Sandbagging in Odessa

“I hope Putin will have the sense not to bomb Odessa. Why? Because it’s the only big Ukrainian town the Russians say they founded. How could they live with themselves? Catherine the Great built it. I think Odessa is some kind of sacred spot for them. Just the idea of it, right? Everyone in the world knows about Odessans and their sense of humor! If you kill them, it better be funny. How can they kill us? They won’t be able to process that. How could they do this? To go and kill Russian-speaking people, just like them.”

This is my city and I can’t abandon it

sandbags in Odessa
Photo by Elena Kostyuchenko

The following dispatch from Odessa was originally published in Novaya Gazeta on March 5. It has been translated from Russian by Ilona Yazhbin Chavasse.

I get to Odessa by train, from Lviv. The train is half-empty. I share my compartment with Roman, a lieutenant colonel with the Ukrainian reserve army. He’s traveling from Szczecin in Poland, where he left his family, and is hoping to get to the war. “First I’ll try my own division. I hope they take me, I mean, I’m a career soldier.” Roman calls his mother and tells her that he’s got a bag full of food but he can’t eat right now, he’s just drinking coffee.

The blackout curtains are drawn and the light is only switched on at stops. There are no linens or towels on any Ukrainian trains—they’ve all been handed over to the army.

Odessa is bracing for the Russian troops, who will soon land and storm the city. But a different storm—on the Black Sea—forces the ships to withdraw.

You can’t get to the sea. The Luzanovka beach, which is shallow and good for landing, has been mined. Fortifications rise along the shoreline. The neighborhoods by the sea are open only to local residents.

The city is run by Teroborona [territorial defense], a volunteer corps that was formed as a sub-unit of the Ukrainian army. It began recruiting on the second day of the war, and within thirty minutes had to start turning volunteers away. Now you have to have connections to actually get in, though they are still taking names for the waiting list. If the city comes under attack, these volunteers will be drafted. Teroborona is in charge of strategic points, checking people’s documents, looking for saboteurs and “enemy spies,” detaining looters. Despite concerns early on, there was no widespread looting, but the isolated cases are sophisticated: they put on police uniforms, or pass themselves off as police aides. Here they tie looters to streetlamps with packing tape.

The territorial defenders wear a yellow armband on their right arms. Young guys, and a silver-bearded old man—some of them hide their faces from the cold. When the Russian army arrives, Teroborona will switch to guerilla warfare. “We’ve got lots of surprises for them.”

Andrei Vladimirovich is a former police officer. He now fights with Teroborona: “I was born and bred in Odessa. I’m speaking with you now in perfect Russian. But no one here’s ever been discriminated against for speaking it.”

“I speak Ukrainian perfectly,” he says in Ukrainian, and continues in Russian. “Of the two languages, I love Ukrainian more, it’s the language of my nation. But I grew up in a Russian-speaking family, and I speak Russian every day. No one has ever discriminated against the Russian-speaking population here. No one. Ever. I lived in the Russian Federation for a time, in Siberia, and they treated the Ukrainians there worse than we do the Russians here. They tell you, over there, that we’re Banderites. I wasn’t one before, but I am now.”

“I apprehended a saboteur myself, the day before yesterday. He was pretending to be homeless, picking through that dumpster over there. He’d been hanging around for two days, keeping an eye on our fortifications. And wouldn’t you know it, he had a wonderfully clean face on him, straight white teeth. He told me he was homeless. In a nice pair of sneakers so he could run away faster, right. He had a passport and a brand-new map of Ukraine. Issued in December. When our guys came down, they started checking him out. ‘Olegovich, right?’ ‘No, Alexandrovich,’ he says. And the passport says Vladimirovich. We took all his papers off him, found his military ID. A sharpshooter. We handed him over to counterintelligence.

“On the first day of the war they blew up a warehouse on Promyshlennaya Street next to where the Storm patrol battalion is quartered. It wasn’t an airstrike, it was blown up from the ground. But they blew up the wrong warehouse. There weren’t any ammunition or weapons stored there anymore. Their information was out of date.

“I hope Putin will have the sense not to bomb Odessa. Why? Because it’s the only big Ukrainian town the Russians say they founded. How could they live with themselves? Catherine the Great built it. I think Odessa is some kind of sacred spot for them. Just the idea of it, right? Everyone in the world knows about Odessans and their sense of humor! If you kill them, it better be funny. How can they kill us? They won’t be able to process that. How could they do this? To go and kill Russian-speaking people, just like them.

“They don’t want to bomb Odessa, not Putin and not the generals. They’re just making it look like they’re attacking Odessa. Look, yesterday there was a bomber, it flew over Odessa and dropped two bombs just outside the city. Supposedly it was bombing Krasnoselka, we have an army base there. It dropped two rockets. Into an estuary. The rocket came down in the estuary, the next one did the same, and no one was killed, zero casualties. So the pilot did his job. Did he complete the mission? He did. Did he bomb the army base? He did. So he happened to miss. Everyone’s happy, no big deal. He did as he was ordered. So that’s why I think Odessa will be all right.

