Odesa: Through Cossacks, Khans and Russian Emperors

18 November 2014, 14:27

“In a peasant guy, a sea captain, a university professor, one suddenly recognized a Cossack from the free Zaporizhian Sich[1] – a mix of adventurism, humor, strength and poetry,” Lev Slavin, an Odesa-born writer, described the locals in the early 20th century. In the 19th century, priests recorded mentions of legendary Cossack, including Maksym Zalizniak, Ivan Honta and Sava Chalyi, and of the most recent feats of Zaporizhian Cossacks, from people who lived in villages around Odesa. The Cossacks, in addition to their own customs and glorious past, brought to Odesa tolerance for other peoples with which they shared a common history. Zamfir Arbore, a Bukovinian-born Romanian ethnographer, offers one proof to that in the line of a song he recorded locally: “When the Wallachians[2] came to us, they were all good. They joined the Cossacks and became brothers to us.”

The rule of khans

History of a settlement usually starts with the first written record of it. According to this principle, Odesa’s birthyear is 1415, the year of the first ever recorded mentions of Kachybei (otherwise known as Kochubei or Khadzhybei) port, the name of the settlement where Odesa later developed. “When ambassadors from the Patriarch and Greek Emperor arrived in Poland to visit King Władysław with a letter and tin bullas indicating their status, and the Turks were tantalizing and oppressing them in every manner possible, they needed generous assistance with grain. Władysław, the Polish king, in his holy compassion, signs a document committing himself to providing that assistance. He gives and generously presents the requested amount of grain that they need to take from his royal Koczubejiv port,” Jan Długosz, a 15th-century Polish chronicler, mentioned the predecessor of Odesa in his fundamental Historia Polonica, The History of Poland.

Most historians suggest that Kachybei was originally founded by Prince Vytautas, a famous ruler of the medieval Lithuania. Under the Lithaunian-Rus Commonwealth, a federation of semi-independent princedoms that emerged in the 14th century and existed for nearly two centuries, Kachybei city and the settlements around it were politically and economically integrated with the rest of the Ukrainian territory. In the official treaties of 1431 between the rival candidates for the Lithuanian throne, Kachybei and Dashkiv (today’s Ochakiv, a city near Odesa known for its castle) were specifically recorded as “castles of Podilia”, a historical Ukrainian region in the south-west.

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The territory around Khadzhybei fortress was known elsewhere as the Kochubei Tataria or the Khanate Ukraine. The farmers, most of them Ukrainians, who moved there from the adjacent territories, gave a tithe of their harvest to the Tatar rulers. Surprisingly, Ukrainian peasants found life in the Khanate Ukraine easier than under the Polish lords. Quite a few of them were Cossacks, and more settled down along the Black Sea coast. In his report for the Russian government dating May 12, 1747, a Zaporizhian Sich otaman wrote that many Cossacks were “trading various goods” on the Turkish territories, traveling for salt, hunting, and brewing spirits, some of them living in the lands stretching as far as the Black Sea. Officially, these Cossacks were serving in the tsar’s army. Some, however, grew weary of the Russian rule and fled to the endless Black Sea steppes for good. Eventually, many settled down in the suburbs of Khadzhybei and the villages around it, living on hunting, gardening and farming. The most intense phase of the resettlement began after Catherine the Great demolished Zaporizhian Sich in 1775. Many Cossack-style stone crosses scattered around the villages and steppes near Odesa serve as a proof of this mass migration to this today.In the 1450s, the powerful Ottoman Empire and its vassal state, the Crimean Khanate, conquered Kachybei along with the rest of the adjacent Black Sea coast. The new masters changed the city name into a more Turkic-sounding Khadzhybei although it was further mentioned as Kachybei, Kuchubei, Kudzhabei and the like in documents up until the 1750s. Later, it was renamed into Yeni Dunya, the new world in Turkic languages.

Khadzhybei was annexed to the Russian Empire after the 1787-1791 Russo-Turkish War thanks to the numerous battles fought by the Black Sea Cossacks, the ex-Zaporizhian warriors, against the Tatars. On September 14, 1789, the city was stormed by just two batteries of the Regular Russian army and six regiments of the Black Sea Cossacks led by otaman Zakhariy Chepiha and military judge Anton Holovatyi.

Catherine, not so great

It is hard to find a person in Odesa or elsewhere who does not know about the great legacy of Catherine the Great in Odesa. The Russian empress is widely appreciated as the founder and benefactor of Odesa, one of the first people who ever saw the city as the future center of the region and paved a path to its thriving.

