ODESA, Ukraine – Russia has bombed the seaside town of Odessa since the early days of its war in Ukraine – but the critical grain port has become a symbol of the ongoing local resistance, where even former pro-Russian stalwarts now embrace Ukrainian patriotism.
“The longer the war lasts, the less people sympathize with Russia in Ukraine. Those who used to speak Russian in everyday life are switching to Ukrainian,” a longtime observer of Ukrainian politics, Yevgeny Kisilyev, told The Daily Beast on Tuesday. “Even the most openly pro-Russian politicians, including the mayor of Odessa…have turned into passionate enemies of [Russian president Vladimir] Putin’s regime.
Odessa, with its huge grain storage and shipping resources, is a hot target for Moscow. Russian missiles have been destroying the city since the early days of the war. In March and April, missiles killed dozens of civilians, including a three-month-old girl, Kira Glodan, her mother and her grandmother.
The tragedy angered Odessa but the slaughter did not stop. On July 1, one of the missiles hit an apartment building in Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi, killing 19 people. A few weeks later, on July 20, “Russia fired eight missiles that cost millions of dollars, which our forces shot down with a Russian drone,” Natalya Humeniuk, spokeswoman for the Southern Defense Forces, said. to the Daily Beast in an interview last week.
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Relentless attacks from Russia have hardened local feelings against Putin. “During the first week of the war, Odessa Mayor Gennady Trukhanov – who many believed had a Russian passport – said nothing against Moscow,” local activist Julia Grodetskaya told the Daily beast. “The citizens so worried consolidated, and the patriotic volunteers worked hard for the defense of the city. Their actions and the constant Russian violence changed the direction and made the local authorities more patriotic,” she said, adding that now “all pro-Russian elders in Odesans are ready to defend our city.”
This is not how Moscow planned it. On the eve of the war, one of the Kremlin ideologues, Sergei Markov, told The Daily Beast that Russian forces would easily take Odessa. “There will be a rapid landing of the Marines supported by a pro-Russian underground,” Markov predicted of the development of the war on the Black Sea.
Instead, Odessa became a symbol of resistance – and that pro-Russian underground crumbled. As thousands of displaced people from neighboring Mykolaiv and Russian-occupied Kherson flocked to the city, residents hung huge patriotic banners with warning messages for potential saboteurs and spies. One showed a Ukrainian cutting a spy’s throat: “Get ready, we all know your routes. Other banners in the neighborhood of Pushkinska and Bunin streets read: “If someone touches Mama Odesa, Mama will bury him.
Odessa has also taken the decision to get rid of all street names from the “aggressor country” – although it declined a petition, signed by 25,000 people, calling on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to demolish local monuments to Catherine the Grande and the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin. . The city said now was not the right time to discuss pre-revolutionary monuments. Nonetheless, the city’s mayor, Trukhanov, said it was cynical of Moscow to portray Ukraine as a “brother people” but destroy it with missiles. “Odessa has suffered losses in this war and we want nothing to do with a state that is trying to wipe our city, our country off the face of the Earth,” the mayor said in a public statement last month.
Now, even as Russia continues to bombard Odessa, there are signs of vibrant life everywhere. In the harbour, yachts gently rock in the late afternoon sun, though they all remain at the docks this season as the Russians have planted mines in the surrounding waters. Still, the Yacht Club Marina is bustling: on a recent Friday, musicians from the local opera and Philharmonic Theater performed a concert of Ukrainian songs before an audience of famous artists, writers and businessmen who, at the start of the war, founded two powerful volunteer movements – called On the Wave and Sandbox – to save their beautiful and graceful city. They surrounded cultural monuments with sandbags, distributed armored vests and welded anti-tank barriers.
Ukraine is preparing to ship 16 ships full of grain to the Turkish port of Izmir, ending a long economic drought for the city. Odessens looked out at the smooth, bare Black Sea on Sunday. The first ship carrying grain is due to leave on Monday, but many fear Russia will hit the ships despite Moscow’s deals with Turkey. “Our favorite sea is like a battlefield,” Dmitro Botskevsky, a retired skipper, told The Daily Beast. “Our military drone attacked the Russian fleet headquarters today in Sevastopol, there are concerns about the security of the grain passage, of course.”
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Local defense volunteers—led by Yacht Club director Albert Kobakov—became more numerous as the war dragged on. Hundreds of activists joined. “When the war started, I came here to show that I would not surrender,” said local activist Maya Dimereli. She and Grodetskaya said the biggest concern in the first week of the war was that the city authorities would betray Odessa and hand it over to Russia.
Instead, Odessa businessmen felt determined to help their city. From the owner of a perfumery, Dmitry Malyutin, to the founder of a tourist company, historian Aleksandr Babich, the city’s elite opened their doors and supported the volunteers. “Without our company, I don’t know how long our resistance would have lasted. Their self-organization is fascinating and time is against Putin – he heavily bombs Mykolaiv but Odessa is his problem,” Sevgil Musaieva, editor-in-chief of Ukrainskaya Pravda, Ukraine’s legendary newspaper, told the Daily Beast. “Politically we are winning the war – the whole world supports Ukraine.”
Thousands of volunteers also signed up to become soldiers in territorial defense units, as Odessa was acutely aware of the threat of a potential ambush by Russian forces in Transnistria on one side, and the advancing army Russian on the other. Captain Humeniuk, an officer of the Ukrainian State Border Guard Service and the voice of the administration of the Defense Forces in the southern region of Ukraine, told the Daily Beast that the city needs enough volunteers to fill one brigade—and instead had enough to fill three.
So, for now, Odessa lives in a state of cautious hope. The Commander-in-Chief of Operations in the South, Major General Andriy Kovalchuk, served in peacekeeping missions in Liberia and the former Yugoslavia. Now Kovalchuk and other military authorities guard the town carefully, explaining to its residents why the beaches were mined and closed, and giving updates on the war twice a day. The city’s restaurants and cafe terraces are packed, and although the air raid sirens wail several times a day, every day a visitor can hear a band singing Ukrainian songs on the central Deribasovskaya Avenue, and from the jazz music playing in the garden of the Tolstoy Family House.
“We will win this battle, as we did in World War II,” swears a Russian-speaking director named Anna, whose Jewish family suffered the Nazi invasion. Before this war, she liked to say that she had a “Russian soul”. But now she says: “Odessa, the first heroic city of the USSR, will also win this battle” – but this time, against Moscow.
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