Ukraine. A vast country that prides itself on a history rich with heroes and artists. A nation whose foundations stand on centuries of struggle and fighting for independence. Many of Ukraine’s cities have rich and lengthy histories behind them – all filled with tales and secrets.
But one Ukrainian town stands out – Odessa. Beneath its streets, under the slowly unraveling everyday lives of its citizens, lies a sprawling network of tunnels and catacombs, an enigmatic web of dark corridors that built up a reputation of macabre proportions.
Let’s unravel the story of these vast catacombs that lie untouched beneath one of Ukraine’s largest towns. We’re heading underground to find out whether the tunnels are truly empty. And what awaits is a journey that comes so eerily close to something from the pages of Metro 2033 or the S.T.A.L.K.E.R.
Odessa’s underground labyrinth awaits.
Part of the catacomb network, Odessa, Ukraine . ( Artem Merzlenko /Adobe Stock)
Like Ants: The Earliest History of the Odessa Catacombs
Situated in the very south of Ukraine, nestled at the shores of the Black Sea , Odessa is the sprawling and third most populous town in the country. What started as an ancient Greek colony, in time turned into a metropolis – a crucial seaport and an economic hub.
But one thing that this city of one million citizens hides, and a fact that many who visit it are totally unaware of, are the sprawling catacombs beneath its streets.
In fact, these labyrinthine tunnels are so enormous, that they easily dwarf both the catacombs of Rome and those of Paris . To put things into perspective: the Roman tunnels are about 170 km (105.63 miles) long, and the Paris ones about 300 km (186.41 miles). The complete length of the Odessa catacombs comes up to around astonishing 2500 km (1553.43 miles)!
Mind boggling isn’t it? Especially when you consider the fact that the distance between Odessa and Paris is roughly 2138 km (1328.49 miles)
The Odessa catacombs are a very complicated system of natural tunnels, mines, bunkers, and caves that are predominantly a result of mining – with the earliest excavations beginning in the 19th century. But some like to say that the earliest form of the catacombs dates to centuries before that, to 1600’s or possibly before – and that’s plausible.
Old Odessa catacombs . ( onyx124 /Adobe Stock)
Either way, the main portion of these catacombs was begun in earnest in the 19th century and onwards, with stone being quarried to be used in the building of the houses of the city above. The mining operations would soon spiral almost out of control, causing some issues for the town itself, until they would be temporarily banned after 1917. This was only aimed at the portions beneath the town center though, and the rest of the catacombs continued to develop some time after.
Over the decades that follow, after the gradual abandonment of the mining operations, the Odessa catacombs would become somewhat obscure and forgotten. The tunnels would become a safe haven for a plethora of different characters, most of them shady . The sheer size of the catacombs meant a refuge for all walks of life that sought to hide.
But the most important “inhabitants” of these labyrinths were the Soviet partisans. In World War II, Odessa was besieged in August of 1941 by the Axis forces. After 73 days of vicious fighting, the town fell and was annexed to become a part of newly formed Transnistria Governorate under Romanian administration.
Detachment of Molodtsov near Odessa Catacombs. ( CC BY SA 4.0 )
But even though the city fell, its citizens didn’t give up the fight. Hundreds of partisans, or rebels, took to hiding in the catacombs. Here they lived – slept, cooked, organized raids, and fought.
In hopes to counter the threat of the partisans, Romanian Axis troops attempted to seal several tunnel exits, as well as tossing poison gas into the tunnels. But without knowing the mind boggling extent of these catacombs, their efforts proved largely fruitless.
A large portion of these tunnels – due to the sheer extent and the number of corridors – remains completely unexplored. In the decades after the war, the tunnels became a safe haven for smugglers and criminals – and they made more tunnels.
Several attempts at thorough exploration were made over the years. The biggest and most serious efforts were made by a club specifically created for the purpose – Poisk ( Поїск). Even though they never managed to explore the tunnels fully, the maps that these urban explorers managed to create are simply on the verge of being impossible.
They present thousands of crisscrossed tunnels, intersections, corridors, galleries, and caverns, all entwined and endlessly sprawling like some chaotic maze of ant tunnels. Just one look at the maps will show you exactly why the Odessa catacombs were never fully explored – the sheer size prevents it. Perhaps they will never be.
A partial map of the Odessa catacombs. (Author provided)
Myths and Poetry: Secrets of the Odessa Catacombs
One interesting aspect of the tunnels is the fact that they are subject to a variety of highly imaginative urban legends. The citizens of Odessa believe a variety of myths and rumors that circulate about the catacombs – hidden treasures, skeletons, and even ghosts. One popular myth is the story of the White Hunter – a catacomb explorer of some notoriety who apparently never came out and most likely died while in the catacombs. The citizens believe that he still haunts these labyrinthine tunnels.
Another urban legend, far more popular, is the story of the lost treasure. According to rumors, a wealthy aristocrat from Odessa that survived the sinking of the Titanic decided to commemorate this event by ordering the creation of a solid gold model of the ship. After the communists came to power, this man hid both himself and the golden Titanic in the catacombs below, never to be discovered. This myth has led many treasure hunters to enter the darkness of the catacombs in search of wealth.
