Odesa Is Defiant. It’s Also Putin’s Ultimate Target.
Odesa Is Defiant. It’s Also Putin’s Ultimate Target.
This most storied of ports remains the Russian leader’s obsession.
Not only because it holds the key to the Black Sea.
But because its openness and diversity embody all he wants to destroy.
Odesa Is Defiant. It’s Also Putin’s Ultimate Target.
President Vladimir V. Putin knows that Ukraine’s fate, its access to the sea and its grain exports hinge on Odesa. Without it, the country shrivels to a landlocked rump state.
By Roger Cohen
Photographs by Laetitia Vancon
Aug. 19, 2022
ODESA, Ukraine — The Odesa Fine Arts Museum, a colonnaded early-19th-century palace, stands almost empty. Early in Russia’s war on Ukraine, its staff removed more than 12,000 works for safe keeping. One large portrait remained, depicting Catherine the Great, the Russian empress and founder of Odesa, as a just and victorious goddess.
Seen from below in Dmitry Levitzky’s painting, the empress is a towering figure in a pale gown with a golden train. The ships behind her symbolize Russia’s victory over the Ottoman Turks in 1792. “She’s textbook Russian imperial propaganda,” said Gera Grudev, a curator. “The painting’s too large to move, and besides, leaving it shows the Russian occupiers we don’t care.”
The decision to let Catherine’s portrait hang in isolation in the first room of the shuttered museum reflects a sly Odesan bravura: an empress left to contemplate how the brutality of Vladimir V. Putin, the Russian president who likens himself to a latter-day czar, has alienated the largely Russian-speaking population of this Black Sea port, established by her in 1794 as Moscow’s long-coveted conduit from the steppe to the Mediterranean.
Catherine the Great, abandoned. “Leaving it shows the Russian occupiers we don’t care,” a curator said of the painting.
Odesa, grain port to the world, city of creative mingling, scarred metropolis steeped in Jewish history, is the big prize in the war and a personal obsession for Mr. Putin. In a speech three days before ordering the Russian invasion, Mr. Putin singled out Odesa with particular venom, making clear his intention to capture “criminals” there and “bring them to justice.”
Mr. Putin believed at the outset of the war that he could decapitate the Ukrainian government and take Kyiv, only to discover that Ukraine was a nation ready to fight for the nationhood he dismissed. As the focus of the fighting shifts to southern Ukraine, Mr. Putin knows that on Odesa’s fate hinges Ukrainian access to the sea and, to some degree, the world’s access to food. Without this city, Ukraine shrivels to a landlocked rump state.
“Odesa is the key, in my view,” said François Delattre, the secretary general of the French Foreign Ministry. “Militarily, it is the highest-value target. If you control it, you control the Black Sea.”
For three summer weeks, as the Russian bombardment of the broader Odesa region intensified, I listened to children’s voices and the squeaking of swings in the Old Market Square. There, I contemplated the statue of a Cossack leader, an emblematic figure of tangled Ukrainian and Russian history. I lived with the blaring of sirens warning of imminent attack. I heard occasional explosions, journeyed east toward the front and pondered the fate that a fratricidal war holds for this city with a history of feast and famine.
Almost six months into the war, Odesa resists, not untouched, but unbowed. On its broad tree-lined avenues, redolent of linden blossom, where stray cats slither and a golden light bathes the gray-green, ocher and light blue buildings, a semblance of everyday life has returned. Restaurants and the storied Opera Theater, founded in 1810, have reopened. People sip coffee on the elegant Derybasivska Street. Insouciance is one expression of Odesan pride.
But an insidious unease lurks beneath it. The war is close, its front line no more than 80 miles to the east. Sandbags filled from deserted city beaches and anti-tank “hedgehog” obstacles of angled metal bars form barricades on many city blocks. Night patrols enforce an 11 p.m. curfew.
“You go to sleep and you don’t know if you will wake up,” said Olga Tihaniy, an insurance agent.
Odesa is the crux of the war not only because it holds the key to the Black Sea but also because in it the battle between Russian and Ukrainian identity — an imperial past and a democratic future, a closed system and one connected to the world — play out with particular intensity. This is the city, of fierce independence and stubborn inclusiveness, that symbolizes all Mr. Putin wants to annihilate in Ukraine.
