hidden europe 49

Between the Steppe and the Sea

by Nicky Gardner

Picture above: Italian baroque style at the Odessa Opera and Ballet Theatre (photo © hidden europe).


For Odessa writer Issac Babel, his home town was 'the most charming city of the Russian empire'. For many visitors today, Odessa is one of the most striking Black Sea ports. Join us as we head up the Potemkin Steps to discover Odessa.

The best way to approach the great port city of Odessa is naturally from the sea. Hellenic settlers crossed the Black Sea in ancient times; Genoese traders came in the Renaissance. Ottoman mariners set sail from Turkey to explore the Black Sea coast and, like others before them, saw the red dun bluffs where the Pontic steppe drops down to meet the sea.

By the 17th century, the Black Sea was effectively an Ottoman lake. The sultan’s vessels could sail at will through waters where foreign ships were hardly tolerated. Even the Dutch and the English — who generally presumed that the world’s seaways belonged to them — were barred from entering the Black Sea other than on Ottoman-flagged ships. The Austrians had free run of the Danube, but woe betide any Austrian ship which ventured beyond the delta into the open waters of the Black Sea.

The northern littoral of the Black Sea, for so long the empire of the Golden Horde, was now the preserve of the Turks. But there was not much ado on the shallow cliffs where today Odessa stands. While elsewhere along the coast the Turks had great strongholds — such as those at Akkerman on the Dniestr and Özi on the Dniepr — there was no great Ottoman fortress in the area that was to become Odessa. There was merely a dusty garrison settlement called Khadjibey.

Tatar raiding parties ventured out from the Crimean Peninsula — in those days an Ottoman Khanate — and tussled with the Cossacks. But the Tatars had no interest in acquiring land, either for themselves or for the Sultan. They sought a commodity far more valuable than the dry steppe. The Tatars sailed up the great rivers into territory nominally controlled by Poland and Lithuania; they even went into southern Muscovy. And everywhere they went, they took captives, huge numbers of ordinary people who were sold into the buoyant Ottoman slave trade.

The Ottoman outpost of Khadjibey slumbered. Bored soldiers sat by the dry ravines overlooking the beach. But the climate was benign and there were advantages to being on a forgotten corner of the Black Sea coast. The arrival of a handful of Jewish traders in the 18th century brought a new dimension to life in Khadjibey.

Enter Catherine the Great

Two millennia after the Greeks had arrived, the ebb and flow of peoples and power along this coast and on the sparsely populated Pontic steppe was dramatically transformed by a woman who came from the far-distant Baltic land of Pomerania — a territory which had been variously Polish, Swedish and German. Her name was Sophia and she was born in 1729 in the port city of Stettin (nowadays Szczecin in Poland). Judicious marriage into the House of Romanov secured for Sophia access to Russian power, and at the age of just 33 — having ousted her husband, Tsar Peter III, in a coup — she was crowned Catherine Empress of Russia. Catherine the Great had arrived and, as Russia’s new sovereign ruler, she meant to do business.

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