'We Would Die Under Moscow.' Odesa Unites To Resist Putin's Invasion

ODESA, Ukraine — The most prominent poet in the Russian language, Boris Khersonsky, has no basement in his house. So when the air-raid siren signals go off — and they do a dozen times per day — he and his wife hide in the room farthest from the street. For added protection, they’ve lined the windows with the books they’ve written.

Khersonsky could have fled the city — he’s been offered refuge in cultural institutions all over Europe — but he explains he has made a “Solomon like judgment that I am not leaving yet.”

“The phrase ‘I am not leaving yet’ was common when the Jews here in Odesa were considering if it was the time for them to flee,” Khersonsky tells me. “It’s never an easy decision. We want to stay as long as possible. We believe in victory, but it would be impossible for us to live under the occupation. There is a classical Russian poem by Lermontov saying “We would die under Moscow.” It means ‘being buried fighting for the city.’  I am already intoxicated by freedom, I won’t succumb, and I didn’t do so even in the USSR.”

In Soviet times, Khersonsky was one of the most important figures of samizdat poetry in Odesa. I ask him, as a Ukrainian Russian-speaking Jew, to react to Putin’s justification of the invasion — the ‘denazification’ of Ukraine — a country currently run by a Jewish president whose grandfather fought the Nazis in World War II.

Khersonsky explains that the Kremlin has spread a very specific type of Soviet lie: “The liars, not only know that they are lying, but also know their listeners know they are lied to. This insane lie is not aimed to make people believe, the aim is to project power, to show they are able to do so.”

Khersonsky says that “Russia was misusing the reference to the Soviet fight against Nazism to meddle in local politics to such an extent it became grotesque, so people didn’t take it seriously. The Russian bombs on Odesa evoked the myths of WW II, yet this time it is real and Moscow is on the side of occupier.”

Boris Khersonsky

Nataliya Gumenyuk

In some ways, Putin has already lost the war. He wanted to destroy Ukraine; he united a nation instead. Blue-and-yellow flags are painted on almost every building in Odesa, Ukraine’s flamboyant southern beach town. Odesa is still considered one of Europe’s Jewish capitals. Before World War II, 350,000 Jews lived here. Many emigrated during the 20th century, the latest wave during the fall of the USSR, when people were allowed to emigrate. Today, there are no more than 13,000 Jews in Odesa.

The port city, with almost a million inhabitants, is known for its humor, food, and multiculturalism: Ukrainians, Russians, Greeks, Bulgarians, Armenians call it home. Today, all are unified by shock and anger that another country would use force to deprive them of their freedom. Many here tell me that they could not believe “that in our time, bombs will fall on our cities.” Now the bustling, often politically divided, population has been galvanized to mount a defense. I spent three days in Odessa this past week, and there is a collective sense of purpose, born out of tears and grief, that no one here has felt since World War II.

That Putin would use Nazis as an excuse is particularly galling. The tragic irony is that the barricades now in front of the famous Odesa Opera are in the exact positions as they were in a photo of 1941, when the city was defending itself from Germany.

“It’s devastating and paradoxical that the Ukrainian museum needed to evacuate drawings of the Russian artists from Russian occupiers. The last time the collection was evacuated from the museum was 1941,” Cyrill Lipatov, the head of the research department of the Odesa Fine Art Museum, tells me while he and his team frantically pack away canvases from the “red list.” The museum has more than 10,000 works, among them many by Ivan Aivazovsky, and early paintings by Wassyli Kandinsky, but also many by Russian artists of the 19th and 20th centuries. Now the Potocki Palace, where the museum is based, has been shut down, and boarded up to protect it from possible looters.

The attack on Odesa is expected from the Black Sea; the Russian navy is already navigating the waters near the city’s shores. “This beautiful mansion of the early 19th century would be on fire within 30 minutes,” Lipatov tells me. “We managed to move the most-valuable pieces, and we are speaking about hundreds. Now, despite everything, our team is trying to preserve the rest.”

