Odesa is a city of many stories and different souls. In 2022, during the Russian invasion, new stories were born that surprised even its inhabitants.

Odesa was historically the Naples of the Black Sea, capital of thieves and mercenary love. But also a rich city developed by French and Greek mayors, embellished by Italian and Swiss architects. City of sailors and Jewish writers. Under the tsarist empire, it was the bourgeois capital, where merchants were more important than aristocrats were, a cultural rival to St. Petersburg. Then, in the USSR, it became the capital of cinema and the hotbed of some of the greatest Soviet musicians.

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With such a diverse past, what could one expect from the city where Russian is still spoken on the streets and in the family, and where one in five residents has relatives in Russia? Well, Odesa turned out to be patriotic and generous to its country. The sense of belonging to Ukraine was no surprise to those who know the city. In the last municipal elections, the pro-Russian party had dropped to 20 percent, but more importantly, the city’s ruling class – entrepreneurs, managers, and intellectuals – had long since chosen Ukraine, a country of political freedom and freedom of expression, freedom of enterprise and expatriation, over Moscow’s oppressive regime.

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On the morning of Feb. 24, the city awoke in shock under intense missile bombardment. Residents immediately flocked to supermarkets to stock up on food and water, but in an orderly manner, without panic. Everyone had to make a decision that day: to stay or to leave?

ISW Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, March 1, 2024
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ISW Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, March 1, 2024

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In the following weeks, at least a third of the inhabitants left the city for the Moldovan border, some by train to Lviv. They were mostly women and minor children, and many foreigners, urged on by their embassies. However, most residents remained in the city, at risk of attack from land, air and sea.

The fear of the almost inevitable arrival of the Russians was great. From the sea, the Black Sea Fleet appeared threatening and occasionally fired on the coastal neighborhoods. Russian troops were pressing on Mykolaiv and it was unpredictable how much the heroic resistance of that city would hold them back. The enemy’s plan was clear. To encircle the city and re-join the Russian troops present in Transnistria. If Mykolaiv fell, the next target would be Odesa.

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Communal workers dismantle a statue of Russian Empress Catherine the Great in the center of Odesa southern Ukraine on December 29 2022 amid Russian invasion of Ukraine. Odesa city council supported the dismantling of the monument as the city held a vote on this issue. According to the mayor of Odesa the majority of residents who voted supported the idea of dismantling the monument and transferring it to a museum. Oleksandr GIMANOV / AFP

Nevertheless, the Odessans reacted swiftly. Already a few hours after the attack the recruiting offices were full of volunteers waiting in line, far too many for the number required by the armed forces. And those who could not wear uniforms banded together in volunteer associations to collect and sort humanitarian aid. Many others donated much-needed blood for the wounded.

Families began cooking meals at home to take to refugees, about 200,000, arriving in Odesa from other Russian-occupied regions. Restaurants organized themselves to prepare regularly daily meals for soldiers deployed in the city’s defenses. Groups of housewives gathered in military centers to sew camouflage nets for military points with pieces of fabric from scraps offered by stores.

Meanwhile, the citizens of Odesa were contributing to their city’s defense. People of all ages gathered on the beach to fill sandbags to protect museums and buildings, while an impromptu rock concert, accompanied their work. This chain of generosity has never stopped. For example, the city of Mykolaiv, deprived of water due to bombardments, is continuously supplied from Odesa.

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Many musicians abandoned the city, but those who remained played concerts to keep up the morale of the citizenry and raise funds for the armed forces. In summer, the Opera House reopened, offering performances to a closed number of spectators, who could be recovered in the basement in case of a missile attack.

Soldiers returning from the front found a city that, after the first months of total curfew, was back to life, almost as if the war were not there. This was not because of thoughtlessness, but because of the Ukrainian characteristic of laughing in the face of the enemy and being able to joke even in times of trouble, of refusing to despair. A show of strength and courage. A sort of “Tel Aviv effect.”

Then came the emergency of the blackouts. In this instance, too, Odessans showed their generosity and solidarity by helping families without electricity and adapting to the emergency with coolness. Those who had power generators offered space for others who needed it.

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Finally, Odesa rediscovered its importance to the Ukrainian economy through the “Grain Corridor” established by the United Nations, with mediation assistance from Turkey. Thanks to Odesa’s maritime logistics professionals, exports of wheat, corn, barley, soybeans and sunflower seeds have saved many populations from starvation and Ukrainian agriculture from disaster.

If anyone doubted Odesa’s loyalty to Ukraine before Feb. 24, rest assured – there can be no more doubt today.

 

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