Odesans look in the mirror, see a face like theirs, speaking the same Russian language, sharing much of the same history — yet the face now belongs to a stranger intent on killing them. They live in a state of shock.
“Russia is destroying its claim to be a cultural nation, and Odesa is the intercultural capital of Ukraine,” said Gennadiy Trukhanov, 57, the mayor, himself a former Russian sympathizer. “Mr. Putin has turned Russia into the nation of killing and death.”
What follows here, told through the people who make Odesa, is a story of what happens when the barbarism that frenzied autocratic Russian nationalism has unleashed meets a city forged in diversity and openness.
This should have been the place, according to Mr. Putin’s understanding of Ukraine and his plans of capture, that would roll over for him as an invading savior. Instead, it did the opposite.
Echoes of Terror
Perhaps the most famous flight of stairs in the world, the 192 granite steps and 10 landings immortalized in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 silent movie “Battleship Potemkin” tether Odesa on its plateau to the water below. Named the Potemkin Stairs in the Soviet era, they are now sometimes referred to by an earlier name, the Primorskiy Stairs, a sign of the ongoing battle for Odesa’s identity.
In the movie, the steps, now cordoned off for military reasons, were the scene of a brutal confrontation between Czarist troops and Odesan sympathizers with the revolutionaries on the Potemkin, who mutinied in 1905.
The implacable Cossacks firing down the steps, the crowd of every age in desperate tumbling flight, and above all a stroller propelled down the stairs by the baby’s mother as she fell to her death, have become universal symbols of the very terror now emanating from Moscow.
Mr. Putin seeks to seize Odesa by reviving, in twisted form, the spirit of the Great Patriotic War.
But Odesa now finds itself in a war of disentanglement from Russia’s tenacious hold.
Instead Mr. Putin’s crazed act has stirred an old Odesan defiance, forged in suffering.
The steps lead up to a statue of the Duke of Richelieu, the city’s first governor, a work admired by Mark Twain when he visited in 1867 and predicted that Odesa would yet become “one of the great cities of the Old World.”
Odesa always had that potential. In the 19th century, this was the Russian Eldorado, a raucous, polyglot city on the make, populated by Greeks, Italians, Tatars, Russians, Turks and Poles. Because they were freer here than anywhere else in Russia’s Pale of Settlement, the area of the empire where they were generally confined, Jews flocked from the shtetls of Eastern Europe to this booming port. By 1900, about 138,000 of Odesa’s 403,000 inhabitants were Jewish.
The bawdy world of smugglers, gangsters, shakedown artists and fast-talkers, concentrated in the Moldovanka district, is immortalized in Isaac Babel’s classic “Odessa Stories.” Babel — born in Odesa in 1894, executed by Stalin on fabricated charges in 1940 — captured in his antihero Benya Krik, the Robin Hood “King” of the underworld, some enduring essence of Odesa’s anarchic yet generous spirit.
“Benya Krik, he got his way, because he had passion, and passion rules the world,” Babel observes.
It is this freewheeling Odesan passion Mr. Putin seeks to quash by reviving, in twisted form, the spirit of what Russia calls the Great Patriotic War of 1941 to 1945. Then, in 1944, Red Army troops liberated the city from Nazi control; now Russian troops seek to impose on Odesa a repressive autocracy as part of the campaign to “denazify” a democratic Ukraine.
This twisted nightmare takes a particular form in Odesa, because its lingua franca is still Russian and its Russian sympathies lingered long after Ukrainian independence in 1991. A hub of the “New Russia” forged in the 18th century from conquered land bordering the Black Sea, the city now finds itself in a war of disentanglement from Russia’s tenacious hold.
In the 5,000-word essay written last year that revealed the depth of his obsession with Ukraine, Mr. Putin wrote that Russia and Ukraine formed the “same historical and spiritual space” and that “Russia was robbed, indeed” by Ukrainian independence. Ukraine, in short, was a fictive nation. His response became clear on Feb. 24: the absorption by force of Ukraine into Russia.
Mr. Putin has reminded humankind that the idiom fascism knows best is untruth so grotesque it begets unreason.
