When my company offered me a couple of days in Odesa in September to oversee a logistics operation, I jumped at the opportunity, booking train tickets from Poland, and even packing my swimming trunks. Alas, the beaches where I spent glorious weekends last summer remain off limits, mined against Russian landing attempts and empty save for stray cats that roam the dunes and gnaw at dead gulls.
The normal city bustle that greets me as I exit the central station after the overnight journey belies the precariousness of life here. The imminent invasion threat of the first weeks of the war receded after Ukraine received anti-ship missiles from its allies. But Russia’s Black Sea Fleet still casts a shadow over Odesa from afar, air-raid sirens sound most days, and occasional missiles launched from Crimea hit buildings and infrastructure. The Ukrainian counteroffensive rages just 100 kilometers away in the Kherson region, and, despite the staunch loyalty of most of the local population to the Ukrainian state, the SBU (Security Service) has its work cut out hunting down cells of collaborators and saboteurs intent on assisting a Russian takeover.
I get a tingle just being back here, not only because of the conflict conditions. Of the cities I have visited in Ukraine over the years, Odesa always had a special attraction, in large part because of its Imperial heritage. Steeped in tsarist history and architecture and proud of its legacy as Catherine the Great’s holiday resort, it still feels like a bastion of cultural “Russianness” in the Ukrainian southwest. Russian remains the lingua franca, and, prior to the February 24 invasion, skeptical local media liked to refer to Ukraine’s language ombudsman Taras Kremin as the “Sprechenführer,” as he sought to steer Odesa deeper into the Ukrainian fold. The monument to Tsarina Catherine II towers proudly near the barricaded Potemkin steps and was a scene of tensions in early September as opposing factions gathered to demand and protest the removal of the symbol of past Russian rule. An official decision on the issue was expected soon.
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