Diggers & Deserters: Odessa Catacombs [Global Undergrounds]

Beneath Odessa, a port city on the coast of Ukraine, there lies a labyrinth: a complex network of tunnels which, at an estimated total length of 2,500 km, rank as perhaps the largest underground system in the world [1].

The Odessa Catacombs grew out of natural cavities, fissures and caves. In the seventeenth century these were expanded to form smuggling tunnels; later, the nineteenth century saw a rapid boom in construction and the tunnels beneath the city were developed into working limestone mines. By the end of the nineteenth century, the catacombs lay spread across three distinct levels that descended to a depth of 60 metres below sea level [2].

The operation was interrupted, however, by the 1917 Russian Civil War, and the catacombs reverted to a realm of smugglers and ne’er-do-wells [3]. They would remain like this – a lawless, subterranean kingdom – right up until the Second World War, at which point they found an opportunity for redemption.

When Nazi forces drove the Red Army out of Odessa in 1941 an estimated 6,000 Soviet partisans remained behind, hidden in the tunnels beneath the city and living on food and supplies that were lowered down shafts by the rebels up above. From here they would launch surprise strikes on the invaders, before disappearing back into the catacombs. These partisans survived hunger, cave-ins and Nazi poison gas strikes; many remained at their posts even up until April 1944, when the Soviet Army returned to liberate the city [4].

For the children of Odessa, the myths of the catacombs are an heirloom; their secrets a repository of national pride. ‘Diggers don’t make maps,’ one local told me, as he led me down into the labyrinth: ‘It’s against the rules.’ Such discretion belies a partisan mentality, the philosophy of the rebel class; perhaps this explains why the Odessa Catacombs remain such a well-kept secret today.

Many people will have heard of the Paris Catacombs, while those in Rome have featured in Hollywood blockbusters such as Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). Odessa’s labyrinth, meanwhile, always manages to avoid the spotlight – despite these tunnels running to a total length more than three times that of Paris and Rome combined; indeed, more than the distance from Odessa to Paris itself.

Another key factor is the process of fetishisation. The catacombs beneath Paris are famously littered with human bones, daubed in bright or macabre graffiti, and serve as a countercultural meeting place for the city’s self-penned cataphiles. In Rome, the tone of the catacombs is defined by ornate altarpieces built from human skulls, mummified bodies, and the bejewelled skeletons of saints. Such ‘memento mori’ serve to shape the mythos of the tunnels, as well as directing the experience of those who descend into the darkness.

The Odessa Catacombs are bare and their history is one of concealment. What evidence there is of humanity – poems scrawled onto walls in Cyrillic script, the remains of military encampments – survives in the form of occasional landmarks, rather than a structured environment. Contemporary explorers do not dictate the tone of this place, but rather their marks, their litter and debris, are swallowed in time by the darkness itself. These crumbling limestone walls have a habit of eating up graffiti; even the deepest etched marks, the most indelible paints, will in time fall to dust.

The mythology of these catacombs too, forms a narrative of inhospitality. There are folktales of lost treasures which have lured seekers to their deaths beneath Odessa, and of the ‘White Hunter,’ the spirit of a lost mercenary that purportedly roams the labyrinth. Legends even tell of a subterranean god, a vengeful deity that imprisons those who would seek to steal its treasures. In a shifting labyrinth such as this, where rockfalls and subsidences create an ever-changing topology so that even frequent explorers must choose different routes from one visit to the next, such deification proves a poetic metaphor for nature’s autonomy.

While those other European catacombs may be perceived as dark and morbid places, as dungeons or as oubliettes, they are at least human places. The Odessa Catacombs, in comparison, are a nowhere. Skulls and bones may be unsettling, but ultimately, there is nothing more terrifying than the emptiness of a void.

On the last night of 2004, a group of local youths descended into Odessa’s catacombs to celebrate the new year. In the ensuing revelry however, they lost count of their own number and a girl, Masha, was left behind in the tunnels. Later – that is, almost three years later – coroners recovering the corpse would speculate that Masha had spent three days alive in the darkness before finally dying from dehydration.

So much for memento mortis; perhaps oblivisci mortis is a better term for the capacity of these catacombs to swallow all traces of life, to digest even death itself within their timeless depths.

 

[1] ‘Odessa Catacombs’, www.katakomby.odessa.ua, 2014.
[2] ‘Odessa Catacombs’, www.showcaves.com, 2011.
[3] Jarrod Tanny, City of Rogues and Schnorrers: Russia’s Jews and the Myth of Old Odessa (Bloomington, IN: 2011).
[4] David Brandenberger, National Bolshevism: Stalinist Mass Culture and the Formation of Modern Russian National Identity, 1931-1956 (Cambridge, Ma, 2002).

Diggers & Deserters

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