He used to have a lot of friends and colleagues whom he corresponded with in Russia. After the occupation of Crimea in 2014, all those decades-long cultural ties were broken. He claims he does not care what they think in Russia, but if not surprised, he is clearly irritated by the indifference of the Russian art-museum community in not speaking out against the war.

Vasilis Boubouras, 38, comes from the family of one the oldest and one of the most successful Odesa developers. He is Greek, but for the past few decades has resided in Odesa. His fancy office, now empty, is situated near Filiki Etairia — the site where in 1814 a secret organization was created to overthrow the Ottoman rule of Greece and establish an independent Greek state.

On Feb. 24, when the full-scale war started, Boubouras sent his wife and kids out of town, but remained to protect it. His construction company helps the city to build checkpoints and necessary military objects, and also provides financial help to fight the war. Usually press-shy, he appears as much as possible in Greek media, as he says he’s very concerned about Kremlin influences on the press in his native country.

“They spread propaganda about Ukrainians being nationalists,” he tells me. “I personally oppose the far right, but I should explain that they never won the elections here, contrary to Greece. Before 2014, we built a lot in Crimea, and even in Moscow. We lost everything, and it was more than a few million dollars. Now I see destruction in other towns. We build buildings. I know the price. If I would speak just as a business, I should say let’s accept peace under every condition. But there are things bigger than that. It’s not the business. It’s my country. I feel free here.” Boubouras says he regrets that in 2014 Ukraine was not capable of defending itself, and is proud that now Ukraine’s army is fighting back.

Two hundred men and women gather in a modern shooting range on the outskirts of the city for target practice. Since the start of the war, the co-owner, Rostislav Diakin, welcomes everybody on a daily basis. “We are not creating a military unit, but people should know how to handle guns in case they need to protect themselves and our country,” Diakin says. The Ukrainian gun laws had always been very strict. Handguns are illegal, but now in various regions policies are relaxing, allowing people to use weapons to fight in the war. Most of the people coming to the range had never used a gun.

Nataliya Gumenyuk

Classes start with the singing of the Ukrainian anthem. It’s very cold but many take off their hats as if in a church. The students are a broad swath of Ukrainian society: sailors, construction workers, expeditors, driving instructors, IT specialists, foreign-affairs students.

It doesn’t feel appropriate to ask why they are here, and when I do, a worker who just returned from Slovakia answers, “How dare you ask me why? Isn’t it obvious for you? My country is about to be occupied.”

Diakin says that so far there is not much fighting in the city, and their Territorial Defense force is packed with volunteers. But for many, coming to the range to shoot is as much a way to combat stress and shock as it is to prepare for the inevitable.

“We love you! You’re so gorgeous. Me and my girlfriends do not miss any of your appearances on TV. Thank you for defending the country,” an elderly lady walking her dog says to Serhii Bratchuk, the spokesman for the Operational Headquarters of the Odesa Regional Military Administration, while I interview him in front of the City Council.

Bratchuk, a former military journalist who fought in the Donbas, heads a patriotic civic council of “National Resistance,” which for a while was in opposition to the mayor of Odessa, Gennadiy Trukhanov. Prior to 2014, Trukhanov represented so-called pro-Russian forces, but claims he’s changed his position. Now, Bratchuk and Trukhanov work together.

“Feb. 24 became a point of no return for Odesa’s attitude towards Russia,” Bratchuck tells me. “At least here in town, the generation of our parents was more nostalgic for the USSR. Ukraine didn’t mean much for them. And by the way, in Odesa [ that difference of opinions within families] was always tolerated, but we preferred not to discuss it in the kitchen. Just today, my closest friend said that his father-in-law, who was extremely critical of Ukraine, drove him to work and said that he is ready to kneel in front of the Ukrainian people for their courage and defense.”

