A City on The Edge of Destruction
Odessa is tattered, majestic, and still with us—for now.
Nicholas Clairmont is the life and arts editor of the Washington Examiner Magazine. He writes a weekly column on words—a recent one, about “balloonism” cited both Nietzsche and the Bolognese research physician Luigi Galvani—and is the kind of friend you turn to to ask what book you ought to read next.
So when we heard he had hopped on a plane (and car and ferry) to Ukraine we were a little bit surprised. Aren’t critics supposed to stay behind their desks?
We’re very glad he decided to go. Below, his dispatch from Odessa, a city that’s bracing for war—but still hasn’t forgotten to offer cognac to perfect strangers. — BW
We’re fighting Curfew O’Clock, which is 9 p.m., and we’re rushing to make it in time for the first Passover seder. We scurry past the sandbags and barbed wire that surround what in ordinary times are some of the great tourist attractions of this epic city: the Potemkin Steps, the opera house, the boulevard of Venetian architectural masterpieces on one side and benches overlooking the Black Sea on the other. Through the tattered, lyrical beauty of Odessa, we follow the rabbi, an enormous presence named Wolf, past the many layers of security, past a lingering ambulance.
One of the architectural masterpieces is the Hotel Londonskaya. Anton Chekhov stayed here. So did the American dancer Isadora Duncan. So did Vladimir Putin.
Tonight, in the hotel’s ornate green marble-columned lobby, the lights are off—the better to keep the Russian bombers away. Passports and keycards and matzos are exchanged in dim light. I’m shown somewhere to sleep—a double that I’ll be sharing with another journalist. We’re instructed to use only the bathroom light, not the main light, and to keep the curtains drawn.
We proceed down to the grand and fortunately windowless ballroom (so we can eat with the lights on). The crowd at the seder is 70 or 80 percent male—many Ukrainian women have fled the country; men are forbidden from doing so. At our table is a Chechen Jew in a skullcap with the physique of someone who bullies oak trees. There’s a gynecologist and oncologist who name checks a number of American writers—an intellectual. He likes O. Henry. There’s an underdressed guy who looks exhausted, just back from the combat zone, where he is an ambulance driver. He’s from Lviv, and he says he has a sister who went to Russia decades ago. She tells him not to worry, the Russians are coming to free him from the Ukrainian Nazis she’s heard about on TV. He FaceTimed her from Kyiv on the second day of the invasion to show her that she’d been lied to, but she’s in too deep. The doctor tells me journalists shouldn’t go any farther east—they’ll wind up in the ambulance driver’s ambulance, or worse. The ceremony is three hours long. “It’s very difficult, but we will leave our Egypt,” the rabbi says.
Of course, with the bombers overhead, Passover takes on a special significance. How is this night different from any other? Brother, where do I start?
We’re maybe 90 minutes from where the line at Mykolaiv has to hold lest the word Odessa become like the word Grozny, a city turned into a byword for slaughter. Or more likely Leningrad—starvation. Two main bridges provide road access to this port city, and they have to stay open. It’s down to that. The Russians, after suffering a series of setbacks in the north, near Kyiv, are regrouping.
Odessa right now is sandwiched between one bombing raid and another that looms, but maybe, hopefully, won’t come. The Ukrainians I met were sure they would prevail. The mall is open. (You have to get cash in the basement, because most of the stores that have stayed open don’t take credit cards.) There are still people buying groceries, going in and out of their apartment buildings, having a drink in a bar. But at night the fact that it’s a war zone is more obvious. That’s when you really remember that every single aspect of life here is pervaded by the reality that this place simply may not be here one day soon.
The morning after the seder, I wake up groggy from some very good kosher Ukrainian cognac given to me by a very pretty blond with a suspicious number of passports. I step outside—I have to exit the Londonskaya through a maze past what was once the spa and sauna complex but is now a bomb shelter. Good to know, since five minutes out the door into a brisk sunny morning where I first see Odessa in the light of day, the air raid sirens go off. No one ducks for cover. A woman walking her black lab doesn’t miss a step.
In the light of day, Odessa is normal except when it isn’t. At the old book exchange, the traditional site for exchanging contraband and gray market currency on a boulevard surrounded by cafés and restaurants, you can forget that, draped under camouflage a few blocks away, sits a tank, hiding from aerial targeting and ready to defend this place from other tanks not that far off. There’s a place for fine Italian dining two blocks from the hotel, which you have to duck under a barricade to enter. (I stopped in but had dinner at a Chinese joint.)
Under the circumstances, you sort of want a killer for mayor, and Odessa has one. Mayor Gennadiy Trukhanov is as bald as Jada Pinkett Smith, and he looks like the skin from a human finger was stretched over a bullet. If you Google him you’ll find pictures of the mayor posing with pistols, and prominent articles labeling him “Odessa’s criminal mayor,” a formulation that he may or may not disapprove of. He runs a chain of Thai boxing gyms, and he used to be known as a local pro-Russian mobster, but now he’s known as a local pro-Ukrainian mobster.