It is of the nature of crazed acts to provoke the antithesis of their desired effect. As Odesa, perhaps more than any other Ukrainian city, illustrates, Mr. Putin has spread and redoubled Ukrainian national consciousness.
“There’s been a tectonic shift,” said Serhiy Dibrov, a researcher on recent Odesan history. “People crossed the line to full belief in Ukraine.” Still, he said, a substantial minority of Odesans retain some sympathy for Russia.
Lilia Leonidova, 46, and Natalia Bohachenko, 47, run Hospitable House, a center that provides help to some of the tens of thousands of displaced Ukrainians who have fled to Odesa since February. They listen to stories of rape; they see children from the devastated Kyiv suburbs of Bucha and Irpin who wet themselves when sirens sound.
Our Coverage of the Russia-Ukraine War
- On the Ground: Ukraine has recently shifted its combat strategy with the help of long-range Western weapons, striking deep behind enemy lines to deplete Russia’s combat potential.
- Crimea: Attacks by Ukrainian forces have tested security on the Black Sea peninsula, which was illegally annexed by Russia in 2014 and has become a vital staging ground for the invasion.
- Clandestine Resistance: Ukrainian guerrilla fighters are spotting targets, sabotaging rail lines and killing those deemed collaborators as they seek to unnerve Russian forces.
- Training Abroad: In England, military trainers are teaching essential battlefield skills to Ukrainian recruits heading into the fight back home.
Sitting in a room full of blankets, clothes, eggs, diapers and stuffed animals, Ms. Leonidova, a former schoolteacher, told me: “Russia is close but Russia is very far away now. Our differences were not so explicit before, but with independence we grew completely apart.”
“Yes,” said Ms. Bohachenko, who has volunteered to help the Ukrainian Army since Mr. Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. “Russia evolves backward.”
“They want to rule as czars,” said Ms. Leonidova.
Ms. Bohachenko laughed. “It’s such a huge country and almost no opposition to Putin! How come? When we were oppressed we had the Maidan” — a reference to the 2014 uprising that led to the ouster of Viktor F. Yanukovych, the Ukrainian president who had acted as Mr. Putin’s toady. “Russians can do the same!”
Daubed on almost every building in Odesa are lines of blue and yellow paint, the national colors. Flags flutter over heavy wooden doors. A billboards proclaims, “Russian Soldier! Instead of getting flowers, you’ll get bullets here.” Another wastes no words: “1941: Fascist occupation. 2022: Russian occupation.”
An old Odesan defiance, forged in suffering, has stirred. “People can’t live without Odesa. It’s like a magnet,” said Yevgeniy Golubovskiy, 86, a writer. “I watch some of the people who left coming back, even with a curfew, and the sea closed.”
A loud explosion interrupted him. The book-lined room hung with the Odesan paintings that adorn his home shook. Mr. Golubovskiy scarcely flinched. “A few kilometers away,” he said. “I got used to it. What can we do? I am a fatalist.”
Sobs and laughter
Cherries, strawberries, cheese, sausages, tomatoes and bread adorned a table. Liudmyla Gryb has a firm family rule: no mention of Mr. Putin over a meal. Some Odesans have an app that provides a daily bulletin on whether Mr. Putin is alive or dead. Suffice to say the Russian president would not be missed.
A cousin in Russia had sent greetings for Ms. Gryb’s 71st birthday the previous day but did not want to speak in order to avoid “these discussions.” Another relative in Odesa remains fiercely pro-Russian, nostalgic for the Soviet empire.
Ms. Gryb’s husband, Andriy, cannot comprehend this. “We fought alongside Russians to defeat fascism and now they come to slaughter our grandchildren,” he said.
Everyone in Odesa, it seems, has a relative in Russia. Generally they have broken off all contact because any communication is futile. They share a language but have no shared conception of truth.
We were gathered at the house of Oleg Gryb, 47, the couple’s older son, a doctor. As soon as the war broke out, he packed his wife and two children off to Switzerland, enlisted in the Territorial Defense Forces (akin to the National Guard), and put his skills as an emergency-room surgeon and anesthetist to work.
His parents and younger brother, Sergiy, a financial adviser, moved in to take care of the house and the cat. As we ate, Ms. Gryb ironed her son’s military uniform with painstaking care.
