Legendary Ukrainian Odessa struggles with its wartime fate

According to the muscular 41-year-old ballet dancer, it wasn’t really all that great. grand jet leave the stage of the iconic opera house and enlist in the Ukrainian army.

When Russian troops entered Ukraine more than five months ago, Vitaly R., a longtime member of the corps de ballet of the Opera House in the Black Sea city of Odessa, did not even wait for the call to mobilize.

“We didn’t start this war,” said Vitaly, who is prohibited by military regulations from making his full name public. “But we will win.”

A former outpost of the Russian empire, a coveted strategic seaport, a quirky multicultural blend redolent of salty air and tragic history, Odessa has always combined an artistic soul with a martial bearing.

If a war grindsboth on full display.

Carousel horses with sandbags in the background.

Sandbags are heaped around the statue of the Duc de Richelieu, a landmark at the top of the stairs made famous by the movie Battleship Potemkin, in anticipation of a Russian attack, as seen from the carousel carriage. in the strategic Black Sea port city of Odessa, Ukraine on March 14, 2022.

(Scott Peterson/Getty Images)

Made famous for the tumbling baby stroller scene in Sergei Eisenstein’s classic 1925 silent film The Battleship Potemkin, the Potemkin Stairs is sealed off with anti-tank traps and checkpoints. The seashore is mined. The giant cranes are mostly idle in Odessa Harbour, Ukraine’s main seaport, which came under fire from Russian missiles just over a week ago. The front-line city of Nikolaev, suffering almost daily Russian bombardmentonly 70 miles.

Residents of Odessa – now spelled to remove the double Russian “s” – faced fluctuating levels of threat throughout the war. From the start, the city has been preparing for a possible Russian amphibious attack, bolstering defenses, sandbagging pastel-colored buildings, blocking key approaches with anti-tank hedgehogs made of steel beams.

But Russia’s formidable Black Sea Fleet proved far from invincible. Less than eight weeks into the fighting, Ukrainian forces sank the flagship Moscow shore-to-ship missiles. Russian troops were subsequently forced to withdraw from Zmeiny Ostrov, a stretch of Ukrainian territory 85 miles from Odessa, a key base for electronic warfare and air defense systems.

However, the city is still threatened by Russian ships and submarines. Residents in Odessa were alarmed by late spring intelligence reports that suggested Moscow hoped to build a land bridge from the Crimean peninsula, seized by Russia in 2014, to the breakaway region of Transnistria in neighboring Moldova. Odessa would lie right on this path.

“The intensity of missile strikes on our city and the entire region [region] increased,” said Sergey Bratchuk, the official representative of the Odessa Regional Military Directorate, during an online briefing last week. According to him, Russia “is striking at civilian infrastructure and residential buildings. He is trying to intimidate civilians by killing civilians.”

A security officer stands next to a ship in the port.

A security officer stands next to the Navi Star ship, which is chock-full of grain since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began five months ago, in the port of Odessa on Friday.

(David Goldman/Associated Press)

The blood of the city, its trading port, was frozen for months until Monday, when a grain ship finally sailed from Odessa under an agreement mediated by the UN and Turkey. The strike on the port on July 23, which came just a day after the deal was announced, sent clouds of oily black smoke into the blue sky, twin explosions echoing through the historic city center.

Characteristically, some beachgoers and dog breeders applauded loudly when Ukrainian air defenses shot down two of four Russian missiles.

The outrage of the war prompted about a third of the inhabitants of Odessa, who numbered about 1 million before the war, to seek safety outside of Ukraine, but at the same time, internally displaced Ukrainians from occupied parts of the south, including Kherson, flooded the city. , 125 km drive. Captured in the early days of the warKherson was the first major city captured by Russia, and the Ukrainian military is preparing for a bloody battle to recapture it.

