Anger Grows in Ukraine’s Port City of Odesa after Russian Bombardment Hits Beloved Historic Sites

AP Photo/Jae C. Hong
A man works on the rubble of an apartment building destroyed in Russian missile attacks in Odesa, Ukraine, Sunday, July 23, 2023.

ODESA, Ukraine (AP) — Tetiana Khlapova’s hand trembled as she recorded the wreckage of Odesa’s devastated Transfiguration Cathedral on her cellphone and cursed Russia, her native land.

Khlapova was raised in Ukraine and had always dreamed of living in the seaside city. But not as the war refugee that she has become.

In only a week, Russia has fired dozens of missiles and drones at the Odesa region. None struck quite as deeply as the one that destroyed the cathedral, which stands at the heart of the city’s romantic, notorious past and its deep roots in both Ukrainian and Russian culture.

“I am a refugee from Kharkiv. I endured that hell and came to sunny Odesa, the pearl, the heart of our Ukraine,” said Khlapova, who has lived in the country for 40 of her 50 years.

Her neck still has a shrapnel scar from the third day of the war, when her apartment was hit. On Day 4, she fled to Odesa.

Now, she’s making a quick trip back to her place in Kharkiv to grab winter clothes so she can wait out the war in Ireland, “because here we are not protected for a single second, in any city.”

“At any moment, you can just be hit and your whole body will be torn apart,” she said. “After the war ends — and I believe that Ukraine will defeat this filth, these vampires — I will come back home. I will return, no matter what.”

Ever since Ukraine gained independence from Moscow in 1991, Odesa viewed itself differently than the country’s other major cities because of its long, conflicted history and an outlook that stretched far beyond its borders.

Odesa’s past is intertwined with some of Russia’s most revered figures, including Catherine the Great, author Leo Tolstoy and poet Anna Akhmatova.

Its ports were key to last year’s international agreement that let Ukraine and Russia ship their grain to the rest of the world. Its Orthodox cathedral belongs to Moscow’s patriarchate. Its residents largely speak Russian. And -– at least until the Kremlin illegally annexed the nearby Crimean Peninsula in 2014 -– its beaches were beloved by Russian tourists.

In the war’s early weeks, rumors seeded by Kremlin propaganda flew around the city: Moscow would never hit the historic center, the mayor had loaded a boat filled with roses to greet Russian soldiers, a silent majority of residents were waiting for a Russian “liberation.”

They were false.

“To this day, if you read and monitor Russian channels, all of them are absolutely convinced that we are waiting for them here,” said Hanna Shelest, a political and security researcher raised in Odesa whose father is a harbormaster.

Odesa’s regional infrastructure was hit repeatedly by Russia over the winter, unlike its port, which was key to the Black Sea Grain Initiative that allowed agricultural products to be shipped safely from both countries to feed people around the world.

The region’s silos were full when Russia pulled out of the agreement in mid-July. Missiles and drones struck the next day, taking aim at storage sites, transportation infrastructure and random buildings. Ukraine’s air defenses deflected most of the hits, but every day a handful made it through.

Last week’s attacks marked the first time Odesa’s historic city center was hit since the war started.

Mayor Hennadii Trukhanov was unequivocal in a furious video message directed to Russians after Sunday’s strike on the cathedral, showing rescue workers carefully removing a damaged icon from the ruins.

“If you only knew how much Odesa hates you. Not only hates you. Despises you. You’re fighting small children, the Orthodox church. Your rockets even fall on cemeteries,” he said. “You must hardly know us Odessans. You will not break us, just make us angrier.”

Another missile crashed into the House of Scientists, a mansion that once belonged to the Tolstoy family and was transformed into an institution to unite scholars and researchers. A third hit administrative and apartment buildings.

The targets were within 200 meters (yards) of the port. Shelest believes the cathedral was hit by accident, but that’s little consolation amid the destruction.

Since Catherine the Great transformed Odesa into an international seaport in 1794, the city’s identity has as its foundations the sea, cosmopolitan tolerance and an innate sense of humor. It had one of Europe’s largest concentrations of Jews, who before a series of pogroms made up about a quarter of the population, and large communities of Greek and Italian sailors whose descendants remain to this day.

A week of attacks shook those foundations for Iryna Grets, who counts at least three generations of family in the city.

“Every morning, I go to the sea, to witness the sunrise. But today, I didn’t have the strength to go to the sea because we didn’t sleep all night. You see, we haven’t been sleeping all week,” said Grets, who decided instead to visit each site bombarded on Sunday.

She started at the cathedral, at the center of life in Odesa. The original structure was destroyed under Josef Stalin in 1936 as part of his campaign against religion. When Ukraine gained independence, residents took up a fund to restore it to its original condition. In 2010, the new building was consecrated by Patriarch Kirill, leader of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Kirill, whose church has aligned itself with Russian President Vladimir Putin, has since repeatedly justified the war in Ukraine.

“Each rocket that today arrives on the territory of Ukraine is perceived by its inhabitants as your ‘blessing’ on their children,” Archbishop Viktor Bykov, the vicar of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s Odesa Diocese, wrote in an open letter to Kirill.

The bitter pilgrimage by Grets had less to do with religion than with mourning, and many others made the same trip on Sunday. Some attended a service outside the damaged cathedral. Even more came to clear debris, instead of enjoying the famed beaches despite the beckoning summer sun.

“This is my city, it’s a part of me, it’s my soul, it’s my heart,” Grets said.

Then, fury overcoming her, she abruptly switched to Ukrainian: “Odesa will never be part of Russia.”