The city is said to occupy the site of an ancient Miletian Greek colony (Odessos, Ordyssos, or Ordas) that disappeared between the 3d and 4th cent. In the 14th cent. the site, then under Lithuanian control, became a Crimean Tatar fortress and trade center called Khadzhi-Bei. In 1764 it passed to the Turks, who built a fortress (Yenu-Duniya) to protect the harbor. It was captured by the Russians in 1789.

By the Treaty of Jassy in 1792, Turkey ceded the region between the Dniester and the Buh (including Odessa) to Russia, which rebuilt Odessa as a fort, commercial port, and naval base. The city that developed around the fort grew rapidly as the chief grain-exporting center of Ukraine; its importance was further enhanced with the coming of the railroad in the second half of the 19th cent. It was a free port from 1819 to 1849, and in 1866 it was linked by rail with Kiev, Kharkiv, and the Romanian city of Jassy. Industrialization began in the latter part of the 19th cent.

Odessa was a center of émigré Greek and Bulgarian patriots, of the Ukrainian cultural and national movement, of Jewish culture, and of the labor movement and social democracy. The city's first workers' organization was founded in 1875. Odessa was the scene in 1905 of a workers' outbreak led by sailors from the battleship Potemkin. When Turkey closed the Dardanelles to the Allies in World War I, the port of Odessa was also closed and was later bombarded by the Turkish fleet. Following the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, the city was successively occupied by the Central Powers, the French, the Reds, and the Whites until the Red Army definitively took it from General Denikin in 1920 and united it with the Ukrainian SSR. Odessa suffered greatly in the famine of 1921–22 after the Russian civil war.

Despite a heroic defense during World War II, the city fell to German and Romanian forces in Oct., 1941. It was under Romanian administration as the capital of Transnistra until its liberation (Apr., 1944) by the Soviet Army. Many buildings were ruined, and approximately 280,000 civilians (mostly Jews) were reportedly massacred or deported during the Axis occupation.

See C. King, Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams (2011).

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