An odyssey in Odessa. It’s full of surprises — and some risk.

17 May 2022 By Paul Martin

The ongoing Russian invasion does not seem to have dampened his enthusiasm. “It’s one of the best places all over the world, where all ethnic groups feel free and don’t need to hide their identity.  And that’s why we feel so happy here.”

Daniel Oks, congregant. Outside the Chabad shul in Odessa. F IMG 1286
Staying positive: Daniel Oks on Osipova Street

All this positivity makes me wonder if people here are in denial.  After all, there are Russian forces close to the nearest Black Sea port, Mykolayiv, to Odessa’s east, and if it were to fall there would be a route for Russian forces from occupied Crimea to storm through to Odessa and potentially capture their biggest prize yet.  On May 8 and 9 (when this city was in total lockdown for 36 hours) Odessa was struck by seven long-range Russian missiles, one of which smashed into a hotel.

The day after the international grain deal, Russia also launched seven missiles into the port area itself.

I walk through the centre of this city, with its elegant buildings and facades.  

It’s obviously in wartime mode.  Most of Odessa’s precious statues have been covered by sandbags to protect them from any shrapnel damage (that won’t help if there’s a direct hit, of course).  And there are opaque barriers preventing any access to the sea, or to the famous Potemkin Steps, which lead down to the port.  Here, in 1925, the renowned Odessa-born movie-maker Sergei Eisenstein filmed the battle-scene of ‘The Battleship Potemkin’.

The steps would now provide an entry for Russian forces to penetrate from land or sea. 

A 19-year-old soldier forbids anyone to enter.

Young soldier stands guard to block entry to famous Steps in Odessa IMG 1325
On guard: A 19-year-old soldier blocks the way to the famous Potemkin Steps

I ask if I can go just two doors inside the barrier to interview the press officer of the Tourism Ministry in its city office.  “It’s been closed since the war started, but you can phone it,” a local tells me. Tourism pre-Russian-invasion was a mainstay of this famous city, especially in summer.

Most unusually, the solider guarding the checkpoint – which here they call a “block-post” — allows his photo to be taken.

I start taking photos of the pleasant parts of the city, sometimes a surprise, like mosaic fun statues outside a cafe.

 There are also lines of German ambulances outside a cafe where I get a cheese-and-tomato pizza.

I decide that, for a real story on realities in Odessa, I should picture the sea and the port.  But snapping it from a bridge, albeit from long distance, produces an angry response from the Ukrainian security forces below.  They threaten to arrest and lock me up as a suspected spy.  Eventually they relent and an intelligence officer explains: “You see, we’ve caught several spies paid by Moscow, and they’re mainly French, never British.  We like Boris Johnson.  Tell him thank you.”  He gives me his mobile phone number “in case you get in to trouble again – get whoever arrests you to phone me.”

I realise the port could be targeted, and the Russian navy is blocking Ukraine’s vital exports of wheat and other agricultural and industrial products, as well as preventing the import of arms from the sea.  But surely, I am thinking, the Russian can see everything from military satellites, and from Google maps, for that matter?

It was not the first time I had attracted police attention in Odessa.   When I first arrived in the city, after a long land journey from neighbouring Moldova (of course there are no working airports in Ukraine).  I had taken a tram-ride towards the train station. At the tram terminus I was using my iPhone to snap a sign reading ‘Welcome to Odessa’ in English – perfect for an introduction to my reportage.   

Four policemen had suddenly turned up alongside me. “No photos.”  I suppose, on reflection, maybe a tram terminus could be a target for Russian bombs.  “You’re a spy,” said a policeman in Russian. “No,” I said in English. “Ah but you just understood the word ‘spy’ – in Russian.” I pointed out that it was easy to guess what the word ‘spion’ meant. (Also, I once made a film, about Boris Yeltsin, in what was then the Soviet Union, but I certainly would not tell him that!)

’“Are you carrying drugs?” he continued.  I tried, very unwisely, to be witty.  “No, they’re in my hotel.”  No-one laughed. The police, showing identification, confiscated phone, examining my Messages and Whatsapp.  As we waited for a police-van, I was allowed to buy coffee from a street stall.  I offered to buy them a cuppa each.  They declined.

In the van I was squashed up against a large metal plate covering the right-hand back door, and a grill between me and the driver.  Just one of several police-vans I had been detained in (Iraq, South Africa, Gaza, etc.) while on journalistic duty in zones of conflict, but still it felt rather unpleasant. 