“But Putin, he’ll end up at the Hague, or his own guys will kill him. You’ll see. He’s only got the two options. He’s not going to die peacefully in his bed, that’s for sure.”

The houses in Odessa are flying Ukrainian colors—you’d think it was some kind of holiday. The flags come out in the morning and are taken down by curfew—they’re afraid that looters or saboteurs will steal them at night. The flags are precious. They had to issue specific instructions about taking down the flags for the night, because the first time there were a lot of panicked phone calls about it.

At the tram depot they’re using rails to make anti-tank hedgehogs. They’re weaving camouflage nets at the yacht club. Otrada and Chernomorka, the two beaches, are waiting for volunteers to help pack sandbags, which will reinforce barricades and checkpoints. Lots of people have been in the sand: they say it’s good for taking your mind off things.

Nearly all the young people are involved in defense. They make the rounds of the shuttered cafés, collecting bottles and sunflower oil. They go out to find insulin for the diabetics, because there’s a shortage. They help refugees get to the border. Odessa’s tattoo artists have agreed that each flat fee—about $100—will be sent to the Ukrainian army.

The Privoz, Odessa’s main market, is closed. Deribasovskaya Street is blocked by sandbags, café tables, and concrete slabs. There are barricades every fifty meters. They’re checking documents; a bearded guy with green eyes takes my passport:

“Oh, you’re Russian.”

They call a friend over.

“They battered Kharkiv with Grad rockets. Just now. I’m from Azerbaijan myself, you understand? This will never be forgotten, never forgiven. We will never be with you. My son is 15. I’ll make sure he has nothing to do with any of you, ever!”

Behind him, students pour sand in bags. From the bags rises the barricade. The opera house is the heart of Odessa. It is ringed by barricades.

Richelieu Street, nearby, is the site of a volunteer center—one of several, but this is the biggest. Other sites provide hot and packed lunches and coordinate aid for the elderly, children, refugees, and diabetic patients. Many of the volunteer groups formed via Telegram and now there are professional athletes, chess players, lawyers, and mothers of large families at work delivering food, taking people to the border, and ferrying medication back into Ukraine, since the Moldovan guards allow medicine to be passed across the border. The site at Richelieu Street takes in and sorts aid packages for the army, the police, and the territorial defense cadre. Before the war this was a central gathering place, an open-air food market. The volunteers wear orange and yellow vests and everyone moves quickly. There are eighty people working today.

Inga says: “We’ve got the drive and the energy to make this work. And also we’ve got a whole team of extremely efficient managers and entrepreneurs, the best in the city, and they’ve all channeled their best resources to us, to organize the logistics, receiving, shipping out, authenticating requisitions and shipments, confirming deliveries. So we’re able to process aid requests on a large scale, to verify and distribute them.”

“We work in shifts because it’s really very hard work, all day long. Everyone’s incredibly stressed out right now, so we’re doing our best to give people breaks. We have our own psychologist, who we’ve asked to stay on-site. Even me, I sometimes burst into tears, and not just once a day. When someone asks what you did before the war and you think to yourself, my God, I had a life once, and I lived my life and I loved my life.

“On the first day we did first-aid training for the volunteers, times being what they are. God forbid, but you might help someone save a life.

“Actually, I’m a lawyer. I worked for a law firm called Departments. In my past life, as they say.

“The first day of the war, a girl from my team calls me. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, I’m a heavy sleeper, so even the bomb blasts didn’t wake me up, but she called me, she was hysterical: ‘Inga, I don’t know what to do, I can’t stop crying.’ She says, ‘I’m going to leave, my parents are frantic, they’re coming with me.’ And then it just went from there. You know, it was so strange, when I think of that morning, the sun shining and the pretty curtains, but also her hysterical voice coming from the phone: ‘We’re being shot at, attacked, there was a rocket going past my house, I don’t even know what!’ And you just can’t . . . you’re still half-asleep and it all seems surreal, because it’s just, you know, so hideous . . .”

“Did you want to flee?”

“Flee? I did think about it, that first day. I’m from Western Ukraine. My parents are there, they call me and they’re hysterical too: ‘Get down here now!’ But I thought about it and got ahold of myself. I told them: listen, sorry, I’m not leaving. They need me here, I’m a trained professional. I’m a lawyer, a good manager, I can do my work well. This is my city and I can’t abandon it. I’ll do everything I can to defend it from Russian occupiers.”

There are coffee stalls all over the city. The territorial defenders and the police get their coffee for free. A couple of teenage boys—black beanies drawn low, they look about 15—approach a woman buying buns: “Excuse us, we’re from Donetsk. We just ran and ran. Can we call our brother? On speaker!”

The woman hands over her mobile phone and waits patiently. She takes her change from the vendor and gives it to the boys. The vendor’s eyes are wide, but she doesn’t speak until the boys leave.

