Ukrainian Odessa grapples with its wartime destiny

In the novel of the 41-year-old ballerina, that wasn’t really the case great cast To get out of the famous opera house and join the Ukrainian army.

When Russian troops entered Ukraine more than five months ago, Vitaly R. , a longtime member of the ballet troupe at the Opera Theater in the Black Sea city of Odessa, until the arrival of the call for mobilization.

“We did not start this war,” said Vitaly, whose full name is forbidden by military bases. “But we will win it.”

Odessa – a former Russian imperial outpost, a coveted strategic seaport, a quirky, multicultural mix that smells of salty air and tragic history – artistic spirit is always paired with a military load.

As the war continues, both are on full display.

As seen from the whirlpool, sandbags are piled high around the statue of Doc de Richelieu, a landmark at the top of the stairs made famous by the movie “The Battleship Potemkin,” in anticipation of a Russian attack in the strategic Black Sea port city of Odessa, Ukraine, on March 14, 2022.

(Scott Peterson/Getty Images)

The Potemkin Stairs—famous for the sight of baby carriages rolling in in Sergei Eisenstein’s silent classic 1925 “The Battleship Potemkin”—were closed with tank traps and checkpoints. The seashore is extracted. Giant cranes mostly sit idle in the port of Odessa, Ukraine’s main sea port, which was hit a little over a week ago by Russian missiles. The frontline city of Mykolaiv, suffering from almost daily Russian bombardment, is only 70 miles away.

The inhabitants of Odessa – whose spelling has now been changed to drop Russian dualism – faced undulating levels of threat throughout the war. Early on, the city prepared for a possible Russian amphibious attack, bolstering defenses, obscuring light-coloured buildings, and blocking main roads with anti-tank “hedgehogs” made of steel beams.

But the formidable Russian fleet in the Black Sea proved invincible. After less than eight weeks of fighting, Ukrainian forces sank the main ship Moskva with coast-to-ship missiles. Then, Russian forces were forced to abandon Snake Island, a prominent area of ​​Ukrainian territory 85 miles from Odessa, a major base for electronic warfare and air defense systems.

However, the city is still threatened by Russian ships and submarines. Odessa residents were shaken when intelligence reports in late spring suggested that Moscow hoped to build a land bridge from Crimea, which Russia seized in 2014, to the breakaway region of Transnistria in neighboring Moldova. Odessa will fall squarely on this road.

The intensity of missile strikes on our city and the entire oblast [region] Serhiy Prachuk, a spokesman for the Odessa Regional Military Administration, said during an online press conference last week. He said Russia is “bombing civilian infrastructure and civilian homes. It is trying to terrorize the peaceful population by killing civilians.”

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

A security officer stands next to the Navy Star, which has been laden with grain since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine five months ago, in the port of Odessa on Friday.

(David Goldman/The Associated Press)

The city’s lifeline, commercial port traffic, was frozen for months until Monday, when a ship laden with grain finally set sail from Odessa under a deal brokered by the United Nations and Turkey. The July 23 strike on the port, which came just a day after the deal was announced, sent waves of oil-black smoke billowing into the blue sky, and twin explosions reverberated through the historic city center.

Characteristically, some beachgoers and dog handlers let out loud cheers as Ukrainian air defenses shot down two of the four Russian missiles.

The outbreak of the war stimulated an estimated one-third of Odessa’s population—who numbered about a million before the war—to seek safety outside Ukraine, but at the same time the city was flooded with internally displaced Ukrainians from occupied southern parts, including Kherson. , 125 miles by car. Kherson was captured in the early days of the war, the first major city to fall to Russia, and the Ukrainian army preparing for what might be a bloody battle to retake it.

Many cities in this part of the world suffered from gruesome violence during World War II, and Odessa was no exception. The city was besieged and occupied. The Nazis killed about 80% of the area’s over 200,000 Jews. The Russian invasion drove an estimated 15,000 of Odessa’s current Jewish community of about 40,000 into temporary or permanent exile.