“When I joined up on Feb. 27, I told my commander that I am a Christian and a doctor and I want to take people off the battlefield and save lives,” Dr. Gryb, dressed in his olive-green military uniform, had told me earlier, when we met at a dismal self-serve restaurant near his base.
In his Odesan youth, he said, he had thought China might invade Russia and he would then fight to defend the brotherhood of Slavic peoples. “Fighting against fellow Orthodox Christians, that I could never imagine,” he said.
Dr. Gryb’s world has been upended. His private medical clinic, treating addictions and Covid, was a financial success. He had recently renovated his spacious house on a typical Odesan internal courtyard — vines grow on trellises, climbing roses crisscross walls, the scent of honeysuckle lingers, and neighbors are intimately, even critically, observed.
Dr. Gryb’s son, 5, and daughter, 12, would play there. Now he misses them acutely.
“I have told my family they have to stay away for another year,” Dr. Gryb said around the dinner table. “The Russians will attack. They will target Odesa ultimately. Mr. Putin wants to eradicate us.”
At the start of the war the only question was how Russia would attack Odesa, not if. Would the assault come from the sea? Would paratroopers land? Dr. Gryb’s unit scrambled from place to place. But Mykolaiv, an embattled city about 65 miles to the east, resisted, the Russians were pushed back at sea, and Odesa exhaled, for now.
After Mykolaiv, about 65 miles east up the coast, resisted Russia’s assault, Odesa exhaled, for now.
But families displaced from the fighting arrive in Odesa in need.
“The city can lull you into a dream, but it is also a nightmare because the war is right there,” one Odesa resident said.
Dr. Gryb’s younger brother, Sergiy, sat listening. “The city can lull you into a dream, but it is also a nightmare because the war is right there,” he said.
One day I went to the sprawling central street market with Sergiy Gryb. He was buying rabbit sausage from Tetiana Melnyk, who talked of how worried she is about Ukrainian soldiers. As she described people willing to sacrifice themselves to safeguard something they believe in, he broke into uncontrollable sobs.
Suddenly all the tension Odesa tries hard to hide was visible. It was not easy to ask Mr. Gryb why he sobbed: “It’s just a Ukrainian idea of our land and our freedom, and she to me is all of that.”
Then, as suddenly, he laughed. Ms. Melnyk said she had renamed a local specialty known as Moscow sausage. It was now Chornobaivka sausage — a reference to a village near Kherson where Ukraine has repeatedly inflicted heavy losses on Russia.
It’s curious, Mr. Gryb mused later, how many countries overcame the disease of imperialism in the 20th century, but not Russia.
“Well, they cannot invent Microsoft or Tesla so they have to go back to history and re-fight the Great Patriotic War,” his brother, Dr. Gryb, said.
Discussion turned to language. Dr. Gryb said that in his unit, “90 percent of people speak Russian, and maybe half of them can speak Ukrainian.” He himself can speak Ukrainian but is more comfortable in Russian — “the language of the hymns I learned and of Soviet schooling.”
His 12-year-old daughter has already taken five years of Russian. Only recently, with the onset of war, have these classes been abolished.
“The common ground is the nation, not the language,” Dr. Gryb said. “The war is not about language, it is about freedom.”
“I am a profoundly religious person,” Dr. Gryb said. “The Devil is the father of lies. Mr. Putin and all of Russia are now built on lies. The invaders are sick with his propaganda, and so the sad reality is I have to go out and shoot them.”
Andrij Sorakaletov, a Ukrainian soldier, was killed on May 27 in the Kherson region. His Russian mother, living in the Moscow suburbs, “would not accept that he was dead or that Russian could do such a thing,” said his sister-in-law, Oksana Magey, 27.
Ms. Magey fled to Odesa early in the war with her husband and two small children from Mykolaiv. She said her bereaved sister was in shock at the Russian refusal to see reality as lived in her family.
I asked Dr. Gryb when all this would end. “This will only be over when God or some cosmic force brings common sense to the Russian leadership,” he said.
A new ‘de-Judaization’?
