How War Made Odessa More Ukrainian

  • Themes: Ukraine, War

War challenges all assumptions, and nowhere is this clearer in Ukraine’s historic – and strategically placed – Black Sea port. Its citizens have – mostly – turned their back on Russia, but their city’s place in a new Ukraine is still taking shape.

Square de Richelieu, Odessa, Ukraine.
Square de Richelieu, Odessa, Ukraine. Credit: Fabrizio Troiani / Alamy Stock Photo

Odessa’s front room on to the Black Sea, the Primorsky Boulevard, is sealed off. Through acacias and chestnut trees we glimpsed a tower of sandbags that form an extra massive cloak over the statue of the toga-clad Duke of Richelieu, the city’s first governor. A soldier gestured curtly to the visiting foreigners to put away their camera phones. The big grand seaward panorama, divided by the Potemkin Steps that flow down to the sea, is for the military spotters and planners now, not the tourists.

Odessa is still on a war footing, even if the fighting is now 150km to the east and the Russians are pushed back. Martial law is in force. The city still suffers occasional air strikes from Russian cruise missiles and Iranian-made drones. On May 8 a missile killed a security guard and burned a nearby warehouse and all the humanitarian aid supplies inside. The attacks frighten the population, especially children, but ‘it’s impossible to take Odessa now’, said local analyst Hanna Shelest. The city is well defended: Ukraine fortified the beaches, recaptured Snake Island in the Black Sea, and sank the major threat to the city, Russia’s prize battleship, the Moskva.

Odessa is a changing case study in the identity and regional politics of Ukraine. Founded in 1794 as a centre of commerce, it always prided itself on not being defined by any single nationality. It had the biggest Jewish population in the Russian Empire, it was run by Frenchmen and made wealthy by Greeks and Italians. A local identity always trumped a national one.

War with Russia has given its self-image a big jolt. I have been visiting since 1994 when, like many others with Jewish roots in the city, I first came to investigate my family story here. This trip, with a group of IWM Vienna experts from across Europe, was my seventh or eighth visit; but for the first time it felt as though I was coming to a properly Ukrainian city.

Sociologist Tetiana Kryvosheia quoted a line to me that begins in Russian and ends in Ukrainian: ‘Мы легли спать 23-ого февраля и ми прокинулись 24 лютого.’ Meaning, in essence, people in Odessa went to sleep in their habitual Russian language on February 23, 2022, the eve of the invasion, and woke up the next morning in a country at war speaking Ukrainian.

The shift in attitudes occurred, as Ernest Hemingway put it, ‘gradually then suddenly’. Like much of southern and eastern Ukraine, Odessa spent the first two decades after independence in 1991 either not voting much in elections at all or voting for more Russian-leaning politicians, such as Leonid Kuchma or Viktor Yanukovich. The Maidan uprising in Kyiv in 2014 stirred the younger generation in particular. A horrific fire in Trade Unions House in Odessa on May 2, 2014, when more than 40 anti-Maidan protestors burned to death, forced people in a normally apolitical city to make political choices.

War in 2022 made the choices even more personal. Volunteers from all professions went to fight. The Opera House announced the death in April of one of its most talented dancers, Rostyslav Yanchyshen, who had been fighting in the east. Krivosheya lost a friend in a missile attack on a suburb of the city and she said she had to sever relations with family members in Russia, who were in denial about Putin’s war. And it was painful to conduct focus groups, especially with people who had fled from places such as Bucha and experienced Russian army atrocities at first hand. ‘I told my researchers, that when we get to Question 2 [a question about people’s personal experience of the war] we will all cry and that is OK,’ she said.

