ones built in the Stalin period, as he stipulated that they should be built to last, with solid construction and full services. The other style of houses common are Khrushchev period, far less attractive as they were designed to be built rapidly to solve the housing crises. Sycamore trees have been planted throughout the city, and there are lots of parks, giving it an attractive feel. The oldest streets are paved with Italian granite, as there was no local source for hard rock. The city now has one million people, and due to its unique settlement it became much more European and cosmopolitan, and culturally aligned much closer to Russia than to the Ukraine (with more Russian speakers than Ukrainian speakers). Our guide tells us that if there was a referendum tomorrow asking “do you want Odesa to succeed from the Ukraine and become part of Russia?” more than 50% would say yes, but while there is some grumbling about the Ukrainisation of the education system, Odesians are generally not the type to get worked up about these issues.
Arcadia beach, Odesa


Our first visit was to the war memorial (to Odesians, “the war” always refers to World War II). Russia entered WWII on the 22nd of June, 1941, and by the 5th of August most of European Russia was occupied by the Germans, with Odesa being one of the few cities to resist occupation. Odesa held out for 73 days, from the 22nd of June to the 16th of October, against such odds (18 divisions of Germans and Romanians against five divisions of the Red Army) that it gained the status of “Hero City”.

The Opera House, Odesa
During the resistance, civilians and sailors from the merchant and naval fleet in port joined the resistance, and the pinnacle of the war memorial, overlooking the Black Sea, is the “Obelisk to the Unknown Sailor”.


Our next stop was down French Boulevard (framed by the “Obelisk to Victory” called “The Thermometer” by locals). The street was once famous as the street of villas of the aristocracy and the richest of the merchants, with summer houses on the beach. After the revolution the villas were taken over by the trades union as sanatorium for the workers. Now all have been bought back by the new aristocracy, and the street is almost exclusive for the mega-rich holiday homes. We went to Arcadia beach, one of those currently still public. It had long side-strip full of tacky shows(a western theme, “sex mission”, Egyptian theme, etc), the beach was crowded with the full gamut of bathing suits on display (sailor hats were also popular), and everyone looked like they were having terrific fun.

Graffiti in Odesa "NATO No!"
Every spring palm trees are brought to the beach and moved back to the botanic gardens in the autumn, to add to the tropical theme.


We then walked down the most famous street in Odesa, the Prymorsky bulvar. This street has some of the most famous buildings on or near it. There is the first stock exchange built at one end, now the City Hall, with Ceres (the God of Fertility, to help the grain) and Mercury (the God of Trade) carved on the building (the second stock exchange, built in 1894 is now the Philharmonic Hall). A statue of Puskin is in front of the building, and it was while in exile in Odesa that he started some of his most important works.


In the middle of the Prymorsky bulbar is the Potemkin Steps, 192 steps (once 200) joining the city to the port.

1920s theme restaurant, Odesa
Before 1903, working conditions for factory workers was horrendous, with eleven hour days, harsh conditions, no worker safety and the banning of unions (WorkChoices v2.0). In 1903, across Russia there were huge assemblies and riots of workers protesting their rights, including a 9000 strong workers assembly in St Petersburg. In 1904, wages were cut a further 20% in real terms, sparking a strike of 110 000 workers in St Petersburg, in a petition to decrease hours, increase wages and increase working conditions. The retaliation to the strike, “Bloody Sunday” sparked the 1905 revolution. In June 1905 the Potemkin Battleship had a strike over rations, the workers being given rotten food to eat. The firing squad refused to execute the strikers, and instead joined the rebels to overthrow the officers in a mutiny. The mutineers then sailed the Battleship Potemkin to Odesa, where there were huge gatherings of support at the base of the steps now known as the Potemkin Steps (which lead from the city to the port, built in 1837-1841). The Russian authorities refused to negotiate, however, so the mutineers sailed to Romania and surrendered to the Romanian authorities.
Lydia and John at the top of the Potemkin Steps, Odesa
These events lead to the October Manifesto by Tsar Nicolas II, but he ended up revoking all the progressive reforms, sparking the more severe 1917 revolution. In the 1925 film “Battleship Potemkin” a massacre occurred on these steps, which, despite being fictional, became ingrained in the cultural memory enough that the steps were renamed “The Potemkin Steps”. The steps were surprisingly nothing special, although they had an interesting optical illusion of being parallel from the top, as the stairs are 13m wide at the top and 21m wide at the base. At the top of the stairs is the Monument to Odesa Foundation, which was built on the 100
th anniversary of the founding (1894), and demolished on May 1st 1920 (to be reconstructed from fragments in 2007).
At the top of the Potemkin Steps, Odesa
We finished the evening by wandering around the city and having dinner in a 1920s theme restaurant at the top of the stairs.

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The sculptures of Odesa
The sculptures of Odesa
The streets of Odesa
The streets of Odesa
Obelisk to the Unknown Sailor, Ode…
Obelisk to the Unknown Sailor, Od…
Arcadia beach, Odesa
Arcadia beach, Odesa
The Opera House, Odesa
The Opera House, Odesa
Graffiti in Odesa NATO No!
Graffiti in Odesa "NATO No!"
1920s theme restaurant, Odesa
1920s theme restaurant, Odesa
Lydia and John at the top of the P…
Lydia and John at the top of the …
At the top of the Potemkin Steps, …
At the top of the Potemkin Steps,…
Me and Lydia at the bottom of the …
Me and Lydia at the bottom of the…
The Potemkin Steps, Odesa
The Potemkin Steps, Odesa
The sculptures of Odesa
The sculptures of Odesa
The streets of Odesa
The streets of Odesa
Arcadia beach, Odesa
Arcadia beach, Odesa
Odessa
photo by: Biedjee