Tetiana Khlapova’s hand trembled and she cursed her native Russia as she recorded the ruins of Odessa’s ruined Transfiguration Cathedral on her cellphone. Khlapova grew up in Ukraine and always dreamed of living by the sea. But she did not become a war refugee. Within a week, Russia fired dozens of missiles and drones into the Odesa region.
Nothing has affected the destruction of the cathedral, which stands at the heart of the city’s romantic and infamous past and has deep roots in Ukrainian and Russian culture.
“I am a refugee from Kharkiv. I endured all that hell and arrived in Odessa, the pearl of our heart UkraineKhlapova, who has lived in the country for 40 out of 50 years, said. She still has a scar on her neck from the third day of the battle that hit her apartment. On the fourth day, she fled to Odessa. Now, she’s making a quick trip to her place in Kharkiv to pick up winter clothes so she can wait out the war in Ireland, “because here for a moment, we’re not protected in any city.”
“At any moment, you can be hit and your whole body will be torn apart,” she said. “After the war is over – I believe Ukraine will defeat these scum, these vampires – I will return home. I will return no matter what.”
Since Ukraine’s independence from Moscow in 1991, Odesa has viewed itself differently from the country’s other major cities because of its long, conflicted history and a perspective that extended beyond its borders.
Odessa’s past is intertwined with some of Russia’s most revered figures, including author Catherine the Great. Leo Tolstoy and the poet Anna Akhmatova.
Its ports were a key part of last year’s international agreement allowing Ukraine and Russia to ship their grain to the rest of the world. Its Orthodox cathedral belongs to the Patriarchate of Moscow.
Its inhabitants mainly speak Russian. And — until the Kremlin illegally annexed the nearby Crimean Peninsula in 2014 — its beaches were popular with Russian tourists.
In the first weeks of the war, rumors flew around the city through Kremlin propaganda: Moscow would never touch the historic center, the mayor took a boat full of roses to greet the Russian soldiers, and the silent majority of residents were waiting for the Russian “liberation”. They were fake.
“To this day, if you read and watch Russian channels, everyone is convinced that we are here waiting for them,” said Hanna Shelest, a political and security researcher who grew up in Odessa, whose father is a harbormaster.
Odessa’s local infrastructure was repeatedly hit by Russia during the winter, unlike its port. Black Sea Grain Initiative Agricultural produce was allowed to be safely exported from both countries to feed people around the world.
After Russia pulled out of the deal in mid-July, the region’s silos were full. The next day, missiles and drones attacked storage areas, transport infrastructure and irregular buildings. Ukraine’s air defenses deflected most of the hits, but a handful got through each day.
Last week’s attacks marked the first time Odessa’s historic city center had been hit since the war began. Mayor Hennadi Trukhanov was unequivocal in an angry video message to Russians after Sunday’s strike at the cathedral, showing rescuers carefully removing a damaged icon from the ruins.
“If only you knew how much Odessa hates you. Don’t just hate you. insulting you You are fighting little children, Orthodox Church. Your rockets even hit cemeteries,” he said. “You don’t know us Odessans. You don’t break us, make us angry.
Another missile hit the House of Scientists, a mansion once owned by the Tolstoy family that had been transformed into an institution for uniting scholars and researchers. The third affected administrative and apartment buildings.
The target was 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 turned Odessa into an international port in 1794, the city’s identity has been based on the sea, cosmopolitan tolerance and an innate sense of humor.
It was one of the largest Jewish centers in Europe, with Jews making up a quarter of the population before the pogroms and large communities of Greek and Italian sailors whose descendants remain today.
A week of attacks by Irina Gretz, whom at least three generations in the city consider family, has shaken that foundation. “Every morning, I go to the sea to witness the sunrise. But tonight I didn’t have the strength to go to the sea because I didn’t sleep all night. Look, we haven’t slept all week,” said Gretz, who instead decided to visit each of the bombing sites on Sunday. She started with the cathedral, the center of life in Odessa.
The original structure was destroyed under Joseph Stalin in 1936 as part of a campaign against religion. When Ukraine gained independence, residents took up a fund to restore it to its original state. In 2010, Patriarch Kirill, leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, consecrated the new building.
The church, which has aligned itself with Russian President Vladimir Putin, has repeatedly justified the war in Ukraine. “Every rocket that lands in Ukraine today is seen by its residents as your blessing on their children,” said Archbishop Viktor Bykov, vicar of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
Gretz’s bittersweet pilgrimage had less to do with religion than mourning, and many others made the same journey on Sunday. Some attended a service outside the damaged cathedral. More and more came to clear the debris instead of enjoying the famous beaches despite the summer sun.
“This is my city, this is a part of me, this is my soul, this is my heart,” Gretz said. Then, anger overpowering her, she suddenly switched to Ukrainian: “Odessa will never be part of Russia.”