I decided that my 6 hours underground the day before were not enough and that Odessa still had more to offer. I had remembered reading before I left that some areas of the catacombs contained old Cold War nuclear bunkers built into them. So, after arriving back in the centre of Odessa the previous evening I had got talking to Egor and Vanya about the possibility of there being accessible nuclear bunkers underneath the city. Egor had a vague recollection of visiting a bunker last year and knew the general area where he had accessed it. Vanya was interested so he agreed to meet me in his free time the next morning so we could check out the lead.
The next morning we took the bus to a location in the suburbs, still pretty close to the city centre. I don’t want to give too much information about the access details so all I’ll say is that after 10 minutes of wandering around the area Egor had mentioned looking for clues of underground access we eventually found what we were looking for and were soon heading down a long set of stairs that led deep underground.
These went down surprisingly far and we ended up in a series of empty underground rooms. We wandered through these and then down a long corridor that stretched into the distance. It was clear that this had all been dug out manually a lot more recently than the mines that made up the majority of the catacombs. It didn’t look like a nuclear bunker due to the lack of blast doors and concrete which would have blocked any exterior air leaking through. But it looked like it definitely served some sort of military purpose in the past.
Due to this I expected this to be a standalone bunker with no access into the city centre portion of the catacombs. I was proved very wrong however when I reached the end of this long corridor. There was a bricked up wall that had been long torn down. This led out of the more manicured tunnels I was in out into the old mines that made up the catacombs themselves. It looked like we were in!
It soon became apparent that this bunker and section of mines are regularly visited. Hanging upon the wall of the first junction we reached was a paper map showing the section of tunnels we were in and also exactly where we were on the map. From what we could gather this place was used for airsoft and orienteering challenges and these maps were to help people get around without becoming lost. This made everything pretty convenient for us and also took a bit of the adventure out of the explore but nonetheless the whole aspect of where we were exploring meant that it didn’t take away from the experience too much. Looking at the map in detail the bunker we had already been in was just marked a normal tunnels. However, there were two bunkers clearly marked on the map not too far from us. These looked pretty promising so we set off in search of them.
Arriving at the first bunker it was clear that this was what we were looking for, one of the original nuclear bunkers. Once inside the main entrance way of the bunker the walls were concreted over, the various rooms were separated by blast doors and there were obvious signs of previous occupation. From what Vanya told me, these bunkers were built during the Cold War in case of nuclear attack. Numerous similar bunkers exist throughout the cities that were once part of the old Soviet Union. However the fact these ones were built into the catacombs themselves made them all the more intriguing.
We wandered from room to room, passing through the room that was used to control the power being fed around the bunker, the original toilets, the old conference room which would have been used for briefings and a room that was used to house the air filtering machinery. There were plenty more rooms but most of these have long since been stripped of all items so it’s impossible to know their previous uses. While wandering through this bunker we came across the original stairway which provided access from the surface. We climbed it all the way to the surface where access above ground was barred. We counted the sets of stairs on the way up and were surprised with the result (16), which meant the bunker lay about 8 stories underground.
A close up of one of the blast doors, the Cyrllic writing here, дом, means home or house but it’s possible that it could also be an acronym for the name of the organisation stationed here. Again, it’s hard to know as there seems to be very little written online about these bunkers
We consulted the maps hanging from the junctions again and made our way from this bunker back into the catacombs and traveled the short distance to the second bunker. The rooms in this bunker were less clearly marked out. I was unable to find any history on these bunkers but there were large open spaces in this one which made it seem like it might have been used mainly as either an ammo store or a shelter for civilians in the past, although this is just complete speculation on my part. There were some pretty cool pieces of machinery left behind in this bunker but apart from this and another 8 story staircase, the bunker had been stripped slightly more than the first.
After finishing exploring the second bunker we made our way back out into the catacombs. We were still in the area where the airsoft battles take place as we were coming across paper signs warning of pits of water, obstacles and also prohibited areas. Looking at the maps on the wall we noticed that there was a way from this area into a much wider area of the catacombs. When we reached the passage in question, it lay behind an access prohibited sign so we knew we were going in the right direction.
We were surprised to find another map upon coming to our first junction in this section of the catacombs. This entire section of the catacombs had been mapped out pretty well. There was graffiti at each of the large junctions which had a letter and a number. Each of these junctions were marked clearly on the map with the letters and numbers also so you would always know where you were. From what we could gather this was to help with the orienteering challenges which must be run in this part of the system as well as the bunkers and their connecting passages. Again, this took a bit of the adventure out of our explore but nonetheless we decided to trek to the furthest edges of the map and visit the most interesting things we could find.
We spent the next 2 and a half hours following the map to anything that seemed of interest. It was clear this part of the catacombs were under one of the more heavily built up areas of the city. There were old triangular foundation pillars put into several of the large chambers to stop collapse and every passage had a slightly newer concrete arch support put in it every 10 metres or so. It was obvious that there has been a clear worry about the collapse of these tunnels since the city above ground expanded to this area.
As we wandered through passage after passage I again found my eyes drawn to the graffiti. There was even more of a mix here than in the countryside catacombs. Here we could clearly see calculations on the wall drawn by the original miners and also drawings that were most likely done by them. Among this older graffiti there were also more recent spray painted slogans from pro Russian groups, most of them referring to the fact that Crimea should belong to Russia. Just before my visit to Ukraine, Crimea had been annexed by Russia so it was strange to see all this graffiti from years ago being so relative to the current situation. Other than this graffiti there was the usual mix of names of other explorers of the catacombs from the 1950s onwards. It seemed this was one of the more popular locations in the catacombs before the government started trying to seal off the city centre entrances in 2007.
In our 2 and a half hours we got to some pretty interesting locations and features, I won’t go into detail as they were a bit of a blur. Soon enough it was time to head back as we had arranged a call out time with Egor so we had to get above ground before he made the call. Telling someone where you are going before you go underground and asking them to contact a rescue team if you do not contact them within a specified time is usual practice when caving but it isn’t usually adopted by explorers. However in this case it was definitely beneficial to follow such a procedure considering the number of people who have disappeared in these catacombs.
Above this ladder lay another 7 ladders which led all the way to surface at the top of a large circular silo which had been placed underground. A large tank of water lay beneath the rusted floor here which was accessible through the hole beside the ladder.
Here you can see some of the older graffiti in this area and also one of the old wooden pillars used to support the ceiling. The grey concrete wall on the right with the arch in it is one of the walls you see approximately every 10 metres in the majority of the passages down here which were built to prevent collapse.
This was one of the cooler features we came across. This wasn’t marked on the map at all so we were lucky to find it at one of the furthest out areas we visited. It is one of the natural caves that have lain here for thousands and thousands of years. With all the mining under Odessa it was inevitable that the mines would sometimes cross back and forth with these natural caves. We were lucky to find such a good example here which intersected with one of the catacomb passages.
After a total of 4 hours underground we arrived back at our entrance. Making sure the coast was clear we dashed out and sealed the exit behind us before trying to blend back into city streets covered in mud and dust. The catacombs had again provided another great experience. I wish I had more time to spend down there as there was a lot more to see but again I only had limited time in Odessa so I was delighted to see so much in that time, especially the two nuclear bunkers hidden 8 stories below the ground, something you wouldn’t dream of seeing back home.