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The War Comes to Odessa

As the Kremlin steps up its destruction of Ukraine’s most historic port city, Odessans face a choice between their Russian imperial past and a patriotic Ukrainian future

Vladislav Davidzon
August 24, 2023

Yan Dobronosov/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images

Yan Dobronosov/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images

On the night of July 23, the Transfiguration Cathedral, the primary Orthodox church in Odessa (which was until recently still nominally in communion with the Moscow patriarchate), was brutally violated by Onyx- and Kalibr-class cruise missiles launched by the Russian air force. Aerial photographs depicting the damage showed that a missile had sliced cleanly through the roof of the cathedral before detonating against its white marble floor and gleaming Corinthian columns. Shards of the icons and mangled golden fixtures were flung across Cathedral Square, in the center of Odessa. Volunteers would spend the next week sifting through the debris and piecing them together like a jigsaw puzzle. Twenty-five historic buildings in the center of the city were wrecked or damaged, along with the beloved House of Scientists—the old Tolstoy family palace transformed into a performance and meeting hall where my opera-singer sister once performed Bach arias.

The Transfiguration Cathedral was originally consecrated in 1809. Dynamited by the communists at the height of the Stalinist repressions of the 1930s, it was rebuilt by the city authorities in the aughts, with work on the building completed exactly a decade ago. The cathedral would once again serve as the final resting place for Odessa’s aristocratic Russian imperial governor and Napoleonic war hero, Mikhail Vorontsov. This had been a highly symbolic restoration, representing a renewal of the city’s connection to its historical traditions, as well as trumpeting the soundness of its finances in the wake of the wild ’90s. The Russians’ precision bombing of the cathedral constituted an unmistakable message to Odessa: that its lovely Italianate city center, long considered secure from Russian assaults amid the conflict, would now be considered a legitimate target by Moscow.

A week before the attack on the cathedral, the Russians had declined to extend their participation in the Black Sea Grain Initiative, a deal brokered by Turkey and the United Nations in July 2022 that would allow the Ukrainians to continue exporting grain shipments (and some other foodstuffs in limited quantities) out of Odessa’s three Black Sea ports. The deal would be set for recertification by both sides every 90 days. Before agreeing to the previous three extensions the Russian delegation had routinely maneuvered to extract additional concessions on Western sanctions relief. The compact was critical to maintaining the stability of the global food supply, as well as keeping international grain prices from soaring or fluctuating unpredictably, especially for the numerous African countries in the midst of droughts and a difficult planting season. A mutually agreed upon tonnage of grain would be allowed to leave Odessa’s ports and international sanctions would be lifted on the Russians so that they could also sell their own wheat on international markets.

The Russian termination of the grain deal—combined with its bombardment of the Odessa city center and targeting of Ukrainian port infrastructure—represented an escalation. Ukrainians had become used to Russians bombing their churches, but this was not something that the Odessans had yet experienced personally. For a long time, despite the indiscriminate bombing of neighboring Ukrainian cities, the Russians seemed to retain their sentimental desire to take the grand prize of Odessa whole. The city retained its central place as the crown jewel in the fantasias of the “Russian world,” the heart of the territories that Russian imperialists consider to have been left outside of “legitimate” Russian borders. During the first year and a half of the war, the Russians had showcased their wrath with the occasional assault on the suburbs and the regional towns. For 11 months, the grain deal had functioned as an insurance policy and shield for the lovely central parts of the city and the port—which the Russians wanted for themselves.

By the middle of last summer, the Ukrainian army’s counteroffensive had driven the Russians back from the center of Kherson city and across the bank of the Dnieper river. As the Russians retreated, they had lost their ability to target Odessa`s neighboring city of Mykolayiv, which had been cut off from supplies of potable water. At that point, the Ukrainian authorities could successfully reconstruct the Mykolayiv water filtration system, putting an end to the morning ritual of Odessan volunteers gathering in the city center to pack up tons of water bottles to truck to Mykolaiv.