The seamy district of Moldovanka, filled with low-slung buildings and small factories, was to the Jewish community of Odesa what the Lower East Side once was to New York’s Jews.
I went for a walk. On one street corner, under an acacia tree, sat a musician playing “Hava Nagila.” Hearing “Let’s rejoice!” in Hebrew seemed an appropriate retort to revived Russian imperialism in the form of Uragan rockets and cluster munitions.
Finishing the song, the musician said that he was now going to sing in Ukrainian and in Polish and in Hebrew. He announced all this in Russian.
The flea market in Moldovanka stretched away down the cobblestone streets, filled with table after table of knickknacks, Soviet army knives and silver-plated flatware.
A 1944 Soviet bond, inscribed with the words “Death to the German Occupier,” was on sale at a modest price. One merchant swept a bank note over every object on his table. “I do that because it’s my first sale of the day and it brings luck,” he said.
Superstition, like fatalism, is big in Odesa, which has seen enough upheaval to suspect that mystical forces must be at work. Rules are not really its thing. Most of the drivers I met had a detached seatbelt tongue to insert into the buckle and so silence any beeping alarm.
The market brought to mind Babel’s stories. If Jews thrived in this freewheeling city, then they also suffered.
In 1905, a savage Russian pogrom took hundreds of Jewish lives. Babel describes it in the largely autobiographical “The Story of My Dovecote.” He had always dreamed of a dovecote. His father gives him money for three pairs of doves. No sooner has he bought them than he is attacked. “I lay on the ground, the crushed bird’s innards sliding down my temple.”
As the “tender gut” slips over his face, Babel, age 10, shuts his eyes so as not to see “the world laid bare before me. This world was small and terrible.” He walks “adorned in bloody feathers” past the window of a Jewish home being smashed. An old man lies dead. The Russians, a yard keeper observes, “they hate to forgive.”
For Mr. Putin, Ukrainian independence was ultimately unforgivable. His “denazification” has entailed the “de-Judaization” of a city with deep Jewish roots.
“My grandfather left Nuremberg for Palestine to survive the Nazis,” Rabbi Avraham Wolff said. “Now I bring Jewish children to Germany to save them from Russia! Can you believe it?”
Rabbi Wolff, then 22, came to Odesa from Israel in the early 1990s to revive Judaism in an independent post-Soviet Ukraine. As the chief rabbi of the city and of southern Ukraine, he has overseen the building of Jewish kindergartens, schools, orphanages and a university — until the unraveling of his work began this year.
Over the past five months, more than 20,000 Jews, or at least half the community, have left, many of them to Germany, Austria, Romania and Moldova. The Holocaust Museum is closed. The Jewish Museum is closed. Buses took 120 children from an orphanage to a hotel in Berlin, along with 180 mothers and children whose husbands and fathers had gone to the front. The women and children are under Rabbi Wolff’s direct care.
The rabbi is incandescent. Odesa has been the best place after Israel for a Jew to live for the past three decades! Then Mr. Putin comes along and says he wants to free me from the Nazis! He starts killing what we have accomplished! Please, Mr. Putin, don’t liberate me, just let me live!
“He wants to annihilate 40 million Ukrainians,” an Odesa Holocaust survivor said of Mr. Putin. “How much clearer does the West need him to be?”
If Jewish children do not return to Odesa, the city’s chief rabbi said, it would be a victory for Mr. Putin’s nationalism.
Odesa’s Moldovanka district was to the Jewish community what the Lower East Side once was to New York’s Jews.
Seated in his office at the Beit Chabad Synagogue, Rabbi Wolff noted that Russian conquest had removed Crimea in 2014 and the city of Kherson in 2022 from his authority. “Now,” he said, “I am chief rabbi of Odesa and a small part of Berlin.”
“We do not know if the Jews who left will come back,” Rabbi Wolff said. “I suspect that if the war continues until Sept. 1 and children start school wherever they are, they will never return.”
This, he says, would be a disaster, a victory for Mr. Putin’s nationalism, and so the rabbi stays on with his wife and hopes his example will inspire others.
Mr. Grudev, the art curator, who is Jewish, now lives in his mother’s apartment. She left for Italy at the start of the war. He moved in to look after her dog, and brought his cat. His partner, Bogdan Zinchenko, moved in with him.