“You shouldn’t do that, they’re local, from around here. They took a package off me last week, snatched it right out of my hand! Don’t give them your phone. Or your money.”

“They can buy something to eat,” says the woman. “They must be having a tough time, to come up with a story like that.”

There’s an old woman standing outside the Afina Gallery shopping center. Her name is Nadezhda Mikhailovna. She’s 76. She bows at the passers-by, a tearful catch in her voice:

“Have mercy on us, Lord. Give us peace on earth, our Lord.”

The passers-by hand her cash. She has to buy food before curfew begins.

The food shops operate in an atmosphere of feverish politeness. Please take my turn, thank you, you’re welcome, have a good day. There’s no flour to be had, the bread has almost run out, all the tinned food is gone. There’s fruit and vegetables and sausage. The first few days saw a run on salt and matches. Now everyone’s calmed down, people are looking for provisions for the next day or two. A man is buying ten bottles of cognac; beginning tomorrow the sale of alcohol will be banned throughout the Odessa region. “Some of the stores, they’ve taken it away already, imagine that. Right off the shelves. They might have left some for us to drool over.” This sparks a heated conversation in the line, about whether the authorities will ban making moonshine too.

The recruiting office is ringed with sandbags. A crook-nosed guy waiting in the orderly line introduces himself, in the formal way:

“Dunger, Sergei Stepanovich. I was born here in Odessa, Maternity Hospital #7. How did I hear it started, the war? It’s been going on since 2014, this war, and still going strong. So I’m enlisting today. March 01, 2022. I’m off to war on the first day of spring. Because my brothers are being brought to their knees. Russia is our brothers too, I have family there. But I have relatives here as well, family. We shouldn’t fight each other. Why we’re fighting, I couldn’t tell you. I’m no politician. I think it’s some kind of political war, not a human one. I don’t even want to know where they’re going to send me. About any of that. It’s like they say, the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.

“My sister, now, she didn’t want me to go. She took everything off me, my identification papers, my phone. Everything. But I’ve got my own contacts, so here I am. She took everything. She told me ‘You’re not going anywhere, I’ve got you under lock and key.’ Locked me in the house. But every lock can be undone. More than that, I did it without a single blow. You can tell her. The lock is still whole. I walked out all cool and calm. The windows are fine too, honest. She doesn’t have to worry.”

Valentin turned 20 only five days ago.

“I enlisted because it’s not like I have another homeland, is it, besides Ukraine. And, I also knew how it was in Donetsk, in Luhansk. I didn’t sleep that night, the Thursday, the 24th. When I heard Putin’s speech, that he was setting off on this shitty war, the explosions were starting, I was like, what a shit sandwich. I need to get my folks away, hide them somewhere. And then go and fight. I got them out, to a village. And came back here.

“I mean, before, I had a negative view of military service. Until now. I asked this girl I work with, did anybody you know enlist? Things being critical, it’s Ukraine or bust, you know? She said, no, not one person. And I was like, fucking hell, nobody wants to, nobody thinks they can. And I thought, why not me? I’m thinking about going into officer training once this is all over. So God forbid if it ever happened again, I’d be ready for anything.

“How do I feel about Russian citizens? I feel anger. Hatred. And I can’t stand the way they don’t want to fight for their own freedom. These people, they’re scared of police batons, scared of being fined, scared of prison. Guess what, guys! I’m 20 years old and I’m enlisting. I’m scared of dying too! But this is my home! And over there, that’s your home too! And you couldn’t see that for twenty years you’ve been going down the toilet? Your economy isn’t growing, you’ve got a recession. And you don’t even go out into the streets to let the government know what you think.

“Another three months and I would have been a computer programmer. So Putin stole my dream for my future, too! But I think I’ll survive. And I’ll finish my education. Ukraine will be in the EU by then. I don’t believe much in God. I believe in Kalashnikovs and Anonymous.

“My mom said, ‘Go. You have my support, but it’s for staying alive, not getting killed.’ My sister was making fun of me . . . We got stuck just now, they wouldn’t let the car through. My sister just kept laughing. I said, I won’t make it on time to the recruiting office, I’m going to walk . . . That stopped her. She’s going to cry her eyes out. We’re twins. She’s 20, like me.

“Obviously I’m afraid of dying. We’re just normal, regular people. We’re all afraid of dying. I’ve worked on the back end of a few Russian websites. But there’s going to be reprisals, if we’re occupied, anyway.”

Not far from the recruiting office, the House of Unions sits like a damp dark blot inside the Kulikovo Field city park. May 2, 2014, the date Putin referred to in his speech justifying the war. That was the day of the armed skirmishes between soccer fans, the pro-Maidan and the anti-Maidan sides. The anti-Maidan group retreated from the tent city on Kulikovo Field and holed up in the House of Unions. The building was set aflame by Molotov cocktails. Forty-eight people died in Odessa that day.

