Russian journalist Elena Kostyuchenko has vowed to be a ‘professional witness’ of the war in Ukraine. Here, she journeys through Odessa. Translated from Russian by Ilona Yazhbin Chavasse

I get to Odessa by train, from Lviv. The train is half-empty. I share my compartment with Roman, a lieutenant colonel with the Ukrainian Reserve Army. He’s travelling from Szszecin in Poland, where he left his family, and is hoping to get to the war.

“First I’ll try my own division. I hope they take me, I mean, I’m a career soldier.” Roman calls his mother and tells her that he’s got a bag full of food, but he can’t eat right now, he’s just drinking coffee. 

The blackout curtains are drawn and the light is only switched on at stops. There are no linens or towels on any Ukrainian trains – they’ve all been handed over to the army. 

Odessa is bracing for the Russian troops, who will soon land and storm the city. 

But a different storm – on the Black Sea – forces the ships to withdraw. 

You can’t get to the sea. The Luzanovka beach, which is shallow and good for landing, has been mined. Fortifications rise along the shoreline. The neighbourhoods by the sea are open only to local residents. 

The city is run by Teroborona, a volunteer territorial defence corps which was formed as a sub-unit of the Ukrainian Army. It began recruiting on the second day of the war and, within 30 minutes, had to start turning volunteers away. Now, you have to have connections to actually get in, though they are still taking names for the waiting list. If the city comes under attack, these volunteers will be drafted.

Teroborona is in charge of strategic points, checking people’s documents, looking for saboteurs and “enemy spies”, detaining looters. Despite concerns early on, there was no widespread looting, but the isolated cases are sophisticated: they put on police uniform, or pass themselves off as police aides. Here, they tie looters to streetlamps with packing tape.  

The territorial defenders wear a yellow armband on their right arms. Young guys, and a silver-bearded old man – some of them hide their faces from the cold. When the Russian Army arrives, Teroborona will switch to guerrilla warfare. “We’ve got lots of surprises for them.”

Andrei Vladimirovich, a former police officer, now fights with Teroborona. “I was born and bred in Odessa. I’m speaking with you now in perfect Russian. But no one here’s ever been discriminated against for speaking it.” 

“I speak Ukrainian perfectly,” he says in Ukrainian, and continues in Russian. “Of the two languages, I love Ukrainian more – it’s the language of my nation. But I grew up in a Russian-speaking family and I speak Russian every day. No one has ever discriminated against the Russian-speaking population here. No one. Ever.

“I lived in the Russian Federation for a time, in Siberia, and they treated the Ukrainians there worse than we do the Russians here. They tell you, over there, that we’re Banderites. I wasn’t one before, but I am now.

“I apprehended a saboteur myself, the day before yesterday. He was pretending to be homeless, picking through that trash bin over there. He’d been hanging around for two days, keeping an eye on our fortifications. And, wouldn’t you know it, he had a wonderfully clean face on him, straight white teeth. He told me he was homeless. In a nice pair of sneakers so he could run away faster, right. He had a passport and a brand-new map of Ukraine. Issued in December. When our guys came down, they started checking him out. ‘Olegovich, right?’ ‘No, Alexandrovich,’ he says. And the passport says Vladimirovich. We took all his papers off him, found his military ID. A sharp shooter. We handed him over to counter-intelligence.

“I hope Putin will have the sense not to bomb Odessa. Why? Because it’s the only big Ukrainian town the Russians say they founded. How could they live with themselves? Catherine the Great built it. I think Odessa is some kind of sacred spot for them. Just the idea of it, right? Everyone in the world knows about Odessans and their sense of humour! If you kill them, it better be funny. How could they do this? To go and kill Russian-speaking people, just like them.

“They don’t want to bomb Odessa, not Putin and not the generals. They’re just making it look like they’re attacking Odessa. Look, yesterday there was a bomber, it flew over Odessa and dropped two bombs just outside the city. Supposedly it was bombing Krasnoselka, we have an army base there. It dropped two rockets. Into an estuary. The rocket came down in the estuary, the next one did the same, and no one was killed, zero casualties. So the pilot did his job. Did he complete the mission? He did. Did he bomb the army base? He did. So he happened to miss. Everyone’s happy, no big deal. He did as he was ordered. So that’s why I think Odessa will be all right.  