In March 2022 a poll she and colleagues conducted in the city revealed unprecedented levels of identification with the Ukrainian state against Russia and 93 per cent support for President Volodymyr Zelensky. At the same time, 85 per cent of respondents said they supported the city’s larger-than-life mayor, Gennady Trukhanov. His own shift was indicative. Elected in 2014, Trukhanov had opposed the Maidan and maintained links with Moscow. A criminal investigation into his business activities began in 2019. But his politics morphed such that in an analytical paper from 2021 sociologists called the mayor a ‘“cornerstone” that maintains the balance of moods in the city’, who derived support from across the political spectrum. In 2022 the mayor made a firm public stand and led the city’s preparations for defence against a Russian invasion.

‘Trukhanov is a very Odesa type of person,’ Hanna Shelest, local analyst and editor of the journal Ukraine Analytica wrote to me. ‘He talks about the glory of World War II, but using more … Soviet-nostalgia sentiments, not pro-Kremlin ones. He doesn’t want to be under Russian occupation – his businesses and political influence would be ruined, but also because he doesn’t want “Donbas” in “Odesa”.’

It has always been about business here. In the nineteenth century, shocked conservatives noted how the main temples of the city were the opera house and the stock exchange, with the cathedral much less prominent. Pious Jews tut-tutted that their kin in the city were making too much money to bother with the synagogue and said in Yiddish that ‘the fires of hell burn seven miles around Odessa’.

Early-nineteenth century Odessa was a tariff-free zone, a porto franco. It made most of its money exporting grain from the black-earth fields of Ukraine to the north, transported bumpily to the city by ox-cart and then shipped to the world via the Black Sea. Nowhere else in the Russian empire would the bourse (now the city hall) have been given such a prominent spot, at one end of the Boulevard, and handed over to dozens of European traders. In the niche on the left side of the façade stands a statue of Ceres, goddess of the harvest and grain, holding a sickle; on the right is Mercury, god of trade and trickery, holding a bag of money and a winged staff. Only about 100 metres away, my ancestors, the Ephrussis, set up house and became fabulously rich as bankers of the grain trade. Once the merchants who had originated in the Ukrainian shtetl arrived in Paris and splashed their money around, they were nicknamed the rois du blé — the wheat kings.

Once you look, the traces of the grain trade are all about you. Two cats sit on a bench in a courtyard in a black-paved courtyard. Nothing so strange about that, except the reason Odessa is still a cat-crazy city is because merchants used to keep felines to chase away mice and rats from their grain stores. And the paving is black – and shiny in the rain on the day we came – because it is made of lava; Odessa ships transported ‘black wheat’ to southern Italy, where it was used to make pasta, and came back with lava from Mount Etna to pave the streets and courtyards of the young city.

‘When grain is in demand, things go well,’ said the Duke of Richelieu, who ran the city with a liberal hand from 1803 to 1814. The grain trade was and is both highly lucrative and extremely volatile. In the early 1850s, on the eve of the Crimean War, Odessa despatched grain from southern Ukraine to most of Europe, supplying England with more than half of its imports. When war broke out, the Russian authorities sabotaged their own trade by halting exports – an act of self-harm reminiscent of the Putin administration’s export bans in 2022. Trade rebounded once the war was over, then there was another slump in the 1870s, due to a series of poor harvests, and as the United States began to catch up, having invented the grain elevator. Firms went bust and 400 of Odessa’s 2,000 restaurants closed their doors. Amid this slump, and after a brutal pogrom, in the city my Jewish ancestors sold their bank in 1881 and relocated to Paris and Vienna.

The many boarded-up shops and closed night clubs in the city now are the signs of another war-induced slump, even if it is more lively now than it was a year ago. For five months at the start of the war, Odessa, Ukraine’s biggest port, was effectively blockaded and there was no sea traffic in and out at all. Grain piled up in silos with no access to market. Then, last summer, the United Nations and Turkey brokered the Black Sea Grain Initiative, which allowed Ukraine to export grain in return for Russia being allowed to do the same. The deal is constantly under threat. Russia is unhappy that a provision that should allow the export of ammonia has not been allowed to start. The Ukrainians are frustrated by a backlog of ships in the Bosphorus – 60 of them when I spoke to the United Nations representative in Istanbul. Every ship has to be cleared to progress by inspectors from four sides – Turkey, the UN, Russia, and Ukraine – and the Russians slow things down.

