ODESA, Ukraine—Russia has been bombarding the seaside city of Odesa since the earliest days of its war in Ukraine—but the critical grain port has become a symbol of ongoing local resistance, where even former pro-Russian stalwarts are now embracing Ukrainian patriotism.
“The longer the war goes on, fewer people sympathize with Russia in Ukraine. Those who spoke Russian in everyday life, switch to Ukrainian,” a long-time observer of Ukraine’s politics, Yevgeny Kisilyev, told The Daily Beast on Tuesday. “Even the most openly pro-Russian politicians, including Odesa’s mayor … have turned into passionate enemies of [Russian president Vladimir] Putin’s regime.”
Odesa, with its huge grain storage and shipping resources, is a much-desired target for Moscow. Russian missiles have been destroying the city since the first days of the war. In March and April, missiles killed dozens of civilians, including a three-month-old baby girl, Kira Glodan, her mother, and her grandmother.
The tragedy angered Odesa but the massacre did not stop. On July 1, one of the missiles hit an apartment block in Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi, killing 19 people. Weeks later, on July 20, “Russia fired eight missiles that cost millions of dollars, which our forces brought down along with a Russian drone,” Natalya Humeniuk, spokeswoman of the South Defense forces, told The Daily Beast in an interview last week.
The relentless attacks from Russia have hardened local sentiments against Putin. “During the first week of the war, Odesa’s mayor, Gennady Trukhanov—who many believed had a Russian passport—said nothing against Moscow,” local activist Julia Grodetskaya told The Daily Beast. “So concerned citizens consolidated, and patriotic volunteers worked hard on the city’s defence. Their actions, and constant Russian violence, changed the leadership and made local authorities more patriotic,” she said, adding that now, “all former pro-Russian Odesans are ready to defend our city.”
This is not how Moscow had planned it. On the eve of the war, one of the Kremlin’s ideologists, Sergei Markov, told The Daily Beast that Russian forces would take Odesa easily. “There will be a quick Marine landing supported by a pro-Russian underground,” Markov predicted of the development of the war on the Black Sea.
Instead, Odesa became a symbol of resistance—and that pro-Russian underground melted away. As thousands of displaced people from neighboring Mykolaiv and Russian-occupied Kherson have flocked to the city, locals hung huge, patriotic banners with warning messages for potential saboteurs and spies. One of them showed a Ukrainian cutting a spy’s throat: “Get ready, we know all your routes.” More banners in the district of Pushkinska and Bunin streets said, “If somebody touches Mama Odesa, Mama will bury them.”
Odesa also made the decision to get rid of all the street names of the “aggressor country”—although it declined a petition, signed by 25,000 people, calling on Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky to demolish local monuments to Catherine the Great and Russian poet Alexander Pushkin . The city said it was not the right time to discuss the pre-revolutionary monuments. Nevertheless, the city’s mayor, Trukhanov, said it was cynical of Moscow to describe Ukraine as “brother people” but destroy it with missiles. “Odesa has had losses in this war and we don’t want to have anything to do with a state that is trying to eliminate our city, our country from the face of the Earth,” the mayor said in a public statement last month.
Now, even as Russia continues to bombard Odesa, there are signs of vibrant life everywhere. In the harbor, yachts rock gently in the late-afternoon sun—although they’re all staying at the docks this season, because the Russians have planted mines in the surrounding waters. Still, the Yacht Club marina is bustling: on a recent Friday, musicians from the local opera and philharmonic theater performed a concert of Ukrainian songs for an audience of famous artists, writers, and accomplished businessmen, who in the early days of the war founded two powerful volunteer movements—called On the Wave, and Sandbox—to save their gorgeous, graceful city. They surrounded cultural monuments with sandbags, distributed armored vests, and welded tank barriers.
Ukraine is preparing to ship 16 vessels full of grain to the Turkish port of Izmir ending a long economic drought for the city. Odessens were watching the smooth and bare Black Sea on Sunday. The first vessel with grain is scheduled to leave on Monday but many fear Russia might strike at the ships in spite of Moscow’s agreements with Turkey. “Our favorite sea is like a battle field,” Dmitro Botskevsky, a retired skipper, told The Daily Beast. “Our military drone attacked the Russian fleet’s headquarters today in Sevastopol, there are concerns about the safety of the passage for the grain, of course.”
Local defense volunteers—led by the Yacht Club’s director, Albert Kobakov—grew more numerous as the war dragged on. Hundreds of activists joined. “When the war began, I came here to show that I am not going to surrender,” said local activist Maya Dimereli. She and Grodetskaya said that the biggest concern in the first week of the war was that the city authorities would betray Odesa and hand it over to Russia.
Instead, Odesa’s businessmen felt committed to helping their city. From the owner of a perfume store, Dmitry Malyutin, to the founder of a tourist company, historian Aleksandr Babich, the city’s elite opened their doors and supported the volunteers. “If not for our society, I am not sure how long our resistance would have lasted. Their self-organization is fascinating and time plays against Putin—he is bombing Mykolaiv violently but Odesa is his problem,” Sevgil Musaieva, editor-in-chief of Ukrainskaya Pravda, Ukraine’s legendary newspaper, told The Daily Beast. “Politically we are winning the war—the entire world is supporting Ukraine.”
Thousands of volunteers also signed up to be soldiers in the territorial defense units, since Odesa was keenly aware of the threat of a potential ambush by Russian forces from Transnistria on one side, and the advancing Russian army on the other. Captain Humeniuk, an officer of Ukraine’s State Border Guard Service and the voice of the administration of the defense forces in the southern region of Ukraine, told The Daily Beast that the city needed enough volunteers to fill one brigade—and instead got enough to fill three .
So for the time being, Odesa lives in a state of wary hope. The chief commander of operations in the south, Maj-Gen Andriy Kovalchuk, has served in peacekeeping missions in Liberia and former Yugoslavia. Now Kovalchuk and other military authorities guard the city with care, explaining to its people why beaches have been mined and closed, and giving updates on the war twice a day. The city’s restaurants and café verandas are crowded, and although air-raid sirens howl several times a day, on any given day, a visitor can hear a band singing Ukrainian songs on the central Deribasovskaya Avenue, and jazz music playing in the garden of the Tolstoy family’s house.
“We are going to win this battle, like we did World War II”, vows a Russian-speaking theater director named Anna, whose Jewish family went through the Nazi invasion. Before this war, she liked to say she had a “Russian soul.” But now she says: “Odesa, the first Hero City of the USSR, will win this battle too”—but this time, against Moscow.