Boris Yavorsky is a consultant at the county medical examiner bureau. He knew three of the people who died and was the one who examined all the bodies. He and Odessa Life journalist Taisya Naidenko would spend many years investigating what happened that day. Boris and Taisya happen to have opposing political views. “We balance each other out very well,” he says.

“After that I almost went to the Donbass to fight, myself,” Boris tells me. “The way I see it, the May 2 story became one of those flashpoints that kindled the conflagration in the Donbass. I knew many people who enlisted and went to Donbass after what happened in Odessa. That’s when it really started in earnest.”

“At that time,” Taisya says, “the administrative centers all over Eastern Ukraine were being overrun, and that’s why everyone in Odessa was freaking out, why everyone was scared it would happen here. Everybody was on edge. In March there was an attempt to take over the Odessa city government office. You had these crowds of Putinists with their placards and icons and portraits of Putin milling around the city. There would be one procession marching with the Ukrainian flag and the other one all in their St. George ribbons, coming the opposite way. What a wonderful city, we used to say, here’s the lot with icons and Putin, and there goes the lot with the Ukrainian flag, and it’s all fine. Then the 2nd of May happened. And it turned out that the city’s not so wonderful, in some respects.”

“I was there, at those rallies,” Boris says. “I took lots of photos. They had fifty people on each side. Mostly old ladies with icons. I was there beginning to end, and I can tell you they didn’t even need to be dispersed, those crowds. They just leaked away, all by themselves. Each side burned the other side’s flag, to make a statement, they booed each other for a bit and then they all peeled away and went home, because it was getting late and the weather was cooling down.”

“That’s right, until May 2 it was all pretty peaceful.”

“Exactly. It was like a friendly competition, almost, who can boo the loudest, that sort of thing.”

“May 2 was supposed to be the day of some big soccer match. I can’t remember now who was playing who, I’m not a soccer fan myself. And so there was a gathering in the cathedral square . . .”

“The fans. There are these processions of fans before the big match, they’re always there. So bearing in mind the recent events, Crimea being pinched and so on, these fans were especially decked out in nationalist gear. And they’re all really big guys, the fans, as usual, you don’t get a lot of programmers in the crowd. They started walking through Sobornaya Square toward . . .”

“Past the chess tables and down Greek Street.”

“They should have gone that way, and a few blocks later they would have reached the stadium. It’s kind of traditional: the fans get together, they scream and shout for a while, hang around in a big gang. Then they walk back from the stadium, I imagine it happens everywhere. They beat each other up sometimes, stuff like that.”

“Then some idiot, or maybe a provocateur, leads his pack out from Kulikovo Field and heads straight for the soccer fans, and they’re screaming something too.”

“And then somebody shoots one of the patriots dead. A man named Biryukov, he was the first to die. Nobody knows to this day who fired that shot. There’s no discharged weapon, we can’t even tell what direction the shot came from.”

“After that first blood, everyone went crazy and started fighting and killing one another for real.”

“The big fight broke out literally in front of the cathedral. Then somebody shouted ‘Let’s go to Kulikovo Field,’ because everyone knew that . . . Let’s say they suddenly remembered that it was an ‘enemy’ camp.”

“Except that by the 2nd, all that was left up there were a few of the resident crazies, some pensioners, armchair global experts and so on: you see, all the anti-Maidan muscle was elsewhere with massive hangovers, because the day before, the Maidan and anti-Maidan gangs had had a joint barbecue. So these nuts and religious fanatics and misunderstood poets, that’s who got in the way of the worked-up crowd.”

“It’s funny, isn’t it, that for a regular person it’s not so hard to understand how somebody could go as far as murdering their own wife in the heat of passion, during a fight or an argument. Their own wife of twenty years. But people seem to have real trouble understanding that the same exact thing can happen between two mobs.”

“Some people said that it had to be the work of provocateurs. Who needs provocateurs? People see blood and they start using their fists. And get hammered in return.”

“Modern man is prone to denying the irrational, that’s why. Something’s happening—why, it must be a conspiracy! Someone’s dead, there must be somebody to blame, people don’t die just like that.”

“The ones still on Kulikovo Field shouted back and tried to defend themselves for a little while, but then beat a retreat to the House of Unions.”

“Only a small contingent from that big mass of fans actually made it over from Greek Street to Kulikovo Field, most of the people there realized that that nothing good would come of it. The small contingent that did come over, though, they made everybody there go into a panic, all the pensioners gathered up their icons and candles and ran over to the House of Unions.”

“They barricaded themselves inside. Well, I mean they piled some wood up at the entrance. Turned a few tables over by the entrance and that’s what later became ‘barricaded.’”

“They started lobbing Molotov cocktails at one another. The younger ones among the ‘barricaded’ got up onto the roof and threw the bottles from up there. The crowd below tossed their bottles up into the building. But we all know how physics works, right? It’s much harder to set a person in the middle of a crowd on fire than to set fire to a building . . .”

