We arrived in Odesa on Saturday morning and immediately removed to a local brunch restaurant where I enjoyed a “Bavarian Breakfast.” Shortly thereafter we met with our Odesa guide, an advocate not simply for Ukraine, but for Odesa specifically; her commitment to the city was equal parts charming and fanatical. Our short tour of downtown confirmed that Odesa was *much* different than Kyiv, surely in part because it had survived World War II mostly intact. The architecture was both cross-cultural and cross-temporal, with buildings from various eras and styles blending together in charming fashion. The signs of war were obvious here, not so much in terms of destruction as in the flags, posters, and recruitment signs that dotted the city. Because the dockyards are both dangerous and critical to the war effort (grain shipments, maritime analysis) we weren’t able to walk down the Odesa steps; I presume that in better times one can rent a baby carriage to push down the steps (baby optional) but sadly for us it was not to be.
The theme of our meetings in Odesa is best characterized as “society at war.” Our guide had a clothing business (among several other ventures) that had turned to producing uniforms, flak jackets, and other textiles of war. She had the opportunity to flee Odesa at the beginning of the conflict, but had decided she would only leave if Russian occupation became unavoidable. Fortunately, Ukrainian forces stopped the Russian advance at nearby Mykolaiv in the second month of the war. One product in particular involved a form of combat underwear held together with Velcro straps; in case the soldier suffers a lower body injury, the underwear can be removed rapidly without requiring too much movement of the legs. Later, we met with the owner of a network on private kindergartens that had once operated across Ukraine. Enrollment had dropped off dramatically as the result of the war, and was returning only very slowly. She now spent her time coordinating Ukrainian charity efforts for cities damaged in the war. An Odesa city official also played a coordinative role, with his duties focusing on management of the various NGOs that were supporting civilian relief across the region. It will surprise no one familiar with the NGO world to hear that the number of NGOs interested in making a serious, positive contribution was far less than the number seeking an easy photo op. Finally, we met with the chief perfumer of Odesa, a gentleman apparently renowned in the region and across Europe. He had turned over the greater portion of his business to investment in war production, including blankets rated for -30C and bags for carrying injured soldiers.
In contrast to Kyiv, the people we met were “normal,” not in the sense that they represented a cross-section of Odesa society, but in that they represented civil society rather than the government. Three things were apparent from our discussions. First, civil society was enormously important to the prosecution of the war, in large part because the ongoing weakness of the central government. This weakness has been baked in by years of Russian interference, corruption, and political infighting, and even at this late date it still exists. Many units at the front source equipment and supplies from private business all over Ukraine. Second, everyone we talked to acknowledged that they had been utterly astonished by the beginning of the war. In contrast to Kyiv, no one in Odesa had believed that war was imminent, even on February 23. Some rejected evidence from media and from relatives until the missiles began to hit and nearby communities began to fall to the Russian advance. Third, everyone here HATED Russia, and HATED Russians. Odesa was a predominantly Russian speaking city before the war, but while many folks continued to “think in Russian,” they now made a special effort to speak in Ukrainian. The hostility, it is far to say, was not limited to the Russian government.
As afternoon turned to evening, the city began to party. We appreciated that something odd might be going on when we returned to our hotel around five for a short pre-dinner break. Our hotel courtyard was in the process of becoming Club Radisson, with sound checks portending an evening of techno. By 530pm the rhythms of the evening had announced themselves; as I went out, I met a number of Ukrainians dancing in the hotel lobby in full nightclub regalia. The streets were full of people of all ages; many young folks partying, but also young families and older people, simply walking up and down the street, enjoying shops and bars and stalls and restaurants. We had dinner (locally sourced Ukrainian food) in a neighborhood at some distance from downtown. When we returned (around 10) the situation was settling down. Efforts to get a final drink ran into the immovable object of last call, until an extremely drunk man named Dmitri offered to take us to his friend’s bar and have another beer. Sketchy decision-making on our part yielded not simply a beer but also a shot, as well as a conversation with the drunk man were he lamented that people at the front did not understand or appreciate his contributions to the war effort, which apparently involved putting on a local beer festival. Scoff if you will (and it is reasonable to scoff) but part of what the trip to Odesa revealed was the importance of the home front not only to the war effort, but also to the maintenance of civilian morale under bombardment and in the face of a slow, grinding war of attrition.
In related news, yesterday I had the opportunity to speak with Larry Glover about the trip to Ukraine. Give a listen if you’d like a brief overview of this series…