This page was created by Sara Bobok. 

The Imperiia Project: a spatial history of the Russian Empire

Odessa - Appearance

Diary Entry of an Administrator from St. Petersburg visiting Odessa in 1851

As I arrived in Odessa, I was greeted by an official of the city. As an official, it is his duty to show important politicians, like myself, around. We started our tour at the famous Potemkin Steps; naturally, the official wished to show the city’s most highly acclaimed destination first. Highly acclaimed, not only in the architectural grandeur of the staircase, but also in that it leads to the city’s lifeline: its port.

    We made our way down the dozens of steps. I could see two large moles dividing the port into three sections. One section is for ships from abroad, the official explained, the other two are for local vessels that don’t need to go through inspection (Sifneos 22-23). The idea of inspection is not a typical Russian ideal. The official pointed to the far right. He explained that the large building along the port was a quarantine facility built by Duc de Richelieu, a frenchmen who served as the governor general of Odessa near the time of the city’s conception (Sifneos 22). The idea of putting people through customs was primarily Western European. Although these institutions were in place, Odessa embraced a free trade system, promoted by earlier governors such as Richelieu and Count Vorontsov (Sifneos 32).

    Early administrators, including Richelieu and Vorontsov, were often Western European. José de Ribas and Franz de Voland, the city’s two master planners, were Spanish and Dutch respectively. De Voland’s plan for the city kept “with other western ideas of the time,” following a grid format (Herlihy 12). However, the grid format was adeptly tampered with, adjusting the angles of intersection to coincide with the shape of the port and the flow of the ravines through the city (Herlihy 12). Aside from the general layout, many of the buildings themselves were designed by Italian architects, including Morandi, Torricelli, Boffo, and Dall’Aqua (Sifneos 30). These European vestiges were present not only in the architecture, but also in the politics. Early governors, specifically Richelieu, advocated for free trade to bolster commerce. Socially, he requested that merchants not be seen as second class citizens, acknowledging that they are the backbone of Odessa’s success as a city (Sifneos 32). This friendly relationship was palpable as the official stopped to chat with local merchants as we walked along the harbor. Richelieu’s successor, Vorontsov, “lobbied for the approval of an 1827 law that enabled all men in New Russia, including run-away serfs, to remain where they resided and continue their jobs” (Sifneos 33), embracing a more liberal policy than the Tsar recommended.

    We turned back towards the city center, where I had arrived. I now noticed the frequency of public spaces, including “parks, squares, markets, gardens, boulevards and also religious houses, restaurants, entertainment clubs, theaters, libraries, and reading rooms” (Sifneos 145). The city had clearly been planned with a high degree of intention to create communal places. And to my surprise, these spaces were inhabited by people of all different ethnic groups! I had heard about Odessa’s diversity; it is boasted of near and far. Odessans are comprised of Russians, Jews, Greeks, Germans, Bulgarians, Slavs, Albanians, Poles, Moldovans, Armenians, Tatars, Frenchmen, and Belorussians (Sifneos 30, 46). Yet, these peoples did not exclusively keep to themselves. Instead, they mixed and mingled, spoke about business, city life, and art.

    As we walked along residential neighborhoods, starting from the center of the city and moving out towards the periphery, a new realization struck me. The apartment buildings and residential areas were not segregated by ethnicity, but instead by class (Sifneos 49). Moving farther and farther away from the city center, the living conditions seemed to worsen (Sifneos 47). The elite and aristocracy made up a specific class, as did the merchants with their unique position in the Odessan economy. However, around fifty thousand peasants arrived in Odessa each year for seasonal work, contributing to the socioeconomic diversity of the city (Sifneos 37).

    Throughout my day in Odessa, I noticed a disproportionately high amount of men walking through the city center (Sifneos 9). I asked the official about this observation, and he confirmed my suspicions. Due to Odessa’s role as a port city, more men, in positions of merchants and traders, live in the city than women. This has created a variety of unique cultural phenomenons over time. While in most of the Russian empire, we have small nuclear families, here in Odessa, they apparently have male roommates sharing apartments; male roommates of all ages (Sifneos 34). And as the day came to an end, Odessa’s unique nightlife emerged. There appear to be an unusually high frequency of leisure and pleasure activities, frequently geared toward men. Most notably, Odessa has an active prostitution scene (Sifneos 9).

    The combination of relaxed ethnic boundaries and uncommon gender distributions results in yet another distinct Odessan social arrangement: informal couples. In these instances, the women were officially economically independent, yet lived with male counterparts. These couples were most commonly of different religions, and thus of different ethnic groups (Sifneos 44). This serves as an example of Odessa’s history creating unique gender, ethnic, and socioeconomic relationships.

    In conclusion, my time in Odessa has impressed me. Though its atmosphere is more Western and liberal than the rest of our great empire, it does contribute greatly to our economic prowess.


Duc de Richelieu. Citation: Herlihy, Patricia. Odessa : a History, 1794-1914. Distributed by Harvard University Press for the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute, 1986.
Duc de Richelieu


This page has paths:

This page references: