On Deribasovskaya, at the corner of Rishelievskaya…



Vyacheslav Kruk and Valentin Kuba: Раз на Дерибасовской, угол Ришельевской (Once on De Ribas street, at the corner of Richelieu street). Performed by the ensemble Одесский Дворик (Little Courtyard of Odessa)

Thus begins one of the most famous Odessan pub songs, written by Sosnov, Yadov and Yampolsky, the great triumvirate of the Odessan variety show, with which the young Leonid Utesov achieved his first great success in 1917 in the Rishelievskoi Bolshoi Teatre at 47 Rishelievskaya. The lascivious song, in which the burglar arriving to the above place and finding nothing else, takes away the honor of the hundred-year old lady, and since then all the old women in the street leave the door open all night, is emblematic not only because it stresses the Odessan underworld and the typical Odessan will to live. But also because the above mentioned scene summarizes in miniature the whole history of Odessa. It is no coincidence that Valery Smirnov, the popular local historian gave this title to the collection of twentieth-century Odessan anecdotes, or that the city’s Jewish cultural association publishes with this title their literary and cultural magazine.

“Odessa. The corner of Deribasovskaya and Rishelievskaya streets from bird’s eye view.” Around 1900


As these two streets define the two main axes of the city center, so their names immortalize the beginnings of the history of Odessa. Osip Mikhailovich Deribas, that is, the Catalan Admiral José de Ribas joined the Russian army in 1772, at the beginning of the Russo-Turkish war, and then, having won the favor of Empress Catherine, he came to the imperial court. In 1789 he occupied Khadjibey, the Ottoman fortress standing on the site of the modern Odessa, and a few years later he proposed to Catherine to establish in this place the empire’s first warm-water harbor, also navigable in winter. The Empress asked him in return to found the city, and namely – as a wedding gift – on the anniversary of the day when, a year earlier, she married him with the daughter of her favourite, Duke Potemkin. De Ribas remained Odessa’s military governor until his death in 1800, and he was the founder of all what we see in Odessa’s old town spreading from the Deribasovskaya to the sea: the Primorsky Promenade and its neoclassical buildings from the city hall to the governor’s palace, the square with Catherine the Great’s statue, and at the end of the street named after him the elegand City Park, the evening meeting place of the Odessans.

The person giving his name to Rishelievskaya, Duke Armand-Emmanuel de Vignerot du Plessis Richelieu even has some relation with Hungary, since until 1789 he served in the French king’s Esterházy Hussars Regiment. When the revolution broke out, he went to Vienna to ask for help for the royal house, and when his mission failed, he joined the Russian army together with some other French emigrants, including Count Langeron, who would later give his name to the popular beach of Odessa. He distinguished himself in a number of battles against the Turks, and in 1803 Tsar Alexander I appointed him governor of Odessa. Another two years later he became the governor of the new governorship composed from the territories occupied from the Turks, the fertile New Russia, stretching from Moldva to the Volga, the later pantry of the empire. Odessza owes him not only its new, French-style, chessboard-like downtown, but also its dynamic development, during which in two decades it became Russia’s third largest city – and at the same time the third largest Jewish city in the world, because the Jews settling here were exempt from any constraint that struck them in the other provinces of the empire: it was here that they were emancipated for the first time in Russia. In 1828 the grateful people of Odessa erected a statue to Duke Richelieu on the top of the famous stairs which he had built from the seafront promenade to the harbor, and which bears the name of Potemkin only since Eisenstein’s world famous movie.

The statue of Richelieu, viewed from the sea, ca. 1900

The statue of Richelieu and the beginning of the Primorsky Promenade, 1903.

The statue of Richelieu and the sea in a postcard sent to Budapest in June 1901:
“It is a famous place, because you can get a great beefsteak for 50 kopeiki.
And the ladies walk here in the night, with stretched parasols.
Many kisses for Little Mum and the chicks. Little Dad.”


But the Rishelievskaya gained even more glory to the Duke after his death. His successor, Prince Vorontsov, whose wife is considered one of Pushkin’s “four great muses”, and who introduced the horse-races to enhance the culture of the nobility in the coastal cities, organized along this boulevard the yearly races, the big event of the local social life, for which the Odessan golden youth prepared throughout all the year, and whose needs were satisfied by the Horse Market, the Staraya Konnaya. Like many other historical sites, it still works in Odessa, although with a changed, and more exciting function, as a weekend antiques, pet and flea market.

The statue of Pushkin at the end of the Primorsky Promenade, in front of the neoclassical building of the City Hall

Nina Gofman, playing Sonya in the first Russian crime film series Sonya Golden Hand (1914-15)
Pausing on Deribasovskaya, at the corner of Rishelievskaya we look around wondering: which was the house featuring in the song? The one to the right when looking toward the suburb was certainly not, because this one, now the building of the National Bank, was the Puritz jewelry house at that time, Odessa’s most elegant fashion store, after which the Odessan language – because there exist a language like this – coined the term bolshoi puritz, ʻa great puritz’ for the most luxuriously dressed playboys. However, the store also owes his fame to the fact that this was the site of the first great success of Sofia Blyuvshtein, that is, Sonyka Golden Hand, the legendarily beautiful and dangerous burglar of the Jewish underworld. In 1883, presenting herself as the wife of a famous Odessan psychiatrist, selected jewels in the value of thirty thousand rubles, and then asked the jeweler to bring them to their flat where her husband would pay for them. The jeweler, drunk with the big business, rushed to the flat, where Sonya opened the door, and taking over the jewels asked him to sit down for a minute in her husband’s study.
Sofia Blyuvshtein, that is, Sonya Golden Hand
Within a short time the “husband” arrived with four male nurses, who pounced on the jeweler and carried him to a mental hospital. It took a long time while it turned out that Sonya had arrived not much earlier to the psychiatrist, where she presented herself as the jeweler’s wife, and asked the doctor to do something with him, as he went crazy, and keeps offering nonexistent jewels for sale to a wide variety of people. The emblematic character of the story is shown by the fact that the Hungarian director Ildikó Enyedi also included it in her beautiful film My Twentieth Century.

Opposite the former Puritz store, where now the UniCredit Bank works, was in Utesov’s time one of Odessa’s most elegant cafés, the Fanconi (its namesake opened recently one corner away, on the Yekaterinskaya). This was one of the established meeting places of the Odessan Jewish businessmen, just two blocks from the central synagogue, and it would not have been a really significant institution, had it not been bled for forty-three thousand rubles by Sonya Golden Hand, just one year after the Puritz case. Its long flowering came to an end in 1920, when its best patrons fled from the city, and the Red Army plundered it to the last silver teaspoon. I mean, not exactly. The last silver teaspoon was taken by one of the patrons to America, from where one of its heirs sent it back in 2005 to the newly formed Jewish museum. Today it hangs on the wall of the nearby museum, in the foreground of the archive photo of Café Fanconi, enlarged to life-size.


At the third corner, towards the city center, there stands a two-storey house built in 1886, which is called “Clock House” after its former tower-clock. However, its real fame came from the fact that here worked the Odessan office of the Pathé brothers, the largest film distribution company in Odessa. The four Pathé brothers founded their company in Paris in late 1896, one year after the Lumière brothers invented the film. In the early 20th century it became the world’s largest movie machinery and film producer and distributor, and one of the largest phonograph record producers. They introduced the newreels in 1908. Shortly after the turn of the century, they already had seven subsidiary companies in Russia, beginning with Odessa, where the first movie theater – iljuzion – of Russia had been opened already in June 1896 by an agent of the Lumière brothers, and where a serious local film industry developed by the early 20th century.


The snow-covered Moscow, 1908. One of the earliest Russian films of the Pathé brothers.

The ground floor of the building facing the Rishelievskaya was occupied by the Kayander & Co. store, owned by Berngard Gotlibovich Kayander, a councilor of the City Hall. Some pieces of the councilor’s luxurious porcelain tableware, ordered from London, still show up on auctions sometimes.


Today all three corner buildings house a bank, but already at the turn of the century this intersection was considered one of the everyday financial centers. As Vladimir Zeev Jabotinsky describes it in his memoirs Five (Пятеро), in the most Odessan novel, written in emigration in Paris:

“The next corner was the Rishelievskaya, and the first sign that heralded the specific nature of the road were the tables of the money-changers standing right there, on the sidewalk, under the acacias. On the glass-covered tables one could enjoy the sight of gold and of the bills of exchange from all the planets in the solar system. And the whiskered banker sitting in the wicker chair with a bowler or felt hat, readily broke away from the overseas newspaper, and quickly served or cheated you in any language. The newcomers could touch here the supreme commercial artery of the Black Sea. Passing by here, I always cast an envious glance to the left, where both sides were shining with the golden shop labels of the banks, the inaccessible stores, and the Olympian barber shops…”

Money changers at the corner of Rishelievskaya, in front of the Kayander store

Looking towards the city center from Deribasovskaya, the Theater Square opens before us. The square is named after the Opera and Ballet Theater, built in its center in 1887 by the Viennese duo of star architects, Fellner and Helmer. Thus the building has a relationship to the Comic Theater in Budapest, designed by them. The two-storey high arch of the facade, which is common in both buildings, was a hallmark of the Viennese architects, adopted in more than forty public buildings designed by them throughout Europe. But the predecessor of the theater dates back to the times of Duke Richelieu. It is a signal of Odessa’s cosmopolitan culture and its European level that less than fifteen years after its foundation, in 1810 there was already a huge demand for an opera house. Prince Vorontsov ordered the revenue of the port quarantine, paid by the ships stationed there, for the maintenance of the opera house, and as the chief medical officer of the quarantine was also a shareholder of the opera as well as a passionate opera fan, and so when he saw it necessary, he ordered a long-term general quarantine in the port. The extra income was used to invite some great European singers every year, and the Odessa Opera has retained its fame up to this day.



Luxury and underworld, cafés, couplets, zest for life, theater and iljuzion, Catalan, French, Italian, Jewish culture on Deribasovskaya, at the corner of Rishelievskaya, the emblematic point of Odessa. Here starts our walk to explore the past and present culture and history of the city.

This year we organize two trips to Odessa, April 4 to 11 with the Hungarian Jewish Cultural Association, and April 25 to May 1 with the readers of Río Wang. The first bus is about full, while for that of late April there are still some free places. Deadline for application: the day after tomorrow, Friday evening.

The Passage, the most famous department store of the city at the end of Deribasovskaya, opposite the City Park