Tourist cafes are hidden behind barricades. The great Opera and Ballet Theater is surrounded by a wall of sandbags. Tank traps block access to the legendary Potemkin Stairs. No one in Odessa can believe that Vladimir Putin is preparing to attack this city, a place linked to Russia by family, literary and cultural ties, an almost mythical place for many Russians.
What we know and what we don’t know about the Russian military advance in Ukraine
But in recent days, the Russian military has done many things that seemed unthinkable just two weeks ago.
“I don’t know what kind of bastard, idiot or scum you have to be to push the button that drops missiles on Odessa,” says the city’s mayor, Gennady Trukhanov, during an interview with Guardian in a building in the city center to which he has moved for security reasons. “It is beyond the limits of my understanding.”
On Sunday, French President Emmanuel Macron called Putin to express concern about intelligence revealing that an attack on Odessa would soon begin. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky also touched on that possibility in one of his last video speeches, all delivered with increasing resistance and exhaustion.
“The Russians have always come to Odessa. In Odessa they have always been received warmly. Always with sincerity. Now what? Bombs against Odessa? Artillery against Odessa? Missiles against Odessa? It will be a war crime. It will be a historical crime.
So far, the Russian attack on southern Ukraine has largely avoided Odessa, but military analysts suggest it is only a matter of time, especially if the Russians manage to take Mykolaiv, further east. Missiles fell on the city again on Monday morning, while warships have been moving ominously between the coast outside Odessa and the annexed region of Crimea.
Every morning, the residents who have remained in Odessa get up and check the progress of the warships and the condition of Mykolaiv. Through text messages they receive advice on what to do in the event of an amphibious attack or a sustained air attack.
Donations for the Army
In a newly renovated gastronomic market in the city center, the stalls that used to sell oysters, champagne and original coffees stopped working after the start of the Russian attack on Ukraine on February 24. Now Ukrainian flags and anti-Russian slogans decorate the room, which serves as a donation collection point for the Army. Volunteers in orange jackets receive bags from civilians who want to help the war effort.
“We write on Telegram what we need: medicines, sleeping bags, thermal clothing. Help from the West is coming, but in these first weeks we are the ones who have to help them,” says Nikolai Viknyanskyi, who runs a furniture business in Odessa and is at the forefront of the donation campaign.
Every day, the center also coordinates some 8,000 hot meals, cooked in closed restaurants throughout the city, which are distributed among soldiers and territorial defense units.
a different place
The city, as every Odesian makes it known as soon as the opportunity arises, is a particular place. It boasts a reputation as the home of merry hustlers and labyrinthine storytellers, and often feels more like a city-state than a hotbed of Ukrainian patriotism.
While it is true that the eight years since the Maidan mobilizations have intensified interest in the Ukrainian language and culture, especially among young people, Odessa remains a very different place from Kiev and the cities of western Ukraine. .
A survey carried out in September last year showed that 68% of the inhabitants of Odessa agreed with Vladimir Putin’s statement that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people”, while only 20% of the people thought that Ukraine’s future lay in integration with Europe. 38% wanted closer ties with Russia and 27%, neutrality.
However, the events of the last two weeks may have drastically altered these figures.
Mayor Trukhanov is a good example. A former member of former President Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, Trukhanov has been accused of corruption and links to organized crime and Russia. He denies all allegations and has been forced to refute repeated claims that he had a Russian passport.
Now he has become an unexpected defender of Ukrainian sovereignty. In response to Putin’s claim that the Russian military attack was aimed at defending Russian-speakers, Trukhanov posed a rhetorical question in a video speech: “Who the hell are you trying to defend here?”
This Sunday, he wore on his jacket the yellow duct tape armband that identifies the Ukrainian forces in this war and a gray cap on his permanently furrowed forehead. She denied Putin’s claim that the war against Ukraine is “denazification” and said that it was Putin’s Russia that was behaving like the fascists. “Bomb Kharkov. Who would do that? Only the Nazis.”
Important to Russian narrative
The events in Odessa in 2014 play an important role in the Russian narrative about a fascist Ukraine. After coordinated pro-Russian groups in many Ukrainian cities seized government buildings in the spring, Ukrainian ultras struck back during a pro-Russian demonstration that ended violently in Odessa. The result was a fire in the union building, in which 48 people died, most of them pro-Russian. The tragedy was immediately seized upon by the Kremlin, which describes it as a premeditated fascist massacre.
In the angry televised speech that heralded the current war, Putin specifically mentioned Odessa, noting that Russia knew the names of those responsible for the May 2014 tragedy and would “do everything to punish them.” These words reinforced Western intelligence claims that Russia had prepared lists of people who would be detained or killed in the event of an occupation.
The events of 2014 drove a wedge between friends and families in Odessa. Boris Khersonsky, a 72-year-old poet, psychologist and philosopher, estimates that he lost “more than half” of his friends when he decided to take a decidedly pro-Ukrainian stance. “I grew up speaking Russian, but after what happened in 2014 I sat down with a dictionary,” he says. He now writes in both Russian and Ukrainian.
In light of the attacks on civilians over the past two weeks, even many who remained staunchly pro-Russian are rethinking their convictions.
Alexander Prigarin, an anthropologist based in Odessa, describes his current mood as “confused.” The events of 2014 only reinforced his affection for Russia, he says, but the image of Russia attacking Ukrainian cities with rockets and missiles has left him perplexed. “It’s a nightmare, a tragedy, a catastrophe.”
Khersonsky believes that the current war has brought many Odessa residents closer to patriotic Ukrainian positions. “Putin has done a lot to make that happen.” In his house on the outskirts of the city, he and his wife have turned a room into a makeshift bomb shelter, barricading the windows with piles of books to protect themselves from a possible Russian attack.
If Russia occupies Odessa, the couple plans to leave as soon as possible. “A month from now we may have to leave this house and become homeless refugees,” Khersonsky says matter-of-factly.
“If they take the city, then what?”
Perhaps the most inexplicable aspect of Putin’s decision to invade is the idea – apparently based on a lack of understanding of how much Ukraine has changed in the last eight years – that the inhabitants of places like Odessa would welcome Russian troops. , with cheers and bouquets.
In contrast, images from occupied cities in the south, such as Kherson, show that no matter how much airpower Russia brings to the conflict, the end of it is unclear. Brave unarmed Ukrainians have stood up to tanks and taken to the streets waving their country’s flags, while Russian soldiers have watched in confusion as the defiant resistance of the people they thought they were liberating.
“They can take the city. Well, and then what? Where are the resources to create an administration, to run the city?” says Natalia Zhukova, a 42-year-old chess master and member of the local Odessa parliament. “We will become partisans.”
Translation of Julian Cnochaert.