Over the autumn and into the winter of last year, the Russians switched their tactics in the south of Ukraine. Their plan was a concerted attempt to devastate and degrade Ukrainian infrastructure in order to demoralize the population, increase refugee flows, and cripple the economy. Russian cruise missiles were launched from submarines in the Caspian and Black seas and smart bombs were lobbed from Russian bombers flying sorties out of Belarusian air bases. The Russians continually bombarded Ukrainian power stations and electricity pylons until about half of the electrical infrastructure of the country had been devastated.

Ultimately, the Ukrainians would be spared the worst through the divine intervention of a relatively mild winter. In Odessa, I would wander through deserted swaths of the city in the middle of the warm winter nights, the apartments empty, their owners having moved abroad for the winter. By March, the national state-owned electricity grid company Ukrenergo would publicly announce that the country was no longer experiencing systematic power deficits in the central grid. The citizens of the city, as well as my own family members, would no longer have to figure out whose house to go to amid daily power outages.

Ukrainian engineers, technical staff and ordinary repairmen had heroically spent the months repairing and rebuilding the energy pylons and transistors as quickly as the Russian strikes could degrade them. They had succeeded. The Ukrainian post office—run by my friend the Odessa-born Jewish American Igor Smelyansky who is now a national celebrity across the country—would celebrate their heroic efforts with the release of a commemorative set of “warriors of light” stamps, valorizing the emergency workers who had kept the electricity on. The spring would put an end to the winter’s booming market for the portable electric generators. At around the same time, McDonald’s announced that it would be reopening its Odessa branches, which had been shuttered at the beginning of the war. Social media filled up with pictures of Odessans merrily descending on the newly reopened fast food shops. Here, comrades, was the taste of resilience and victory! The Russians promptly hit one of the McDonald’s with a missile.

“We are our own nationality,” proud Odessans will continually remind you. Even at the height of Russian imperial autarchy, the city had been liberal, multicultural, cosmopolitan, and independent, its disparate elements held together by a communal agreement that the purpose of life was to make money and enjoy worldly pleasures. Odessans have always taken a skeptical and independent stance toward whichever ruling class happened to be administering it from a far-off capital, whether it was Petrograd during the Russian imperial epoch, Moscow during the Soviet period, or Kyiv today. No matter who was in charge, snobby, anarchic Odessans would habitually turn up their noses to every far away power.

The city was, for that reason and many others, historically a hub of black market activity, and it has spent the first 30 years of independence largely outside Kyiv’s control. The city’s old book bazaar, the “Knizkha,” which doubles as the flagrantly unconcealed hard currency black market of the city, is located directly across the street from the regional headquarters of the Ukrainian security service, the SBU. Incidentally, during my last visit to the book bazaar, the illegal currency dealer who gives me and my friends an enticing exchange rate begged me to relate his feelings about the Russians to the outside world: “I used to think of myself as a Russian and I loved Russian culture and collected Russian books,” Ivan told me in between counting out stacks of the colorful Ukrainian currency. “Yet I have since realized that these amoral and despicable bastards are totally fucked in the head! They live like animals back in Russia so they come here to kill, maraud, steal and to rape our women before taking our air conditioners and toilet seats back to their godforsaken Siberian villages.” That is now a standard position among even those Odessans who admit that they used to collect Russian books.

When former Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili was appointed the governor of the region in 2015, he savvily played up to the locals’ sense of individuality by broaching the idea of returning the city to its 19th-century status as a free trade and tax zone, a Hong Kong on the Black Sea. (Almost a decade later, Misha is sadly deteriorating inside of a Georgian prison cell.) As the world has learned over the previous year, there can be no Ukrainian export economy—or stable world grain markets—without Odessa’s three ports open for trade. In the very near future, Odessa will be forced to develop a more patriotically oriented, balanced, and cohesive relationship with Kyiv. The situation is in flux, and the way that the city’s identity will develop after the war remains an unanswered question—yet the same thing can also be said more generally of Ukraine.

