History has turning points, moments when events shift and the future seems suddenly clear. But history also has in-between points, days and weeks when everything seems impermanent and nobody knows what will happen next. Odesa in the summer of 2022 is like that—a city suspended between great events. The panic that swept the city in February, when it seemed the Russian invaders might win quickly, already feels like a long time ago. Now the city is hot, half empty, and bracing itself for what comes next.
Some are preparing for the worst. Odesa endured a 10-week German and Romanian siege during the Second World War, then a three-year occupation; the current mayor, Gennadiy Trukhanov, told me that the city is now filling warehouses with food and medicine, in case history repeats itself. On July 11, Ukrainian security services caught a Russian spy scouting potential targets in the city. On July 23, Russian bombs hit the Odesa docks, despite an agreement reached just the previous day to restart grain exports. The beautiful waterfront, where the Potemkin Stairs lead down to the Black Sea, remains blocked by a maze of concrete barriers and barbed wire. Russian-occupied Kherson, where you can be interrogated just for speaking Ukrainian, is just a few hours’ drive away.
In the meantime, pedestrians stroll past the Italian facades in Odesa’s historic center and drink coffee beneath umbrellas. The Ukrainian novelist Andrey Kurkov recently wrote that “I used to pay a lot of attention to time, using it as effectively as possible.” Now, instead, “I pay attention to the war.” In Odesa, people also pay attention to the war, obsessive attention; some of those I met have installed apps on their phones that echo the air-raid sirens. But then they switch off the sound when their phones start to howl. Fear becomes normalized, until eventually it becomes another part of the background noise. My hotel had an air-raid shelter, a windowless room, but no one went there during air raids. “You’ll be lucky or unlucky,” the porter told me. No point in trying to escape fate. [Continue reading…]