Extreme Tourism: The Forbidden Odessa Catacombs

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Unless you’ve already spent significant time underground or deep inside a cave, you cannot imagine total darkness as described by those who have toured the Odessa Catacombs. Many of the world’s major cities have underground tunnels that have endured over centuries—carved out for purposes of transit or battle, and remaining at least partially intact today. But the most expansive, fascinating, and deadly catacombs in the world exist under Odessa.

At an approximated 2,500 kilometers in length, the Ukrainian tunnel system dwarfs its nearest competitor at roughly five times the size of the Parisian catacombs. The Odessa catacombs are thought to have originated somewhere around the 1600s, though true origin dates are unknown. A century or more later, the rapid expansion of the maze really took form as the city was being built, largely from the limestone mined from underground.

The expansion of the underground tunnel system provided an ideal nesting ground for many who preferred to fly under the radar in every sense of the phrase. It offered natural cover for criminals on the run from the law, as well as political dissidents seeking to live outside the system as protest, and genuine oddballs looking to do so for their own reasons.

Nazi occupation during World War II forced Soviets out of Odessa, but the tunnels gave them a place to plant rebel groups to leave behind and fight the occupation. The Ukrainian rebels made an underground life for themselves, using radios to communicate and stay informed for as long as a year. Some partisan groups lived out the entirety of WWII in the catacombs.

The opposing forces occupying the city would toss poison gas into the tunnels, or choose entryways to randomly seal off, since they knew there were groups residing down there. But so twisty and expansive were the catacombs that many were able to survive despite those who perished.

After WWII, the catacombs came in very handy for criminals of all sorts, especially smugglers, who widened passages and created new offshoots to suit their purposes. In 1961, the first official catacomb exploration unit was created, led by Constantine Pronin of the Paleontological Museum of OSU.

With such a varied history and genuinely frightening setting, it is no surprise that there are quite a few myths associated with the Odessa catacombs. Perhaps the best known myth tells of a wealthy aristocrat, rescued from the sinking Titanic. He was picked up from the wreckage by a brigantine vessel, eventually ending up in Odessa. To honor his rescuers, the man had a ship forged from solid gold. Some say it was a model of the brigantine that saved him, others say the Titanic itself.

Either way, the Bolsheviks took control of Ukraine just six years after the Titanic sank, and, fearful of having his precious golden ship confiscated by the communists, the man hid his treasure deep inside the catacombs. Despite the countless expeditions which have been launched to find the golden ship, many claim it’s still down there somewhere: lost in the deep tunnels.

One horror of the Odessa catacombs that is frighteningly genuine is the death toll. There are still bodies found every few years, some ancient and mummified by the frigid air, some more recent unfortunates who became irretrievably lost. The government took steps to close off the catacombs in recent decades, but the entrances are numerous. It is not illegal to explore them, just ill-advised without a guide.

Perhaps it’s the element of danger that makes them so enticing to adventurous thrill-seekers. Or it could be the terrain, which switches from watery, to sharp rocks, to swamp-like with no notice.  The appeal could lie rather in the chance to see artifacts preserved in time, including rifles and grenades—evidence of a bizarre underground life lived decade and even centuries ago. Explorers today go on multi-day expeditions to travel and document the catacombs, even beginning to map a huge, as-yet-unexplored area known as “K-29” within only the last 20 years. Professional tour guides are available for custom expeditions, and are an absolute must for anyone thinking of entering that ultimate darkness.

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