In this war, Odessa was largely spared the punishing Russian bombing that devastated cities such as Mariupol, another major southern seaport that fell to Russia in May, or the cities along the war’s main battlefront, a crescent-shaped front line in the east. middle. east of the country. But the fatal blows, when they occur, send waves of grief through a sprawling city that retains in some ways a village-like atmosphere.

42-year-old Oleksandr Shishkov, the beloved local coach and founder of the football club, died in a July 1 rocket attack on a residential area of ​​Serhivka, killing at least 20 people, including a pregnant woman. Shishkov, an Odessa resident, had traveled to the town about 40 miles away to be ready for the early start of a youth sporting event that was scheduled for the next morning.

Friends, some wearing soccer jerseys, look at a man in a coffin.

Relatives and friends attend a farewell ceremony for Ukrainian football coach Oleksandr Shishkov, 42, who died in a rocket attack on July 1 in the Odessa region of Ukraine.

(NurPhoto via Getty Images)

His body was pulled out of the rubble at nightfall, hours after the pre-dawn strike.

“Kids, they couldn’t understand why such a thing happened to him,” said Vladimir Balik, 45, one of the club’s founders, pointing to the 10-year-olds on the soccer field behind him. “And we can’t.”

Despite Odessa’s Russian-infused history – including its official establishment as a free port by Catherine II, the empress known to Russians as Catherine the Great – most locals have been completely excluded from any notion that Russian President Vladimir Putin would spare the city due to the shared cultural heritage .

In a central Odessa square, an old woman crossed herself as an ambulance passed by with dead soldiers on board. Then she cursed Putin harshly – in Russian.

On hazy midsummer days, where streets and squares are littered with the falling drifts of tiny white acacia blossoms, war has changed habits and daily routine. There is a local joke that says the sea is now like a museum piece: look, but don’t touch.

But as with much of the satirical humor that characterizes Odessa, there is a dark undercurrent. In July, authorities said, two swimmers were killed in two separate incidents when they accidentally detonated mines in waters near the city, which were described as dangerous.

A man sitting in front of an empty beach.

A beach in Odessa, Ukraine remains closed during the height of summer due to the danger of mine drifting on the beach.

(David Goldman/The Associated Press)

Still, 53-year-old Olga Katasunova walks her dog to the waterfront every morning, looking from a distance to the now inaccessible beach.

“I miss her, of course,” she said, “but this is nothing compared to what the people lived in Kharkiv, in Mariupol,” and listed the names of the eastern cities destroyed by the war. “Nowhere is safe in Ukraine, but we are luckier than many.”

On a short evening break from tactical training at a military base on the outskirts of the city, dancer Vitaly R. He expects to spread to the front at some point. He said that his wife and two young children are worried; So it is.

“You must be stupid to not be afraid!” He said.

Wearing a gray shirt and blue sport shorts, he echoed, apparently, subconsciously, the position of his straight-back dancer: his hand on his hip, palm facing outward. His last appearance on stage was four days before Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24. The neo-baroque opera house of the 19th century, standing majestically on a high plateau in the historic center, resumed its performances in June, which had been halted until then due to conflict.

Vitaly said that the life of the army is very different from the environment of the opera house, but that there are some similarities between his previous vocation and his current vocation. Both require discipline. Each involves acquiring new skills and practicing them endlessly. Most of all, he said, is the feeling that you are part of something greater than oneself.

“I miss my life before – the theater, the audience,” he said. “But this is important to everyone.”

Oleksandr Babich, a local historian who wrote a book about the Nazi occupation from 1941 to 1943, now dedicates his days to collecting and transporting donated supplies to Ukrainian military camps elsewhere in the south.

He said the city’s hallmark had always been its resilience, and he didn’t expect this war to change that.

“Odessa survived,” Babich said. “When all of this is over, we’ll still be here.”

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