Businessman Viktor Berestenko, the head of a transport and logistics company, received us in big airy offices that overlooked the Black Sea on one side and the Odessa football stadium on the other. War had turned a comfortable life upside down and made him part of the war economy. Early in the conflict he told us, he had half-jokingly promised to donate his Ferrari to anyone who sank the Russian battleship Moskva, hated in Odessa for being the base for the missiles that hit the city. When a Ukrainian naval battalion actually pulled off the feat and the Moskva went down, he gladly gave them the luxury car as a trophy. Berestenko had moved his family to the United States when the war began and managed to keep his firm alive. With the port closed, the expense of transportation by land meant many other firms went bankrupt.

Berestenko was frustrated that business as usual has resumed on one front: corruption. He had recently gone public with his complaints that officials were still demanding bribes at three points in the supply chain: at customs, in the phytosanitary inspection and when cargoes are loaded on to ships. His international clients were understanding, but it was not their problem: ‘How can I ask international clients to help us, when people in state services are asking for bribes?’

For as long as anyone can remember, the regional economy of Odessa has been a dark fusion of business and politics. At its apex of the money pyramid was the mayor, Gennady Trukhanov (who was too busy to see our group). Thai-boxing champion, former soldier, big businessman indicted on various charges, Trukhanov was a Ukrainian regional politician of a certain type. The Panama Papers found documents registering his place of residence as Sergiev Posad, a town outside Moscow, and it was presumed he had a Russian passport, in defiance of Ukrainian legislation. Yet, as noted above, despite his shady biography, Trukhanov won high marks in the city and approval in Kyiv for taking a strong stance against the Russian invasion. Moscow’s miscalculation was not understanding that people like Trukhanov may have wanted to do business with Russia, but the last thing they wanted was to be taken over by them.

But the mayor’s honeymoon with Kyiv ended eventually. On May 4, shortly after we left the city, came the news that Trukhanov had been arrested on charges of embezzlement dating back to 2019. He denies wrongdoing. Writer and journalist Vladislav Davidzon explained, ‘He was being tolerated by the generals who run the city and region with a very light touch, but they privately detest him.’ In a time of martial law power has shifted to the centre and to the generals, and in retrospect it seems they were waiting for the right moment to make a move against the mayor. It is not just a shock in Odessa but the harbinger of more domestic political fights in Ukraine ahead of elections in 2024.

Odessa’s very specific self-image is a flashing crystal with many surfaces, by turns cosmopolitan, European, Jewish, provincial, commercial, criminal. Humour is now an integral part of it. That is mostly a Soviet legacy, from a time when the city had lost its hard mercantile edge and started to invest in culture and nostalgia. A city in decline kept its self-respect by sending everyone else up. Humorous kvetching about the absurdities of Soviet life found its most perfect expression through the Odessa-Jewish comedian, Mikhail Zhvanetsky, the ‘perestroika-period Seinfeld’. He also had perfect pitch in the Odessa version of the Russian language, a dialect still imbued with a certain Jewish intonation, Yiddishisms, and Ukrainian words, too.

‘We speak Odessa language,’ announced a sign in English on a closed clothes shop in the city centre. Jokes were plastered across the shop window in three languages. One sign, in Ukrainian, regretfully informed customers that the shop was closed but told them they would get a 70 per cent discount ‘when the pots dies’ (in local dialect the word, I was told, approximates to ‘arsehole,’ and seemed to refer to the Russian president). A notice in Russian joked, ‘We have no WiFi but will sell you our neighbour’s password,’ while another merely said that people without a sense of humour would be refused admission.