In Odessa, the culture war over the past has been simmering for decades, but it erupted in full again last autumn. As the Russians ramped up their bombardment campaign against the region, and as Odessans observed the fate of neighboring Russian-speaking cities such as Mariupol, Kherson, Kharkiv, and Bakhmut, it became obvious that the Kremlin was willing to destroy the cities of the so-called “Russian world” in order to “save” them. In the context of a genocidal Russian invasion, the city could not retain an identity tethered to nostalgia for a sepia-toned ideal of 19th-century Russian imperial glamor. That late-Soviet literary fantasia of Odessa—with its dashing French governors, Polish poets, Spanish soldiers, and American sailors all congregating to do business and dance at czarist balls—is no longer relevant. On the other hand, jettisoning everything that had been built, erected, written, painted, composed and innovated during the Soviet and czarist epochs would leave little patrimony worth preserving. The resulting choices about what to keep and what to discard are daunting and deeply divisive. Some of those choices, local power elites have long told me, would have been avoidable if Odessa merely had another 20 years to wait for the last generation of its Soviet citizens to pass into the next port, but the war has rendered that strategy obsolete. Those choices will now have to be made before the conclusion of the war.

‘We are our own nationality,’ proud Odessans will continually remind you.

In December, the Odessa city council voted to take down the statue of the founder of the city, Catherine the Great (she is referred to as “Catherine the Second” by Ukrainian patriots who do not think that her repression of Ukrainian culture and language was all that great). The removal of the statue of Catherine only took place after many months of excruciating debates that had polarized the city. The statue, which stood in the elegant central square bearing her name, had previously been taken down by the communists and restored in the late ’90s when the city had first undergone a local (as opposed to centrally mandated) process of decommunization. Many Odessans, even those who are very much patriots of Ukraine, had opposed taking the statue down for a mixture of sentimental and practical reasons. The army brass who run the region under martial law were manifestly in favor of getting rid of her, yet the generals have kept a light touch within internal city politics and allowed the process to evolve organically without pushing it too publicly.

Finally, after the city had spent months fervently arguing about what do about the empress, the statue was dismantled under military guard in the middle of the night. A simple Ukrainian flag was raised in her place on the pedestal. A symbolic place holder until the city decided what should replace her. The statue of General Alexander Suvorov, the last generalissimo of the Russian Empire, was soon also dismantled. A month later, the statue of Soviet Marshal Georgy Zhukov would likewise fall. In a stroke of ironic genius, Tolstoy Square was renamed in honor of the Yiddish writer Mendele Mocher Sforim, who had hung out in Odessa for a decade while writing his poems.

The schizophrenic relationship of the authorities to the ambivalent desires of the polarized electorate was entirely understandable. Many streets in the city had been renamed during Soviet times in honor of cultural luminaries who had contributed to Russian or even world culture using the city as their home base. Should those beloved local writers and artists and generals and composers, asked their older and more tradition-minded defenders, be faulted for Putin’s genocidal megalomania? Still, the two beloved statues of Pushkin in the city center have remain untouched, even if one was hidden behind sandbags and the other was encased in protective wooden box that was promptly painted over with a red and black Ukrainian flag.

Pushkin, the founder of modern Russian literature, had spent some of the best times of his dissolute life galivanting around Odessa as a young man. He also began his epic and canonical verse novel Eugene Onegin in the city, in between epic bouts of drinking and chasing after the daughters of the local gentry. Numerous toponyms and objects in the city remain named for him and, until the most recent wave of bombings at least, a majority of Odessans seemed to want to keep him. It is an undeniable fact that a substantial and significant—if also hard to measure—swath of the population (especially the older and less-educated parts of it) continue harboring attachments to a generalized post-Soviet Russophone culture. Many locals mind their tongues even as they feel intense ambivalence toward the evolution that the city is taking—even if they do not necessarily agree with the Kremlin’s view that their homes should be destroyed by cruise missiles. The most clever local sophists argue that local Russian cultural patrimony should merely be assimilated and rebranded as “Ukrainian.”

