The air-raid application went off on our phones around 2 am. During the previous ten days that we spent in Kyiv, we learned to trust the nigh-impregnable air defenses of the Ukrainian capital. Odesa, however, was a different matter. We arrived in the port city two days after the Russians renewed their brutal bombing campaign following their withdrawal from the Black Sea Grain Initiative. We couldn’t immediately shed the feeling of the relative safety of Kyiv: we muted the warning—voiced by Mark Hamill—on our phones and went back to sleep.
The explosion ten minutes later, followed by a bright white flash, occurred so close to our hotel that the windows of our rooms reverberated from the shockwave. Jumping out of bed and grabbing our electronics, wallets, and passports, we quickly followed the arrows pointing us to the shelter. Our guide from Kyiv, Andy, the previous day pointed out to us that the only Ukrainian-language signs in the hotel were the ones guiding the residents to the shelter—everything else was (still) in Russian. The irony was not lost on us.
Our hotel didn’t have a “real” shelter—we took cover in the non-functioning spa in the basement. A blonde woman in her twenties was already lying on a couch in a bathrobe, resting her head on a bunch of pillows that she must have taken from her room. She was sleeping. “Did she come when the sirens went off, or was she already there not wanting to get up in the middle of the evening,” we wondered.
As the onslaught of rockets and drones went on, people continued to slowly trickle in. A middle-aged woman with a toddler. Older men wearing work fatigues. There was no panic, only calm, quiet resignation. Some of them didn’t really look like guests from the hotel. A few dozed off in sitting position, others were tiredly scrolling on their phones. The whole scene, all these quiet, tired people sitting together in a dimly lit room in the small hours reminded us of the waiting room of a rural railway station before dawn. After half an hour the spa was full of “commuters.”
We started checking the Twitter and Telegram channels covering the bombings. “Explosions reported in Odesa RIGHT NOW!” As we gradually learned during our previous stays in war-torn Ukraine, the decision of whether to go to a shelter or not once the sirens started shrieking was a complex one. The most important factor, as in real estate, is location, location, location.
Roughly a year ago, during our first trip to Ukraine the rule of thumb was the following: avoid the city centers, they are prime targets. Instead, stay in the suburbs. However, the massive influx of NATO air-defense systems during the fall and winter of 2022 flipped that equation. Ukraine positioned these new assets to protect major urban centers while suburbs and the agglomeration of big cities are less protected. Moreover, Ukrainian air defenses can sometimes only intercept Russian missiles and drones above the suburbs, resulting in burning metal pieces raining down on the area. During our stay in Kyiv, Andy showed us the recent minor damage to the windows of his apartment complex in Sofiivska Borschahivka—just outside the city limits of Kyiv.
Another loud explosion, this one sounded really close. Generally speaking, urban centers were safer, but the Russians had been throwing everything they had at Odesa since the grain deal went defunct. In Kyiv, Maksym Skrypchenko, president of the Transatlantic Dialogue Center, told us that the massive concentration of Western air defenses around the capital is a source of some resentment elsewhere in Ukraine, where air defense capabilities are more limited. He jokingly added that the Verkhovna Rada was the safest place in Kyiv not just because of the air defenses, but also owing to its close proximity to the Chinese embassy. The Russians would never dare target the Rada with their missiles that tend to miss. By chance, our hotel in Odesa was right next to the local Confucius Institute—we should be safe, right? Well, the next morning we learned that the Chinese Consulate in the port city was also lightly damaged that evening.
More than an hour passed since the beginning of the assault. Andy was already sleeping on a reclining chair next to us. We were still riding our adrenaline wave. According to the Twitter channel “Ukraine Front Lines” the Russians were launching volley after volley of missiles and kamikaze drones at Odesa, Mykolaiv, and Chornomorks—the Ukrainian port cities that were previously covered by the grain deal. Social media is an essential tool in assessing the severity of any air raid. The sirens go off even when a pair of Russian bombers are spotted over the Black Sea. However, no one would take cover in a shelter because of two lousy Tu-22M cruising dozens of miles off the coast. This evening, however, it was a sustained major attack—the third day in a row.
Coming Back to Odesa
A lot has changed in Odesa since our previous visit in January 2023. Arriving by car, we were surprised to see that the military checkpoints set up on the roads leading to the city had been significantly scaled back, the soldiers were only doing random checks instead of thoroughly examining every vehicle. We’d seen the same in Kyiv: most of the patrolling soldiers were gone from downtown, while the tank traps and sandbags on the square in front of our hotel had been replaced by workers planting flowers, bushes, and saplings in the summer heat. The roads were also being repaired in the capital. Plugging potholes and planting geranium has been a source of contention between the major of Kyiv, Vitalij Klicsko, and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy—the latter calling these works a waste of money during the war. The partial road closures made the insane traffic jams in the busy capital even worse: we arrived late at almost every meeting we had.
The return to normalcy was even more marked in Odesa though. The wider area around the opera house felt like a fortified military installation in January complete with patrolling soldiers preventing anyone from taking pictures. Even an innocent selfie with the façade of the opera was strictly verboten during that winter of darkness. Even then, the flame of culture never fizzled out: stumbling on wet cobblestones, with only the built-in flashlights of our phones guiding us, completely disoriented from the deafening roar of the portable generators on the streets we were among the people who made their way to the opera in January to attend a performance of the Barber of Sevilla.
Winter was over now: the electrical grid was fully functional. The generators, like the military installations, were gone, and we could finally take the vaunted picture of the opera house. The Potemkin stairs, immortalized by Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 movie, were still off limits though. However, even this closure projected a sense of normalcy: there were no concrete blocks stacked atop each other as giant Legos, no tank traps, sandbags, or barbed wire. Just a regular five-foot-tall aluminum fence, some tape, and a few small signs.
We expected to find Odesa in a similar shape to the Eastern industrial metropolis of Dnipro—calm, fully “functional,” but at the same time eerily empty. The Pearl of the Black Sea, however, was bustling with life. Families with small children playing in the city garden, merchants selling cotton candy, balloons, and beverages. University-age students drank and sang in packed bars and on the street while queues in front of restaurants offered live music. Nothing indicated that Vladimir Putin renewed his carnage of the port city two days before. If anything, it only boosted the sales of the “Putin Huylo” beer—the drink named after a popular Ukrainian insult comes in a bottle featuring a cartoon of the Russian president in an obscene position. The waiters in Odesa just kept recommending it to us.
One thing was obviously missing from the city though: the statue of Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia (1762–1796) was removed in December, 2022 only to be replaced by a Ukrainian flag.
After the launch of the full-scale invasion in February 2022, popular attitudes toward Russian cultural heritage, as well as towards the Russian language itself went through a seismic shift. According to a Kyiv International Institute of Sociology poll conducted in December 2022, 58 percent of the participants thought that the Russian language was not important at all for citizens of Ukraine. In 2017, three years after the annexation of Crimea, and the beginning of the war in Donbas, only 9 percent of polled Ukrainians thought so. The same survey found that 80 percent of the polled population would like to see Ukrainian as the main language in all spheres of communication. This is despite the fact that only 57 percent claimed to use only or mainly Ukrainian in their everyday life, with 24 percent using both languages equally and 15 percent relying predominantly on Russian.
Such change in attitudes doesn’t come without conflict, and it doesn’t proceed at a uniform pace in a diverse country like Ukraine. Derussification has been steaming ahead in Kyiv since the start of the full-scale invasion: while the Ukrainian capital was already scrapping Pushkin and Tolstoy from its map, the mayor of Odesa opposed the removal of the monument to the Empress of Imperial Russian as late as August 2022.