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France 24
France 24

Odesa, a defiant city on the strategic shores of the Black Sea

Ukrainian soldiers on leave stroll on Odesa's Langeron beach on February 3, 2023. © David Gormezano / Studio Graphique FMM

From our special correspondent in Odesa – A seaside resort with a rich multicultural past, Odesa was one of the early targets of Russia's invasion of Ukraine in  February, 2022. But the port city mounted its defenses and the mayor, who once had a reputation for being pro-Russian, transformed himself into an uncompromising Ukrainian patriot. With its vital port again functioning – albeit in slow motion – the city keeps up its resistance as it awaits better days. 

On a wintry February morning, as a few rays of sunshine warm up Langeron beach in downtown Odesa, a handful of pedestrians sip their coffees while staring out at the Black Sea. Yuri, a middle-aged Odesa resident, sounds fatalistic as he describes his life these days.

"My daughter went to Poland. My wife and I stayed. Here, it is quiet compared to what’s happening in eastern Ukraine. We work when there is work, otherwise we stay home. We feel like we are surviving," he says, watching the seagulls.

On the waterfront, restaurants, spas and other tourist attractions are almost deserted. A few Ukrainian soldiers patrol in the cold winter light. Other uniformed men are visible, but they are soldiers on leave. At the end of a pier, Maxim seems gigantic next to Anna, his girlfriend. He is fighting at the front, on the Kherson side, and is enjoying three days of leave. That’s all he can reveal about the fighting further east. The war is omnipresent in Odesa, as it is everywhere in Ukraine.

Maxim and Anna by the Black Sea in Odesa on February 3, 2023. © David Gormezano, FRANCE 24

"Before the war, people in Odesa were not very interested in politics," says Olena Rotari, a freelance journalist from this port city. “In the days after the Russian invasion, I saw people making Molotov cocktails, filling sandbags and organising. When we heard that Kherson (200km east of Odesa) was occupied, we were afraid. But I told myself that with this mobilisation, Odesa will not fall."

A year later, the city has not fallen. But for the past two months, the city is plunged into darkness in the evenings following a "kamikaze drone" attack launched by Russia on December 10 last year.

Daily life punctuated by power cuts

Maria lives with her husband on the 12th floor of a new building overlooking the Odesa Bay. They now cook on a gas stove and adapt to a new daily rhythm of life dictated by three hours of electricity followed by six hours of blackout before the power cycle is repeated again.

During power cuts, Maria uses a gas stove to cook in her Odesa apartment.. © David Gormezano, FRANCE 24

A car battery and a voltage regulator enable them to charge their mobiles, access the internet, heat water and provide basic lighting. Maria is lucky: the central heating is fully operational. This is not the case for many inhabitants of Odesa, which has a population of 1 million people.

The daughter of a soldier, Maria joined her parents in Italy with her two young children at the start of the war. She stayed there for six months before she returned, reassured by Ukraine's military successes. "Odesa is my city, it's the best place in the world," she says. "With the war, we have become much more patriotic. We are more united. Now it's all for one and one for all. There’s been a big change in the mentality here."

The mayor of Odesa, whom many doubted, has become a great patriot. "At the very beginning of the war, for four or five days, I was very worried about Odesa because the mayor did not make any public statements or respond to the situation," says Rotari, the journalist. "I was very surprised when he announced that he would fight against the Russian invasion and for Ukraine."

The mayor and a questionable past

Rotari’s doubts about Mayor Gennadiy Trukhanov were shared by many Ukrainians. They stem from Trukhanov’s background and the political positioning of the 58-year-old former captain in the Soviet armed forces, who served between 1986 and 1992.   

Trukhanov had long been perceived as a pro-Russian figure in Ukraine. In 2014, he belonged to the Party of Regions, the party of Viktor Yanukovich, Ukraine’s former Kremlin-backed president who was ousted by the Maidan revolution, which erupted over his sudden decision not to sign a political association and free trade agreement with the EU.       

Seated in his office overlooking the port of Odesa, the mayor looks annoyed when questioned about his political past. Asked about his failure to object to the March 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea, he replies coldly and defiantly that, "a vote by the Crimean parliament approved it. I am told that it was under the threat of 100 or 200 armed Russian soldiers, but that is not much. Why didn't they do anything? Why didn't they defend Crimea as we are defending our country today?”

Odesa Mayor Gennadiy Trukhanov in his office on February 2, 2023. © David Gormezano, FRANCE 24

Following his election as Odesa’s mayor in May 2014, Trukhanov was charged with corruption and associating with local mafia groups. He was never convicted by the courts, but suspicions remain. "Even today, like many civil society people in Odesa, I do not trust Trukhanov, and I doubt that he has become a Ukrainian patriot. In the past, we have seen his convictions change. He supported [former] president Viktor Yanukovich, then [former president Petro] Poroshenko. When a corruption investigation was opened against him, he became a supporter of [President Volodymyr] Zelensky. I think that if the Russian soldiers had arrived here, he would have become a supporter of [Vladimir] Putin. He changes flags constantly, depending on his interests at the moment," says Rotari.

To those questioning his Ukrainian loyalty, the mayor replies: "It is true that I am a Russian speaker like 90% of the people of Odesa, it is a product of history. But I am sure that in the future we will speak Ukrainian here, my grandchildren will speak it, because that’s how it is.”

Setting the historical record straight

Odesa’s mayor finds it irksome that his city is considered a pro-Russian bastion in Ukraine.