“But Putin, he’ll end up at the Hague, or his own lot will kill him. You’ll see. He’s only got the two options. He’s not going to die peacefully in his bed, that’s for sure.”


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The houses in Odessa are flying Ukrainian colours – you’d think it was some kind of holiday. The flags come out in the morning and are taken down by curfew – they’re afraid that looters or saboteurs will steal them at night. The flags are precious. They had to issue specific instructions about taking down the flags for the night, because the first time there were a lot of panicked phone calls about it. 

At the tram depot they’re using rails to make anti-tank hedgehogs. They’re weaving camouflage nets at the yacht club. Otrada and Chernomorka, the two beaches, are waiting for volunteers to help pack sandbags, which will reinforce barricades and checkpoints. Lots of people have been in the sand – it’s “good for taking your mind off things”.

Nearly all the young people are involved in defence. They make the rounds of the shuttered cafes, collecting bottles and sunflower oil. They go out to find insulin for the diabetics, because there’s a shortage. They help refugees get to the border. Odessa’s tattoo artists have agreed that each flat fee – about $100 – will be sent to the Ukrainian Army. 

The Privoz, Odessa’s main market, is closed. Deribasovskaya Street is blocked by sandbags, café tables, and concrete slabs. There are barricades every 50 metres. They’re checking documents; a bearded guy with green eyes takes my passport. “Oh, you’re Russian.” They call a friend over.

“They battered Kharkiv with Grad rockets. Just now. I’m from Azerbaijan myself, you understand? This will never be forgotten, never forgiven. We will never be with you. My son is 15. I’ll make sure he has nothing to do with any of you, ever!”

Behind him, students pour sand in bags. From the bags, rises the barricade.

The opera house is the heart of Odessa. It is ringed by barricades. 

Richelieu Street, nearby, is the site of a volunteer centre – one of several, but this is the biggest. Other sites provide hot and packed lunches and coordinate aid for the elderly, children, refugees, and diabetic patients. Many of the volunteer groups formed via Telegram and now there are professional athletes, chess players, lawyers, and mothers of large families at work delivering food, taking people to the border, and ferrying medication back into Ukraine, since the Moldovan guards allow medicine to be passed across the border.

The site at Richelieu Street takes in and sorts aid packages for the army, the police, and the territorial defence cadre. Before the war, this was a central gathering place, an open-air food market. The volunteers wear orange and yellow vests and everyone moves quickly. There are 80 people working today.

Inga says: “We’ve got the drive and the energy to make this work. And also we’ve got a whole team of extremely efficient managers and entrepreneurs, the best in the city, and they’ve all channelled their best resources to us, to organise the logistics, receiving, shipping out, authenticating requisitions and shipments, confirming deliveries. So we’re able to process aid requests on a large scale, to verify and distribute them.

“We work in shifts because it’s really very hard work, all day long. Everyone’s incredibly stressed out right now, so we’re doing our best to give people breaks. We have our own psychologist, who we’ve asked to stay on-site. Even me, I sometimes burst into tears, and not just once a day. When someone asks what you did before the war and you think to yourself, ‘my God, I had a life once, and I lived my life and I loved my life’.

“On the first day, we did first-aid training for the volunteers, times being what they are. God forbid, but you might help someone save a life.

“Actually, I’m a lawyer. I worked for a law firm called Departments. In my past life, as they say. The first day of the war, a girl from my team calls me. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, I’m a heavy sleeper, so even the bomb blasts didn’t wake me up, but she kept calling me, she was hysterical: ‘Inga, I don’t know what to do, I can’t stop crying’. She says, ‘I’m going to leave, my parents are frantic, they’re coming with me’. And then it just went from there.

