The Torment of Odessa – The Atlantic


A most predictable rocket attack hit Odessa today – heralded not long before by an air raid alert on my phone, but also a full day before, when Russia and Ukraine struck a tentative deal to allow Ukraine to ship grain from Odessa and two other ports. . This morning rockets landed on the port itself, soon to be in flames. Russia could not let a point of agreement pass without spicing it up with discord. Don’t let any deal blossom into celebration. From my stairwell in Odessa, I heard the sound of incoming rockets and a few fired to intercept them. An hour later, the green light rang and I got out. People on the street didn’t look particularly shaken, not particularly surprised, and maybe a little pissed off.

For a time Odessa thought it would bear a heavier burden in this war than it did. The February blitz on Kyiv was supposed to end the war quickly for the Russians. When it didn’t, a seaborne assault on Odessa seemed like a logical next step for Russia, but it never happened, and instead Ukraine’s key port city suffered as much from anticipation of attacks than of the attacks themselves. The last major series of strikes came earlier this month, when Ukraine took over Snake Island, the site of the “Russian warship, fuck off” radio transmission that has become a catchphrase. (Yesterday at the grocery store, I saw coffee sold under this brand.) Russia abandoned the island but launched rockets at a building south of Odessa on the way out, killing 21 people.

Yesterday I wandered the waterfront of Odessa, looking at a Black Sea that I had only seen from the shores of other countries, looking back at a city that I had only imagined before. A part of this city remains imaginary to me, because it is blocked off for security reasons. Sergei Eisenstein’s stairs Battleship Potemkin– the site of the film’s notorious civilian massacre, involving a pram rolling down the steps – are girded for defense and unavailable for walks (although I did see a family with a stroller nearby, walking without apparent irony). Odessa is known for its beaches. Not this year. The shore is taped, parts of it are mined and otherwise prepared for the Russian frogmen. A little inland you can watch a dolphin show (about two dozen children attended; the dolphins jumped out of their pool, took brushes in their mouths and painted a Ukrainian flag in fish exchange). The opera played last night, a Gluck production Orpheuswhose staging was modern because Orpheus wore virtual reality goggles to simulate his descent into the Underworld, and also because the opera house’s seaward facade is shored up by sandbags and portholes.

The grain deal was meant to relieve not Ukraine but the rest of the world, including Russia’s remaining friends, who need Ukrainian wheat, which would otherwise rot in the country’s ports. Under the terms, Russia will be able to screen incoming ships for weapons, Ukraine will send grain for 120 days, and those ships will be able to navigate the mined waters of the Black Sea. It is difficult to overstate the range of first- and second-order consequences of this agreement, given the global rise in food prices. Poor countries need these grains to eat, and richer countries have negotiated their influence using their hunger. (Saudi Arabia, for example, sent food aid to Egypt, to diversify its influence away from oil.)

Yet Russia’s willingness to punish Ukraine means that it will in no way allow the country a victory. Russia may have to let the grain out, but it can always choose to make life less bearable in the city shipping it.

Ukrainians fear that Russia will do the deal as a way to poke holes in Ukraine’s southern underbelly, and possibly go after Odessa itself. The apparent lack of courtesy signaled by a rocket attack literally hours after the deal was just one reason for the cynicism. Odessa is, like other major Ukrainian cities, filled with ethnic Russians who have been driven away from Russia by war. But unlike some of these ethnic Russians – from Donbass, for example, or Kharkiv – they did not experience the physical destruction of their own city. Instead, he has been tormented psychologically, with these rocket attacks and rumors of rocket attacks, and by the division of families whose sons and daughters are fighting elsewhere, or whose relatives have been sent abroad in a safe place.

I came here three days ago. About half of the train compartments on the direct line to Odessa from the Polish border contained children, to whom volunteers at the border (strangely, from a cult vegan sect based in Taiwan) handed out crayons and coloring books . I was one of the few men of fighting age, and the only question Ukrainian officials asked me was whether I intended to fight. At the Odessa station, the Odesans arrived and smelled the sea air of this city for the first time in months. Reunited families and lovers exchanged flowers, kisses and gifts. Many Odésans have returned home. But not, of course, until the town they left.


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