Note the shop’s English spelling of the name, Odessa, with two esses, as I’ve written it here. It’s another wartime challenge. Nowadays most foreigners write the Ukrainian spelling of  Odesa with one ess (the Ukrainian language does not do double consonants). Should I do the same? The switch to writing the name of the Ukrainian capital as Kyiv makes perfect sense to me, but my inclination is to stick with Odessa, as that is how foreigners have written the name since the eighteenth century.

Vladislav Davidzon, former editor of the Odessa Review, gave me his view. Vlad’s Ukrainian patriotic credentials are unimpeachable. He has reported non-stop on the war since it began and lived in Ukraine for many years previously. When war broke out he burned his Russian passport publicly in front of the Russian embassy in Paris.

Vlad was clear that the whole issue has been ‘blown out of proportion, even as the emotions that people feel about this question are completely understandable.’ Calling the city Odesa in English is ‘etymologically incorrect’, as its name derives from the nearby Ancient Greek settlement of Odessos on the Black Sea coast. The name Odessa had the same standing in English as Warsaw or Venice, and there was no reason to change it. In French the pronunciation was simply incorrect. ‘This is not about the Russian spelling, this is about the Greeks.’

War challenges all assumptions. I had always enjoyed the idea that Odessa was one of those cities, like New York or Venice, that had earned a right to its own nationality. On one of my trips I bought a souvenir burgundy fake ID document that made me a ‘citizen of Odessa’. But in wartime that joke now felt out of place.

‘We all know who is who in Odessa,’ Kryvosheia told me, and she clearly meant that in a negative way. ‘There are people who love to say “I am a citizen of the world”, by which they meant that their orientation is pro-Russian or they were not very bothered by these issues. More recently, young people began saying “I am a citizen of Ukraine.” So self-identification is changing.’

Cultural journalist and tour guide Olga Potekhina took us on a tour through the changing landscape of the city. She sang us a song in Ukrainian and showed us buildings associated with Russian-language writers. Many like her are asserting a strong Ukrainian civic identity, while still celebrating the Russian-language writers and artists of the city.

We stopped outside an empty plinth bearing a Ukrainian flag in the square just behind the Boulevard. A statue of Catherine the Great, who ordered the construction of the city in the eighteenth century, stood here before it was taken down in December 2022 – for the second time.

Potekhina, a fierce defender of most of Odessa’s cultural artefacts, said she had no regrets about losing this one. The statue of Catherine was first erected, she told us, in the late imperial era, in 1900, and was then dismantled by the Bolsheviks in 1920. In Soviet times a statue of Karl Marx blew down, and one to the sailors of the battleship Potemkin was unloved and removed as soon as the USSR fell apart. The decision to put Catherine the Great back was made in 2007 by pro-Russian local politicians, and they did so with a replica monument that had been altered for political purposes. For example, the new empress was no longer trampling a Turkish flag under her feet, as she had done before: Turkey was now a favoured business partner across the Black Sea. The new monument was a replica and a political statement, and would not be missed, Potekhina said. Which means that this little square may now have set a world record for shedding public statuary, having lost four monuments in just over 100 years.

Now that the feisty mayor has gone, we were told that a culture war may now be looming in Odessa. Some want to remove nineteenth-century monuments, even including the statue of Alexander Pushkin on the Boulevard. That seems unlikely. Potekhina told us it was a popular monument of ‘a poet who lived among us in exile’, not a ruler like Catherine. Besides, the centre of the city is now a protected UNESCO world heritage site. More likely is that there will be a mass renaming of streets, with many Russian-associated one acquiring Ukrainian names.

The city is no stranger to identity shifts: up until the mid-nineteenth century most of its street names were actually in Italian. But the arrest of the mayor shows that the politics of centre vs periphery are making a comeback in Ukraine, even in time of war. How Kyiv manages Odessa, a loyal but highly idiosyncratic Ukrainian city, will be a test of that. It has certainly rejected Russia, but its place in the new Ukraine is still being negotiated.


Thomas de Waal