“You know, it was so strange, when I think of that morning, the sun shining and the pretty curtains, but also her hysterical voice coming from the phone: ‘We’re being shot at, attacked, there was a rocket going past my house, I don’t even know what!’ And you just can’t… you’re still half-asleep and it all seems surreal, because it’s just, you know, so hideous…

“Flee? I did think about it, that first day. I’m from western Ukraine. My parents are there, they call me and they’re hysterical too: ‘Get down here now!’ But I thought about it and got hold of myself. I told them: ‘Listen, sorry, I’m not leaving. They need me here, I’m a trained professional. I’m a lawyer, a good manager, I can do my work well. This is my city and I can’t abandon it’. I’ll do everything I can to defend it from Russian occupiers.”

Inga. Photo: Elena Kostyuchenko/Novaya Gazeta

There are coffee stalls all over the city. The territorial defenders and the police get their coffee for free. A couple of teenage boys – black beanies drawn low, they look about 15 – approach a woman buying buns. “Excuse us, we’re from Donetsk. We just ran and ran. Can we call our brother? On speaker-phone!”

The woman hands over her mobile phone and waits patiently. She takes her change from the vendor and gives it to the boys. The vendor’s eyes are wide, but she doesn’t speak until the boys leave.

“You shouldn’t do that, they’re local, from around here. They took a package off me last week, snatched it right out of my hand! Don’t give them your phone. Or your money.”

“They can buy something to eat,” says the woman. “They must be having a tough time, to come up with a story like that.”

There’s an old woman standing outside the Afina Gallery shopping centre. Her name is Nadezhda Mikhailovna. She’s 76. She bows at the passers-by, a tearful catch in her voice: “Have mercy on us, Lord. Give us peace on earth, our Lord.” The passers-by hand her cash. She has to buy food before curfew begins.

The food shops operate in an atmosphere of feverish politeness. Please take my turn, thank you, you’re welcome, have a good day.

There’s no flour to be had, the bread has almost run out, all the tinned food is gone. There’s fruit and vegetables and sausage. The first few days saw a run on salt and matches. Now everyone’s calmed down, people are looking for provisions for the next day or two.

A man is buying 10 bottles of cognac; beginning tomorrow the sale of alcohol will be banned throughout the Odessa region.

“Some of the stores, they’ve taken it away already, imagine that. Right off the shelves. They might have left some for us to drool over.” This sparks a heated conversation in the line, about whether the authorities will ban making moonshine too. 

The enlistment office is ringed with sandbags.

Valentin turned 20 only five days ago. 

“I enlisted because it’s not like I have another homeland, besides Ukraine. And, I also knew how it was in Donetsk, in Luhansk. I didn’t sleep that night, the Thursday, the 24th. When I heard Putin’s speech, that he was setting off on this shitty war, the explosions were starting, I was like, ‘what a shit sandwich. I need to get my folks away, hide them somewhere. And then go and fight’. I got them out, to a village. And came back here.

“I had a negative view of military service. Until now. I asked this girl I work with, ‘did anybody you know enlist?’ It’s Ukraine or bust, you know? She said, no, not one person. And I was like, ‘f**king hell, nobody wants to, nobody thinks they can’. And I thought, why not me? I’m thinking about going into officer training once this is all over. So God forbid if it ever happened again, I’d be ready for anything.

“How do I feel about Russian citizens? I feel anger. Hatred. And I can’t stand the way they don’t want to fight for their own freedom. These people, they’re scared of police batons, scared of being fined, scared of prison. Guess what, guys! I’m 20 years old and I’m enlisting. I’m scared of dying too! But this is my home. And over there, that’s your home too. And you couldn’t see that for 20 years you’ve been going down the toilet? Your economy isn’t growing, you’ve got a recession. And you don’t even go out into the streets to let the Government know what you think.

“Another three months and I would have been a computer programmer. So Putin stole my dream for my future, too. But I think I’ll survive. And I’ll finish my education. Ukraine will be in the EU by then. I don’t believe much in God. I believe in Kalashnikovs and Anonymous.

“My mom said: ‘Go. You have my support, but it’s for staying alive, not getting killed’. My sister was making fun of me… We got stuck just now, they wouldn’t let the car through. My sister just kept laughing. I said, I won’t make it on time to the enlistment office, I’m going to walk… That stopped her. She’s going to cry her eyes out. We’re twins. She’s 20, like me.

