The Odesa Fine Arts Museum, a collonaded early-19th-century palace, stands almost empty. Early in Russia’s war on Ukraine, its staff removed more than 12,000 works for safekeeping. One large portrait remained, depicting Catherine the Great, the Russian empress and founder of Odesa, as a just and victorious goddess.
Seen from below in Dmitry Levitzky’s painting, the empress is a towering figure in a pale gown with a golden train. The ships behind her symbolize Russia’s victory over the Ottoman Turks in 1792. “She’s textbook Russian imperial propaganda,” said Gera Grudev, a curator. “The painting’s too large to move, and besides, leaving it shows the Russian occupiers we don’t care.”
The decision to let Catherine’s portrait hang in isolation in the first room of the shuttered museum reflects a sly Odesan bravura: an empress left to contemplate how the brutality of Vladimir Putin, the Russian president who likens himself to a latter-day czar, has alienated the largely Russian-speaking population of this Black Sea port, established by her in 1794 as Moscow’s long-coveted conduit from the steppe to the Mediterranean.
Odesa, grain port to the world, city of creative mingling, scarred metropolis steeped in Jewish history, is the big prize in the war and a personal obsession for Putin. In a speech three days before ordering the Russian invasion, Putin singled out Odesa with particular venom, making clear his intention to capture “criminals” there and “bring them to justice.”
Putin believed at the outset of the war that he could decapitate the Ukrainian government and take Kyiv, only to discover that Ukraine was a nation ready to fight for the nationhood he dismissed. As the focus of the fighting shifts to southern Ukraine, Putin knows that on Odesa’s fate hinges Ukrainian access to the sea and, to some degree, the world’s access to food. Without this city, Ukraine shrivels to a landlocked rump state.
Today, Odesa is more than just a shipping centre.
This port is a symbol of what the world can do when we commit to working together for the common good – @antonioguterres told reporters today.
— UN Spokesperson (@UN_Spokesperson) August 19, 2022
“Odesa is the key, in my view,” said François Delattre, the secretary-general of the French Foreign Ministry. “Militarily, it is the highest-value target. If you control it, you control the Black Sea.”
Almost six months into the war, Odesa resists, not untouched, but unbowed. On its broad tree-lined avenues, redolent of linden blossom, where stray cats slither and a golden light bathes the gray-green, ocher and light blue buildings, a semblance of everyday life has returned. Restaurants and the storied Opera Theater, founded in 1810, have reopened. People sip coffee on the elegant Derybasivska Street. Insouciance is one expression of Odesan pride.
Odesa is the crux of the war not only because it holds the key to the Black Sea but also because in it the battle between Russian and Ukrainian identity — an imperial past and a democratic future, a closed system and one connected to the world — plays out with particular intensity. This is the city, of fierce independence and stubborn inclusiveness, that symbolizes all Putin wants to annihilate in Ukraine.
Echoes of terror
In the 19th century, this was the Russian Eldorado, a raucous, polyglot city on the make, populated by Greeks, Italians, Tatars, Russians, Turks and Poles. Because they were freer here than anywhere else in Russia’s Pale of Settlement, the area of the empire where they were generally confined, Jews flocked from the shtetls of Eastern Europe to this booming port. By 1900, about 138,000 of Odesa’s 403,000 inhabitants were Jewish.
The bawdy world of smugglers, gangsters, shakedown artists and fast-talkers, concentrated in the Moldovanka district, is immortalized in Isaac Babel’s classic “Odessa Stories.” Babel — born in Odesa in 1894, executed by Stalin on fabricated charges in 1940 — captured in his antihero Benya Krik, the Robin Hood “King” of the underworld, some enduring essence of Odesa’s anarchic yet generous spirit.
“Benya Krik, he got his way, because he had passion, and passion rules the world,” Babel observes.
It is this freewheeling Odesan passion Putin seeks to quash by reviving, in twisted form, the spirit of what Russia calls the Great Patriotic War of 1941 to 1945. Then, in 1944, Red Army troops liberated the city from Nazi control; now Russian troops seek to impose on Odesa a repressive autocracy as part of the campaign to “denazify” a democratic Ukraine.
This twisted nightmare takes a particular form in Odesa, because its lingua franca is still Russian and its Russian sympathies lingered long after Ukrainian independence in 1991. A hub of the “New Russia” forged in the 18th century from conquered land bordering the Black Sea, the city now finds itself in a war of disentanglement from Russia’s tenacious hold.
In the 5,000-word essay written last year that revealed the depth of his obsession with Ukraine, Putin wrote that Russia and Ukraine formed the “same historical and spiritual space” and that “Russia was robbed, indeed” by Ukrainian independence. Ukraine, in short, was a fictive nation. His response became clear on Feb. 24: the absorption by force of Ukraine into Russia.
