Odesa: The Battle for a City’s Soul

Putin’s war has only strengthened the Ukrainian identity of a port where many have turned against their own Russian language and want to tear down Moscow’s imperial monuments

This article is taken from the December/January 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

In normal times, the port of Odesa is best seen from the spectacular colonnaded belvedere of Vorontsev’s Palace, high above the Black Sea. But these are not normal times. Soldiers patrol there, while razor wire fends off visitors from any point offering a view of the ships and cranes used for the export of Ukrainian grain. 

In the nearby Taras Shevchenko Park, a stone column marks the spot where Alexander II of Russia visited in 1875. The park originally bore his name, before it was renamed in 1954 after the painter and poet regarded as the father of Ukrainian literature. It stands on the site of a minor Ottoman military outpost, Khadjibey, that was captured in 1792 by the forces of Alexander’s great-grandmother, Catherine the Great. 

At the suggestion of one of her generals, she decreed the foundation of a city here. She chose a name, Odessos, after Odysseus, but decided it should have a feminine form, Odessa, for a city founded by a woman. 

A statue of Catherine now dominates one end of the city centre. Encircled by benches and flowerbeds of a municipal tidiness, she stands, a scroll in her right hand, a flag at her feet. The imperial left hand is outstretched towards the port, for now is barely visible behind a Ukrainian military checkpoint, tank traps and sandbags. In September, not for the first time, the base of the statue was splashed with red paint, in protest at Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

Odesa, to use the Ukrainian spelling, is in revolt against its Russian heritage. Even though this remains a majority Russian-speaking city, more than 85 per cent of voters in the Odesa oblast (region) cast their ballot for independence from the Soviet Union in the 1991 referendum. The war has further cemented its Ukrainian identity. 

Even the busking accordionist wears a tracksuit in the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag, while in the Merry Berry cafe the tip jar collects money to crowdfund a Himars rocket launcher. Despite Vladimir Putin’s rhetoric of Ukraine being part of a notional “Greater Russia”, the war has turned many Russian-speakers here against their own language; they are instead learning or improving their Ukrainian. 

Now Catherine herself faces removal

The red paint was removed from Catherine’s statue, but now Catherine herself faces removal. In September, a petition with 25,000 names called for the statue to be taken down, but Odesa city council voted against the motion. In an interview with the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, Odesa’s mayor Gennady Trukhanov said he was opposed to taking down statues. “Even if we destroy the monuments, history does not change. I know that a petition with 25,000 signatures has been collected, but I am waiting. With this logic should I also remove the statue of Pushkin or Gagarin? It does not make sense.” 

More than 100 miles from the fighting, Odesa is a different kind of front line in the Russia-Ukraine war. Shipments from its port of grain and sunflower oil, vital for Ukraine’s economy, have resumed, closely watched by the Russian ships just off the coast. 

Meanwhile half a million displaced Ukrainians now live in the Odesa region, many of them Russian-speakers from cities such as Mykolaiv and Donetsk. And in September, Odesa became a testing ground for Russia’s latest tactic: the use of Iranian-made kamikaze drones, nicknamed “flying lawnmowers” for their buzzing noise or “balalaikas” on account of their triangular shape. But dark humour is no defence against the damage done by 110 pounds of explosives travelling 115mph. 

The threat of missile and drone strikes remains, but the prospect of Russian soldiers marching past the pavement cafes or stationing their tanks outside the tiered and colonnaded splendour of the opera house — the second most beautiful in Europe, according to one local tourism website — has receded, at least for now. Russia’s forces are in retreat, pushed eastwards towards the Dnieper River by the Ukrainians. There are still sandbags piled up outside some of the Art Deco facades, and signs pointing the way to the nearest air raid shelter — just in case. No one is expecting this war to end imminently. 

Ukraine is now seeking recognition for Odesa from Unesco as a World Heritage Site and is likely to get it. The application describes Odesa as a “unique example” of a free port city with a multi-ethnic population, a “conglomerate of different cultural traditions and a harmonic architectural polyphony”. 

Such status would, in theory at least, offer some protection in law: attacks on cultural heritage are recognised as war crimes and could lead to trials before the International Criminal Court. But the likelihood of any Russian commander standing trial in The Hague is vanishingly small. More practically, if Odesa is added to Unesco’s World Heritage in Danger list, it would have access to international assistance, both technical and financial. 

Odesa’s multi-ethnic make-up is key to both its Unesco application and its character. Even Catherine the Great was only Russian by marriage and assimilation; by birth she was German, a princess from Prussia. The general who persuaded her to create a city on this part of the Black Sea coast was a Neapolitan of Spanish and Irish descent, José de Ribas (Iosif Mikhailovich Deribas in Russian). 