“Obviously I’m afraid of dying. We’re just normal, regular people. We’re all afraid of dying. I’ve worked on the back end of a few Russian websites. But there’s going to be reprisals, if we’re occupied, anyway.”

Not far from the enlistment office, the House of Unions sits like a damp dark blot inside the Kulikovo Field city park. 2 May 2014, the date Putin referred to in his speech justifying the war, that was the day of the armed skirmishes between football fans – the pro-Maidan and the anti-Maidan sides.

The anti-Maidan group retreated from the tent city on Kulikovo field and holed up in the House of Unions. The building was set aflame by Molotov cocktails. Forty-eight people died in Odessa that day. 

Boris Yavorsky, a consultant at the county medical examiner bureau, knew three of the people who died. He was the one who examined the bodies. He and Odessa Life journalist Taisya Naidenko would spend many years investigating what happened that day.

Boris and Taisya have opposing political views. “We balance each other out very well,” he says.

“After that, I almost went to the Donbass to fight, myself. The way I see it, the 2 May story became one of those flashpoints that kindled the conflagration in the Donbass. I knew many people who enlisted and went to Donbass after what happened in Odessa. That’s when it really started in earnest.”

“That March there was an attempt to take over the Odessa city government office,” Taisya says. “You had these crowds of Putinists, with their placards and icons and portraits of Putin, milling around the city. There would be one procession marching with the Ukrainian flag; and the other one in their St. George ribbons, coming the opposite way.

“What a wonderful city, we used to say. ‘Here’s the lot with icons and Putin, and there goes the lot with the Ukrainian flag, and it’s all fine’. Then 2 May happened.”

“I was there, at those rallies,” Boris says. “They had 50 people on each side, mostly old ladies with icons. They didn’t even need to be dispersed. Each side burned the other side’s flag, to make a statement. They booed each other for a bit and then they all peeled away and went home. It was like a friendly competition, almost, ‘who can boo the loudest’, that sort of thing.

“May 2 was supposed to be the day of some big football match. I can’t remember now who was playing who, I’m not a football fan myself. And so there was a gathering in the cathedral square.

“There are these processions of fans before the big match, they’re always there. Bearing in mind the recent events – Crimea being pinched and so on – these fans were especially decked out in nationalist gear.

“It’s kind of traditional: the fans get together, they scream and shout for a while, hang around in a big gang, then they walk back from the stadium, they beat each other up sometimes, stuff like that.

“Then, some idiot, or maybe a provocateur, leads his pack out from Kulikovo Field and heads straight for the football fans, and they’re screaming something too. And then somebody shoots one of the patriots dead. A man named Biryukov, he was the first to die. Nobody knows to this day who fired that shot. There’s no discharged weapon, we can’t even tell what direction the shot came from. After that first blood, everyone went crazy and started fighting and killing one another for real.

“Only a small contingent from that big mass of fans actually made it over from Greek Street to Kulikovo Field, most of the people there realised that that nothing good would come of it. The small contingent that did come over, though, they made everybody there go into a panic, all the pensioners gathered up their icons and candles and ran over to the House of Unions.

The Odessa opera theatre. Photo: Elena Kostyuchenko/Novaya Gazeta

“They barricaded themselves inside. Well, I mean they piled some wood up at the entrance. Turned a few tables over by the entrance and that’s what later became ‘barricaded’.

“They started lobbing Molotov cocktails at one another. The younger ones among the ‘barricaded’ got onto the roof and threw the bottles from up there. The crowd below tossed their bottles up into the building. It’s much harder to set a person in the middle of a crowd on fire than to set fire to a building…

“Once the furniture caught fire, the trim inside the building did too. And then everything inside was tacked up, as usual, despite every fire safety regulation, with some kind of polyethylene wall-panelling… And worst of all, as soon as the flames went up, the central staircase became this giant smokestack and, for a few minutes, maybe even a few dozen minutes, there was a huge updraft. That’s why everyone who happened to be on the stairs… on the landings, or near them, died then and there, from the scorching burns to their airways. You take a breath or two and that’s it, you’re dead.

“None of the attackers came into the building. You couldn’t. There were loads of survivors from inside there, almost everybody who wasn’t near the staircase and didn’t jump out of a window. The more straight-thinking people had gotten upstairs little by little, they massed at the top. The police later took them into custody from the roof. 

