They have fallen into war like a nightmare from which they can no longer wake up. Since then, the inhabitants of Odessa have been preparing for the Russian offensive. Filigree fear.Posted March 20Photos: Martin Tremblay La Presse
(Odessa) War has petrified the heart of Odessa. The long Potemkin staircase is deserted. At the top, the statue of the Duke of Richelieu is buried under a mound of sandbags. On the terrace of a café, camouflaged behind cedar pots, a tank points its cannon towards the Black Sea.
Only soldiers armed to the teeth and low-looking residents circulate inside this ultra-barricaded perimeter. The elegant cobbled streets are hampered by cement blocks and heavy anti-tank obstacles. At the grandiose National Opera and Ballet Theater, the curtain has fallen, no one is singing anymore. And the silence is terrifying.
Where we used to wander through the windows of luxury boutiques, we now walk cautiously, with the impression of a mirage. Everything seems unreal, as if a director were going to shout “Cut! from one moment to the next.
Serhii Nazarov is appalled. For the young filmmaker, all this has nothing to do with decor. This neighborhood is his. He knows all the secrets. He tells me about the Potemkin staircase, where films are shown outdoors in the summer. He tells me about the Black Sea, which has always had the power to soothe him.
Off the coast of Odessa, Russian warships stand ready to attack. When the time comes, amphibious boats may dock on the beach, part of which has been mined by the Ukrainian army. In case.
Serhii can't believe it yet.
“Can you imagine such a thing in Montreal?
— No, I can't.
—Three weeks ago, I could never have imagined this in Odessa either…”
* * *
On February 24, at dawn, Serhii Nazarov fell into this new reality like a nightmare from which he can no longer wake up. Barely a month earlier, he had celebrated his 27th birthday in Rome. A one and a half hour flight from Odessa. Europe was within reach. Everything still seemed possible, normal, easy.
That morning, he woke up to find out that it was war, but he didn't know what that meant, exactly. Where would the front lines be drawn? What would be the next targets? When ? This is still what worries him the most: not knowing.
But three weeks after the invasion, he already knows more about what it's like to live in war than you and I do.
It's not what you imagine. It is a strange, diffuse fear. A feeling of not being safe anywhere in one's own country.
In Odessa, there are constant predictions of an imminent offensive. On March 6, President Volodymyr Zelensky announced that Russia was planning an attack within days. On March 11, the mayor warned that Russian troops were preparing to surround the city of one million people.
But still nothing. Odessa, a strategic target with its vital port for Ukraine's economy, holds its breath.
Serhii Nazarov cannot flee, as martial law prohibits men from leaving the country. He can't fight, since he broke his knee in a motorcycle accident. Either way, he doesn't really want to. “I make films, me, in life. “Not the war.
* * *
When the warning sirens sounded for the first time in Odessa, at the start of the Russian invasion, Sergey Denga closed his eyes. “Everything was in black and white. In my head, the war happens in black and white, like in old movies. Then I opened my eyes; the sky was blue. »
He found it strange, almost inconceivable; war was far too serious a thing to be played out in color.
A Russian-speaking comedian known beyond the borders of Ukraine, Sergey Denga takes advantage of his notoriety to try to fight the propaganda of Vladimir Putin. He posts videos on YouTube, one of the few platforms that has not yet been censored by the Kremlin.
"You've been brainwashed!" You come home from work, you turn on the TV, you swallow it all and you go to bed, ”he launches in a recent video.
"My goal is to make them understand that propaganda is an even more dangerous weapon than a real weapon," explains the actor, whose wife and 8-month-old twin daughters have found refuge in Poland.
So far, his persuasive efforts have had mixed success. Installed in Moscow, his own brother and sister refuse to believe in the brutal military offensive in Ukraine. They refuse to believe that Sergey Denga is in danger. That their brother could die tomorrow.
They swallow the evening news and, "like zombies", they support President Putin's special operation to liberate Ukraine.
Sergey Denga does not know if he will ever be able to forgive them.
Waiting for the offensive
They want peace, but are preparing for war.
At the Odessa yacht club, in a stretch of beach that has not been mined, there are dozens of them, armed with shovels and jute bags, preparing the fortification of the city they love . In three weeks, they filled 400,000 sandbags.
A human chain forms on the beach. The bags are passed from hand to hand before landing in the dumpster of a truck. They will be used to protect hospitals, banks, checkpoints, but also the jewels of Odessa, starting with its greatest symbol, the National Theater of Opera and Ballet.
They come here every day. Because they need to do something, waiting for the onslaught. To feel useful. To not go crazy. They know that if the Russians bomb, these unfortunate sandbags will offer a very paltry protection to the monuments of Odessa.
But filling all those bags was not wasted. The daily ritual has created bonds. A solidarity has been woven on this stretch of beach swept by the salt spray of the sea.
Every day, Andreï Kharlamov, long hair and a leather jacket, goes down to the beach. "We are doing what we can to protect our city, but we don't have great resources. It is your governments, in Europe and North America, that have the power to stop this. »
He imagines too well that Odessa could suffer the fate of Mariupol, a port city, a martyred city, bombarded, besieged, starved by Russian troops. “All of Ukraine is in danger. There are no safe places in this country. »
If Andrei Kharlamov wants to protect the National Theater of Opera and Ballet, it is not only for its neo-baroque architecture or for the value of the symbol. He works there. In forced unemployment, the singer makes others benefit from his talents. “I was told that stuffing bags was good, but singing was good too. So I do both. »
He sings two to three hours a day, on the beach. It draws from the repertoire of Ukrainian folk songs.