Many cities in this part of the world suffered horrendous violence during World War II, and Odessa was no exception. The city was besieged and occupied; The Nazis killed about 80% of the more than 200,000 Jews in the region. The Russian invasion prompted approximately 15,000 of Odessa’s current Jewish community of approximately 40,000 to go into temporary or permanent exile.

In this war, Odessa largely escaped the punitive Russian bombing raids that leveled cities like Mariupol, another key southern seaport that fell to Russia in May, or cities along the war’s main front, the crescent-shaped front line to the country’s east. . But the deathblows, when they do occur, send ripples of grief across the sprawling metropolis, which in some respects retains a rustic feel.

Beloved local coach and football club founder Alexander Shishkov, 42, was killed July 1 in a rocket attack on a residential area in Sergeevka that killed at least 20 people, including a pregnant woman. Odessa resident Shishkov drove to the city about 40 miles away to prepare for the early start of a youth sports event the next morning.

Friends, some in T-shirts, look at the man in the coffin.

Relatives and friends attend a farewell ceremony for 42-year-old Ukrainian football coach Alexander Shishkov, who was killed in a rocket attack on July 1 in the Odessa region of Ukraine.

(NurPhoto via Getty Images)

His body was pulled from the rubble at nightfall, a few hours after the pre-dawn strike.

“The kids couldn’t understand why this happened to him,” said Vladimir Balyk, 45, the club’s co-founder, pointing to 10-year-olds on the football field behind him. “We couldn’t either.”

While Odessa’s history is steeped in Russians—including its official founding as a free port by Catherine II, the empress known to Russians as Catherine the Great—most locals have completely shed any notion that Russian President Vladimir Putin will spare the city. because of the common cultural heritage.

On a square in the center of Odessa, an elderly woman crossed herself as an ambulance caravan loaded with dead soldiers drove past. She then scolded Putin sharply, in Russian.

In the foggy days of midsummer, when the streets and squares are littered with fallen snowdrifts of tiny white acacia flowers, the war changed daily habits and routines. A local joke says that the sea is now like a museum piece: look, but don’t touch.

But like much of Odessa’s trademark sardonic humor, there is a dark undertone here. In July, two swimmers were killed in separate incidents when they accidentally detonated mines in waters near the city that were designated as dangerous, authorities said.

A man sits in front of an empty beach.

A beach in Odessa, Ukraine, remains closed during the height of summer due to the danger of mines being washed ashore.

(David Goldman/Associated Press)

53-year-old Olga Katasonova still walks her dog on the embankment every morning, looking at the now inaccessible beach from afar.

“I miss, of course, but this is nothing compared to what people experienced in Kharkov, in Mariupol,” she said, listing the names of eastern cities devastated by the war. “Nowhere in Ukraine is safe, but we are more fortunate than many.”

During a short evening break from tactical training at a military base on the outskirts of the city, dancer Vitaly R. said he expected to go to the front at some point. According to him, his wife and two young sons are concerned; so is he.

“You have to be stupid not to be afraid!” he said.

Dressed in a gray T-shirt and blue athletic shorts, he apparently unconsciously replicated his straight-backed dancer’s pose, hand on hip, palm facing out. His last stage performance took place four days before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 21 February. 24; The 19th-century Neo-Baroque Opera House, which sits majestically on a hill in the historic center, resumed performances in June after being suspended due to conflict.

Military life is very different from the opera environment, Vitaly said, but there are certain similarities between his previous calling and his current one. Both require discipline. Each includes the acquisition of new skills and their endless practice. Most of all, he says, there is the feeling that you are part of something bigger than yourself.

“I miss my past life – the stage, the audience,” he said. “But it’s important for everyone.”

Alexander Babich, a local historian who wrote a book about the Nazi occupation of 1941-43, now devotes his days to collecting and delivering donations to Ukrainian military camps in the south.

The hallmark of the city has always been its resilience, he says, and he doesn’t expect this war to change that.

“Odessa is surviving,” Babich said. “When all this is over, we will still be here.”