At a back desk deep inside the police-station, the same cops were going through my wallet — looking, they said, for banknotes from Russia, and examining every single receipt in my wallet to see if I’d been there. 

A thud, which they told me was an incoming missile some distance away.  A policeman brought me a flack-jacket. “Danger,” he said.   

“Just a journalist,” the intelligence policeman eventually stated in Ukrainian, sounding disappointed.  He allowed me to re-pack the spreadeagled contents of my wallet and remove the flack-jacket. 

“Be careful what you photograph,” they warned. “How about a selfie with you guys?” I enquired, a touch sarcastically.  “No thanks.” 

Later, an American who had helped the Ukrainians train at an airport to the north, guides me around the town.   We walk though a tree-lined park, from which it was easy to see the container port.

 No problem, it seems, to photograph from there.  We pass a huge stadium, advertising forthcoming (now cancelled) football games, and displaying a poster for the Tour de France cycle race.

At the edge of the park is a large metal heart, painted red, into which the public had been stuffing scribbled notes.  Presumably they were asking for peace and safety, or maybe just love.

In a nearby square we meet two lyca-clad cyclists. 

One of them, Viktoriia Bondorenko, is Ukraine’s cycling champion, no less.  “I have a gun and of course I know how to use it,” she tells me.  “We dream to finish this and to come back to our life – swimming, taking hikes, and fun cycles.”

Then she makes a standard Ukrainian plea.  “We need you to help us.  We’re ready for fighting here in Odessa, but we lack weapons.  Bring us the best of the best.  I need some body armour, for example.”  She and her fellow-rider pedal off, to go training for the next international event – though she thinks they have somewhat more pressing engagements now right here.

Are any other famous sportspeople still in Ukraine, I ask her.  She WhatsApps another sportswoman, Ukraine’s karate champion Anita Serogina, who agrees to be interviewed.  We drive off in my American friend’s four-by-four about 30 miles south-east, to the town of Chornomorsk.  Another enforced visit to a police-station, this time mercifully short, then free passage around the town is granted. Its large port is of course closed.  We drive through what a local tells us was Lenin Square, now renamed and bearing only a grey lamp-post. 

At the Katana club Anita, 32, tells us a similar story of innocence lost, and weaponry needed.

  “I used to never think about politics, let alone war.  Now, though, I carry a gun and I know how to use it,” Anita says.  “We’re ready.”

I order a taxi from Chornomorsk to exit Ukraine that evening across the border with Moldova, but the taxi driver calls back to cancel – he’s worried he won’t get back from the two-hour drive before the 9pm curfew.

My American acquaintance, rather exasperated by my penchant for being stopped by the security services, drops me at the Odessa railway station, suggesting I should leave town on the overnight train to Kyiv.  However, it has gone.  After half an hour in the rain, I find a taxi.  We do a hotel crawl – all are closed — until mercifully we find one that’s open, the elegant Hotel Bristol.

I head for an 8am rendezvous with a bus (coach) that will carry refugees from Mykolayiv to Moldova and then Romania.  One boy climbs aboard carrying a large cello. His mother declines my request to photograph her or him. 

One of the rescue team is Nellie Kuznetsova, a 27-year-old civil engineer in her pre-war job, now working for a US medical charity.

“At first we were much more scared than now. Supermarkets were closed, we were worried about food, and pharmacies were closed.   Life is tough but I’m managing,” she tells me.

What’s the biggest thing you miss, I ask her.  “It’s that all the theatres are closed. No plays, no music.”

What are her ambitions, I enquire.  “Ambitions? I can only plan for today or tomorrow. No-one has any big career plans.  The one plan we have is to save our country… and to survive.”

I hitch a ride in the ambulance that’s accompanying the refugee bus to help it pass the checkpoints and to circumvent queues of civilian vehicles.  Its only other passenger, Masha Scavalanovich, has just tearfully hugged her husband good-bye.  She was able to be with him for two precious days, to enjoy a short snippet of marital life. She had returned to Odesa for the first time since she had fled to Moldova at the start of the war.

She tells me: “My husband insists it’s safer for me to go back to Moldova, and to look after my two dogs and the rest of our relatives who’ve also fled. I hope we can all return very soon — to a free Ukraine.”

 As we drive, Masha tells me her mother her parents refuse to leave their home much further east, close to the current epicentre of the war.

“I suppose you may say that some good things have come out of this war — it’s allowed us to feel so much closer together, and to care for everyone.  But much more will come if we can only get to peace.”

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