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The Ukrainians I’m with could be anyone at first glance. They don’t really look the part of “urban explorers,” which is what the members of the loose-knit worldwide network of artists, historians, adventurers and other assorted nutcases are sometimes called.
But then again, nobody I’ve met in this world has really looked the part. Not the shy Korean girl from a wealthy family who takes naked pictures of herself in abandoned power plants. Not the London bus driver with a weakness for lager, mince pies and well-endowed women, who is halfway to his goal of visiting every abandoned subway station on earth. Not the flamenco dancer with the soft Quebecois accent who travels the world, rappelling into storm drains.
And certainly not me, a mild-mannered Midwestern Jewish boy who got nervous sneaking cigarettes between classes in high school.
Supplies in tow, we drive out to one of the small towns that surround Odessa. It’s the middle of the day, and there’s no need to be clandestine about where we’re going. This is one of the few things I’ve done that’s not actually, technically, illegal. But it’s certainly not encouraged. This network is raw, and incredibly labyrinthine. People get lost in the tunnels all the time. Luckily, the people I’m with are the closest thing to professionals that exist: They’re actually whom the police call if they get reports of someone lost in the catacombs. Unfortunately, sometimes all they end up finding is a body.
We spend hours in the catacombs, doing several trips to various sections. We get used to this world, and happily wander the tunnels underground, eating, drinking, drinking some more and learning how to swear in Russian. But our trip isn’t just a big party. The catacombs have a history to them, a history that, when you experience it up close and personal, is haunting.
First we come to a cavern with several names written in Cyrillic on the wall, which my Ukrainian guides explain are the names of a group of partisans who hid in the quarries while fighting the fascist occupation: Odessa was under occupation by the Axis powers from October 1941 to April 1944. During this occupation, the catacombs were used as a base for several groups of these fighters, who numbered about 300 overall. There’s an official museum in part of the catacombs that’s dedicated to this history (in true Soviet fashion, it’s called the Museum of Partisan Glory) in the village of Nerubayskoye — not too far away from where we are — but it’s a tiny part of the overall network.
Continuing, we see plenty of other remnants of this time: old weapons, bullets, bottles, graffiti and, most heartbreakingly, a cavern where one of the walls is painted to represent a bedroom, with windows, furniture and a plant growing in a pot on the windowsill. And then we turn a corner and see, carved into the limestone wall, a circle about a foot in diameter with a swastika carved into it.