The prominent Odessan parliamentarian Oleksiy Goncharenko informed me that he was in favor of the cultural changes:

Ukraine is fighting its colonial past and Odessa is one of the main theatres of that battle, having been the 4th city of the Russian empire. It will take time but the mood of the people changed twice—once after Feb 24th and again after the biggest cathedral of the city was bombed. We have no other choice other than to finish this process. The problem is not merely with Pushkin himself as personality or as a historical figure—it is with the way that Putin has deployed him. When the city of Kherson was occupied the first thing that they did was to raise a statue of Pushkin. Putin has weaponized everything, including historical poetry and that is why many Ukrainians feel that these symbols can be dangerous. Russian starts with poets and continues with missiles.

The Ukrainization—in the cultural if not yet the linguistic sense—of the patriotically oriented city intelligentsia and middle classes had commenced after the 2014 Maidan revolution. Yet the city had remained resolutely Russian speaking. The war has naturally escalated the Ukrainization process, though much more slowly than in other Russian-speaking Ukrainian cities, and, outside of activist circles, only after the first year of the war. If many older Odessans still do not care to improve their Ukrainian language skills, all students have now been educated in Ukrainian for almost a decade, and anyone younger than 30 has perfect command of the official tongue.

“The next generation of little Odessans may not know how to write in grammatically correct Russian,” the deputy mayor, Pavel Vugelman, admitted to me. Many young people have begun to write text messages and emails in Ukrainian while continuing to speak Russian at home. Ukrainian is heard much more often in the streets, and enrollment in Ukrainian language courses is booming. The number of those comfortable with the status quo have seen their numbers much reduced by the Russian air strikes against the city. Two months ago, I was still comfortable telling people that “for the most part, the city does not yet feel as if it is ready or needs to make serious decisions about its future identity and that those discussions are best left for after the conclusion of the war.” After the bombing of the city center and the concerted attacks on the port infrastructure and grain silos, that judgment no longer feels right.

Those inherent contradictions have very deep historical roots in the city, and everyone knows what the debate about whether the city’s name should be written with one “s” or two really represents (it has been very difficult for me to continue to write the name of the city as “Odessa,” even as it is the right spelling for historical and etymological reasons). Yet the shift in cultural dynamics has been buttressed by a shift in demographics. The war has engendered massive population movements across Ukraine, especially across the south. While many Odessans (such as my own family) have evacuated their wives, children, and elderly relatives to neighboring Moldova, Romania, and Bulgaria, the city has also filled up with Ukrainians, often Russophone, who have been displaced by the Russian attacks on towns farther east. The restaurants are returning to capacity, but they are now staffed by waiters from Kherson and Melitpol. This has led to comical incidents of transplanted Russian-speaking waiters from Kherson and Mariupol fumbling with their rusty Ukrainian while taking lunch orders from middle aged Russophone locals who are also brushing up on their high school Ukrainian.

The government refuses to provide statistics regarding how many people have left the city in the midst of the conflict, but I suspect that Odessa’s demographics have not changed this much since World War II, or at least since the time of the mass Jewish emigration in the ’80s and ’90s. This would mean that Odessa will be a very different city at the conclusion of the war. At the philharmonic, I observed a group of young women give themselves away as newcomers to the city as they marveled at the gorgeous carved decorations of the crenelated and frescoed ceiling. They argued in Russian about whether it was neo-Oriental or Turkish in style. I intervened to inform them of the answer—the Odessa variant of Venetian Revival Gothic widely practiced by the early 19th-century Italian architects who designed the center of the city—and found out that they had all recently resettled after the destruction of Mariupol.

The war had also spurred on the project of attaining UNESCO world heritage status for the city. Local activists had reignited a campaign to have the city center included on the UNESCO list of the world’s architectural sites, which had been stalled for over a decade. The idea was that the campaign would provide the city and country with a much needed moral victory while theoretically offering an additional layer of international protection from Russian airstrikes. It would be a substantive diplomatic achievement—one that required outmaneuvering the veto power of the Russian delegation within the relevant committees in UNESCO’s Paris headquarters. Over the course of almost a year, I observed the painstaking diplomatic process, dubious of its chances for success. Yet the Ukrainians eventually garnered the necessary votes and sidelined the Russian diplomats, and UNESCO proffered the status to the city in late January. By early April, the triumphal Zelensky would travel to Odessa to personally receive the certificate of inclusion from UNESCO Director Audrey Azoulay.

