Chris York samples the mood of Ukrainians in the Black Sea city after 200 days of war, and finds conflicting feelings of fear, suspicion, hope, sadness and defiance

Defiance

“You can never kill the Odesans,” declares fifty-five-year-old Yelena, arms aloft as she emerges from a sea full of mines onto a closed beach covered in signs warning of the explosive peril facing those who choose to ignore them.

As the summer draws to a close, the people of Odesa are still testing the boundaries of their new normal, one that is adapting to the realities and restrictions of war but also takes advantage of the freedoms that still remain as a part of Ukraine not under the yoke of Russian occupation.

“I’m Ukrainian, I’m a mother and I want to live my life in my Odesa,” Yelena adds. “Russia will not defeat us.”

Vladimir Putin’s original and failed plan to occupy all of Ukraine envisaged an amphibious assault on Odesa, aimed at capturing a port city with huge strategic significance on the coast of the Black Sea.

Taking the city would not only have provided Russia with a land and naval staging point to achieve the Kremlin’s goal of a land corridor stretching from Russia to Moldova, but it would have landlocked Ukraine, cutting off the ‘Breadbasket of Europe’ from the sea and depriving it of a means to export the millions of tons of grain it produces every year.

Since the reinvasion in February, Russia has repeatedly scaled back its imperialist ambitions for Ukraine, as it learns that a population it thought would welcome them with open arms would fight and die for every inch of Ukrainian land.

Odesa is still in Putin’s sights and as such the waters of its coast remain mined, missiles regularly strike and the city’s people are far from relaxed.

“Of course we’re scared,” says one of Yelena’s swimming partners. Pointing at the large paper cup in her hand, she adds: “That’s why we drink beer.”

Photo: Chris York

Fear

During peacetime Odesa is a popular coastal resort city where tourists spend their days on the beaches, the evenings strolling the wide, leafy 19th-century boulevards and the nights, in one of the countless restaurants and clubs perched on the sands overlooking the sea.

In wartime, the tourists are fewer but families still arrive seeking refuge or a temporary escape from other parts of the country.

Daria, manager of the Red Line Club. Photo: Chris York

But the war is never far away. “We’re trying to carry on working because people are coming here to rest and to forget about the negative thoughts,” says Daria, manager of The Red Line Club in the city’s beachside Arcadia district.

“The most difficult thing is the fear. When people are just relaxing here and suddenly the air raid sirens go off or people hear explosions, or see the ships on the horizon, they can’t fully relax.

“And they’re afraid to go closer to the sea because of the incidents we hear about.”

The “incidents” Daria refers to are the tragic consequences of Odesans trying to live a normal life but pushing the boundaries into recklessness – swimmers killed and injured by mines, both Russian and Ukrainian.

Not all the beaches and stretches of coast are mined but signs on every stretch of sand enforced by regular police patrols, say otherwise.


Guilt

Beyond the horizon, Russian warships lurk. 130 miles away the city of Mykolaiv is bombed daily. Just beyond and over the front line where their countrymen fight and die for their country, civilians in Kherson are living under occupation. Beyond that, the Russian-held nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhia threatens radioactive disaster. At the border, sits a neighbour that, under current management at least, is intent on never allowing Ukraine to ever be the same again.

Under the surface of Odesans making the most of the summer is a level of guilt, a product of knowing that not far away, fellow Ukrainians are suffering far more than them.

“When I scroll through Facebook, people don’t even post photos of very ordinary pleasures like taking the dog for a walk,” says Alex Zamkovoi, a journalist who lives in Odesa.

Lviv Opera House. Photo: Chris York

“I had a birthday two days ago and I had a small party, a reunion with some friends who are still in Odesa. We want to a restaurant for a couple of hours. Of course, we took some photos but not one of us posted anything on social media.”

“It’s about a threshold of guilt that we hold in Odesa. Posting something on social media is a no-no, but going to the restaurant – well this is normal life and we still need to live.”


Photo: Chris York

Resignation

When a friend and I visited last year, within 24 hours of disembarking the train from Kyiv we’d bathed in the Black Sea, eaten incredible sushi fished from where we’d swam that morning and then danced to the early hours in one of countless nightclubs along the coast there to satisfy the whims of tourists.

Twelve months later and you can still do all these things, only the swimming can get you killed, the sushi is fished and transported from unmined waters miles from the city and is more expensive as a result and all and any nighttime activities outside the comfort of your hotel room end at 11 pm when the city’s curfew begins.

