In Eastern Europe, underneath the Ukrainian city of Odessa there is a vast labyrinth of tunnels spreading out across the city like an intricate highway carved into limestone. It’s no secret to the people of Odessa. They are all aware of the subterranean system of tunnels beneath their feet, stretching over 1,550 miles long and connecting random parts of the city to each other at over a thousand entry points. The only time they really pay attention to them is when a group of teens get busted for trespassing or when someone finds a body…like they did in April of 2005.
The result of stone mining, then later used for smuggling, Odessa has little use for the tunnels these days. But they are a source of curiosity for some, especially kids who love to explore the vast, unlit system. They go down there for various reasons like to explore, vandalize, drink, do drugs, have sex or whatever teenagers need to do away from the prying eyes of adults. Of course, it’s not the safest of environments. It’s dark, some of the passages are extremely narrow, many areas have collapsed (or are about to), it’s easy to get lost, and you never know who you’re going to run into in the dark.
Masha, a local student, wandered down into the catacombs with a group of friends on New Year’s Eve. After a night of celebration and drinking, Masha and her friends decided to continue the party down in the tunnels. With outside temperatures hovering around freezing, things weren’t much warmer down in the catacombs. The group of friends entered through an opening located around Odessa School Number 56.
As the night went on, the group drank, explored, and did what unsupervised kids would liekly do on New Years Eve. That’s when sources believe Masha wandered away from the group, possibly to explore on her own or sneak away to a private spot where she could relieve herself. Despite her motivation, it is highly possible in her inebriated state that she lost track of where she was, wandered out of shouting range, and found herself stumbling deeper into the tunnels and further from her friends. The next morning, the group woke up hungover and ready to reemerge into a foggy Odessa morning. Whether they did it by accident or maliciously, the group left without their friend Masha.
Months had passed with no sign of Masha. Then in April of 2005, a rumor began making the rounds among illegal urban spelunkers about a body found rotting down in the tunnels. Many immediately believed it to be the body of the missing student, Masha. It wasn’t clear how she died. Down in the dark with no food or water, its possible she died of dehydration. It’s also possible that as temperatures continued to drop the further underground she went, that she eventually succumbed to hypothermia. Regardless, her body remained down in the catacombs for another two years. That’s how long it took for word to get to the police who finally went down into the catacombs and retrieved her now extremely decomposed corpse.
There are also a lot of rumors and legends about the catacombs. One legend is a of a solid gold replica of the R.M.S. Titanic. Built by a wealthy aristocrat and Titanic survivor, it was supposedly intended to be a gift for the sailors who pulled him from the icy waters that fateful night. When the Bolsheviks took control of the Ukraine, the aristocrat was said to have hid the treasure deep within the catacombs so that he could retrieve it and present it to his heroes when the time was right. Unfortunately, the aristocrat was executed, and the golden Titanic remained hidden below the city.
Some also believe that somewhere in the network of tunnels, there is a chamber containing the corpses of thousands of Jews, all executed by the Nazis during World War II. The deceased Masha may also be one of these legends; even with the photographic evidence, there is no official report that we could locate. The only “report” about Masha comes from a 2009 forum post on Urban Explorer’s Resource written by Eugene Lata. Many claimed the photo and body were actually faked. The story of Masha has also been clouded by another disappearance that occurred around the same time in 2004. That’s when Janis Stendzenieks, the son of Ukrainian entrepreneur Armand Stendzenieks is said to have disappeared in the catacombs.
Because of his standing, rumors began to circulate about kidnaping and Mafia involvement. Others believed he had gone down into the catacombs and never resurfaced. The family offered a reward and several spelunkers went to work looking for the boy. During the search, a body was found nearly five miles from where Janis would have entered the catacombs according to witnesses. This is also believed to be the same body seen in the now internet-famous photo. However, DNA testing proved that this was not Janis’ body. Because of a lack of concern by the Odessa police department, no further testing was done, and the body (now determined to be female) was just chalked up to be another Satanist who go lost in the catacombs.
Parts of the catacombs are open to the public, but there will always be those who venture out past the no trespassing signs with a desire to explore or enjoy the isolation. For those people, the dangers that lurk in the dark corners of the labyrinth are of little concern. Therefore, stories and legends will continue to fly about the unfortunates still lost beneath the city. To this day there are no clear answers as to what happened to Masha, or if she even existed. Police are also no closer to solving the mystery of what became of Janis Stendzenieks.