“But later, there were stories on Facebook that everyone who died at House of Unions turned out to be fighters from Russia and Transnistria. All the Ukrainian media outlets and most of the Russian ones reposted this as fact.

“I’ve seen the ID papers, I was the consultant – there were only two men from out of town. All the others were from Odessa and the area.

“They unleashed a horrific reaction, these lies – people began to mock the dead. It was so revolting. For many Ukrainians it wasn’t even what had happened, but how people were talking about it that made them understand it wasn’t a difference of opinion anymore, about the future – it had spilled over into hatred and enmity; wanting to see the other side dead.

“Many Odessans went to Donetsk after that. Now some of them will be marching on Odessa with the Russian Army. 

But this [current] war… it changed the entire shape of things, created such polarisation of society. Because of what is happening, our usual – traditional really, by now – conflict between the nominally Maidan and anti-Maidan factions is nowhere to be seen. Suddenly, people forgot their hostility towards one another – now we’re facing a genuine enemy.”

“It does work,” says Taisya. “People love to say: ‘It’s all politics, there’s no need to get into it, everybody lies, we all know how it goes’. But when something is dropping on you from the sky above, and you see residential buildings exploding, then you understand, it all gets pretty clear.

“We have a club for pipe smokers, the Odessa Pipe Club. As a sample of the population it’s very… interesting, let’s say. The only thing they have in common is smoking pipes.  You come into contact with very different people and all their differing opinions, maybe 40 or so properly active members.

“I believe we’ve just expelled one of the members from the group chat, because he was always praising Putin. So the guys said it to his face: ‘Seryoga, just be straight with us. Will you admit, that this, right now, it’s a war, and this is all in for real?’ And his response was, ‘Well, it’s not so black and white, is it… We don’t know who’s got the right of it, and who’s really to blame’.

Men look over their chessboards inside a little covered bandstand inside the cathedral square. There are two tables: one for speed chess and one for regular chess. No one takes any notice of the cold. Two more hours until curfew; plenty of time.

“Reckless move, but here goes my rook. What have I got to worry about, when we’re all friends here?”

Bloodless battles play out over the black-and-white boards. 

“Are they being mean to you, Semyon? Me, I would have lost already. Resigned and put an end to it.”

“What kind of move is that, what is that? Anyone know what that was?”

“Let’s go over here for now. That move was called a ‘nun’ya.’ As in ‘nun’ya business.’ 

Talking about the war while playing chess is not allowed. 

“Why am I playing so badly today?” Lenya says. “My third game, playing black, and it’s frankly embarrassing. Why did I capture, when I could see what’s going on with the knight there?”

“Give that pawn over.”

“No way.”


“Better scram, then,” Lenya says, moving his rook from the line of fire.

“Well, in for a penny, in for a pound!”

“You keep making moves that I don’t even think are moves.”

An air-raid siren. They carry on playing, but faster. Finally, they put the pieces away in a little cloth pouch. 

People rush inside the underground pedestrian tunnel – “it’s not a cellar, but still”.

The siren keeps on shrilling. Lena is nine years old. She has glasses and her hair is in braids. She murmurs soothingly to Asya, the little dog her mother is holding. With each high note from the siren, the dog stiffens and gives a hoarse whine. “Asya, dear, don’t be scared,” Lena tells her. “You’re just a little doggy, don’t be scared.” Lena’s mum plucks at the wire fox terrier’s rough fur. The dog is overdue for a trim. 

The siren subsides. Lena’s mother wants to continue their walk. “Let’s not walk anymore today,” Lena responds in a grownup voice. “There’s no need.”

“Fifth station here, we got a good old blast!’”

Some men carry the café benches back up from the pedestrian tunnel. 

“Do you believe in God?” asks a guard. “Come on down.”

The crypt of the Spaso-Preobrazhensky Cathedral, with its gilded walls, spiralling columns and shadowed faces of the saints, has become Odessa’s largest bomb shelter. Rugs have been laid on the tiled floor along the walls, and on top of these, blankets. People arrange themselves on the blankets. Pets are not allowed, but people sneak their cats in inside their bags. 

