Dark secrets of Odessa’s vast catacomb labyrinth

Dark secrets of Odessa’s vast catacomb labyrinth

Called the Pearl of the Black Sea, Odessa is among the most attractive destinations in Ukraine.

But while its magnificent architecture and beautiful beaches are comparatively well known, the most enthralling destination here is really located way under the city.

Dark secrets of Odessa's
Dark secrets of Odessa’s

Deep in the area of Moldavanka, within an unassuming garage located off a busy road, establishes a particular gateway to one of the world’s largest metropolitan labyrinths — the Odessa Catacombs.

On entering, visitors are handed a helmet and a flashlight before descending around 25 meters (82 feet) down to the darkness.

Buried city

Contrary to the catacombs of Paris and Rome, the Odessa catacombs were not used to bury the dead.

Pavlo Fedykovych

with over 2,000 km (1,243 miles) of tunnels, this underground city is so huge and complex — there are at least 1,000 known entrances — which tourists are advised not to enter without a professional guide.

Dark secrets of Odessa's
Dark secrets of Odessa’s

Its size looks especially shocking when compared to the catacombs of Rome and Paris, which interval 300 and 500 kilometers respectively.

But unlike those from the French and Italian towns, these underground passages were not utilized to bury the dead.

Now a twisted system of unconnected caves and abandoned quarries or tunnels spread over three levels, the story behind their presence begins around the time Odessa was founded at the end of the 18th century.

Coquina, a sedimentary rock, largely contributed to the city’s rapid growth since it had been used to construct nearly all buildings in Odessa at the moment.

Dark secrets of Odessa's
Dark secrets of Odessa’s

The principle was simple: if you wanted to build yourself a palace, the simplest way to discover the material was to establish a quarry and mine as much coquina as you had.

Once the city experienced an enormous trade boom between 1819 and 1859, many palaces were built, which meant innumerable quarries were dug underground.

This procedure was pretty much unregulated, going some way to explain how big and disordered the area is currently.

The catacombs beneath the Moldavanka neighborhood form part of the Keys of Underground Odessa Museum.

Bomb shelter

Dark secrets of Odessa's
Dark secrets of Odessa’s

An anti-nuclear Cold War bunker is one of the many spooky sights across the network of tunnels.

Pavlo Fedykovych

with just a weak light trail to follow, visitors are met with cold temperatures of approximately 13 Celsius (57 F) on venturing underground.

A decaying Cold War nuclear bunker that employs the catacombs’ narrow pathways its base is one of the first sights.

It is a fairly grim scene today. The atmosphere inside the shield is stale, while the silence is deafening.

There are rusty parts of Soviet-era equipment cages and wires in the device, but the showstopper is its eerie engine room, which is almost completely submerged in water.

Next up is the so called”wild” part of the catacombs, among the many former coquina quarries.

This segment feels almost romantic compared to the bunker, with coal paintings piled on its walls, all with inscriptions underneath.

“There are hundreds of inscriptions, different symbols and paintings in the catacombs,” explains Andriy Dembitskyi, a manual for local Tudoy-Sudoy tour service who’s passionate about Odessa.

While lots of the captions indicate dates, instructions, and even swear words, the significance of these below these particular paintings remains unknown.

Dark secrets of Odessa's
Dark secrets of Odessa’s

Underground tales

Various tools used for rock mining and Soviet memorabilia on display.

Pavlo Fedykovych

Assessing the Odessa catacombs can be a fascinating and sometimes gruesome experience.

Dembitskyi recounts the time that his colleague found a decaying body, supposed to be a World War II casualty, in unexplored tunnels on the outskirts of Odessa.

He apparently put the remains in a bag before bringing it to the authorities. In accordance with Dembitskyi, the authorities refused to take the corpse, asserting it was situated in the jurisdiction of one of the town’s World War II museums. However, it appears the museum did not need to take responsibility for the remains.

In Kafkaesque style, the manual is thought to have driven around town for miles with the dead person in his trunk, before finishing up in the prosecutor’s office, who he states consented to take it.

Another story involves a particular unit of the NKVD, a Soviet secret police agency known for its role in political repression and overseeing the union’s prisons and labour camps.

Approximately 32 members were shipped into the catacombs in 1941 to sabotage the Romanian allies of German Nazis who occupied Odessa during World War II, when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union.

Information of the fate were sealed under state record for decades, but the records were finally opened to the public as part of decommunization coverage a couple of years before, revealing that only 1 member of the group saw the light of day again.

The device comprised of two NKVD classes, one from Odessa and one from Moscow.

Tensions between the aggressive groups led to a series of shootings and betrayals acerbated by the air of the catacombs.

Lots of the members were implemented, while others died from several illnesses.

By 1943, just the leaders of each group stayed. But the same year, the head of the Odessa unit fatally shot his Moscow counterpart and spent over nine months underground independently.

While he did finally emerge from the floor, he had been sent back in 1944 and died in a grenade explosion.

These gruesome tales are simply two of many dark tales connected to the labyrinth of tunnels, which has also been linked to smugglers and outlaws.

Signs of life

The catacombs hide a number of little underground lakes.

Pavlo Fedykovych

As many sections remain unexplored to this day, we might never know all the secrets that are hidden within this underground maze.

But there is more than just death and darkness to find here.

Dembitskyi points into the middle of a compact underground river, where there is some small movement.

“Lately, we have started breeding fish as an experiment,” he explains. “So far it works.”

A glimmer of life in a place where very little else has lived.

Further along, there is a display of tools used for rock mining and various Soviet memorabilia, the reconstruction of a criminal stash dating back to the Russian Empire and an improvised underground restaurant.

Since the tour reaches its end, Dembitsky explains that today’s outing has only covered about three km of the catacombs, less than 1 percent of the whole area.

Dating back to the beginning of the 18th century, Quarry Cantacuzene museum (or Quarry Kantakuzin), which is independent to the Secrets of Underground Odessa Museum, is also worth investigating.

As the earliest underground quarry in Odessa, it gives an interesting introduction to the world of the catacombs, in addition to the early history of this city.

Back on the ground level, bustling Odessa feels totally different.

Now it is tough to ignore the fact that there is another city beneath — a chilly maze of tunnels that are never-ending.

Fight for recognition

The Moldavanka area holds among the official entrances to the catacombs.

Pavlo Fedykovych

Leonid Ashtulenko, a guide who’s spent over 50 years of his life exploring the catacombs of Odessa, is now attempting to publish a novel about the inscriptions inside, his magnum opus.

Ashtulenko is looking for private financing since the town has shown little interest in the job.

He proudly shows off the several photos he has taken, while reciting tales from the town below.

The two Dembitsky and Ashtulenko form part of a regional movement to make the underground world more accessible to people.

The team has been battling, with admirable zeal, for its catacombs to be known as an Odesa fascination in the same league as the Odesa National Academic Theater of Opera and Ballet and Philharmonic Theatre as well as its Black Sea beaches.

And so far they are succeeding. Interest in the catacombs rises with each year, as more and more people descend underground.

And there is no denying the allure of the eerie underground area.

Mysterious and crazy, the catacombs of Odessa provide an unfiltered adventure to anyone who dares to enter.

Source: CNN Travel https://edition.cnn.com/travel/article/odessa-catacombs-ukraine/index.html

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