Even as neither side is capable of maintaining control over the waves of the Black Sea because of the efficiency of long-range missiles, the maritime war in the Black Sea is escalating. Ukrainian attempts to reroute grain traffic via rail and truck through land borders and into the Danube river have been massively expensive and inefficient compared to sending grain in container ships. The Ukrainians have begun to strike Russian-flagged tankers, warships, and troop ships with their newly developed fleet of semisubmersible drone bombs. The Russian fleet can no longer count on a safe harbor, even berthed in occupied Crimean ports, where they are incapable of stopping the Ukrainian suicide drones from wreaking havoc through weekly assaults on Russian oil refineries, arms depots, and docked vessels. At the beginning of August, three internationally flagged ships—Greek, Georgian, and Israeli tankers—successfully ran the Russian blockade to pick up grain from Odessa. This was done under the cover of American spy planes and within the range of a wing of NATO-flagged Romanian fighter jets. On Aug. 4, the Ukrainian intelligence services and navy immediately took credit for a nighttime operation against the Russian Black Sea navy base in faraway Novorossiysk—a Ukrainian drone crippled a Russian warship and at least temporarily hobbled the Russians’ capacity to use the port for trade. On Twitter, one can watch a black-and-white video set to the theme music of Jaws, showing the predator drone stealthily approaching the Russian ship.

This was, in effect, the start of the Ukrainian counterblockade against Russian shipping. Though lacking a serious fleet in comparison to the Russian navy, the Ukrainians have begun to overcome that gap through their development and deployment of a drone fleet. This innovation represents a deadly new asymmetry of arms. Kyiv is now capable of seriously obstructing Russian trade and shipping, using expendable and sophisticated drones that are exceedingly difficult to intercept and also cost a tiny fraction of the value of a massive Russian warship or oil tanker. The operations of the all-important—for Russia as well as for the international economy—Caspian Pipeline Consortium, which operates the oil terminal in Novorossiysk, are now under direct threat. Last week, the Ukrainian maritime authorities issued a warning to international shipping companies and mariners: After Aug. 23, all Russian Black Sea ports and territorial waters would be declared a war zone and should thus be treated as a “war zone risk area.” Commercial shippers were thus being given two weeks to steam out of the Black Sea and to make other arrangements.

The risk of being attacked by Ukrainian missiles and drones would dissuade even the most risk-tolerant international shipping companies from using the lanes, even if they were willing to brave the mines, which have already struck several tankers. Insurance prices for Russian shipping companies will doubtless soon become as prohibitively expensive for Russian commercial traders as they had been for Ukrainian exporters and farmers. If the Russians were going to methodically destroy Ukrainian shipping infrastructure, Kyiv was certainly not going to let Russian grain shipments dominate the market in their stead.

While the Turkish delegation continues to host secretive back-channel negotiations in order to return to the deal and reopen the Black Sea, the Ukrainians are steaming ahead with plans to forcibly run the blockade—and the Russian minefields. Kyiv is currently in the midst of negotiations with global insurance companies in order to underwrite the now astronomically expensive insurance schemes needed for international shippers to risk sailing their ships around the contours of the Ukrainian coast and continue south into Romanian and Bulgarian waters and afterward. Several of them seem interested in continuing to issue those policies, yet the threat of Russian warships boarding their grain ships, or even firing on them, gives pause to those with a lesser appetite for risk. Faced with the prospect of looking weak, would the Russian navy decide to fire on a Western-flagged and insured grain tanker traversing NATO territorial waters? The West has now belatedly realized that Black Sea basin and its environs risks being turned into the proverbial “Russian lake.” As the risks of uncontrolled military escalation ratchet up, the region has become the most interesting—and likely the most dangerous—waterway in the entire world.

Vladislav Davidzon is Tablet’s European culture correspondent and a Ukrainian American writer, translator, and critic. He is the Chief Editor of The Odessa Review and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and lives in Paris.