“Not even the building, the wooden barricade at the front door, that piled-up wooden furniture.”

“Once the furniture caught fire, the trim inside the building did too, and then . . .”

“And then everything inside was covered, as usual, despite every fire safety regulation, with some kind of polyethylene wall paneling . . .”

“And worst of all, this is basic physics, as soon as the flames went up, the central staircase became this giant smokestack and for a few minutes, maybe even a few dozen minutes, there was a huge updraft. That’s why everyone who happened to be on the stairs . . . on the landings, or near them, died then and there, from the scorching burns to their airways. You take a breath or two and that’s it, you’re dead.”

“None of the attackers came into the building. You couldn’t. There were loads of survivors from inside there, almost everybody who wasn’t near the staircase and didn’t jump out of a window. The more straight-thinking people had gotten upstairs little by little, they massed at the top. The police later took them into custody from the roof.”

“But later, there were stories on Facebook that everyone who died at House of Unions turned out to be fighters from Russia and Transnistria. And all the Ukrainian media outlets and most of the Russian ones reposted this as fact. I’ve seen the ID papers, I was the consultant. There were only two men from out of town, one from the Nikolaevski region and one from Vinnitsa region. All the others were from Odessa and the area. They unleashed a horrific reaction, these lies—people began to mock the dead. It was so revolting. For many Ukrainians it wasn’t even what had happened, but how people were talking about it that made them understand it wasn’t a difference of opinion anymore, about the future, it had spilled over into hatred and enmity, wanting to see the other side dead. Many Odessans went to Donetsk after that. Ten people from my close circle. So many, ten at least. Now some of them will be marching on Odessa with the Russian army.

“But this war . . . Because it changed the entire shape of things, created such polarization of society. Because of what is happening, our usual—traditional really, by now—conflict between the nominally Maidan and anti-Maidan factions is nowhere to be seen. Suddenly, people forgot their hostility toward one another, now we’re facing a, you know, genuine enemy.”

“It does work,” says Taisya. “People love to say: ‘It’s all politics, there’s no need to get into it, everybody lies, we all know how it goes.’ But when something is dropping on you from the sky above, and you see residential buildings exploding, then you understand, it all gets pretty clear.”

“We have a club for pipe smokers, the Odessa Pipe Club. They’ve got straight-up laborers in there, and patriots who fought in ATO [Anti-Terrorist Operation Zone], and local businessmen, customs guards and a medical court witness, and a tabloid journalist; a random assortment, basically. As a sample of the population it’s very . . . interesting, let’s say. The only thing they have in common is smoking pipes.

“You come into contact with very different people and all their differing opinions, maybe forty or so properly active members of the club. I believe we’ve just expelled one of the members from the group chat, because he was always praising Putin. So the guys said it to his face: ‘Seryoga, just be straight with us. Will you admit, that this, right now, it’s a war, and this is all in for real?’ And his response was, ‘Well, it’s not so black and white, is it . . . We don’t know who’s got the right of it, and who’s really to blame, do we, guys.’ So they took him off all the chats because they talk about military and tactical stuff there too.

“There are maybe three or four guys on there going, ‘I don’t fucking like any of you people!’ I mean, they’re saying ‘I don’t like any of you, but if we’re getting bombed, I’m going to defend the city.’ All the others are either fighting or getting ready to go or volunteering with the territorial defense. There’s your sample of an average group of men in Odessa. And I’ll say it again, this is a random sample, because they’re different ages, different income levels, the only criteria that links them is a thing of chance. It’s a very random group, which makes it all the more interesting to see.

“And what’s really funny, against all this, is when you read about how there are three whole Fascists holed up in Odessa, and everybody else here is just sitting around waiting to be rescued from all these horrors.”

The mayor of Odessa, Gennady Leonidovich Trukhanov, also wears the yellow armband.

“Every five years, just before the elections, I get called a separatist, or else a Banderite, or who knows what else.” As soon as martial law was announced, the city came under military control. Together with his team, the mayor decamped to the former party headquarters, but he’s barely there, he is too busy going around town:

“Bomb blasts. That’s when we knew it was war, felt it in our bones. Everybody talked about war for ages, but it isn’t until you feel the earth tremble beneath your feet and hear shooting in the night that you understand fully that war has come. That was the 24th, when they carried out a strike against the radar station. It was awful, you could hear everything.

“It’s the old routine, go in at night. It’s a military tactic: those who were on the night shift are tired, but the morning shift hasn’t arrived to relieve them yet. That’s why it’s an old tactic, a bit of ancient wisdom, if you can call it that, to attack just when people are at their most worn-out and vulnerable.

“Straight away, I got dressed and went to the office, gathered all my deputies, and we got to work.