It is of the nature of crazed acts to provoke the antithesis of their desired effect. As Odesa, perhaps more than any other Ukrainian city, illustrates, Putin has spread and redoubled Ukrainian national consciousness.
“There’s been a tectonic shift,” said Serhiy Dibrov, a researcher on recent Odesan history. “People crossed the line to full belief in Ukraine.” Still, he said, a substantial minority of Odesans retain some sympathy for Russia.
A new ‘de-Judaisation’?
For Putin, Ukrainian independence was ultimately unforgivable. His “denazification” has entailed the “de-Judaization” of a city with deep Jewish roots.
“My grandfather left Nuremberg for Palestine to survive the Nazis,” Rabbi Avraham Wolff said. “Now I bring Jewish children to Germany to save them from Russia! Can you believe it?”
Wolff, then 22, came to Odesa from Israel in the early 1990s to revive Judaism in an independent post-Soviet Ukraine. As the chief rabbi of the city and of southern Ukraine, he has overseen the building of Jewish kindergartens, schools, orphanages and a university — until the unravelling of his work began this year.
Over the past five months, more than 20,000 Jews, or at least half the community, have left, many of them to Germany, Austria, Romania and Moldova. The Holocaust Museum is closed. The Jewish Museum is closed. Buses took 120 children from an orphanage to a hotel in Berlin, along with 180 mothers and children whose husbands and fathers had gone to the front. The women and children are under Wolff’s direct care.
“We do not know if the Jews who left will come back,” Wolff said. “I suspect that if the war continues until Sept. 1 and children start school wherever they are, they will never return.”
Roman Shvartsman, 85, is an Odesan Holocaust survivor. He lost his childhood, lived the antisemitism of the Soviet years, and had hoped for a quiet old age. Now he fears for his grandchildren.
In his pale blue eyes, one reddened by recent cataract surgery, was all of Babel’s terrible world and all of humanity’s defiant hope. “Putin says openly that there is no such state as Ukraine and that he wants to annihilate 40 million Ukrainians. How much clearer does the West need him to be?”
Eight years ago, on May 2, 2014, the city split, with street fighting between armed Russian sympathizers and pro-Maidan democracy supporters. “It was a battle between those who still wanted to live in a nonexistent Soviet Union, or in an existent, modern, European Ukraine,” said Dibrov, the researcher, who worked on a documentary about the violence.
In a city of traders more than fighters, the battle was a violation of Odesa’s conciliatory principles. It posed a fundamental question: Are you ready to fight for Ukraine or for Russia? In Dibrov’s words, “It was the moment people realized how dangerous Russia could be.”
After the pro-Russian demonstrators initiated the violence by killing two pro-Maidan activists, they lost four of their own, before holing up in the Trade Union Building. A fire broke out, its exact origin unclear, killing 42 pro-Moscow Odesans.
It is an episode Putin has never forgotten.
“One thing is clear,” Dibrov said. “It was the first day of war in Odesa.”
Andriy Checheta, 57, lives in Odesa and drives out every day, past golden wheat fields to his 5,000-acre farm where he grows sunflowers, wheat, corn and barley. Born in Grozny to a Chechen father and Ukrainian mother, Checheta worked all over the former Soviet Union.
“Nothing changed for me with the collapse of the Soviet Union,” he said. “I feel it as my common space as acutely as ever.” He looked at me intently. “How would the United States feel if Texas broke off?”
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, trees were felled for energy and water became polluted. Weeds were everywhere when Checheta first bought land in 2002.
“And, now, again, we have a catastrophe for agriculture in general!” he said.
Because of the war, Checheta’s entire wheat harvest is wrapped in containers out in the fields. He has been unable to move them.
Despite the July deal that has seen a few ships loaded with grain sail from Odesa and other ports, Checheta said in a later telephone conversation that he “will not be able to sell anything until November and that is an optimistic forecast.”
Whom, I asked when I met him, does he blame? “When couples split, both are responsible,” Checheta said. “The West provoked instability.” His view of Odesa: “Administratively it is a Ukrainian town, historically it is not.”
I encountered such views more than once — a nostalgia for the Soviet Union, scepticism over Ukrainian statehood, anger at the West for fomenting trouble. Aleksandr Prigarin, an anthropologist at Mechnikov University in Odesa, told me the main thing he was concerned with protecting right now was “Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky and Chekhov.”
Nobody on either side of the arguments believes the shooting will stop any time soon. “Only a complete idiot can be happy with war,” said Checheta, gazing at his fields. “Russia and Ukraine must negotiate soon or there will be a total disaster.”
One evening, on the eastern outskirts of Odesa, I saw two soldiers in the twilight digging trenches in the rich soil of Europe. It was a timeless image, with its own strange beauty, of the repetitive failure from which the continent believed itself delivered.