He sings and people sing with him.
And hope is reborn, for a while.
* * *
At 5 a.m. on February 24, a friend woke Mykola Novosolov to tell him the war had begun.
When I realized it was true, I cried for ten minutes without being able to stop. I didn't believe him. It made no sense to me, a war in the heart of Europe, in the 21st century.
Mykola Novosolov, resident of Odessa
Here he is in the damp and cold premises of a training center in Odessa, where he is initiated into the rudiments of war. Surrounded by ordinary Ukrainians, like him, who decided to learn how to handle a Kalashnikov.1/3
There are frail young girls, shy teenagers, fathers. None have military experience, but all hope to give themselves a chance. In case.
“At this very moment, children are dying for no reason in Ukraine,” explains Alex Kotov, a citizen of Odessa. That's what we're here for. We have chosen to be a free people. We want our children to continue to have this choice in the future. This is what we are fighting for. »
His gaze is dark. His words jostle, pressing. “We are fighting, but need help. Close the sky! Only a no-fly zone in the skies of Ukraine, he insists, will prevent a butchery.
Mykola Novosolov will only fight if he is forced to, to defend himself. His family is gone; only his old mother remains in Odessa, too fragile to be evacuated.
If you had told him that one day he would learn to assemble and disassemble an AK-47 in record time, he would not have believed you. “In life, I am an investment consultant in Ukraine…”
He pauses, smiles wistfully: “I don't know if my work will still be relevant in this country. »
Fear in the background
For a long time, the pearl of the Russian-speaking empire was ambivalent in the face of the national question.
During the Maidan revolution in 2014, the Odessa region flirted with the idea of independence for a time, like those of Donetsk and Luhansk, in the east of the country.
The attempted pro-Russian uprising culminated in a clash between Ukrainian nationalist activists and Russian-speaking protesters, who were trapped in a burning building. There were 40 deaths.
The tragedy has calmed everyone down. Ordinary Russian speakers have been annoyed by Kyiv's maneuvers to impose Ukrainian as the country's official language. But never to the point of wanting to be “liberated” by Russia.
“At the beginning, 5% of the inhabitants of Odessa were pro-Russian,” estimates Hanna Iatvetska, herself a Russian speaker, like most members of the city’s Jewish community. “These people thought that if they sat around doing nothing, the Russians would take over the city and everything would be fine. Today, everyone realizes that it could go very badly. Look at the bombings in Kharkiv and other Russian-speaking cities in the east. No one wants to be saved by Russia anymore! »
All uncertainties evaporated with the brutal invasion of Ukraine by Vladimir Putin. The despot has succeeded in uniting the Ukrainian people like never before. Against him.
* * *1/3
The children are dressed up as a cowboy, a princess, or Superwoman. It's Purim at the Odessa Synagogue. The holiday celebrates the happy ending of an Old Testament story, in which the Jews narrowly escape a massacre. "It's a celebration of good triumphing over evil," summarizes Rabbi Avraham Wolff.
I try to follow up on the subject of good and evil, in these times of war, but he cuts my question short: he is a rabbi. He doesn't talk about politics.
Here is one that the war did not catch unawares. Two weeks before the invasion, when few people in Odessa still believed in it, Rabbi Wolff had stockpiled food to feed his congregation for an entire year. He had chartered buses in anticipation of an evacuation. He even hired 20 Israeli security guards. In case.
Our history has taught us what to do. We have a sort of built-in security mechanism. We feel the wounds of our past.
Avraham Wolff, rabbi
In Odessa, this past is painful.
A century ago, the city had the largest Jewish population in the world, after New York and Warsaw. From one tyrant to another, the community was decimated: pogroms under the tsars, purges under Stalin, mass extermination under the Nazis.
And now, Putin's war. Exodus again.
The rabbi was ready. “We evacuate people to Moldova every day. Most Odessa Jews have packed up. There are a few thousand left, including 50 Holocaust survivors, gathered in a retirement home. “The youngest is 91 years old. A trip in an ambulance would kill them. »
They were born under the threat of a dictator who said he wanted to purify Europe. At the twilight of their lives, they are threatened by another dictator who claims to want to denazify Ukraine.
* * *
Very close to the National Opera and Ballet Theater stands a monument to the memory of the Soviet soldiers who liberated the region from the troops of Adolf Hitler. Carved in stone is the name of Serhii Nazarov's great-grandfather. “How could we be Nazis? We fought them,” the filmmaker wonders.
He was born in 1993, two years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. He recalls the hard times of his childhood, when his parents shared a communal apartment in central Odessa with an elderly Jewish woman.
Since then, Ukraine has changed its face. She tasted a certain prosperity, freedom and democracy. She opened up to the world. In short, she was emancipated. "And that's what Putin doesn't like. »
How will this war end?
No one knows. Neither the brightest analysts, nor me, who will soon return to the comfort of my Montreal life, nor Serhii Nazarov, who will eventually adjust to the new normal in Odessa. Filigree fear. And, in the trunk of his car, jugs of water, a sleeping bag and a can of gasoline. In case.