“We’ve managed a lot this week, working nonstop. For starters, we managed to repurpose our public enterprises and services to work on a wartime footing. Sounds simple, but it’s actually very complicated. Our staff have to get here during curfew, and leave again, and so on. We have to deliver public services and public works, emergency services, manage the heating network, because things might go out or break or be sabotaged. Everything has to be cleared with the military, who have started patrolling the city, and meanwhile everybody is on a knife’s edge, they’re looking through every car for enemies in disguise. I get it, we have information on diversionary groups already at work. The first few days everybody was apprehensive and suspicious, there was always somebody looking shifty, so you think it’s the enemy and the shooting starts. We couldn’t even tell how it got to that point. I’ve seen it with my own eyes: a guy with a rucksack, just walking. Somebody asks: where are you headed? He says, I’m going home. They tell him to stop. He goes, I’m going home, I live just over there. Then you hear the shooting. There were arguments in the street, people outraged with one another, saying who do you think you are. Now there’s more understanding. I’m a dog owner, so I’m at the park early in the morning. People come up to me, and I know that even if I’ve made myself a target—literal or figurative, what have you—people can see me. It’s mostly women in the park and they go: when we see you, out walking the dogs, we know that today will be all right. If you’re here, all will be well.

“My wife is here. My daughter and grandchildren, I forced them to go, plenty of tears and bullying; they’re at the border now. I’m hoping so hard, as I tell you this, that she won’t turn around and come back. She was crying her eyes out, so I said, let’s make a deal, you stay there for three days and then you can come back if you want.

“I was walking the dogs in the park, when somebody comes up to me: have you seen what they’ve done by the opera house? I said, what have they done? They put two IFVs there. I was taken aback myself. I went over there and said, guys, you’ve set infantry fighting vehicles next to an architectural treasure. If you get return fire, they’re going to hit the opera house. They just stood there, nothing to say. Then the barricades went up. I’m thinking, what are we going to do? Why are there barricades by the opera house? It’s not like we’re going to let them into the city.

“There’s no looting. God willing, may that continue. You know, it turns out that despite the city’s history, those labels—‘Odessa is a den of thieves,’ that stuff—it’s all lies.

“We have 353 bomb shelters. Eighty-five of these are public, meaning in my jurisdiction, my responsibility. I renovated all eighty-five in 2014 and 2015. The only thing I didn’t manage to do was put in ventilation systems. They’d all had these great big filters, from the Soviet times. I was writing letters to the prime minister, back in 2014, explaining how people couldn’t stay in there for long, please get the air filters changed in all the bomb shelters. Here we are in 2022, nothing’s been done about it.”

“You’re saying you foresaw the possibility of war, back in 2014?”

“You have to understand, everything was moving in that direction even back then. There were bomb blasts in Odessa, sabotage cells at work. Something blowing up two or three times a week.

“There’s a rumor going around that I have a Russian passport. I don’t, I’m not a Russian citizen. But we do have plenty of people here who are, and they’re perfectly ordinary and normal people, a Russian passport should not be some kind of sentence. That was 2014, but it started making the rounds just before the elections, someone wanted me out of the running. I asked the Russian consulate to confirm, like you’re supposed to. The consulate confirmed—that’s an official declaration, that I’m not a Russian citizen.

“It’s a thing of principle with me, that I go on walking in the May 9 parades and worshipping at the Moscow patriarchate church. I have no intention of leaving my church and my confessor just because someone doesn’t like it. Someone neither serving God nor faithfully attending to their own work. So they start to dig up what I might have said wrong, once upon a time. Back in 2015, at the victory parade, I was walking with the crowd down the Avenue of Glory, wearing a St. George ribbon. They surrounded me, heckling me about it. So I said, it’s not about some enemy for me, this ribbon, it represents martial honor, soldierly courage. Every nation is proud of its soldiers. Then they started up about the Crimea. I dislike situations like this, when everybody is so aggressive. I said to them: I can only say what I know. You might not like it. We had troops there, marines. I never heard a single gunshot. From the other side I’m hearing that the Parliament voted on it. I don’t know if they voted with a gun to their heads. What do you want me to say?”

“I’d like to ask you something about May 2. I personally know two people, one of them a Russian soldier who was wounded at the Battle of Debaltseve, and the other one a volunteer fighter in Donbass, and for both of them the main motivation to join the conflict was the May 2 tragedy.”

“For Odessa, that’s a wound that will never heal. We’ve never had anything like it, this mass killing, in our friendly and peaceable city. Not just killing, but a cynical, vicious killing, when they were finishing off people on the ground, people with broken legs, on the ground. It was barbaric. People don’t like me to say that, because they think they were fighting Ukraine’s enemies. I’ve got a lot to say about May 2, because I did everything in my power to prevent it. There were fourteen large tents on Kulikovo Field at first, but I negotiated with them and got them to take it down to seven by the 2nd.

