‘We Can Never Forgive This’: In Odesa, Attacks Stoke Hatred of Russia

Standing on a bridge overlooking the road to Odesa’s main port, Nina Sulzhenko surveyed the damage wrought by a recent Russian missile strike: The House of Scientists, one of the Ukrainian city’s best-loved buildings, was in shambles. The mansion’s destroyed gardens spilled down over a ruined residential complex, and burned bricks lay strewn across the sidewalk.

“I feel pain, and I want revenge,” said Ms. Sulzhenko, 74. “I don’t have the words to say what we should do to them.”

She gestured toward other buildings in various stages of ruin. “Look at the music school! Look at what they did! The fact that those who live next to us, and lived among us, could do this to us — we can never forgive this. Never.”

Hers was a common sentiment in Odesa this past week after a series of missile strikes damaged the city’s port and 29 historic buildings in its Belle-Èpoque city center, including the Transfiguration Cathedral, one of Ukraine’s largest.

Odesa plays an important role in the mind of imperial Russians, and especially President Vladimir V. Putin, who views it as an integral part of Russian culture. But if Mr. Putin believed that Odesans would feel a reciprocal bond, he could not have been more mistaken, residents and city officials interviewed this past week said. Especially after the recent spate of missile attacks.

Krystyna Syrota, 7, and her 75-year-old great-grandmother, Kilina, sheltering during an air raid in Odesa on Wednesday.

Pedestrians walk their dogs past anti-tank obstacles in a park in central Odesa.

“The Odesan people are tired,” the city’s mayor, Gennadiy Trukhanov, said. “People are tired of uncertainty, tired of anxious nights, of not falling asleep. But if the enemy is counting on this, he is wrong. Because this fatigue turns into the strongest hatred.”

The missile attacks — accompanied by hours of air raid alerts — have been part of the escalating hostilities in the Black Sea after Russia pulled out of a deal that had enabled millions of tons of food to be exported out of Ukraine’s ports.

Moscow’s attachment to Odesa owes to the Ukrainian city’s literary tradition. Prominent Russian-language authors wrote some of their most important works here. Aleksandr Pushkin, Russia’s beloved poet, spent 13 months in Odesa writing “Eugene Onegin,” his novel in verse, during a period of exile from Moscow. Many other writers Russia claims as its own spent crucial parts of their careers in the city.

But it is a connection that Odesans, many of whom still speak Russian, increasingly reject — something that Mr. Trukhanov said has not been lost on Mr. Putin.

“We still don’t know if the missiles landing into the city are old and inaccurate,” he said. “But if this was a targeted attack on the church, then one thing is clear: Finally, in the second year of this war, Putin understands that this is not a Russian city and that not only is no one waiting to welcome his soldiers there, but that they hate him.”

Dancing at a concert by Serhiy Zhadan, one of Ukraine’s best-loved contemporary poets and writers, in Odesa’s central park.
Freight cranes at the Port of Odesa at dusk.

His outrage was echoed by many of his colleagues and constituents.

“I am even trying not to speak the Russian language,” said Marat Kasimov, 60, the city’s deputy head of city planning and architectural preservation, as he looked at the wasteland next to the House of Scientists, which was originally built by Russian aristocratic relatives of the writer Leo Tolstoy.

In other parts of Ukraine, people are increasingly speaking Ukrainian instead of Russian, a relatively recent development for Odesa.

Though Odesa had been largely spared the barrage of attacks that ravaged other cities, the war now feels very close. Many residents seek shelter when the air-raid sirens blare. Tourism, the lifeblood of the regional economy along with its important ports, has contracted.

Derybasivska Street, a central thoroughfare previously crowded with visitors, feels surreally empty. The smaller streets, where grapevines poke out from old houses, do, too. The hedonistic beach clubs in the coastal Arkadia district are sparsely attended.

And there are no ships visible in the waters as far as the eye can see.

Among the buildings struck by Russian missiles this past week was the Transfiguration Cathedral, Odesa’s largest church.
Workers clearing debris from the heavily damaged House of Scientists in Odesa after it was struck by Russian missiles.