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In a conversation with a few journalists in a basement office below the mayor’s official office, he says, “The majority of Odessans believe this is a European city. It was built by Europeans.” Meaning: it’s not Russian. “More and more the word ‘genocide’ is used in the press,” the mayor adds. “Not without justification.”
The magic of Odessa, he says, is its cosmopolitan heritage, its many cuisines, its hundred-plus spoken languages, its great writers, and, of course, its women, who, he explains, may dress temptingly but maintain their honor and “do not like force.” Midway through the interview a call comes in from the local military headquarters—it’s almost certainly staged—requesting the tactical advice of the mayor, a former Soviet artillery commander. He orders the translators not to translate for the outsiders.
All over the city, on the sides of buildings and concrete reinforcements and the big X-shaped metallic barriers—like the ones the Germans used at Normandy—there’s war messaging. Propaganda. Six or seven different variations of posters encouraging people to sign up for the army, and, in English, one thanking Western celebrities like Ryan Reynolds and Paul McCartney who have dropped into Ukraine to show their support. The soldiers are everywhere, too. The soldiers fall into two categories: Those who look like they’ve used their AK’s before, and those who have yet to figure out how to walk with an automatic rifle slung over their shoulder.
That night, after meeting the mayor, I venture outside the cordon. Just beyond it, I ask another journalist to snap a picture of me. I’m almost embarrassed to ask. Behind me are the opera house and sandbags, foxholes, razor wire, spiked chains to slash the tires of incoming Russian vehicles. We’d had some military police tell us to delete pictures before. This time, a young guy in a uniform takes my phone out of my hands and deletes all of them. I show him my Ministry of Defense accreditation. He says he’s from the Ministry of the Interior. He doesn’t care about the Ministry of Defense. It’s five years in jail for taking pictures right now. He lets me go with a warning.
It’s a rare flash of nerves. Odessans keep their cool. It’s true they may be turned to glass tomorrow, but what can you do about tomorrow? The only thing is, you can’t get booze after three in the afternoon, so we have to procure a bottle from a friend at a restaurant, to keep us distracted late into the night. At night, in Odessa, right now, you need to stay distracted.
In the morning, it’s cold and rainy, so we bag on plans to go to the flea market, where I was hoping we might find the “Russian warship, go fuck yourself” stamps the government issued last week. Instead, we go to the Post Office. The babushka in the Post Office knows what we want before we ask. Everyone wants them. No luck.
Things must have taken a turn for the worse on the front, in Mykolaiv, or on the stretch of rolling fields between there and here, where in the summer old men sell fruit and shashlik, or grilled lamb and beef and chicken kebabs, because all day long, they roll out more anti-tank barriers and razor wire. There are more soldiers, too, more AK’s, more kinetic energy. And fewer ordinary people, civilians, waiters, people strolling, smoking, walking dogs.
We duck into a Crimean Tatar restaurant, as much to escape from the gathering violence as to eat.
I’m supposed to leave Ukraine at some point. Other stories, commitments. The freedom—the privilege—of the outsider, and especially the American outsider, who wades in and out. Observing and reporting on and soaking up other people’s misery.
In the middle of our third or fourth round, I think back to my journey into the country, from neighboring Romania, across the Danube, into this harrowing, beautiful city. A Ukrainian man I had met shortly after stepping foot in his country offered me a ride in his Camry. His wife and daughter had just returned. They had fled to safety, but they didn’t want to be safe. They wanted to be home, together. They were overjoyed to see each other. They were very warm toward me in that way that was instantly recognizable to Americans and foreign to us, too. They insisted I let them take me to Odessa. They insisted I sit in the front passenger seat. The girl was 15, and, unlike her parents, she spoke English well.
While we drove, they gave me cognac in a plastic cup and offered me homemade pastries. I was embarrassed to be interrupting their reunion, but they seemed confused by my embarrassment. I told them that I was from New York and that, in cities around the world, millions of people who had never been to Ukraine had taken to brandishing the blue and the gold. The girl, glancing out the window at the farmland, pointed at herself. For us? New York? So keep that flag out.
About five hours later, they deposited me near the military cordon in the city center.
In Odessa, the sun is fading. They’re still celebrating the recent sinking of the Russian ship Moskva in the Black Sea, not far from here. But now the Russians are planning their next assault. The fundamentals have not changed. There are many more of them than the Ukrainians. The brandishers of Ukrainian flags in far away cities like to tell each other that the war will end soon—they seem to be getting a little bored of all the news out of the former Soviet Union—but the Ukrainians know this is a lie. In Odessa, the war is nearby, and it may roll into town next week, or sooner than that, on clanking metal treads.