“I went to the field, I said to them: Look, I’m here. You keep accusing me of hiding. But I want you to come and tell me what you’re doing here. You understand that people will get killed, from what you’re doing? What is it you’re actually fighting against? ‘You know, corruption, low salaries,’—the usual list of grievances. I said, OK guys, you’re all great at protesting, but the Maidan gang, they have the same exact demands, they’ve just got a Ukrainian flag over them, and you have the Russian one, among others. If you look at the Maidan protesters’ demands, you can see they’re similar, just phrased very differently. You’re so young, you’re being brainwashed like fools, and you’re going to be in serious trouble. They’ll have every right to put you away, and prison will be the least of it.

“‘Get these tents off the field,’ I said. ‘You’ve got no cars or generators, I’ll give you some. Just remove those tents.’ OK, half the tents roll up and ship out. The ones still there are the most radical of the bunch. OK, I’ll go negotiate with them. All the TV channels send someone over, the head of the police comes too. We go to Kulikovo Field, the tents still there. ‘I’m asking you, please take these tents away, this is not right. I come in peace, look, here’s my direct line.’ They send out some people to negotiate: ‘we’ll go if you help us move.’ I said OK, I’ll help you. We agree that after the soccer match on May 2, they’re heading out. So I want to say to everybody who’s so hot on what happened that day and what a tragedy it was: when Russia says ‘we’ll come over there and punish everyone responsible,’ can I just say, why don’t you start over there on your side. Dmitry Fuchedzhi [ex-deputy chief of Odessa police], he’s in Russia right now, doing interviews. He was the one responsible for maintaining public peace. He and his cops should have interposed themselves between the two fighting groups. One of them was wearing his police officer’s uniform, nowhere to hide, he was wounded in the arm—people really ought to watch war movies, how soldiers with head wounds and missing arms kept on shooting and fighting. These guys were taken out of action by a shoulder graze.

“Bodelan, the fire chief [Volodymyr Bodelan, then head of the emergency services], the one who’s a minister in the Crimea now, why doesn’t he tell us how it took so long to put the fire in the building out? Where were all the firefighters while our people burned to death? One firetruck got waylaid, so what? Is that it, Odessa’s only got the one? Did they shit themselves? It was their duty not to be scared. He should have come himself, given the magnitude. I know what they said later: ‘we didn’t get the command.’ What command do you need to hear, when there’s a building on fire and people are dying? If you’re a man of honor, get in your truck and go save people. Interviews, they’re giving. They should apologize first, for failing to do their duty. The nation gave you a salary, a rank. Somebody needs to ask those two, sitting in Russia, before they go looking for people to punish here. Sure, our system could be more efficient, the district attorney ought to . . . I’m sure that eventually there will be a legal ruling, in time.”

“Wasn’t there a criminal case?”

“The case is still open, it’s just not going anywhere. We only remember May 2 before the elections. When the party whose hobbyhorse it is needs to canvass, then they bring it out again. It’s so cynical. Really it’s sacrilege, I don’t know what else to call it.

“They want me to say, on-camera, ‘Russian warship, go fuck yourself.’ But I’m not a swearing man. If they demand the city’s surrender? Well, we’d have to ask what the people living here think about that. We’re not going to give up the city. First of all, I have faith in our army, they won’t surrender the city. Nor will the citizens. You know it’s so effed up, I don’t know how else to put it . . . that Russian people, the Russian army, they’re making war on Odessa. No one could have foreseen this, not even theoretically. And what’s more, under the pretext that they’re liberating us from somebody, helping us, righteously punishing those responsible for May the 2.”

Men look over their chessboards inside a little covered bandstand inside the cathedral square. There are two tables: one for speed chess and one for regular chess. No one takes any notice of the cold. Two more hours until curfew, plenty of time.

“Reckless move, but here goes my rook. What have I got to worry about, when we’re all friends here?”

Bloodless battles play out over the black-and-white boards.

“Are they being mean to you, Semyon? Me, I would have lost already. Resigned and put an end to it.”

“What kind of move is that, what is that? Anyone know what that was?”

“Let’s go over here for now. That move was called a ‘nun’ya.’ As in ‘nun’ya business.’”

Talking about the war while playing chess is not allowed.

“Why am I playing so badly today?” Lenya says. “My third game, playing black, and it’s truly embarrassing. Why did I capture, when I could see what’s going on with the knight there?”

“Give that pawn over.”

“No way.”


“Better scram, then,” Lenya says, moving his rook from the line of fire.

“Well, in for a penny, in for a pound!”

“You keep making moves that I don’t even think are moves.”

An air-raid siren. They carry on playing, but faster. Finally, they put the pieces away in a little cloth pouch.

People rush inside the underground pedestrian tunnel—“it’s not a cellar, but still.”

The siren keeps on shrilling. Lena is 9 years old. She has glasses and her hair is in braids. She murmurs soothingly to Asya, the little dog her mom is holding. With each high note from the siren the dog stiffens and gives a hoarse whine. “Asya, dear, don’t be scared,” Lena tells her. “You’re just a little doggy, don’t be scared.” Lena’s mum plucks at the wire fox terrier’s wiry fur. The dog is overdue for a trim.