They bought plane tickets to leave for Israel, where Mr. Grudev’s sister lives, on March 7, but never used them. He could not bear to leave his books or paintings. Now when sirens blare, the couple takes refuge in the bathroom.
The laundry hanging on a wrought-iron balcony opposite his mother’s apartment drove Mr. Grudev crazy. At one point he calculated that the pink shirt that caught his eye had been drying for 112 days. Before his epiphany: The laundry had been deliberately left to give the impression the apartment was still occupied and so deter thieves.
This, he reckoned, was a very Odesan ruse; laundry as protection.
Mr. Grudev, a stud in each ear, smiles. Humor is also a survival mechanism. An old joke, in a city famed for them, tells of a barber who insists on talking politics in time of Stalin’s terror. Exasperated, his client asks why. “Because your hair is easier to cut when it stands on end.”
“Putin wants to save me — a gay, Jewish, Russian-speaking man living in Odesa — from Nazis!” Mr. Grudev says. “Please.”
Roman Shvartsman, 85, is an Odesan Holocaust survivor. He lost his childhood, lived the antisemitism of the Soviet years, and had hoped for a quiet old age. Now he fears for his grandchildren.
In his pale blue eyes, one reddened by recent cataract surgery, was all of Babel’s terrible world and all of humanity’s defiant hope. “Putin says openly that there is no such state as Ukraine and that he wants to annihilate 40 million Ukrainians. How much clearer does the West need him to be?”
One night, I joined a patrol composed of volunteers and police officers who enforce the 11 p.m. curfew. Closing down at that hour has not been an easy adjustment for a city notorious for its nightlife, particularly in the gaudy Arcadia district.
Nikolay Iljin, a grain broker, drove. His business has collapsed as a result of the Russian blockade, now eased under deal brokered by Turkey and the United Nations.
“You want to know the Russian principle on grain?” he said. “If you can steal it, steal it. If you can’t, destroy it.”
Mr. Iljin was with a bunch of hunting buddies. They had brought their shotguns. Giving this time is their form of service. In some ways Odesa is like a city-state in the fierce allegiance it inspires.
The car screeched to a halt. Two startled young men raised their hands. They showed their military IDs. Dmitrian, 20, military call sign “Skin,” and Dmitriy, 19, call sign “Ryzhyi,” said they were on leave from their unit in Mykolaiv, where the bombardment of Russian rockets is unrelenting. Each hastily married his girlfriend when they enlisted.
“This is what Ukrainian young men do now,” Mr. Iljin said. “Marry and go to die.”
We proceeded down the wide boulevards with their electric tramlines first built by a Belgian company in 1910. Pointing to an elderly woman, and using a Russian term for her, Mr. Iljin said: “See that babushka, let’s make an exception for her.”
“She’s probably a K.G.B. agent,” said one of his friends, laughing, as she was left to go on her way with her bundles.
No Odesan laughter is without its measure of tension. All over the city, people volunteer. Oleksandra Savytska, 48, a teacher of autistic children, has joined a basic military training course offered by one of the city’s universities.
Why? “Because anything could happen and I want to be useful,” she said. An instructor barked orders. “Thumb on the safety catch as you walk, so you can release immediately if something happens!”
I asked Ms. Savytska, whose two children are in their 20s, if she was ready to kill for her country. “Kill someone? Maybe 30 percent there, but generally I am ready.”
She gazed at her weapon. “It’s strange to hold a gun,” she told me. “Hard, heavy, interesting.”
Odesa has always been a city of flux, of comings and goings, of mass immigration and mass emigration. If there is a Little Odessa in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, it’s for a reason. Its spirit has always been free: Lenin and Stalin never set foot here; nor has Mr. Putin.
“Odesa is a nationality,” said Mr. Golubovskiy, the writer who was unperturbed by an explosion.
Pushkinska Street was named for the Russian author Pushkin, who lived there for about a year from July 1823 while writing part of his masterpiece “Eugene Onegin.” It was previously Italyanskaya Street, or Italian Street, in honor of the large community of Italian traders lured, like Greeks, by Odesa’s promise.
