Odessa: The Catacombs
The Museum of Partisan Glory is an underground museum and monument to the people of Odessa who fought back against the occupying Nazis and Romanians during the Great Patriotic War 1941-1945. Built in 1969, the museum has two sections; the underground catacombs and the above-ground hall and gardens.
The catacombs first appeared in the 19th century, at the time of the construction of most of the grand buildings found in Odessa. The estimated 2800km (Odessa to Moscow and back again, then a bit more!) of passages that weave beneath the city were mostly dug by limestone miners in the 1800s. The coquina (yellow stone with shell fragments) was extracted from these underground caves and used to build Odessa. When the mines were abandoned, they quickly became a popular hideout for all manner of fugitives and smugglers.
The only tunnels that can be visited are in the suburb of Nerubayske, about 15km north of central Odessa- so it is an ideal half-day excursion. On the Thursday we booked a tour guide and headed about 15 minutes out of the city to the museum complex.
We passed the cobblestone streets and onto the modern sealed roads lined with wheat fields and dotted with petrol stations.
We came to a large car park- perhaps large enough for tourist busses on a busier day. We were the only visitors. My first impression was of a tragic waste of juicy apricots which had fallen on the ground near the entrance, and some older residents were wandering around, with that stoop of a lifetime of hard physical work, picking up the fruit in their little carry bags. It was these people I wished I could communicate with as well as our guide, as they could probably tell tales of life before independence, life under the Soviets and perhaps some childhood memories of life under occupation. They would probably also have some tips on what to do with an abundance of apricots, too!
Exploring the tunnels without a guide is not illegal, but is certainly not encouraged. If you get lost down there you may never find your way out again! In 2005, a group of Odessa teens had a New Year’s Eve party in the labyrinthine underground complex, and in the drunken revelry, one poor girl named Masha was separated from the group and got lost. She probably died of dehydration after a few days of wandering around trying to find an exit; her body was not discovered for another two years.
For our tour, we were taken to the official entrance by an old lady who wore a headscarf and a cable knit cardigan. Her English was heavily accented and I think her explanations were more from memorising the information into English rather than understanding what she was telling us. This is in no way a complaint; I was surprised and also grateful that so much English was spoken in the outskirts of this Ukrainian city. There are not many English-speaking tourists in these parts and we were relieved to find anyone who could at least vaguely understand what we wanted to communicate.
I was absolutely terrified as my claustrophobia started kicking in but I was determined to learn of the history. We were to walk some paths located 12-14 metres underground to get to the curated displays of partisan life. J held my hand and Miss E had a torch so I kept my eyes to the ground and focussed on the words of the guide.
The sections with electric lighting were a little easier to cope with, plus there was a vent where I could see sunlight.
The underground part is located in a small specially fenced part of the catacombs; we were shown a recreated guerrilla camp to get an idea of what life was like for the partisans. It was very cool and damp and we could see some of the original graffiti on the walls as well as artwork. There was a kitchen, school room, hospital, and bedrooms- even toilets!
After the Soviets were forced out of Odessa during WW2, Ukrainian rebel groups stayed in the tunnels. While waiting for a chance to strike back at the invading Nazis, they attempted to continue normal lives; activities such as listening to the radio, cooking, playing chess and checkers, or learning in the makeshift schools.
The Romanian Axis allies of the Nazis tried to flush them out by throwing canisters of poison gas into the catacombs and sealing off any exits they could find, hoping to trap them or smoke them out. Most Odessans recall cruelty from Romanians rather than Germans during the war. The museum website explains the terrible fate of a group of partisans:
The Museum of Partisan Glory is a monument to the partisan movement in the Odessa region and, in particular, to the soldiers of the detachment of the Hero of the Soviet Union Vladimir Molodtsov-Badayev. Within six months, 70 people of the detachment left in the Nerubai catacombs conducted active sabotage and reconnaissance work, were walled up by the Romanian invaders, and almost all died.
The original Badayev camp was 2 kilometres away from where we visited; it was destroyed after it had been flooded with groundwater. Local history enthusiasts searched archival documents and recollections of eyewitnesses to restore its original appearance for the recreated scenes in the catacomb display.
Later, during the Cold War, the catacombs were used as anti-nuclear bunkers.
The above-ground museum told the stories of some of the individuals; not only of the commanders of guerrilla groups, but also about the soldiers-heroes – sniper Lyudmila Pavlichenko, machine gunner Nina Onilova, and Komsomolets Yasha Gordienko.
We were happy to travel back to the bustling centre of Odessa in the afternoon: the city is vibrant and full of life. An experience like this makes us thankful for those who suffered such hardship in order for the city to enjoy the prosperity it does today. Each nation has a way of telling their stories of the past; this museum is a testament to the people who not only built the city but also to those who had to shelter in order to defend it when it was invaded.
“Atlas Obscura: an Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders.” Atlas Obscura: an Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders, by Joshua Foer et al., Workman Publishing, 2019.
“Музей Партизанской Славы.” Музей Партизанской Славы | Одесскиe Катакомбы, catacombs.od.ua/articles/museum.html.