Cursing the Catacombs of Odessa

In Odessa, when someone’s water line suddenly breaks, or a house settles oddly, or a family pet goes missing, it is not uncommon for Ukrainians to curse about “those damn catacombs.”

odessa 11

Those Damn Catacombs

They are not being delusional, for underneath their houses run some 2,500 kilometers of catacombs, carved into the limestone that the city is built upon. (To get a sense of how much tunnel system that really is, it is only 2138 kilometers from Odessa to Paris.)

odessa 1

2500 Meters of Catacombs

The date of the earliest catacombs in Odessa is difficult to determine (as they were all widened at a later date) but they likely date back to the 1600s if not farther.


Limestone from the Catacombs were

used to Build Odessa

However, the catacombs began to truly grow into their astonishing, labyrinthine form in the early 1800s when the limestone quarried from them was used to build much of the city.


Catacombs became a hideout for Criminals,

rebels and eccentrics

Odessa’s catacombs quickly became the preferred hideout of rebels, criminals, and eccentrics. During WWII although the Soviets had been forced out of the city they left behind dozens of soviet-organized Ukrainian rebel groups hidden below the city in the expansive catacombs.


Having a normal Life beneath the City

Hiding in the catacombs for as much as 13 months, literally below the noses and feet of the Nazis above, they waited for a chance to strike or relay information. The men (and women; the rebel groups usually contained a least a few women) would play chess, checkers, cook, and listen to Soviet Radio, generally trying to make a normal life below the surface of the city.

odessa 2

Many Survived in Catacombs during WWII

They tried to ignore the malnutrition and malaria which afflicted many of them. Many of the partisan groups lived in the catacombs for the entirety of the rest of the war and on occasion the partisan groups even managed to blow up German facilities.

odessa 10

The Fascist tried to smoke the Soviet Rebels

The Fascist Germans and Romanians meanwhile chose random catacomb exits and sealed them, hoping to trap the men below the city forever, and occasionally tossed poison gas canisters into the catacombs hoping to smoke the soviet rebels out.

odessa 9

Exploring the Catacombs after the War

Once the war was over the catacombs became home to numerous smuggling and criminal groups, who widened and created new tunnel systems of their own. In 1961, the “Search” (Poisk) club was created, headed by Constantine Pronin of the Paleontological Museum of OSU, and became the first official catacomb exploration unit, meant to explore the catacombs and help document the history of the partisan movement.

odessa 8

Underground Trekking into the Catacombs

Today there is an entire Ukrainian subculture of catacomb explorers with dozens of semiprofessional groups, often quite competitive, exploring the catacombs. They go on multi-day underground treks, known as expeditions, to document and map the system. Should someone get lost in the catacombs, (as happens every couple of years) these groups put aside their differences and mount large search expeditions. They have rescued a number of children who have wandered into the catacombs.

odessa 3

Mapping the Unexplored area K-29

In September 1995, in honor of the 200th anniversary of Odessa, the record for the longest underground journey in the catacombs was broken by a 27-hour continuous journey of over 40 kilometers. (Had they walked in a straight line the journey would only have been 9.5 kilometers.) Shortly after this the mapping of a huge unexplored area of the catacombs known as “K-29” was begun.

odessa 7

Finding caches of Rifles and Grenades

Partisan weapon caches such as rifles and grenades are occasionally still found within the tunnels, and about once every five years a body is found. On rare occasions these bodies are almost perfectly mummified, freeze dried by the cold, dry air of the tunnels. While most of the time the bodies found are from long ago, bones of soldiers and smugglers, more recent accidents have been known to happen.

odessa 4

Finding Masha

On January 1st 2005, some Odessa teens decided to spend New Year’s night partying in the catacombs. However, in the drunken revelry a member of the group, a girl named Masha, became separated and lost in the catacombs. She spent three days wandering in the freezing cold and pitch black before she died of dehydration. It took two years before the police were able to locate her body and retrieve it from the catacombs.

odessa 5

Museum of Partisan Glory

While going into the catacombs is not illegal, there is only one small portion of the catacombs that is officially open to the public, which can be seen at the “Museum of Partisan Glory” in Nerubayskoye, north of Odessa.

odessa 6

Remember to Hire a Professional

It would be extremely dangerous to try and explore the catacombs on one’s own. However, professionals can be hired at the cost of 250 hryvnia per person, depending on the time spent underground, the complexity and length of the route, the number of tourists and options for delivery to the site entrance to the underground area.


6 thoughts on “Cursing the Catacombs of Odessa

  1. Great story here! I wonder why they never incorporated them into daily living as some kind of storage? Light the tunnels and have someplace to send the unruly children or alcohol/drug dependent, maybe those pesky “Westerners” from America who trespass? 🙂

    1. If you come we both can go in, hehehe only the unruly won’t come out. Glad to see you came back. Funny thing is Russians really don’t care if we are Americans or not. Most of them are down to earth people, very friendly when you get to know them.

      1. If I did go down there, I would be outfitted much like the mountaineers. Thick clothes in multiple layers, packed for a month of isolation, many cans of Sterno. I like cave exploring, so catacombs should not be a problem. The problem is getting there.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s