Two of his most important successors as mayor, the Duke of Richelieu and Alexandre de Langeron, were French. Odesa’s main language may be Russian, but its population was always a mix: of Armenians, Ukrainians and Italians; Moldovans, Poles and Tatars. And above all, until the 1940s, Jews. 

As a free port, Odesa was one of the few places the Russian empire permitted Jews to live outside the Pale of Settlement, the area now covered by part or all of Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Lithuania and western Russia. The first Jews arrived in Odesa in 1789. They prospered and by 1900 they numbered more than 130,000, about a third of the population. 

There are two synagogues in central Odesa today; only one of them, the Great Choral Synagogue, is fully in use. The other, the Brody Synagogue, is gently disintegrating. The cupola on the roof is rusting away, while the northern end is braced by wooden beams, like DIY buttresses. The elderly caretaker politely discourages visitors; it is not, he intimates, entirely safe to go inside. 

A short distance away, on Troitska (Trinity) street, workmen are finishing the renovation of the Union Concert Hall. It was built at the turn of the twentieth century and paid for by the Mutual Association of Jewish Clerks. There is nothing on the building to indicate its history. 

It’s only a few minutes’ walk from there to the square with a bronze statue of the writer Isaac Babel. Odesa-born Babel sketched Jewish life in the city, gangsters and all, in aphoristic, elliptical Russian prose. In 1940, he fell foul of Stalin’s regime. He was accused of espionage, executed and erased from the historical record. Only in 1954, after Stalin’s death, was his name rehabilitated and his fate made public. 

The square, opposite the flat where Babel once lived, is now an aid distribution point. On weekdays, his statue does double duty as a climbing frame for the children of displaced Ukrainians queuing for food and household items. When the air raid siren sounds, only the Unicef tent behind Babel zips up its flap; the queue does not move. 

To an outsider, Odesa’s Jewish history seems half-submerged

To an outsider, Odesa’s Jewish history seems half-submerged. The Holocaust memorial is outside the city centre, at the point where Jews were rounded up. There are no stolpersteine in Odesa, the “stumbling stones” that now stud the streets in Berlin and other cities with the names and dates of murdered Jews outside their last voluntary place of residence. Today, depleted by emigration as well as the Holocaust, Odesa’s Jewish population stands at about 45,000, or three per cent of the city. 

Boris Dralyuk, an Odesa-born Jewish Russian-speaker who emigrated to the United States as a child in the early 1990s, has translated Babel’s stories into English. It isn’t possible to eradicate the Jewishness from Odesa, he says; it is imprinted on the language itself, making it virtually impossible to tease out from the intonations at the market, for example, what is Jewish and what is not. 

“You won’t see a lot of men in religious clothing [in Odesa], but you’ll see some,” he says. “And you’ll also see Jewish restaurants and restaurants with Jewish food. You’ll see the statue of Isaac Babel and other things that, if you know what you’re looking for, you’ll recognise as secular Jewish.”

However, the mass murder of Odesan Jews didn’t begin with the Holocaust. The city was the scene of several pogroms, the worst in 1905, when 300 people were killed. 

Nor did the killing stop at the Jews. At least 29 mass graves containing the remains of between 5,000 and 8,000 people were discovered on the outskirts of Odesa in late 2021. They date back to the Stalinist purges of the 1930s and are believed to be some of the biggest mass graves in Ukraine. 

The dead were the victims of the NKVD, the secret police known earlier as the Cheka and later as the KGB, now the FSB. In 1919, when the Red Army occupied Odesa, the Cheka had their headquarters in Katerynyn’ska Square, opposite Catherine’s statue. The Bolsheviks covered her with a red banner and then removed her altogether, replacing her with a statue of Karl Marx. But the Marx statue was shoddily-made and eventually blew over in the wind. For a time the site stood vacant until, in 2007, Catherine returned. 

In the first week of November, the statue was targeted again, this time with a red executioner’s hood over the head and a noose placed in one hand. Catherine’s destruction in 1775 of one of the forerunners of the Ukrainian state, the Zaporizhzhian Cossack Host, is not forgotten here. Odesa city council will vote again on removing her statue after an online poll found a majority of residents were in favour. Even the mayor has changed his mind, saying the poll shows the community has remained true to its democratic values “despite the attempts of provocateurs to destabilise the situation”. 

Whether the empress stays on her plinth is not in itself important, Boris Dralyuk believes. “In Odesa we don’t really forget, but we accept changes and smirk at them. This is, I think, the fate that awaits the statue. It will go down, as it did once before; it may even come up again … Darth Vader may stand there someday; he’s up at Stovpova Street now. We have no idea what’s going to replace this statue, but somebody ought to be writing all this down because it will make us laugh ten years from now, long after Ukraine has won the war.”

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