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Odessa: Village, City, or What is it Exactly?

Melik, Ella M. "Odessa: Village or City: What is it Exactly?" Central California Chapter-AHSGR Newsletter, March 2010, 10-11. 

Article edited by Dr. Serge Yelizarov, Odessa, Ukraine.


Many of our Black Sea German from Russia ancestors said they came from Odessa. Yet in describing where they lived, they may have spoken of a village or a city. Despite the seeming contradiction, your ancestors were certainly correct. How can this be?

The city of Odessa was founded in 1794 by decree of Russian Empress Catherine the Great, who realized its strategic potential to Russia as a port and naval base on the Black Sea, with a harbor that was mostly ice-free in winter, for facilitating trade and protecting the country from foreign invasion.

It was a succession of Odessa governors and mayors between 1794 and 1895 - De Ribas, the Duc de Richelieu, Count Vorontsov, Count de Langeron, and Marazli - who were variously responsible for visionary city planning, laying out of infrastructure, parks and open public areas, engaging international architects to design public buildings, and constructing or expanding multiple harbors. They were also responsible for economic development, which was instrumental in attracting merchants, artisans and professionals from Germany and other countries in Europe to settle there and contribute to the economic success of the city. Much of the grain grown in the rich soils of the region by German and other European settlers was exported through the port of Odessa.

During the first hundred years of Odessa’s existence, its population swelled in leaps and bounds to over 386,000. The population continued to increase, reaching nearly one half million, until a series of traumatic events starting in the late nineteenth century – rescinding of special privileges granted to the settlers, political unrest, World War I, revolution, civil war, and a new communist regime which ended centuries of imperial rule – prompted many Germans and others to flee the country. 

Culture played an integral role in the lives of the city residents: there were theatres and an opera house, museums, art galleries and libraries, and educational institutions. Odessa has produced many eminent writers, artists and musicians. However, life in Odessa was not always easy. Poverty, successive plagues, wars, pogroms, famines, and persecution took a heavy toll over the years on the people of both city and region.  

By the end of the nineteenth century, Odessa had become a cosmopolitan melting pot. In Odessa: a History, 1794 -1914, Patricia Herlihy writes:
“In 1897, the first nationwide census of the Russian Empire was taken. The following table shows the ten largest population groups by language in the city of Odessa from the 1897 census:

Mother Tongue

Total Persons

% of Total Population

Russian

193,254

50.78

Yiddish

123,686

32.50

Ukrainian

21,526

5.66

Polish

17,038

4.48

German

9,933

2.61

Greek

5,013

1.32

Tatar

1,429

0.38

Armenian

1,399

0.37

French

1,224

0.30

Belorussian

1,095

0.29

(Source: Perepis 1899-1905)

The city’s German community was centered on St. Paul’s Lutheran church, with a parish that included several villages in the surrounding countryside. The church ran a school, an orphanage, a home for the elderly, and a hospital. At its peak, the German community numbered over ten thousand.  

The administrative region (“oblast” in Russian) in which the city of Odessa was located had the same name as the city. There were many German colonies and villages in the Odessa oblast, which was the western third of Kherson province (“gouvernement” in Russian, borrowed from the French.) The western and eastern boundaries of Kherson province were formed by the Rivers Dniester and Dnieper. Kherson, together with the neighboring provinces of Bessarabia, Podolia, Kiev, Poltava, Yekaterinoslav, Taurida, and others, formed the historical region of South Russia. When you come across maps originating from different countries, look out for variant transliterations of Russian names, e.g. Kherson may appear as Cherson (German), Jerson (Spanish), etc.

Today, the region is now the independent state of Ukraine. If you compare the historical maps of the region with maps of present-day Ukraine, you will find many similarities as well as differences between old boundaries and new, the old and new administrative divisions, and geographical names. The boundaries of the Odessa oblast have changed considerably since a century or so ago: it now includes the Ackerman oblast of southern Bessarabia, which was the former Russian province immediately to the west of Odessa oblast/Kherson province. The northern part of Bessarabia is now the independent state of Moldova. Today, both Odessa and Kherson are oblasts, and Kherson oblast consists of the eastern third of the former Kherson province. If these issues seem confusing at first, please don’t be deterred: the key to understanding lies in studying the maps and reading some background history of the region. A couple of hours is all it takes! A good encyclopedia article on the history of Ukraine will provide enough background.

In conclusion, if your GR ancestors were farmers who emigrated to the US or Canada and stated that they were from “Odessa”, they were most likely referring not to the city, but rather to the oblast. The names of their villages would be completely unfamiliar to immigration officials in the US and Canada, whereas Odessa had name recognition. 

Sources for Further Study

Herlihy, Patricia. Odessa: A History, 1794-1914. Harvard Ukrainian Research Inst. Monographs Ser. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1986.

W.H. “Odessa und die deutschen Kolonisten.” Heimatbuch der Deutschen aus Russland. (1956): 21-39.

The map accompanying this article plus many more historical maps at high resolution can be found at the Federation of East European Family History Societies Map Library http://www.feefhs.org/maplibrary.html .

Reprint, with minor changes, of: Ella M. Melik

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller
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