Underneath the city of Odessa, in Ukraine, is an extensive network of tunnels believed to be the largest catacomb system in the world. Largely unmapped and spread haphazardly under the city, the huge maze of underground passages extends for over 2,500 kilometers. If it were laid out in a straight line the tunnels would reach all the way to Paris. Incidentally, Paris is also the place where the world’s second largest catacombs are located. But Odessa’s catacombs are five times longer than those in Paris.
It’s difficult to say when digging underneath Odessa first started but the catacombs were greatly expanded starting from the late 18th century, when Catherine the Great ordered this new port city to be built by the sea. An incredible amount of mining took place to extract limestone to build the city above ground. The tunnels were dug more than a hundred feet below ground on three different levels. New shafts were created whenever old ones ran out of limestone, and it was through this process an intricate web of tunnels began to take shape.
Mining continued throughout the entire 19th century and into the 20th, until the outbreak of the Russian Revolution of 1917. The mines fell into the hands of criminals and vagabonds who began to use the underground to meet and smuggle goods. At one time these dark and dingy tunnels were even used by slave traders.
When the Nazis arrived in Odessa and began massacring the city’s population, the catacombs served as hiding place for Soviet partisans fighting the axis forces. The hideouts were turned into comfortable living spaces by the guerilla fighters. There were recreation rooms where men played checkers, chess, or dominoes by candlelight. Rooms for accommodation had shelves cut into the walls where men and women slept. Kitchens were equipped with stoves made of limestone and smoke was vented into empty chambers above. There was even a hospital and an operating theater.
Some of the tunnels have been reconstructed today, allowing visitors to see the exact conditions that the partisans lived in. At the ‘Museum of Partisan Glory’ near Nerubayskoye, there’s a kilometer-long section of catacomb neatly arranged with period-costume dummies and rusty WWII weapons.
There are more than a thousand known entrances leading into the mysterious labyrinth filled with hidden caves, where modern explorers routinely discover century-old artifacts such as coins, tools, items of clothing, cooking pots and utensils, rifles from World War II, and old newspapers.
Going into the tunnels without a guide is extremely dangerous. It’s all to easy to wander into the darkness and never return.
Museum of Partisan Glory in the Odessa Catacombs.