The Torment of Odesa

The Ukrainian city has been hit with rocket attacks, rumors of rocket attacks, and much else.

People observe a cloud of smoke from a fire in the background after a missile strike

A most predictable rocket attack hit Odesa today—announced shortly before it happened by an air-raid alert on my phone, but also a full day before, when Russia and Ukraine struck a tentative deal to let Ukraine ship grain from Odesa and two other ports. This morning, rockets landed at the port itself, which was soon in flames. Russia could not let a point of accord pass without spicing it up with discord. Let no agreement blossom into celebration. From my stairwell in Odesa, I heard the thumps of incoming rockets, and of a few fired out to intercept them. An hour later, the all-clear sounded, and I went out. On the street, people looked not especially shaken, not especially surprised, and maybe a little pissed off.

For a time, Odesa thought it would bear a heavier burden in this war than it has. The February blitz on Kyiv was supposed to end the war for the Russians fast. When it didn’t, a sea assault on Odesa seemed a logical next step for Russia, but it never happened, and instead Ukraine’s key port city has suffered as much from anticipation of attacks as from attacks themselves. The last big round of strikes was earlier this month, when Ukraine retook Snake Island, the site of the “Russian warship, go fuck yourself” radio transmission that has become a slogan. (Yesterday at the grocery store, I saw coffee sold under that brand.) Russia gave up the island but lobbed rockets at an apartment block south of Odesa on the way out, killing 21 people.

Yesterday I wandered Odesa’s waterfront, looking out over a Black Sea I had seen only from other countries’ coastlines, looking back at a city I had previously only imagined. Some of that city remains imaginary to me, because it is blocked off for security reasons. The stairs from Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin—the site of the film’s notorious civilian massacre, involving a pram tumbling down the steps—are girded for defense, and not available for strolls (although I saw a family with a baby stroller nearby, walking without apparent irony). Odesa is known for its beaches. Not this year. The shore is taped off, portions of it mined and otherwise prepped for Russian frogmen. Slightly inland, one can watch a dolphin show (about two dozen kids attended; dolphins jumped out of their pool, took brushes in their mouths, and painted a Ukrainian flag, in exchange for fish). The opera played yesterday evening, a production of Gluck’s Orfeo, whose staging was modern because Orpheus wore VR goggles to simulate his descent into Hades, and also because the seaward facade of the opera house is buttressed with sandbags and gunports.

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. According to the terms, Russia will get to check incoming vessels for weapons, Ukraine will send out grain for 120 days, and these vessels will be able to navigate the mined waters of the Black Sea. It’s hard to overstate the range of first- and second-order consequences of this deal, given the global rise in food prices. Poor countries need that grain to eat, and richer countries have brokered influence using their hunger. (Saudi Arabia, for example, has sent food aid to Egypt, as a way to diversify its influence away from oil.)

Yet Russia’s desire to punish Ukraine means that it will not allow the country a victory under any circumstances. Russia may have to let the grain out, but it can still choose to make life less bearable in the city that ships it.

Ukrainians fear that Russia is making the deal as a way to poke holes in the southern underbelly of Ukraine, and possibly go after Odesa itself. The apparent lack of comity signaled by a rocket attack literally hours after the deal is only one reason for cynicism. Odesa is, like other major Ukrainian cities, filled with ethnic Russians alienated from Russia by the war. But unlike some of those ethnic Russians—from Donbas, say, or Kharkiv—they have not experienced their own city’s physical destruction. Instead it 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 overseas to safety.

I came here three days ago. About half of the train compartments on the direct line to Odesa from the Polish border contained children, to whom volunteers at the border (weirdly, from a cultish vegan sect based in Taiwan) gave 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 Odesa railway station, Odesans were arriving and smelling this city’s sea air for the first time in months. Reunited families and lovers exchanged flowers and kisses and gifts. Many Odesans have come home. But not, of course, to quite the city they left.