Another name change for the street may be coming as a de-Russification campaign gathers pace. Petro Obukhov, a local politician, has drawn up a list of about 200 Russian street names that will be reviewed by city authorities. If Moscow “wants to erase the name Ukraine,” he believes, Odesa needs to efface most traces of Russia.
Just about every postwar Odesa building constructed under Stalin has a nuclear bomb shelter. They are now being revived as protection against Mr. Putin, who draws some inspiration from Stalin. Mykola Chepelev, an architect, took me to one with a bed and even a carpet. “The metal door weighs over 4,000 pounds,” he said.
The gyre of history keeps changing this city that conceals itself from outside powers and so arouses suspicion. Its independence always went with a certain conceit. Odesa stood alone.
An old joke tells of a man in a well-cut suit who is asked where he found it. “Paris,” he says. And how far is that from Odesa? “Oh, about 1,300 miles.” The Odesan is astonished: “So far from here, and they know how to sew so well!”
But Odesa stands less alone now.
East of Odesa, I saw the devastation in Mykolaiv. Residential buildings reduced by Russian missiles to twisted wreckage; a red dustpan propped against an icon in a kitchen full of shattered glass; lives blotted out under concrete slabs, as if they were no more than flies Mr. Putin chose to swat.
Vlad Sorokin, 21, a port worker from Odesa, clung to life in a hospital, his lungs and liver torn, ribs and hip broken by shrapnel from a cruise missile. “Russians think it’s normal to attack others,” he said.
“Russians think it’s normal to attack others,” said Vlad Sorokin, 21, a port worker from Odesa, his lungs and liver torn by a cruise missile.
More Ukrainian, less Russian, Odesa suddenly sees the embattled country it is part of.
All over the city, people volunteer, some making flak jackets for those who have taken up guns.
“The people of Mykolaiv are our defenders,” said Oksana Dovgopolova, who works on the subject of collective memory in Odesa University’s philosophy department. “It used to be some small city near Odesa. Now we see it as a heroic city, no longer inferior. Every day we send it food, medicine, weapons.”
More Ukrainian, less Russian, Odesa suddenly sees the embattled country it is part of.
Eight years ago, on May 2, 2014, the city split, with street fighting between armed Russian sympathizers and pro-Maidan democracy supporters. “It was a battle between those who still wanted to live in a nonexistent Soviet Union, or in an existent, modern, European Ukraine,” said Mr. Dibrov, the researcher, who worked on a documentary about the violence.
In a city of traders more than fighters, the battle was a violation of Odesa’s conciliatory principles. It posed a fundamental question: Are you ready to fight for Ukraine or for Russia? In Mr. Dibrov’s words, “It was the moment people realized how dangerous Russia could be.”
After the pro-Russian demonstrators initiated the violence by killing two pro-Maidan activists, they lost four of their own, before holing up in the Trade Union Building. A fire broke out, its exact origin unclear, killing 42 pro-Moscow Odesans.
It is an episode Mr. Putin has never forgotten.
“One thing is clear,” Mr. Dibrov said. “It was the first day of war in Odesa.”
From the hospital in Mykolaiv, where I met Mr. Sorokin, I went to that city’s Black Sea Shipyard. It was there, over decades, that the Soviet Union built the submarines and aircraft carriers projecting its global might. There, the command economy of a sprawling Communist state heaved itself into military competitiveness with the United States.
Today it is in part an immense graveyard of Soviet shipbuilding and five-year plans. Stray dogs wander across a disused dry dock and sniff at piles of rusted metal.
Mr. Putin has called the collapse of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century. For a hundred million central Europeans liberated from Soviet totalitarianism, it was anything but that.
Still, at the shipyard, it was hard not to feel the immensity of the dissolution a little more than three decades earlier of the Soviet empire, from which an independent Ukraine emerged. This was an event akin in its scale and reverberations to the French Revolution.
Decades of turmoil followed the storming of the Bastille in 1789. Within 15 years, revolutionary France had an emperor, Napoleon. Russia, in Mr. Putin, has a leader resembling an emperor, a man obsessed by all that was lost in 1991, consumed by the “ancien régime” of Russia, and intent on recovering it by force.
Here lie the roots of the war. “The past is never dead,” said William Faulkner. “It’s not even past.”
