Duke de Richelieu

The best-known Frenchman from Odessa

In Odessa in his honor were named: a street, a high school, a park, a cinema complex, a brand of cognac and champagne, and even a baby elephant from the Odessa Zoo. A monument to this Frenchman is the main symbol of Odessa. If you still have not guessed his name – this is Armand Emmanuel Sophie Septemanie du Plessis, duc de Richelieu et de Fronsac - whom the people of Odessa call simply "the Duke". The nobleman and the representative of the rich and famous family in France, the grand-nephew of the famous Cardinal de Richelieu, who is well known as an evil character from “The Three Musketeers” to those who read the novels by Alexander Dumas as well as to the Soviet cinema fans. The most famous Governor of the young Odessa of the XIX century, who led the city to fame and prosperity.

Odessa before Richelieu, and after him - that is, as they say in Odessa, two big differences. Arriving in Odessa in 1803, Richelieu found a small seaside town, only a few hundred of buildings, entirely without plants or trees, surrounded by the dusty steppe. When he was leaving for France in 11 years, he left a thriving city of the European type, with the population increased by 4 times.

Before becoming the town governor of Odessa, a French aristocrat managed to serve in Versailles at the court of King Louis XVI, to leave France with the beginning of the revolution, to come to Russia and take part in the storming of Izmail with the troops of the commander Alexander Suvorov. He was awarded with the cross of Saint George for his bravery, hovewer, war and destruction were not his cup of tea. "I hope I shall never see such a horrible sight," - he wrote after Izmail. He was a creator, and his talents were fully realized when in 1803 his friend – the Russian Emperor Alexander the First - appoined him the Governor of Odessa.

He managed to get the sales duties cut, as the result of which the Odessa commercial port rapidly increased its trade turnover; it was the Duke who generated the idea of porto-franco - the free city, in point of fact – a free economic zone, but it was realized by his successors.
Under the rule of Richelieu the first construction boom started in Odessa, there were built the roads, churches, hospitals, markets, gymnasiums. The streets began to be paved with the granite paving stone brought from Italy.

The Duke was particularly interested in planting trees and shrubs in the city, and as time passed the hot wasteland of Odessa gave way to the cool shadow of acacia trees, sycamores, poplars; since then Odessa has been knows for its abundant flora. Richelieu himself was an enthusiastic gardener, he personally cultivated his garden around his estate in the Vodyanaya Balka (Water Gully), received transplants and flowers from France ans Italy as well as from the famous estate of the Pototsky family in Uman, now known as Sofievka. Nowadays there is a park on the place of the Richelieu estate, and it has preserved the name of the former owner – the Duke Park.

By another initiative of the Governor, in 1810 the City Theatre was opened in Odessa, high and dainty, built in the classical Greek style, it very soon became the centre of cultural life in the city. Unfotunately, the first building of the theatre was destroyed by the fire, but it was re-built and now it is the world-famous Odessa National Opera House.


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Panorama: Duke of Richelieu statue

at the top of Potemkin stairs


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Panorama: Day of Odessa celebration

flowers to the Duke

At the end of his governance in Odessa Richelieu had to face the two ordeals: the epidemic of plague in Odessa and the Napoleon’s invading in Russia. The terrible plague in the autumn of 1812, when about 50 people died in Odessa every day, was a tragic episode in the history of the city. The quarantine was announced and all the public places were closed; grave diggers in eerie black masks were cruising the streets on their carts hoolding the lit torches and taking dead bodies to a separated semetery ("Chumnaya Gora" - the Plague Hill). Richelieu was personally visiting the houses of the citizens putting his life in danger, warning them about the danger and giving orders. After several months the plague left the city.

Because of the epidemic of plague Odessa was exonerated from sending its people to the war with Napoleon, but a lot of money was collected for the army, and the frst person to donate 40 thousand roubles was the Governor himself, the rumour was that he gave away all his savings. After the victory over Napoleon Richelieu, who was a true monarchist, went back to France where he became the Prime Minister twice.
Duke was known for his modesty and democracy, often went on foot in his old overcoat, simply went to peasants’ huts or merchants’ parties, was interested in the life of ordinary people. "In Odessa there live thirty thousand people, and all without exception, love the Duke," - wrote one of his contemporaries. That’s why it is not surprising that the entire city accompanied the favorite governor on September 26, 1814, and up to the carriage they were carrying Richelieu on hands.

He died in Paris in 1822, aged 56.

The most recognizable monument of Odessa

The monument to their beloved Duke was opened by the Odessans in 1928. The sculpturer was Ivan Martos. Richelieu is depicted in the classic ancient manner, wearing a Roman toga, welcoming guests as a hearty host. In the folds of a toga on his side it is a Roman short sword (which is, for some reason, noted by a few). In his left hand Duke holds a list of privilegesof the City.

The are three bas-reliefs on the pedestal of the monument – describing the three directions of the Duke’s activity in the city – “trade” (the god Mercury), “public justice” (Themis), “agriculture” (Ceres). On the pedestal of the monument there is a bas-relief depicting the Roman God of trade Mercury, with the bronze sack in his hand and the scattered coins at his feet both shining suspiciously brightly. There is a legend that if you rub the bas-relief with your hand you will have a prosperous future.

The cannon ball, left in the pedestal, is the evidence of the bombing of Odessa by the English-French squadron in 1854 during the Crimean War. Then the cannonballs flew to the boulevard and into the Vorontsov Palace, and one one them fell into the pedestal and was left there as a reminder.

From long ago the bronze Duke on Primorskiy Boulevard is a business card of the city, the most recognizable image of Odessa, an object of respect and nostalgia, as well as of urban legends and jokes. One of those old jokes ("to look at Duke from the second manhole") entered the song of Odessa’s rock-singer Igor Gankevich:

Smiling to the Duke, I walk along the boulevard,
And not looking at him from the second manhole,
When he reaches out his hand, I will say to him:
I am proud that was born here, and here I live ...

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