Fragments from a War Diary, Part #30
Yesterday I took my first day off from the front line of the war zone in three weeks, and I travelled to the seaside city of Odessa, traditionally the preserve of huge influxes of Russian tourists seeking the sun and parties in a Russophone environment. Odessa historically is almost entirely a Russian-speaking city in the southwest of Ukraine, although a number of people are now starting to learn the Ukrainian language as well.
It was a well-earned break; almost unknowingly, I had become entirely exhausted, anxious and run down. Just getting away from the relentless wail of air raid sirens and attack alerts for 24 hours makes an enormous different to one;’s psyche. I was able to relax in a cafe on Odessa’s main tourist boulevard, talk nonsense with a few people associated with the British military, I had a guided tour of the Old Town from a lovely former University Professor who had quit her job to work full-time as a guide showing visitors around her city, to support her family; I drank a bit too much beer: a welcome respite after living abstemiously for the last three weeks.
I arrived in the late summer season. Even in late September, Odessa’s weather remains warm and the sun shines brightly throughout the day. It is perfect weather for a t-shirt and shorts. The centre of the city is beautiful, although the suburbs somewhat less so, having been the victims of post-war Soviet architectural influences. However as I learned from my guide, Odessa city centre was constructed by the local businessmen in coordination with the Russian Tsars in the late nineteenth century, with Habsburg architects and at great expense, so as to create a tourist resort on the Black Sea for the Russian aristocracy to enjoy without needing to travel as far as the south of France or further. Therefore the baroque and ornate styles of the buildings give the city a genuine cultural charm, and it is undoubtedly a very pleasant place to spend a few days. I toyed with the idea of extending my break, but there is work to return to. I can always come back.
The people of Odessa, who always maintained strong relationships with Russia as one of the principal tourist resorts for wealthier Russians through the Soviet and post-Soviet period, never thought the Russian bombs and missiles would rain down upon the city’s historical centre that had been built by the Russians and for which Russia has shown such historical fondness. Nevertheless they were cruelly disappointed on 23 July 2023, when Russia launched a series of aerial raids on Odessa’s historical city centre, destroying or damaging many of the city’s historical buildings including infamously Odessa’s central cathedral, that my Odessa hotel is just a few steps from. As with many of these arbitrary Russian attacks, it isn’t clear why Russia chose to target Odessa’s culture and history.
Russia has withdrawn from an agreement not to hinder Ukrainian export of grain and other agricultural products from Odessa port, in a dispute over the scope of banking sanctions imposed against Russia. The result of this is that Odessa’s port facilities periodically come under attack, and the entire city centre region in proximity to the port (including the famous historical Potemkin stairs, leading down from the city centre to the water’s edge) is now a militarised zone. It is impossible to walk around that part of town, and videos and photography are not allowed, somewhat curtailing my tour of the city. Nevertheless that is a different thing entirely from striking Odessa’s beautiful and elaborate historical buildings. I can imagine no purpose in inflicting such wanton cultural damage, except perhaps to punish the people in some inchoate way for not being “loyal” to Russia.
The unspoken history of Odessa early in the Russian invasion of Ukraine is that in the early part of the war, Odessa was largely spared because the Russian security and intelligence services had infiltrated the governing structures in Odessa in anticipation of a successful Russian invasion of Mykolaïv to the west. Then the Russians proceeded with an unopposed advance towards Odessa followed by connecting a land bridge with the ostensibly pro-Russian breakaway region of Transnistria (also known as Pridnestrovia) directly to the west of Odessa. I have been banned from Pridnestrovia as a national security threat; if the authorities of Pridnestrovia are reading this, would they be so kind as to de-ban me so that we might continue a constructive dialogue. They might find diplomacy and dialogue more attractive than they once did, now they are so isolated. The Russian invasion of Mykolaïv did not succeed. The pro-Russian elements in the government of Odessa were expunged. Odessa’s governing structures became staunchly pro-Kyiv, as are the city’s people. So the Russians punished the people of Odessa, by destroying a number of historical buildings associated with pro-Kyiv politicians and inflicting grievous injury to Odesa’s beautiful history.
The damaged buildings are being rebuilt. The Russians have run out of accurate long-range missiles, by all accounts, so their gratuitous acts of wanton cultural vandalism have come to a halt as they focus upon more sundry daily military imperatives in Ukrainian theatre. The people of Odessa are defiant. They have lost their principal source of income, namely Russian tourist dollars. Nevertheless they are finding other ways to survive, such as giving tours to western aid workers taking short breaks from the front line. The city centre remains very beautiful, although many businesses are closed. However McDonald’s reopened a few weeks ago, apparently to much fanfare as a symbol of the renewed importance of western influence in this city once dominated by Russian culture but no more.
The people of Odessa remain sunny, radiant and optimistic. The city is a world away from Mykolaïv and Kherson, just down the road. Aside from the obvious signs of war damage, the city feels quite normal and people go about their business in an ordinary way. The once kicking nightlife is mostly decimated. The streets are eerily deserted after dark, as is the case in every Ukrainian city I have visited so far except Lviv which occupies a privileged position of its own, a long way from the fighting, in the far west of the country. The 24-hour nightclubs that once dominated the beach area of Odessa, just a few kilometres out of the centre, are shuttered. Last orders for drinks is typically 9pm: if anything even earlier than in Mykolaïv, which in theory has an earlier curfew but that for whatever reason is seemingly more comprehensively dishonoured.
I slept for 10 hours last night, and I feel entirely rejuvenated. After a few difficult days, in which I could feel the stress levels building in my body, I thoroughly relaxed yesterday and I was able to share a series of smiles, laughs and light conversations with a range of people I had never met before, enjoying a semblance of normality before I return to front line conditions. The educated, funny and lively people of Odessa will rise again, and their city’s cultural heart has not been crushed by the Russian aggression. I am sure I will return to Odessa again for a spot of rest and recuperation during my tour of duty in Ukraine.
Any views expressed herein are purely the private opinions of the author and should not be attributed to the Paladins Organisation or otherwise.