ODESSA, Ukraine – Just before 10 A.M. on Tuesday, satellite surveillance spotted a large naval group about 25 miles off the coast of Odessa. The vessels were identified as Russian warships and landing craft. Whether or not there was a connection, sirens blared in the city two hours later, as well as in other Ukrainian towns.
This is the closest the Russians may have gotten so far to Odessa, Ukraine’s third-largest city, since they launched their invasion nearly three weeks ago – unless the rumors of an attempted landing by sea and air early in the war, repulsed by Ukrainian defenders, are true.
Meanwhile, life in Odessa continues at half normal. Large parts of the city center look like a set for a war movie, with soldiers standing everywhere in combat gear at elaborately constructed sandbag positions, concrete blocks and large makeshift spiked anti-tank obstacles.
The scenes, as seen in the footage of Soviet cities under siege during World War II, seem intentional. No armored columns are yet on their way to Odessa, but the sight of the soldiers and their checkpoints in the historical heart of the city strikes a chord for anyone brought up on Soviet-era history books.
The roadblocks don’t just block the old city center – with its classic architecture from the last days of the Russian Empire – but also the nearby port, Odessa’s most strategic asset. And overlooking the port are the Potemkin Steps, the city’s most iconic – and now symbolic – location.
“I went to volunteer at the territorial defense battalion,” says Andrei Mishchenko, a 21-year-old computer technician and local Thai boxing champion.
The steps star in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 classic “Battleship Potemkin” about the mutiny of sailors in the Czarist navy. In a famous scene in one of the most important films of early Soviet cinema, Cossacks fire on protesters gathered on the stairs to support the sailors.
The steps are inaccessible now. You can’t even see them as all the roads approaching are closed off. Military positions are there now in case the Russians try to take the port by sea.
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The Ukrainian government is worried about threats from within the Russian-speaking city as well – a local pro-Russia faction may try to help the invaders. Soldiers from outside the region and security agents also fill Odessa. On the roads leading to the city a military checkpoint stops you every couple of kilometers, though the soldiers don’t seem to have clear orders; some closely inspect each vehicle while others just wave you through after a perfunctory glance.
Another concern is Russian operatives infiltrating the city wearing Ukrainian uniforms. All the soldiers and police are wearing coordinated colored armbands to ensure identification.
Central Odessa is in a twilight zone. Most offices, restaurants and stores are closed, but on the sidewalks and in the public gardens people are walking their dogs, meeting with friends and catching precious rays of winter sun in what many fear could be the last moments of peace.
“It’s like the COVID-19 lockdown,” one passerby jokes. On the streets you also see delivery bikes bringing takeaway food from the restaurants still in business.
“Many women and families with small children have crossed the border to Romania and Moldova, but men aren’t allowed to leave,” says Igor, a 28-year-old data scientist who works from home for an Israeli startup. “I haven’t joined the army, but I think I’m doing my patriotic duty by continuing to work in Odessa and paying my taxes.”
His friend, Pascal Nsoue, an African-Ukrainian who also works from Odessa for Western tech companies, says that “after three weeks of war we need to restart the Ukrainian economy. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy spoke about it last night and even promised tax breaks for small companies. It’s almost as important as the war effort.”
“I went to volunteer at the territorial defense battalion,” says Andrei Mishchenko, a 21-year-old computer technician and local Thai boxing champion, proudly polishing his Dodge Challenger muscle car outside a body shop near the port.
“They told me they have too many volunteers already, but if the Russians attack, I’ll join up for sure. But I don’t think they’ll come to Odessa. My father is a sergeant in the police, and he told me they tried to land already once from the sea and were thrown back. You can trust me, we’re real Ukrainians, not like the Odessans.”
Odessa, with its elegant but dilapidated and crumbling architecture, reflects Ukraine’s chronic problems, like the identity crisis between Russian history and Ukrainian identity, and the deeply ingrained corruption versus a democracy and even a sense of liberalism. There’s also a strong yearning for Western cosmopolitanism while being rooted on Europe’s eastern edge. Odessa isn’t just a capital of European culture, it’s the city that spawned organized crime groups that spread across the world.
“This war is terrible in every way, but Ukraine does need a massive reality check,” says a member of an emergency medical team who asked that his name not be used. “It has too many contradictions, and the politicians and business elites and all Ukrainian society have failed to solve them. Maybe they’ll do a better job once this is over, but right now, despite the richness of our society and culture, we’re still stuck with endemic corruption.”
One characteristic of Odessa absent now with its nighttime curfew is the thousands of sex workers in what’s considered a hub of the global sex industry. They’ve all melted away from the streets.
Ten minutes from the city center, roadblocks surround a nondescript office building. This is the trade union headquarters at the focus of one of the most traumatic events in the 2014 Maidan revolution. When pro-Russia and pro-Kyiv factions confronted each other in Odessa, a fire broke out in the building, killing 48 people, nearly all of them pro-Russia protesters.
Every day, Kremlin propaganda has been mentioning the need to avenge those “murdered in Odessa,” and Russian President Vladimir Putin mentioned them in his televised statements before the invasion. Now the atmosphere around the building is tense amid fears it could provide a symbolic target in a Russian attack on the city. So the street is closed off as well.
Many Odessans’ main source of information still comes from Russian TV. Viktor, a shopkeeper near the trade union building, echoes the talk show hosts when he declares that “the government in Kyiv is all Nazis.” That doesn’t mean he’s particularly sympathetic toward Putin, or any politician for that matter.
“The Americans and Putin have gone to war, and they’re doing it on the backs of the Ukrainians,” he said. “Anyway, all the news is fake.”
But many younger Ukrainians are much more at home in independent Ukraine, even if Russian remains their language and culture. In the food market on Rishelievska Street that has served as a volunteer center over the past three weeks, 25-year-old Igor Nykov stands on guard in a civil defense uniform outside the cafe where he usually works as a barista. He finds it hard to sternly warn people away from the roadblock as he laughs under his hipster beard at the small coffee truck that’s still operating and taking his order.
“It’s been quiet here for three weeks, and the Russians aren’t advancing, so I want to believe that the war will be over soon,” he says. “But then, who can say what’s in his head?”
There was no reason to ask who he meant by “him.”