Ballet, parties and showers: Ukrainians defy Russia by adopting ‘normality’

A girl dances, twirls, and spins in the sand as a bassir on the runway beats his drum to the beat of a pop tune.

With bars and cafés buzzing with activity, the atmosphere feels similar to that found in countless summer hotspots in Europe.

It is a stark and disturbing contrast to the sights I witnessed on my visit to this city three months ago.

At that time, the Russian invasion was two months later. Most businesses in the city were closed and many residents were on the run.

Gone are the caravans of cars fleeing westward through Ukraine, and many of the words “children” have been plastered on the windows.

Alternatively, despite the proximity of the front lines and the constant threat of long-range artillery fire raining death from above, life in this country at war can seem deceptively peaceful.

People still go to work, walk their dogs, and play with their children in the park.

“We’re used to it. It’s awful that we’re used to it,” said ballerina Katerina Kalchenko, swinging for a performance at the 135-year-old Opera House in Odessa.

Here, too, in this Black Sea port city, there is a stark dissonance between the madness of war and the mundane of everyday life.

Once known as the “Pearl of the Black Sea” in Ukraine, Odessa is a vacation spot popular with poets, writers, and musicians. Even today, it still retains much of its charm, although its calm is at times compromised by Russian strikes — such as the two Kalibr cruise missiles that struck just hours after Moscow signed a UN-brokered grain export deal with Kyiv.

Katerina Kalchenko takes shelter in the basement of the Odessa Opera House.

Ballerina Kalchenko was forced to do a warm-up in the basement of the opera house, because the air raid siren had pushed the entire orchestra and dance troupe into shelter just half an hour before.

However, Kalchenko and her fellow dancers showed up for the premiere a few later stretches with enough poise and serenity to leave their audience amazed—until the threat of another Russian missile attack prematurely shut down the show.

morale victory

It is as if, after five months of war, many Ukrainians have come to accept their new reality.

This is part of a reflection of trust in those who fight on their behalf.

Ukrainians are very proud of how their soldiers defeated the attempted Russian blitzkrieg on Kyiv in the north of the country in the spring.

Many now hope for further successes as their forces engage in a war of attrition on the eastern and southern fronts, where they hope to reclaim the cities and towns lost to the armies of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It is a battle with heavy losses. An adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said at one point that the country was losing up to 200 soldiers a day on those front lines.

However, it is clear that among these brave defenders there is a willingness to take whatever it takes.

Serhiy Tamarin, a special forces operator, spoke to CNN from a hospital bed in July, after he was wounded in fighting on Ukraine's southern front.

Take Serhii Tamarin, for example.

I first met him in March, when he had just been released from a military hospital and was recovering from a spinal injury and broken ribs while leading a regional defense battalion of about 400 soldiers, fighting northwest of Kyiv.

“Death is not so frightening,” he said at the time, “losing is much more frightening.” Within days, he was back at the front.

When we called back, he was back at the hospital, this time from wounds he sustained while a Special Forces member was fighting in the south.

He asked is there a word in the English language for when something explodes near your head?

He said a near miss from a tank shot left him with a severe concussion, and he is now having a hard time thinking properly.

But he insisted he is in good enough shape to return to the fight.

“I think in a few days, they should put me back in my platoon,” Tamarin said.

the challenge

But embracing the new Ukrainian reality is not just about trusting men like Tamarin. He’s up for the challenge, too.

Soldiers describe the war in existential terms, an invasion ordered by a Russian president who questions Ukraine’s right to exist as an independent country.

“They came to seize our lands,” said Lieutenant-General Andrei Bidelisny, who leads a company of about 100 men in the Mykolaiv region.

“Maybe to kill my parents and destroy my house and live here and say it was historically Russian land.”

War for the South: Ukraine sets its sights on restoring cities and towns lost by Russian forces

Civilians often express their angry anger using Russian rhetoric – that it “liberates” Ukrainians from their democratically elected government – and throw it back into the Kremlin’s face.

“Thank you for ‘rescuing me’ from my home, from my family, and from my child who is in another country and whom I miss every day,” said Anastasia Panikova, another ballerina I met in a shelter in the basement of the Odessa Opera House. .

Like many others, in the first days of the war Panikova fled Ukraine. Now she has returned to work in Odessa – although she left her daughter in relative safety in Moldova.

life choice

Almost everyone you talk to in Ukraine has lost something to the war. He buried many loved ones. Others saw their businesses fail, their homes destroyed and futures contracts flipped.

How can a farmer plant next year’s crops or a high school student consider attending college while this war rages with no end in sight?

One answer might be that many have concluded that, amid all the death and destruction, simply continuing to live as normal a life as possible is the greatest victory that can be achieved.

The Ukrainians I met accepted their hardships calmly. They rarely complain or flounder the victim.

Sergey, a cargo ship captain who hasn’t been able to go to sea since the Russian navy blockaded Ukraine’s ports, said he grew up on stories of sacrifices his grandparents suffered during World War II.

“Now it’s our turn,” he said.

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