It is hardly known who came up with the name Odesa first. According to one version, poorly remembered today but confirmed documentarily, the author is Andrian Hrybovskyi, Catherine’s confidante. “Newspapers write that the emperor was pleased to see Odesa founded upon the instruction of Prince Zubov. I played an important role in this: I wrote the decree about the creation of this city and named this place Odesa instead of Khadzhybei, a name the empress approved as well,” he wrote in his memoires in 1828.

According to Hrybovskyi, it was him that came up with the name Odesa. This version may seem questionable. However, pre-revolution historians regarded Andrian Hrybovskyi as an honest and humble man who retained sharp memory until the end of his life. Also, he did not intend his memoires to be published, and he was Catherine’s state secretary, so he was actually in charge of compiling decrees and dealing with city renaming issues. Andrian Hrybovskyi was born on August 26, 1767, in the village of Lubny, Poltava Oblast. His paternal and maternal ancestors were from noble Cossack families.

Almost all “new cities” built by the Russian tsars are on the spots where older settlements already stood. One of the examples is the Ukrainian settlement Polovytsia that turned into Katerynoslav, today’s Dnipropetrovsk. The building of new cities ate up huge sums of the empire money. It also took hundreds of soldiers’ lives. In 1787, for instance, 12 regiments were involved in the building of Katerynoslav and some pre-revolution authors gave shocking rates of deaths at construction sites.

By the time intense building began in it, Odesa was home to 400 or 450 Black Sea Cossacks with their families, or almost 10% of the city’s population, so it was mostly them who were involved in the construction. Numerous accounts of their deaths and what caused them are available these days: “crushed!!!”, “killed!!!”, “killed by a stone slab”. Building a city was not easy, and the process involved various ethnic and social groups.

In the end, however, all this hard work often proved futile. Most cities built at such high cost disappeared in the early 19th century altogether, or were barely surviving. Only a handful developed properly. At this background, the turbulent development of Odesa in the early 19th century seemed to be a miracle. “This was the way Catherine built any city – ours was an exception to the rule,” Volodymyr Yakovlev, historian and head of the Odesa Society of History and Antiquities, wrote in the late 19th century. “Notably, the revival of Khadzhybei was of little important to her in comparison to, say, Katerynoslav, Kherson, Voznesensk… The city (Odesa – Ed.) earned itself its primary role in the south with its own life, its own trade.”

Finding its own path

In fact, Khadzybei was never among the cities favored by Catherine the Great. A fortress surrounded by a small Greek settlement in the middle of one of Russia’s gubernias was the future foreseen for it by the Russian officials. Its convenience as a trade center revealed itself slowly and naturally, and the Russian government realized the importance of its location only after Duc de Richelieu became mayor. He took charge of Odesa in 1803, seven years after Catherine the Great died. Perhaps, Catherine saw Odesa as an important seaport, not a center of the gubernia or the region. But she allocated little funding to the building of the port in Khadzhybei, compared to the sums channeled to the Mykolayiv, Kherson and other seaports. The empress often mentioned “Khadzybei’s convenient location” in her decrees, and this compliment is often quoted today to prove the importance of the city to the Russian ruler. However, historian Volodymyr Yakovlev explained that these were merely clichés used in the then administrative language for all, even less promising settlements. Catherine exempted Odesa from taxes and the obligation to quarter troops for five years, and allowed wine trade there. On the other hand, similar privileges were enjoyed by all “new” cities, yet they hardly thrived as a result. In fact, it took Odesa a decade to get greater privileges that other, more important cities already had under Catherine.  

Apparently, Odesa turned into the capital of Southern Ukraine contrary to the wishes and plans of Catherine the Great, not as a result of them. The empress herself would probably be shocked to learn that she is seen as the greatest “benefactor” of Odesa these days. What caused Odesa’s turbulent development in the early 19th century then? In fact, it was no secret to either historians or dwellers of Odesa at the time. Back in 1791, a French traveler who visited Southern Ukraine wrote that “enough bread to feed the entire Europe is rotting in Podillia and Volyn”. He mentioned many other foods that had then been popular in the West. When the Right and the Left Bank Ukraine united under the rule of the Russian Empire, the Black Sea ports became the shortest path for Ukrainian grain to reach Europe. Khadzhybei turned out to be the most convenient of all.

Unlike Russian officials, the merchants demanded immediate repair of the local quay and construction of the port. They found allies in the government. Platon Zubov, General Governor and another confidante of the empress, supported the idea to build the seaport in Khadzhybei, probably seeking a benefit for himself. He signed a request to Catherine the Great to provide the necessary funding. She did not reject the idea but allocated only part of the sum needed immediately. As a result, the seaport construction was only completed under Duc de Richelieu. Until then, “the sailors were reluctant to enter the seaport lacking a reliable shelter from a storm.” Moreover, both Catherine the Great, and her successor, Paul I, restricted grain exports from Odesa for fear of poor harvests – or so they explained this. All this hampered rather than facilitated the city development.