Catacombs below Odessa, Ukraine. ( Artem Merzlenko /Adobe Stock)
Some proof for the long existence of this myth are the countless graffiti ships that can be spotted in the tunnels. Actually, the walls of the Odessa catacombs are inscribed with thousands of writings, ranging from names to slogans to caricatures and even poems. The earliest of the graffiti dates to the 18th century.
Some are simple, but still informative: “ Fedor Troyanenko earned 10 rubles and 99 kopeks – year 1907.” Others are simple dates – “Written in 1842.” There are some that are enigmatic and biblical, macabre and ominous: “ I die for your sins.” ; “Blood for blood; Death for death.” or “ God will never save our souls.”
And some are full-fledged poems, written in the delicate Cyrillic cursive script, their authors lost to time. These lines give us a glimpse into the melancholic Slavic and Ukrainian soul of the past:
“No treasure, no happiness, you will find here,
Though forehead knocks the wall behind the wall.
Go to the left, go to the right,
You’ll only meet the darkness of the night…”
Another poem tells of the loneliness inside the tunnels:
“Sing not, oh nightingale,
against my cell,
and don’t interrupt my prayer,
The Lonesome Death Below
There are reasons why the Odessa catacombs are so shrouded in enigma and macabre reputation -many of those who ventured deep below have never come out. Those daring few that decide to explore the endless depths below Odessa are often surprised by a gruesome find. Skeletons and mummified animal corpses , World War II weapon caches, archaic items – and human corpses.
Sad mother monument, made in stone in the Odessa catacombs . ( gorinov /Adobe Stock)
Numerous reports exist of partially mummified human remains and skeletons that have been found inside the catacombs. This led to a lot of attempt at secrecy by the officials. But one such find could not remain a secret.
In 2005, after a couple of drinks, a group of enthusiastic Odessa teens decided to continue their party down in the catacombs. The group ventured deep inside and soon enough they got lost. One of their group, a teenage girl named Masha, got separated from the rest.
Eventually the majority of the group managed to find their way back out – but Masha never did. Her partially mummified body was discovered two years later by amateur explorers. The partial mummification made for a successful identification of the victim and the autopsy revealed that she died from dehydration three days after getting lost.
This goes to show that the Odessa catacombs can be very grim. Some sources claim that roughly five amateurs that descend into the tunnels never come out again – and this really gives us an incentive to truly grasp the size of these tunnels. They are so incredibly extensive that someone who dies within can simply never be found.
And the size is further reflected in the fact that the entirety of the catacombs has never been explored. There are still hundreds of kilometers of tunnels that no one has been able to see all of – we can only speculate about what kind of gruesome secrets still dwell deep within.
An entrance into the catacombs. ( eliosdnepr /Adobe Stock)
Ukraine’s Underground Museum
The Odessa catacombs, even though slightly taboo and extremely eerie, are not illegal to visit . The officials really don’t care who goes down there, nor would they be able to monitor the catacombs since they are mind-bendingly enormous. But some tourism still relates to them. The “Museum of Partisan Glory” is located in a part of the catacombs north of Odessa, and it is the only underground museum in Ukraine.
It is dedicated to the partisan effort of the World War II and it is filled with relics of the period, almost all of which were found within the catacombs over the years. Rifles, machine guns, equipment and personal items – all were discovered lost or abandoned in virtually pristine condition.
All of these items are housed in a section of the tunnels which were used by the partisans. Makeshift rooms, quarters, tables, and all manner of carvings and writings are all preserved and the entire museum serves as a strikingly unaltered glimpse into the urban warfare of the second world war. This makes it one of the more unique museums of that period – as long as you don’t strive from the beaten path!
Old Catacombs Odessa, Ukraine (XVIII-XX century) . ( Valentin Balan /Adobe Stock)
The Longest Catacombs in the World!
One of the reasons the catacombs of Odessa stand out is because they are by far the world’s longest catacombs. The complete length of these catacombs is more than half of the width of the North American continent. The labyrinths are also unique by being largely unexplored and un-commercialized.
Still left for anyone to roam freely, these tunnels are used just as several decades before – by anyone who needs or wants to descend into its depths. But most importantly, the Odessa catacombs are an incredible testament, an entire “in-situ” museum of incredible proportions – filled with various relics of the past.
Relics of the past in the Odessa catacombs, Ukraine. ( Volodymyr Khodaryev /Adobe Stock)
Descending into the darkness below the world, you are thrust headfirst into a deeply disturbing realm. A wrong turn can mean death in these tunnels and every step might reveal some unseen horror. Everywhere, hidden in the niches and the stone nooks, lie scribbled and faded poems, warnings and pleas.
And as one treads these tunnels which were never graced by the light of day, one can easily see that the horrors from the pages of novels such as “Metro 2033”, or from some iconic Lovecraftian horror, are firmly and terrifyingly rooted in reality.
Top Image: Old Odessa Catacombs Source: onyx124 / Adobe Stock