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In the former third city of the Russian Empire, its return to the “Russkiy mir” — the “Russian world,” one of President Vladimir Putin’s favorite constructs — seems to be permanently delayed.
Odesa, the “Pearl of the Black Sea,” these days resembles something of a diamond, hardened to the point of being unbreakable. Tank traps, some taken from museums, and sandbagged bunkers dot the city’s heart. Its many historical sites, reminders of its glorious imperial Russian past, are now arrayed with defenses against the would-be tsar redux in the Kremlin: The neo-baroque Odesa Opera House bristles with sniper and machine-gun positions.
The deeper change taking place in the city, however, is much harder to see. It only becomes evident in conversations with Odesa’s inhabitants that the city of even just eight years ago is no more. The brazenness and brutality of Putin’s invasion has erased any signs of the once-common Russian sympathies in the city, cementing it for the first time as firmly part of what is emerging as a truly nationwide Ukrainian identity.
In the past two weeks, the city has shed its bohemian trappings in favor of wartime privations. At the downtown Odesa food market, the once-trendy eatery hall has been transformed into a collection point, a mass of volunteers gathering and setting out for distribution of wartime essentials: water, dry food, warm clothing. Next to a picture of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy at the entrance sits a sign: “Our nation is not for sale.”
The volunteers, too, come from a wide cross-section of Odesan society. Inga Kordynovska, 31, a lawyer in her prewar life, is working primarily with businesses at Odesa’s port, the lifeblood of the city. She has now switched to one of the humanitarian aid center’s primary organizers.
“People are always surprised that I’m still here,” Kordynovska says. “They say, ‘You’re a lawyer, you can afford to go [abroad].’ But as a lawyer, I protect my clients. Now, I protect my city. Absolutely the same work,” she says.
The primary goal for her and the center: Make sure Odesa and its inhabitants have enough food in case the Russian army, currently besieging the city of Mykolaiv 60 miles to the east, should manage to enter.
“We are building supplies in case of occupation,” Kordynovska says. “It’s very difficult now in Kherson [taken by Russian troops in early March], for example. The Russians don’t let people go out to buy food — they make them take their own aid, for propaganda. If you go to the supermarket, they can kill you,” she says.
The current crisis has built unity in the city against a common Russian adversary.
“You know, before the war, we didn’t like our authorities, the authorities didn’t like the businessmen, and so on,” says Kordynovska. “But now we forget all that. We have just one goal: to win. We are all on the same side, and it’s fantastic,” she says. “Even the mayor, who I don’t like that much, is now giving money, and I support that. It’s enough [with] Russian enemies. We don’t need more enemies inside Ukraine,” Kordynovska says.
As a Russian-speaking metropolis, Odesa was a key target of the Kremlin in its 2014 attempts to foment pro-Russian discontent in cities across Ukraine, breaking them away from Kyiv and toward Moscow’s orbit. While Russian-backed separatists were seizing government buildings in Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv, crowds of pro-Russian demonstrators were marching through central Odesa, at one point even proclaiming an “Odesa People’s Republic.” Tensions between pro- and anti-Russian factions culminated on May 2, in clashes that left 48 people dead (primarily among the anti-Russian movement).
That pro-Russian sentiment, such as it was, has seemingly been all but eradicated.
Artyom, a 41-year-old tour guide, tells of his own broken relationships with family in Russia.
“I have a cousin, Andriy. He’s living in Moscow for the past 10 years, but he was born here, grew up here, went to school here,” he says. “I wrote to him and shared a video on February 26, saying, ‘Hello, we are alive, but this is Kyiv. [The work of] your Russians.’ He says, ‘Good that you’re safe; it’s [a] bad [situation].’ I send him more [videos]. He says just, ‘I know that Ukraine is spreading propaganda and fakes.’ I say, ‘OK, go fuck yourself. We are done.’ ”
The lack of a mass public response in Russia to the invasion has drawn outrage from Ukrainians across the country.
“Are there only 3% of them [Russians] who have brains?” says Artyom, incredulous. “How can they allow this?”
Given the government’s intolerance for any kind of dissent, Russia has seen quite a number of protests against the war already: Ongoing street demonstrations in Moscow, St. Petersburg and dozens of other cities have resulted in over 14,000 arrests to date. But the fact that the invasion itself goes on, while Putin continues to reign in the Kremlin, means that ever-greater anger toward their self-proclaimed “brothers” continues to grow among Ukrainians, including in Odesa.
Ivan Belogroda, a 30-year-old bar manager who now spends his days as a volunteer at the Odesa food hall center, echoes the refrain of many Ukrainians that this war has brought them together.
“This war has affected absolutely every Ukrainian,” he says. “Even those disagreements between Ukrainians, between those from the west and the east, that we had earlier, have disappeared. Ukrainians are now one united people, whom no one can defeat,” Belogroda says.
The sheer brutality unleashed by the Russian army, which continues to obliterate cities in the east and north of Ukraine, has made a particular impression.
“These images that we have all seen, of destroyed houses, demolished hospitals — they are so sick that I cannot understand how anyone could do it,” says Belogroda. “Cluster bombs, thermobaric munitions used on cities — this is the real genocide. It’s not war. It’s so awful that it has naturally united us,” he says.
And the responsibility for this brutality, in Belogroda’s view, lies not with Russia’s rulers but with its people.
“The most guilty [for this war] is not the Russian government, it’s the Russian people,” he says. “Ukrainians have never harmed them, never raised a hand against them. But they are the ones who have allowed this to happen, as they just sit at home afraid and watch this happen. I understand that the propaganda, the brainwashing [in Russia] is so strong. But the people just live in fear. If they all came out onto the streets and said ‘stop,’ it would stop immediately. But they do nothing.”.
This sentiment is shared by many in Ukraine. A meme making the rounds on Ukrainian social media shows a Ukrainian pushing back a tank with bare hands and a crowd of Russians running away from a single police officer.
Belogroda agrees with this. “You won’t find [this mentality] in Ukraine,” he says. “In Maidan, when we faced down the authorities, we all came out in protest. In Russia, this will never happen. They are all just afraid,” he adds.
All across Ukraine, Russian cultural links are being broken, but they seem to take on a greater significance here in Odesa. On one of the streets downtown, a billboard advertises a concert by the popular Russian rock band Splin, which was set to perform in June. One suspects now that they will never play here again.
In Odesa’s Public School No. 35, another ad hoc aid distribution center has been established. Olga Pogrebnaya, a 31-year-old social worker, has become one of the leaders here. She, too, speaks of the bonding effect the war has had on Ukraine.
“People came together and everyone brought their own talents,” Pogrebnaya says. “I think this is happening in all of Ukraine. We were not expecting that, but this is what gives us hope in these times.”
She has seen the country draw together while pushing away its neighbor.
“I lived in Moscow for three years,” Pogrebnaya says. “I have nothing against Russians, but I truly believe that we are different. Even though the south speaks Russian, the west speaks Ukrainian. People in Lviv, Kyiv, Odesa always felt themselves very different, but [the war] has brought us all together.”
And with Ukrainians from all the country’s disparate corners finding a common cause and identity, there is little appetite left for any positive disposition toward the neighbor that has unleashed hell upon them.
“We were ‘brotherly nations’ for a long time, with many things linking us,” says Belogroda. “Every second Ukrainian has friends or relatives in Russia. But even when you talk with those people [in Russia], they just say, ‘Wait, we are just helping you, freeing you.’ They have no understanding what’s happening here. They sincerely believe that [Russia] is helping us. They brought war here. What kind of help is that?”