Made famous by Sergei Eisenstein’s epic movie Battleship Potemkin (1925), the Potemkin Stairs in Ukraine’s third largest city Odessa, is the city’s most iconic symbol. It’s a vast staircase located on the seaward side of the city and formally functions as the entrance into the harbor from the direction of the sea. Odessa being perched on a high steppe plateau, needed direct access to the harbor below it. Before the stairs were constructed, winding paths and crude wooden stairs were the only access to the harbor.
In 1837 a decision was made to build a "monstrous staircase"; an Italian architect Francesco Boffo was called upon to design the stairs and an English engineer named Upton was entrusted with the responsibility of construction. The stairs were constructed between 1837 and 1841 using Greenish-grey sandstone imported from the Austrian port of Trieste (now in Italy). The staircase extends for 142 meters and rises up to 27 meters, and originally consisted of 200 steps. The staircase was so precisely designed that it creates an optical illusion so that those at the top only see a series of large steps, while at the bottom all the steps appear to merge into one pyramid-shaped mass.
In 1933, the eroded stairs were repaired and the sandstone was replaced by rose-grey granite, and the landings were covered with asphalt. The lowest eight steps are lost today under the sand when the port was being extended, reducing the number of stairs to 192. On the left side of the stairs, a funicular was built in 1906 to transport people up instead of walking. After 50 years of operation, the funicular was outdated and was later replaced by an escalator built in 1970.
The steps are officially known today as the Primorsky Stairs, but they were originally known by various names such as the Boulevard steps, the Giant Staircase, or the Richelieu steps. It was not until 1955, after the Soviet revolution, that the Primorsky Stairs were renamed Potemkin Stairs to honor the 30th anniversary of The Battleship Potemkin, a movie that presents a dramatized version of the mutiny that occurred in 1905 when the crew of the Russian battleship Potemkin rebelled against their officers of the Tsarist regime. It was on these stairs where soldiers opened fire on the people on June 14, 1905.
After Ukrainian independence, like many streets in Odessa, the Potemkin Stairs name was returned to their original name, Primorsky Stairs. Most Odessites still know and refer to the stairs after their Soviet name.
A scene from the movie Battleship Potemkin Photo credit
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