The Potemkin Steps, i.e. my confusion

Odessa is a pretty nice place to visit. It’s an attractive city laid out in an easily navigable grid pattern (damn you, twisting and turning old-timey mazes!), and it has occupied a significant economic position for centuries, as a critically important port city (and party hotspot) to the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and modern-day Ukraine.

Which is why it’s such a confusing mystery as to why the most famous of all the tourist attractions in Odessa is a flight of stairs.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, that is correct. Odessa’s claim to fame is a staircase.

The Potemkin Steps, shining star of Odessa, Ukraine

  1. Is it a pretty staircase? Meh.
  2. Is it historically significant in some way? Nah.
  3. Does it radically challenge one’s basic concept of stair, thus redefining the paradigm of vertically-directed transportive pathways? Nope!

It is merely a flight of stairs. Regular stairs. Nothing but 90˚ angles as far as the eye can see.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you, the star attraction of Odessa, the jewel in the crown of this most renowned urban metropolis, this haven of historical import, this monument of culture, society, dignity and wonder: The Potemkin Steps!


Potemkin Steps, Odessa, Ukraine
Step into history!

Bask in its greatness! Bask! Marvel in all its right-angled wonder!

Cool things about the Potemkin Steps

Okay, so admittedly there are a few neat things about these stairs that make it (slightly) different from (some) other stairs. Not, like…must-see or anything, but of mild interest.

  • They formed the entrance to the city, where all the incoming sailors would walk from the port up to Odessa. Which means that for hundreds of years, these steps were covered in seamen. Heh heh.
  • It’s an optical illusion; the lower steps are wider than those at the top, making it appear far larger than it really is.
  • As you climb, you see only steps, but not the landings. Looking down, you can see only the landing, but not the steps beneath. So as you climb, it looks like an endless staircase; as you descend, you feel like you’re on a balcony.
  • It was designed by a British forgery refugee named John Upton.
  • The statue at the top is a French guy. It’s the Duc de Richelieu, the first mayor of the city. The statue was built in 1826.
  • Officially, they’re the Primorsky Stairs. The name was changed during Soviet times to commemorate the Battleship Potemkin uprising, and changed back after Ukraine got its independence. But old habits die hard, and they still say Potemkin.
  • The story of the accompanying funicular is a woeful tale of dilapidated infrastructure collapsing in on itself, followed by the theft of repair funds, crumbling infrastructure again, and finally, its current state of pretty much working. Essentially it’s a funicular-shaped microcosm of the entire rise and fall of the Soviet Union itself, followed by an optimistic, if measured, hope for the future. It’s almost poetic in its continuous cycle of ups and downs. Much like a flight of stairs! Oh I’m so clever!
Potemkin Steps, Odessa, Ukraine
Check out the kinda-sorta optical illusion of the disappearing landings. It looks like it’s nothing but steps as you climb.

But most importantly, the Potemkin Steps are most famous for the scene from Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 film, Battleship Potemkin.

Isn’t that a great name? Battleship Potemkin. Just try and say it without sounding cool. Compare this to what it would be if it were an American movie featuring the illustrious glory of the fearsome Battleship Alabama. Doesn’t strike fear into the hearts of its enemies nearly as well, does it?

The infamous Potemkin Steps scene from Battleship Potemkin

That last part with the runaway baby carriage has become a heavily, ahem, borrowed visual element that many directors have subsequently used in their films.

Fun fact: It’s not po-TEM-kin. It’s actually paw-TYOM-kin. Admittedly, this makes it sound a lot less cool.

Okay, I lied about it being a “fun” fact. Shush.

Potential Odessa Tourism Board marketing tag lines:

  • Ukraine: More than just steppes!
  • Stair at its beauty!
  • Embrace au-stair-ity!
  • Behold the step-tacle!
  • Follow THIS stairway to heaven!
  • Step to it!
  • Board your flight…of stairs!

That’s probably enough for now. Wouldn’t want to keep going back to the same (stair)well. It’s starting to feel stair-ile. Wouldn’t want anyone awkwardly stairing at me. Trying new things will be my next step.

And thus, I rest my (stair)case.

About SnarkyNomad

Eytan is a pretentious English major whose rant-laden sarcastic tirades occasionally include budget travel tips and other international nonsense. You can follow his every narcissistic word on Facebook or Twitter.

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11 Comments on “The Potemkin Steps, i.e. my confusion”

  1. Maybe they could market themselves as a destination for fitness travelers. I’m sure Potemkin Step-walking could become the hot new workout craze!

  2. This is awesome. When I was researching for a trip to Ukraine (which is still on my to-do list), I was surprised that Odessa had pretty much one tourist attraction and it was a staircase. Uh…?

    I found your puns to by hy-stair-ical by the way!

    1. Dammit, I can’t believe I missed that one. Apparently all that $2 vodka has managed to make its presence felt.

    1. I think I did one, and it was slow, because I was taking pictures and looking at the sea. Yes, that’s the explanation I’ll go with.

  3. OK – you did NOT have me at stairs…They are lovely, but heck no I’m not climbing up all those! They look like they go on forever! I’ll just live vicariously through all the other commenters above as they make the climb! Mind you, at least they have resting spots along the way….LOL.

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