Abundant trade compensated for the lack of goodwill from the tsars. Thanks to the exports of Ukrainian and partly Moldovan grain, Odesa hit many records of economic and demographic growth by the standards of the 19th century. In its golden years, grain exports constituted the biggest part of trade at Odesa seaport.

Hardly any historian researching Odesa before the October Revolution did not point it out. However, almost all of their stories began with glorification of Catherine the Great as the “founder” in an attempt to fit into the imperial framework of the time. Similarly, Soviet historians first paid due allegiance to the Communist environment, then wrote what they really knew about Odesa’s history.

Meanwhile, it was Ukrainian Cossacks who liberated Khadzybei that later became Odesa, and the surrounding land, from the Ottoman rule. It was the descendants of the Black Sea and Zaporizhian Cossacks who were building and developing Odesa starting from the late 18th century. It was Ukrainian farmers who worked hard to provide Odesa’s enormous growth in the first half of the 19th century, making it the wealthiest city in Ukraine. Why, then, regard the empress who crushed old freedoms of the Cossacks, dooming them to exile and miseries and Ukrainian peasants – to serfdom, as the founder and benefactor of Odesa.

The golden years

When Catherine’s son, Paul I of Russia, lifted restrictions on grain exports, Odesa saw enormous economic growth that surprised the entire Europe. By the end of the 1820s, the exports of Ukrainian and partly Moldavian grain made Odesa the first and the fourth most populated city in Ukraine and the Russian Empire respectively, outnumbered by St. Petersburg, Moscow and Warsaw. “Grain controls Odesa” went a 19th-century local saying. Grain was delivered by chumaks from all over Ukraine. In good years, the carts heading to Odesa counted hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions.

The common population of Odesa grew as peasants from adjacent Ukrainian territories moved in. This could not but affect the language. In 1842, Professor Kostiantyn Zelenetskyi wrote in Odesa Newsletter that the “Great Russians” who came to Odesa instantly noted the peculiar local dialect, including different accents in words that were typical for Ukrainian rather than Russian; a multitude of “Little Russian” words; “Galician” structures in sentences; and different pronunciation of many letters and verbs – Professor Zelenetskyi explained that these were all borrowed “from Ukraine”. According to him, native speakers of this “incorrect language” were the indigenous population, as well as “many Great Russians who, as they mingled with Little Russians, took over many phrases, although they guarded their nationality.” This was the birth of the “Odesa language”, a mix of Russian and Ukrainian.

Odesa elites, including officials, landlords and intelligentsia, too, felt vibrant connection with the rest of Ukrainian terrain. Many stemmed from old noble and free Cossack families, and were graduates of Kharkiv and Kyiv universities. Hence the proactive role Odesa later played in the national liberation movement of Ukrainian culture and politics. Fundamental volumes on the history of Zaporizhian Sich by Apollon Skalkovskyi were written and published in Odesa in the 1830-1880s. Ukrainian community in Odesa led by Leonid Smolenskyi was among the most powerful and well-organized in the late 19th century. Odesa-based Prosvita, the educational initiative, emerged in 1905 to become one of the earliest and the largest of the kind in the Russian-ruled Ukraine. A number of outstanding figures in Ukrainian National Revolution of 1917-1921 were born and educated in Odesa. In January 1918, the most violent battles between the Ukrainian haydamaky and the Red Guards took place in Odesa (120 fallen participants were buried in a common grave at Kulikovo Pole, the arena of the May 2, 2014 tragedy).

History seems to be repeating today. Despite the long-standing and determined attempts of Russian imperialistic forces, Odesa once again unexpectedly shows its Ukrainian face. This is hardly surprising: despite its somewhat foreignness, something not unusual in a seaport city, it has for centuries remained primarily Ukrainian. Geopolitically and   historically, it is a link between Ukraine and the Western world, a city that is Ukrainian and European at the same time.


[1] Zaporizhian Sich was the stronghold of the Cossacks and their state. Located in today’s Zaporizhia Oblast, it was organized as a free military state, a bulwark against Tatar attacks, and a shelter for peasants who fled the oppressive rule of the ruling class elsewhere in Ukraine

[2] Wallachia is a historical and geographical region of Romania. At different periods, it had been under the Hungarian, Ottoman and Russian rule


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