Kristina’s older son is eight. He’s just started on a puzzle, so there’s no telling what the picture will be. The younger boy, only four, is focused on her mobile phone. This is the third night the family is spending in the cathedral. 

“Our building doesn’t have a basement,” Kristina says. “There are flyers in every entryway, addresses with the bomb shelters. It says that you can shelter in any hospital, but I’ve been to several and they all said ‘no, it’s false information, there are no shelters here’. There’s one at 20 Torgovaya Street, but the building residents said: ‘We organised this for ourselves and the people from the block, we’ll let you in if there’s space left’. How are we supposed to know, running for our lives during an air raid, whether they have any space left?”

Kristina weeps, but only for a few seconds. Her children don’t see.

“In the morning, you go home. Throw some things together – food for one day, one night. Make contact with your loved ones, wherever they’re spread out, find out who’s still alive. Have a shower. Then back here again.

“My relatives on my dad’s side, they’re in Russia. I’ve blocked them everywhere. They have their own version of the truth. We are living ours.”

Vera Grigorievna with a photograph of her husband. She selects photographs that she will save in case of an air raid. Photo: Elena Kostyuchenko/Novaya Gazeta

Vika is making millet porridge and frying eggs. She’s a waitress, but her café is closed. She spent today gathering bits for her avocado plants – she’s grown one from a seed, but now she needs pebbles for drainage and you can’t get down to the beach because of the mines. Vika grows avocados and lemons. 

She walks down to Vera Grigorievna’s, one floor below. Vera Grigorievna is 85 and has been reading Agatha Christie mysteries all day, every day since the war began, one book after another. She is nearly deaf.

Vera Grigorievna says: “Let Putin take over this country! I don’t agree with freedom at the cost of one’s life. You can’t imagine how hard it is to live in a country that you hate. It makes me sick to my stomach. Ukraine should be united with Russia.

“I told the patrol man, I’m a spy. A spy for whom? For the Russians! Such a mean look he gave me. They closed the cafeteria that gave out meals to pensioners. It kept us going. I’ve lived through famine and repression, and now this. But I still want to be with Russia. There’s many people who want that. But they’re scared. What are they scared of? They’re just used to being scared, that’s how they are. Independent Ukraine? It’s dependent on everybody. It’s a pauper, that’s what it is.”

“Vera Grigorievna, they’re bombing Kyiv,” Vika tells her.

“Bombing? Kyiv? I don’t believe you, Vika.”

Vera Grigorievna sits down to eat. Vika sits beside her. Vika is 17, a sweep of pink eyeshadow fanning out toward her temples. She comes from Mozhniakovka in Luhansk. Her father is in Kharkiv, being shelled. Her mum is in Luhansk People’s Republic. 

“I’ve got too many relations,” Vika says. “Twenty of them, all scattered around the country. I was supposed to go to technical college in Starobelsk, but it’s been bombed. I don’t sleep at night now, just when it’s almost morning.

“I won’t say what I think. I grew up in Molzhniakovka, it’s only 1,500 people. You walk down the street and you get asked, ‘are you for Russia or Ukraine?’ You say Russia, you get beaten up. Say Ukraine, you get beaten up. You have to figure out what you can say to whom. I just keep quiet.”

Vera Grigorievna is eating. Vika is brushing the cat. 

“What do you dream about?”

“Nothing nice, just rubbish.”

“Try and think about that dream you had, of flying over Odessa,” Vika says. “May I borrow some Agatha, to read later?”

“Of course you can, you don’t need to ask,” says Vera Grigorievna.

Vika starts washing up. Vera Grigorievna brings some envelopes in from another room. The envelopes are so old they’re falling apart. “Mom”, “friends”, “wedding” read the hand-written notes on the back of the photographs inside. The black-and-white faces are serene. Vera Grigorievna thinks carefully as she chooses which of the dead she will take with her to safety in the bomb shelter, when she goes. 

Elena Kostyuchenko, an award-winning investigative journalist and activist, is a reporter for the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta. This article was translated from Russian by Ilona Yazhbin Chavasse. This translated article originally appeared in English in ‘n+1’


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