Trukhanov received international attention last month when UNESCO designated the historic centre of Odesa as a World Heritage site and noted that it is a site in danger

Chess players near the Orthodox cathedral in Odesa on February 1, 2023. © David Gormezano, FRANCE 24

Tensions were on the rise ahead of the vote, according to news reports, with Trukhanov and Ukraine's Culture Minister Oleksandr Tkachenko writing an open letter objecting to what they viewed as a "politicised" description of the port city in a draft decision describing Russia's Empress Catherine II, or Catherine the Great, as the founder of the city.

Back from a recent trip to Paris, where UNESCO is based, Trukhanov is keen to highlight Odesa’s European past.

"It is true that Russian culture is very present here, but Odesa is a European city. The first governor of the city was the Duke of Richelieu [in 1803]; many of our monuments were created by Italians. But it is also true that in the first months of the war, it was difficult for people of my generation, who were born or raised in the Soviet Union, to admit that Russia bombed us with missiles. It was hard to understand, but we have changed.”

With this conflict, Odesa seems to be definitively turning its back on Russia, according to Violetta Diduk, a tourist guide in the city. "A year ago, you couldn't hear anyone speaking Ukrainian on the street, it was very rare. Now you hear it more and more. Besides, it’s often the Russian speakers who have turned the most anti-Russian. I am angry, but the young people are even worse, I have no words to describe what they feel. They don't want to listen to Russian music or watch Russian movies anymore. They are much more radical than the older ones.”

Violetta Diduk, a tourist guide, on the main Deribasovskaya Street in Odesa's historic Old Town district on February 1, 2023. © David Gormezano, FRANCE 24

A year after the February 24, 2022 Russian invasion, Diduk says her life has been turned upside down. The tourists have disappeared, some of her relatives have been mobilised, and she now lives with her partner, son and parents in the same apartment, which – "Thank God" – has a power generator.

The stories of the abuses committed by Russian forces in the nearby town of Kherson have chilled her. "I was a romantic and I discovered fear," she says simply.

"There are still people who say that Odesa is a Russian city," explains Diduk. "They repeat Russian propaganda, especially the older generation. There are even some who say that there is no war, that it’s an invention of television. But many people have changed their opinion about Russia. My mother had a neighbour who told her that the Russians are our friends. After February 24, he asked for her forgiveness.”

Before the war, Diduk began her tours with a history of Odesa, reminding clients that Odesa was not born with Catherine the Great's conquest in 1794. The city’s greatness and wealth centres around its port. Trade, Odesa’s true religion, injected a cosmopolitanism that predates the Russian conquest. Long before the Russians arrived in the late 18th century, the Greeks, Romans and then the Ottoman Empire settled or controlled this site, which had a deep water port and was well protected from the winds and ice in winter. 

Moscow now calls the shots at Odesa's port

Over the centuries, its unique geography made Odesa the most important port in Ukraine. But since February 24, the country has lost most of its maritime access. "Of the 18 ports that Ukraine had before 2014, it now controls only nine, including three on the Danube," explains Dmytro Barinov, vice president of the Ukrainian Seaports Authority. "In 2021, 140 million tonnes of goods transited our ports," he noted. 

For the port city, the blockade is another disaster. A year ago, hundreds of ships and millions of tonnes of grain were blocked at the quay. Around 1,000 port employees kept their jobs but their salaries were reduced by three-fourths "to be able to hold out for the long term", explains Barinov.

On July 22, 2022, a grain agreement was signed in Istanbul between Ukraine, the UN, Turkey and Russia. It provides for the establishment of secure corridors in the Black Sea for grain shipments and inspection procedures by the four signatories of the agreement. Renewed on November 2, the agreement ended the total maritime blockade of Ukraine.

Loading a cargo of grain in the Odesa port. © Handout from the Ukrainian Seaports Authority

"When the grain agreement was signed, when the ships started to come and go again, to pay taxes, work resumed," says the former merchant marine captain. But a huge queue of ships has gradually formed on the Black Sea. "Currently, there are 117 ships that want to enter our waters and about 20 others that want to leave. Russia is responsible for this situation because we need at least 20 inspections per day and the Russians agree to only four or five. They don't just inspect the cargo and the crew register, but also the ship's equipment and many other things."

Dmytro Barinov, vice president of the Ukrainian Seaports Authority © David Gormezano, FRANCE 24

Moscow now dictates the level of activity in the Odesa port. By drawing out inspection schedules, Russia determines the volume of goods that Ukraine can trade. Since the first shipment on August 1, "we have been able to export 19 million tonnes of agricultural products. If this corridor and the inspections were working properly, we could have exported 29 million tonnes," says Barinov.

Beaches, ships and mines

These days, Rotari, the journalist, rarely sees the silhouette of a cargo ship on the water from Langeron beach. Moreover, the port, located just below the old town, is now under Ukrainian army control.

"The military authorities restricted access to the Odesa waterfront after the Russian offensive in February. But the people of Odesa love freedom and do not like to follow rules. Unfortunately, people have been killed on the beaches: while walking, they stepped on mines. We are at war, we have to follow these rules, that's how it is," she says.   

Olena Rotari, a freelance journalist in Odesa on February 3, 2023. © David Gormezano, FRANCE 24

Contemplating the Black Sea's waves offers some respite from the current shortages and deprivations in this port city. But not for long. The realities of the war have blotted out the ships that once dotted the horizon.

"There are many people in Odesa who are traumatised by the war, especially the displaced, those who fled torture and rape in the areas occupied by the Russians. The sight of the sea is not likely to soothe or comfort them,” says Rotari.   

As for the Russians, who have for so long cherished the rich history and charms of Odesa: they won’t be allowed to return anytime soon.

This article is a translation of the original in French.

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