The Russian navy’s proximity keeps the Ukrainian forces in Odesa on high alert. The sirens ring a throughout the day, yet the military claims that the air defense in Odesa has worked well so far, and that the Ukrainian navy is prepared for the assault. Yet almost three weeks of war has shown that in other Ukrainian towns, sooner or later the Russians bombard civilian areas and innocent people die.

“There are a lot of 15-year-olds willing to join the defense. We do not accept them,” says Bratchuk  “But there was one 73-year-old man who came. I thought it was discouraging to send him back, so I suggested he go to the National Resistance, an organization which has joined with the Territorial Defense — to help make molotov cocktails.”

Before the war, Odessa was known for its vineyards. Now, the picturesque locale has more Ukranians making molotov cocktails than corking bottles of wine. I met Vitali, the 73-year old Bratchuk had told me about. Now a retired electrician, he walks with the help of a cane, but is determined to help the effort by fashioning petrol bombs .“You may see I am with the stick,” he tells me. “I am not that mobile, but I am not useless. I can follow the orders.” Vitalii receives orders from Maryna, a manager of a supermarket. It’s also not her first time being under fire from the Russian army.

“I left Grozny in 1994 when the war in Chechnya started. I fled the Russian shelling,” she tells me. “I moved to the eastern Ukrainian town of Luhansk, and Russia again forced me to flee. Being in my fifties, I was like a student. I had to buy everything again — forks and knives. Now I won’t flee. I am not afraid.”

Near  a huge “I Love Odessa” sign, I meet a few guys from the local transgender community. Andrii is 22. He complained that he was not accepted to the Territorial Defense, but kept on trying. He managed to help one of the night patrols with the police in his neighborhood. “I didn’t like the police, but now we are all together,” Andrii tells me.“The local security service was never unfriendly to trans and LGBTQ people. I am an IT specialist, so I answered the call of the so-called IT army. Now I understand that I cooperate with the security service. It’s weird. I am not a patriot, I do not even love Odessa, but it’s my duty to defend the place I live. Russia is a totalitarian state. We do not want to have them here. I won’t forgive myself if I do nothing.”

Andrii’s friend Svetlana has a different dilemma. She has undergone transgender therapy, but didn’t manage to change her documents, so according to her papers she’s listed as male. It’s disturbing, as she needs to show documents and explain her situation at every checkpoint, which are at all the major junctions in the city. She’s worried she will be viewed as suspicious. What if she is taken for a saboteur?

Due to martial law, men are not allowed to leave the country. So far, up to 2.6 million Ukrainians have sought refuge abroad, but this is not something Svetlana wants. “I do not see any sense in immigrating at the moment,” she tells me. “It’s my country, which needs help. NATO turned out to be cowards. But we — and we are not the most militaristic people — are now proud of our army”

Nataliya Gumenyuk

Six hundred handwritten hearts adorn 600 lunch boxes, which are sent to the local soldiers defending the city. That’s how many portions Yourz Space Bistro — one of the hippest restaurants in Odesa — cooks daily.

“Vile, cruel,” that’s how Oleksander Yourz describes the Russian attack. He used to be a DJ, then a graffiti artist, but for the past few years has run a trendy restaurant with the aim to make modern Ukrainian cuisine on a global level. A Ukrainian, he has also experimented with local Odesa cuisine, cooking a lot of Jewish classics.

Oleksander may endlessly list the awards he’s won, and speak of cooperation with famous global chefs, but today, the cooperation he values the most is with the World Central Kitchen — global chefs who support restaurants providing support for people in conflict.

Oleksandr got married last autumn, and now raises a three-month-old boy. He could afford to flee, but “for 10 years I built this business in my country,” he tells me. “Why should I go? I am not alone in this. People here are my regular employees, but also there are some competitors who came to support. One of the men who helps to deliver the lunches is the guy from this building. Initially he was opposed to the opening of the restaurant. We used to fight. Now everybody is together.”

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