Ivan is in shock. He says he can’t describe it any other way. “I wake up and I still don’t believe it. We’re at war. Russia is attacking us,” he says. The tall, well-built 21-year-old, who is quick to smile, is a member of the Ukrainian navy’s band. He plays the trombone and has got together with fellow members to play a concert in front of the Odessa Opera and Ballet Theater, which has been fortified with sandbags.
The musicians are playing songs such as the Ukrainian national anthem and Bobby McFerrin’s hit Don’t Worry, Be Happy in an effort to uplift the port city as it prepares for an imminent attack from Russian troops, which are advancing from the south and attempting to take control of the entire coast. It is in keeping with the sense of humor that residents of Odessa are famous for; the locals have also been sticking up posters telling Russian soldiers to get lost, some more obscenely than others.
Founded by Catherine the Great at the end of 1700, Odessa was the jewel in the crown of the Russian empire and a key tradepost for the Soviet Union. Today it is the third-most-populous city in Ukraine, with around one million inhabitants, and is a strategic port in the Black Sea. Russian President Vladimir Putin is anxious to seize the port, and not just for its commercial and geostrategic importance. The city is also deeply rooted in the imagination of Putin and other Russian nationalists, who consider it a key to rebuilding the so-called “New Russia” of the imperial age.
The city is also one of the main targets of the Russian offensive against Ukraine and its alleged operation to “denazify” the country. In the spring of 2014, pro-Russian separatist groups, backed by the Kremlin, seized official buildings and rioted across the east and in several areas in the south of Ukraine. In Odessa, ultra-nationalist Ukrainians and violent soccer hooligans clashed with demonstrators participating in a separatist march. A total of 48 people were killed in the ensuing street battles. Most of the victims were pro-Russians who died in a fire at the House of Trade Unions building in the outskirts of the city. The case is under investigation, but little progress has been made.
Just before ordering the invasion of Ukraine, Putin made mention of what happened in 2014 and said he would do everything to punish those responsible for the tragedy. “The criminals that committed this evil act have not been punished. No one is looking for them, but we know them by name.”
The tragedy is a “black stain” on the city, says Katia Salvina, a young engineering student. Her boyfriend Valeri says that he has never been interested in politics and always saw Russia, where he has friends and family, as a friendly neighbor. “Not anymore. Perhaps it’s not all of Russia, it’s just Putin, but what they are doing here is criminal,” he says, shaking his head. He wanted to sign up to Ukraine’s territorial defense forces to protect the key infrastructure in the city, but Odessa’s brigade has a complete force – it filled up two days after the invasion and now there is a waiting list.
A few days ago, Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelenskiy said that his government had information that Russia would attack Odessa very soon. “Russians have always come to Odessa,” he said in a video message. “They have always felt only warmth in Odessa. Only sincerity. And now what? Bombs against Odessa? Artillery against Odessa? Missiles against Odessa? It will be a war crime. It will be a historical crime [sic].”
Putin’s forces are advancing from the south, and have already seized control of Berdyansk, in the Sea of Azov, and Kherson, an important city in the Black Sea. Now they are bombing Mykolaiv, another strategic port city, which is needed to consolidate the offensive against Odessa, the so-called “pearl of the Black Sea.” The Kremlin has also placed warships along the coast to threaten the city.
But Odessa is getting ready. The city’s picturesque cafes are closed, while mines have been laid on the beaches. The streets in the city center are half-deserted. There is a barricade on every corner, while anxiety over a large-scale strike increases every minute.
In the center of the city, a high-end food market has been turned into the headquarters of the civilian resistance. Inside, Inga Kordonovska, a 30-year-old lawyer, is coordinating the different volunteer groups that are collecting essential items, medicines and food for the civilian militia. The idea came to her on the first day of the invasion as she chatted to friends on Telegram. “We didn’t know what to do, how to help, so we began to ask what was needed, to make lists and everything has led to this,” she says among the boxes of canned food and water bottles. This Telegram group is now one of the dozens of channels that are coordinating the civilian resistance in Odessa, which includes the logistics of organizing 8,000 meals a day, says Kordonovska.
Meanwhile, at the barricade outside Odessa’s famous theater, Grigori Barats, the head of Odessa’s historical-cultural club, is tapping his foot to the beat of the music being played by the navy band. He can’t contain his smile. By his side, a guitarist and an accordionist are playing and singing about “Mother Odessa.” “There are many cities in the world,” says Barats. “But no city is more beautiful than Odessa. I am willing to give my life for her. And if not, let them hang me.”