The siren subsides. Lena’s mom wants to continue their walk. “Let’s not walk anymore today,” Lena responds in a grownup voice. “There’s no need.”

“Fifth station here, we got a good old blast!’”

Some men carry the café benches back up from the pedestrian tunnel.

“Do you believe in God?” asks a guard. “Come on down.”

The crypt of the Spaso-Preobrazhensky Cathedral, with its gilded walls, spiraling columns and shadowed faces of the saints, has become Odessa’s largest bomb shelter. Rugs have been laid on the tiled floor along the walls, and on top of these, blankets. People arrange themselves on the blankets. Pets are not allowed, but people sneak their cats in inside their bags.

Kristina’s older son is 8. He’s just started in on a puzzle, so there’s no telling what the picture will be. The younger boy, only 4, is focused on her mobile phone. This is the third night the family is spending in the cathedral.

“We live on Sofievskaya Street, our building doesn’t have a basement. There are flyers in every entryway, addresses with the bomb shelters. It says that you can shelter in any hospital, but I’ve been to several and they all said no, it’s false information, there are no shelters here. There’s one at 20 Torgovaya Street, but the building residents said: ‘we organized this for ourselves and the people from the block, we’ll let you in if there’s space left.’ How are we supposed to know, running for our lives during an air raid, whether they have any space left?”

Kristina weeps, but only for a few seconds. Her children don’t see.

“In the morning you go home. Throw some things together, food for one day, one night. Make contact with your loved ones, wherever they’re spread out, find out who’s still alive. Have a shower. Then back here again.”

“There’s such an aura about this place,” Kristina says. “You don’t think about the bad things, you feel brighter somehow.”

“An aura?” A barefoot young guy beside us. “No, they wouldn’t bomb a church. They’re believers.”

“But they can bomb houses,” a woman in the corner cuts in. “Believers, are they? Tell me who they believe in.”

“I don’t want to argue about politics,” says Kristina. “I just want to know why. How have we deserved this? But who do I ask?”

“Ask the Russians,” says the woman in the corner.

“My relatives on my dad’s side, they’re in Russia. I’ve blocked them everywhere. They have their own version of the truth. We are living ours.”

Vika is making millet porridge and frying eggs. She’s a waitress, but her café is closed. She spent today gathering bits for her avocado plants—she’s grown one from a seed, but now she needs pebbles for drainage, and you can’t get down to the beach because of the mines. Vika grows avocados and lemons.

She walks down to Vera Grigorievna’s, one floor below. Vera Grigorievna is 85 and has been reading Agatha Christie mysteries all day every day since the war began, one book after another. She is nearly deaf.

Vera Grigorievna says:

“Let Putin take over this country! I don’t agree with freedom at the cost of one’s life. You can’t imagine how hard it is to live in a country that you hate. It makes me sick to my stomach. Ukraine should be united with Russia. I told the patrol men, I’m a spy, I said. A spy for whom? For the Russians! Such a mean look he gave me. They closed the cafeteria that gave out meals to pensioners. It kept us going. I’ve lived through famine and repression, and now this. But I still want to be with Russia. There’s many people who want that. But they’re scared. What are they scared of? They’re just used to being scared, that’s how they are. Independent Ukraine? It’s dependent on everybody. It’s a pauper, that’s what it is.”

“Vera Grigorievna, they’re bombing Kyiv,” Vika tells her.

“Bombing? Kyiv? I don’t believe you, Vika.”

Vera Grigorievna sits down to eat. Vika sits beside her. Vika is 17, a sweep of pink eyeshadow fanning out toward her temples. She comes from Mozhniakovka in Luhansk. Her father is in Kharkiv, being shelled. Her mum is in Luhansk People’s Republic.

“I’ve got too many relations. Twenty of them, all scattered around the country. I was supposed to go to technical college in Starobelsk, but it’s been bombed. I don’t sleep at night now, just when it’s almost morning. I won’t say what I think. I grew up in Molzhniakovka, it’s only fifteen hundred people. You walk down the street and you get asked, are you for Russia or Ukraine? You say Russia, you get beaten up. Say Ukraine, you get beaten up. You have to figure out what you can say to whom. I just keep quiet.”

Vera Grigorievna is eating. Vika is brushing the cat’s fur.

“What do you dream about?”

“Nothing nice, just garbage.”

“Try and think about that dream you had, of flying over Odessa,” Vika says. “May I borrow some Agatha, to read later?”

“Of course you can, you don’t need to ask,” says Vera Grigorievna.

Vika starts washing up. Vera Grigorievna brings some envelopes in from another room. The envelopes are so old they’re falling apart. “Mom,” “friends,” “wedding” read the hand-written notes on the back of the photographs inside. The black-and-white faces are serene. Vera Grigorievna thinks carefully as she chooses which of the dead she will take with her to safety in the bomb shelter, when she goes.

 —Translated from the Russian by Ilona Yazhbin Chavasse

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