Of course, these are just trivial inconveniences for visitors. For Odesans they, and the inescapable ramifications of them, are now life itself.

Yuriy Baskakov, co-owner of Trembita Music Pub, opened in June in a tourist-orientated district called Arcadia that traces the shoreline to the south-east of the city centre, hoping to capitalise on people seeking some respite from the war.

“We opened in June, worked for two months and closed,” he says. “We have a curfew in the city, so all cafes and restaurants can work till 22:00. Last year it was possible to work all night.

“You can sell alcohol only until 20:00. Who can come after work and have a quick drink in an hour? Of course, almost no one.”


Volodymyr Kalyna, deputy commander of the regiment of the Patrol Police Photo: Chris York

Suspicion

While those like Daria and Yuriy have had to try and carry on as normally as possible, others have had to accept that their daily routines and working days have changed seismically.

Volodymyr Kalyna is deputy commander of the regiment of the Patrol Police, a law enforcement agency that during the regular summer season has its hands full managing the influx of tourists, some of whom come to rest and some of whom, as he describes it, come to “get some”. 

This involved patrolling the beaches, dealing with drunk drivers, robberies and “giving first aid to skaters and cyclists”, as well as enforcing the Covid regulations that were in force at the time.

“We thought last year was a hard year but then we found what hard really means,” he says.

Photo: Chris York

This summer has been nothing short of a new reality for Kalyna and his colleagues as they face challenges that weren’t even on the radar last year, not least of which is trying to spot people who are working with the Russians.

“The job completely switched,” he says. “We have to work at the places where Russian rockets have struck, evacuating people and administering first aid.

“And a really important thing is at the sites of missile strikes there will always be people trying to film what’s going on and we need to figure out if they’re just curious people or if they’re collaborators, calling in the coordinates of the strikes. 

“That’s a really important part of our work now.”

Photo: Chris York

Sadness

Odesa is currently a city of unfulfilled plans, longed-for events put on hold to accommodate a war no one here wants.

Olga Sidorushkina is a film programmer at the Odesa International Film Festival, Ukraine’s premier cinema showcase which, since 2010, has taken over the city each July, the much-loved highlight being open-air screenings on the city’s famed Potemkin Stairs overlooking the port.

“A lot of people came to Odesa each year to watch movies, take in the festival atmosphere and just enjoy the summer near the sea,” she says. “It’s just the best combination.”

The event’s relaxed and sophisticated glamour didn’t grace Odesa this year and while some parts have found a temporary home at a sister event in Warsaw, Poland in October, the war has scattered its organisers across the globe.

Photo: Chris York

“Of course, I feel very bad, all of us are missing this life,” says Sidorushkina who is current;y promoting Ukrainian cultural programmes in the UK. “I would be really busy, seeing all my friends and going to parties near the seaside. I miss this atmosphere and I miss these people. 

“Now they’re all over the place, some are abroad, some are still struggling in Odesa, some of them are in the army. It’s an empty place compared to last year.”


Odesa’s mayor, Hennadiy Trukhanov.
Photo: Chris York

Hope

No one in Odesa is under any illusions that the coming months will be anything but bleak. The economic situation is especially dire, so much so that currency exchange shops are no longer allowed to display rates on illuminated boards on the street, in an attempt to lessen the psychological impact of watching the gradual devaluation of the Ukrainian hryvnia. 

“The economic situation in Ukraine is getting worse because of the war so we’re waiting for a rise in things like property crime,” says Kalyna

Yet amid the gloom there are bright spots. Odesa is currently the site of one of the few areas of cooperation between Ukraine and Russia, a deal brokered with the help of Turkey to allow the export of grain.

And a renewed sense of unity has pervaded the city. No one has felt this shift in outlook more keenly than Odesa’s mayor, Hennadiy Trukhanov, a controversial figure whose previous pro-Russian leanings have, by his own assertions, been hammered out of him by the realities of this year’s invasion.

“We all suddenly turned into defenders,” he says. “All the people who were in different political blocks, in different parties, at one moment they all united. 

“You could see people building barricades together, and just yesterday they were on opposite sides of the political barricades. People who just the day before wrote some nasty things about each other on social networks, these people united to protect their city.

“I would like to preserve this feeling… so that we do not lose it and it always remains in Ukraine.”

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