Andriy Checheta, 57, is haunted by the past. He lives in Odesa and drives out every day, past golden wheat fields to his 5,000-acre farm where he grows sunflowers, wheat, corn and barley. Born in Grozny to a Chechen father and Ukrainian mother, Mr. Checheta worked all over the former Soviet Union.
“Nothing changed for me with the collapse of the Soviet Union,” he said. “I feel it as my common space as acutely as ever.” He looked at me intently. “How would the United States feel if Texas broke off?”
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, trees were felled for energy and water became polluted. Weeds were everywhere when Mr. Checheta first bought land in 2002.
“And, now, again, we have a catastrophe for agriculture in general!” he said, springing up from his desk. He grabbed a bottle of antiseptic soap and inverted it. “Imagine if you had a 20 liter canister attached to this same narrow neck. That’s where we are.”
Because of the war, Mr. Checheta’s entire wheat harvest is wrapped in huge white plastic cylindrical containers out in the fields. He has been unable to move them.
Despite the July deal that has seen a few ships loaded with grain sail from Odesa and other ports, Mr. Checheta said in a later telephone conversation that he “will not be able to sell anything until November and that is an optimistic forecast.”
Whom, I asked when I met him, does he blame? “When couples split, both are responsible,” Mr. Checheta said. “The West provoked instability.” His view of Odesa: “Administratively it is a Ukrainian town, historically it is not.”
I encountered such views more than once — a nostalgia for the Soviet Union, skepticism over Ukrainian statehood, anger at the West for fomenting trouble. Aleksandr Prigarin, an anthropologist at Mechnikov University in Odesa, told me the main thing he was concerned with protecting right now was “Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky and Chekhov.”
Nobody on either side of the arguments believes the shooting will stop any time soon. “Only a complete idiot can be happy with war,” said Mr. Checheta, gazing at his fields. “Russia and Ukraine must negotiate soon or there will be a total disaster.”
One evening, on the eastern outskirts of Odesa, I saw two soldiers in the twilight digging trenches in the rich soil of Europe. It was a timeless image, with its own strange beauty, of the repetitive failure from which the continent believed itself delivered.
The Naked Sentry
One other work remains in the Fine Arts Museum, Maria Kulikovska’s “Venus,” a naked woman modeled on the artist’s own body and cast in 2019 from ballistic soap with infused flowers. It was too delicate to move.
Ballistic soap is used by the arms industry to test the damage projectiles will inflict on a body, how big the hole is at the entry point and what direction sundering will take. “It has a similar consistency to the human body,” Ms. Kulikovska told me.
The extraordinary statue stands alone now in the museum’s central baroque room, under a chandelier, beneath the decorative cherubs. It seems intensely human and vulnerable, everything Catherine the Great in her portrait is not.
Ms. Kulikovska, 34, is from Kerch, an ancient city in Crimea perched on the meeting point of the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. She was last there in 2013, the year before Russia’s annexation. “Now,” she said, “the place I am from does not exist, it’s just gray, an occupied territory not there on maps, the home to which I cannot send a postcard or money to my grandma.”
At the time she made “Venus,” she said, she was missing her home very much. Odesa, with its colors, its sea, its architecture, reminded her of Kerch. “That’s why I put all these flowers under the skin, as a reminder of the fragility of human life. Yet I am alive, even if there is pain inside.”
When fighting broke out in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine in 2014, Ms. Kulikovska had three figures cast from her body, in pink, green and white, but without flowers, on show at the Izolyatsia arts center in Donetsk.
“The Russian separatist terrorists made them a target, fired volleys of bullets into them, and destroyed them,” she said. “I was denounced as a degenerate artist, presenting a forbidden and disgusting naked female body.”
The arts center was turned into a prison. People were tortured in the garden where the statues had stood, in the name of Mr. Putin’s vision of a restored Russian imperium.
I asked Mr. Kulikovska about her figure standing alone in Odesa’s Fine Arts Museum.
“There is something beautiful about it,” she said. “This Russian propaganda facing my simple naked body, mine, standing up against this aggression.”
She paused for a moment. “It is like a female guard that protects my people, in Odesa and beyond, waiting at the gate of Crimea to go back home.”