It used to be difficult to secure a table at Dacha, a chic restaurant on the city’s coast-hugging Frantsuzkyi Street, or French Boulevard. But with an exodus of Odesans from the city after last year’s full-scale invasion, and with another wave of departures since the missile strikes, the clientele has halved, said the owner, Savva Libkin.

On a recent breezy summer evening, less than one-third of the tables were occupied. The menu no longer includes fish from the Black Sea waters, the staple of the region’s Jewish-infused cuisine. Mussels are also off the menu because of the environmental damage wrought by the explosion of the Kakhovka Dam. And with the regular air-raid alarms, many Odesans have been staying home.

“There is no one who is not scared,” said Mr. Libkin. “But there is no Odesan who does not drink to Putin’s death. Every day in this country begins with a toast to Putin’s death.”

Mr. Libkin said that much of his staff had joined the army, but he wants to keep his restaurant open to maintain the pleasure-seeking character of the city. Each morning, his chefs prepare food for the soldiers trying to defend the skies over Odesa.

“For now we will continue to work, but no one knows what will happen tomorrow,” he said.

Despite the anxiety, Odesans are trying to find ways to forget the war. Four mines washed up on shore Wednesday morning, but there were still sun bathers on the beach in the afternoon.

Oleksandr Klochay, a Ukrainian soldier from the Kyiv region, playing with his 5-year-old son on the beach.
Passengers arriving at Odesa’s main train station on Thursday.

Among them were Illia Matiushchak, 24, and his fiancée, Khrystyna Kukhar, 22.

Mr. Matiushchak, lounging next to his pea-green army backpack, was on a 10-day break from the front, his first in six months.

“I’m so happy to see Illia, I can’t put it into words,” said Ms. Kukhar.

The couple, from western Ukraine, was nervous about coming to Odesa in the wake of the strikes. “It would be stupid to die here, and not on the front,” Mr. Matiushchak said.

It was their first time visiting Odesa together, and the soldier found some parts of his visit unnerving: the prevalence of people speaking Russian, and the streets and locations named for figures linked to the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. It was “triggering,” he said as party music blared in the background.

That dynamic may soon change; a law banning place names that glorify Russian historical and political figures went into effect on Thursday.

Not everyone is rejecting ties to Russia. Older Odesans, especially, still appreciate some of the Russian-language culture shunned in other parts of Ukraine. On Tuesday, about 30 Odesans gathered for a celebration of Vladimir Vysotsky, a Moscow-born singer-songwriter, on the anniversary of his death.

While some Ukrainians might chafe at such an event, those in attendance said they did not want to completely disavow cultural touchstones because of Russian connections.

A celebration of the Soviet singer Vladimir Vysotsky, a Moscow-born singer-songwriter, on the anniversary of his death.
Clearing up debris inside the Odesa Transfiguration Cathedral.

In all situations, times change, regimes change,” said Stepan Matsiyuk, 75, a craftsman who attended. “But what right do those who take over as the new authorities have to destroy what they did not create?I honor Pushkin. I think he’s the greatest person. He loved Odesa.And it’s none of your business to interfere with history.”

As much as he wanted to honor his literary heroes, though, he said he was disgusted at the way the Russian state news media spoke about the city’s history. Odesa was officially founded by Catherine the Great in 1794, but on top of a pre-existing settlement that the occupying empire chose not to acknowledge in its history.

“You did not create it. What right do you have to ruin all this? None.”

On Wednesday, there were three air-raid alerts during the day, some lasting more than an hour. One delayed a concert by Serhiy Zhadan, one of Ukraine’s best-loved contemporary poets and writers, and also a musician, in the city’s central park.

Hundreds of people waited more than 90 minutes for the all-clear signal before the rock concert, which doubled as a fund-raiser for the Ukrainian Army.

“We waited in the bomb shelters, but we will not hide,” said Katia Dubyshkyna, 26, an interior designer. “They want us to be scared, but they cannot take away our lives, nor our love for life.”

The city’s residents are wrestling with their relation to Soviet-era landmarks, including the Monument to the Unknown Sailor.

Dzvinka Pinchuk contributed reporting.

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