February 25, 2022

A Letter from Odesa–Baltimore sister city in Ukraine

Julia Gorodetskaya
My “anxiety suitcase” sits near my apartment door. It’s a backpack, and these are the contents:  personal documents, cash, warm clothes, a first aid box, nicotine gum, some snacks, and a water bottle.  Bags like this have been prepared in many Ukrainian homes. All my electronic devices are fully charged all the time.

Russia has not announced its war in Ukraine, and living under the threat is like being in a horror movie created by a mad director. We know there is a very real possibility of an attack. 

Odesa – my hometown and true love – is one of the most vital regions of Ukraine and one of its major Black Sea ports. It’s already suffering from an unofficial sea blockade, caused by Russian Navy exercises in the Black Sea. The Russians  have held these military games every year since 2014, when they annexed Crimea and backed a separatist rebellion on Ukraine’s eastern border. But they never took over so much  of the international waters as this time. Unofficially, there are alternative sea corridors for the shipping trade , but they are shallow and require expert piloting to use. Ukrainian export firms have lowered their prices to compensate for the higher insurance rates and trade is continuing..But now it  takes much more time to get to from the ports that surround Odesa –  the so-called “Ports of Greater Odesa” – Pivdennyi, Mukolaiv, Chornomorsk and Kherson – to Odesa.  Still they’re shipping  90 percent of the Ukraine’s grain  and a great quantity of metallurgical products to customers abroad.. 

Odesa has a symbolic meaning to Russians.  Centuries ago, it was recognized as the southern capital of the Russian Empire. Even then, it was more free, more light-hearted, multicultural, and independent than other cities in metropolitan Russia or its colonies. 

Built by prominent European architects, it is incredibly beautiful even after 70 years of the Soviet Union and 30 years of the financial austerity in the post-Soviet era. You could call it a small New York in spirit, even though Yiddish, Greek, Italian, and other languages are no longer  heard in the street.  Because the principal language is Russian, Russians think that the city may still belong to them. But it does not. Odesa is Ukraine. It chose Ukrainian freedom over Russia many times.

Odesa can come under attack at any time. And at the same time, now we somehow need to live our everyday lives: to work, shop, send kids to school, try not to catch the COVID virus, which is now at its peak. Planning anything is a surreal experience. One of my Facebook friends shared that he has a dental appointment on February 16. He asked his dentist to reschedule because of the possibility of a big war; The dentist replied: “Putin may still rethink whether he will attack, your cavities definitely won’t.” And that’s a reality we live in. 

Most Ukrainians prefer not to talk about the war at all or they joke about it constantly. And despite the Omikron surge, the restaurants and bars of Odesa are fuller than ever. “We are trying to eat away our fear,” – jokes one of my friends – “it’s a “war disorder.” 

Some of the bars are located in basements, and they could serve as bomb shelters, as we practically don’t have the real ones. Officially, there are 353 basement shelters in the city. They were created at the time of the Soviet Union. But since then, we have never really needed them. So frankly speaking, most of them are unusable. Odesa’s mayor, Gennadiy Trukhanov, acknowledged the fact at a news conference on Monday. So  sheltering in  bars, – the “bars plan”–  seems not only funny but also rational.

The mayor promised to install loudspeakers across the city – in case cell coverage fails. But it may take about two months to set up, and the attack can happen any moment. Fortunately, the military sirens definitely work.

When Russia invaded Crimea and sent “volunteers” into  the eastern part of the country, the Ukrainian Army was ineffective and not very popular. Since then, the situation has changed dramatically. In eight years, we’ve already lost 14,000 fighters. That’s a tragic price we paid for being Russia’s neighbor and former colony. If Putin’s army tries a bigger invasion, the losses could be overwhelming. 

But most of us are not going to leave. Unlike some oligarchs and politicians who already fled to the West, most Ukrainians have nowhere else to go. And a significant number don’t want to. It’s our country; it’s our land. So people in the  civil professions and all ages (including the grandparents in retirement are now training in combat first aid and learning to shoot small arms, just in case. We set our meeting places and check out the locations in advance. And all of us hope with all our hearts that the man in the Kremlin will not succeed. 

Julia Gorodetskaya was born in Odesa and worked as a news editor, photographer and translator.  She now divides her time between Odesa and New York.

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