Catherine the Great imagined Odesa as the St Petersburg of the South. Her lover, General Grygory Potemkin, laid the groundwork for her dream in 1789 by capturing the Turkish fortress of Hadjibey, which previously stood here. However, Potemkin died before work began on the city in 1794 and his senior commanders oversaw its construction instead. The Spanish-Neapolitan general José de Ribas, after whom the main street, vul Derybasivska, is named, built the harbour. The Duc de Richelieu (Armand Emmanuel du Plessis), an aristocrat fleeing the French Revolution, became the first governor, governing from 1803 to 1814.
In 1815, when the city became a duty-free port, things really began to boom. Its huge appetite for more labour meant the city became a refuge – ‘Odesa Mama’ – for runaway serfs, criminals, renegades and dissidents. By the 1880s it was the second-biggest Russian port, with grain the main export, and an important industrial base.
It was the crucible of the early-1905 workers’ revolution, with a local uprising and the mutiny on the battleship Potemkin Tavrichesky. Then, between 1941 and 1944, Odesa sealed its reputation as one of Stalin’s ‘hero’ cities, when partisans sheltering in the city’s catacombs during WWII put up a legendary fight against the occupying Romanian troops (allies of the Nazis).
Odesa was once a very Jewish city, too, from which its famous sense of humour presumably derives. Jews initially came to Odesa to escape persecution, but tragically suffered the same fate here. In the early 20th century, they accounted for one third of the city’s population but after horrific pogroms in 1905 and 1941 hundreds of thousands emigrated. Many moved to New York’s Brighton Beach, now nicknamed ‘Little Odessa’.