The opera singers are filling sandbags from Odesa’s famed beaches, the local yacht club director is organizing deliveries of barbed wire and a perfumer is cleaning out shops of leftover Soviet fabric to use for bulletproof vests.
Odesa, the city whose grand edifices on the Black Sea stand as a cosmopolitan testament to Viennese, Italian and Russian architects, has largely been spared from the aerial bombardments and artillery attacks that have turned streets in other Ukrainian cities to rubble.
But on Sunday, the lengthy wail of air raid sirens was followed by an announcement from the military that it had shot down a Russian aircraft near the city – and, then, a grim warning from Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky.
“They are preparing to bombard Odesa,” Mr. Zelensky said. Such an act, he warned, would constitute not just a war crime, but a crime against history. Odesa has long been revered by Russians, built on land seized from the Turks by Catherine the Great, with cobblestone streets once frequented by Alexander Pushkin and sweeping beaches that have long drawn legions of Russian tourists.
Before troops under Russian President Vladimir Putin began a campaign that has destroyed Ukrainian cities, few believed it was possible for invading forces to desecrate Odesa. Mr. Putin, they believed, would not dare sully what was once a jewel of the Russian empire.
Now, such an outcome is taken as a given.
Russian troops have already ruined much of Kharkiv, in eastern Ukraine.
“It’s also a Russian-speaking city and beloved by Russians – and we see that it has just been wiped from the Earth,” said Albert Kabakov, director of the Black Sea Yacht Club. “I’m sure,” he said, that Mr. Putin is prepared to do the same to Odesa.
Russian warships and landing craft already came so close to the city last Thursday that they were visible to anyone with a view of the sea, a tangible portent of doom.
And so Odesans have spent days in feverish preparation, an effort that has swept together people from all walks of life.
Shortly after the Feb. 24 missile strikes that marked the beginning of war, Mr. Kabakov started co-ordinating an effort to stuff the city’s sandy beaches into bags. For more than a week, volunteers have descended on the shoreline, some bringing supplies, others offering hot meals – and many more lending their backs to the manufacture of 300,000 sandbags.
Still others brought their own vehicles – BMW X5s, semi-trucks and many others – to ferry the sandbags to some of the city’s most treasured places. Mr. Kabakov has also organized deliveries of barbed wire and concrete blocks to places that need fortifications. Beaches that could prove attractive landing sites have been mined.
And large protective embankments of sandbags and anti-tank “hedgehog” defences have now been installed at the Odesa National Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet, on Derybasivska Street – the pedestrian walkway that forms the heart of the city – and around monuments to Catherine the Great and the Duke of Richelieu.
“I would be ready to work for even 100 days to protect our city,” said Andrey Harlamov, a bass soloist at the opera house. For more than a week, he has worked at the beach from early morning until sunset, alongside other of the city’s cultural elite: four opera soloists, two ballet dancers, two philharmonic musicians and four conservatory professors.
As they worked, they sang, pausing several times a day to sing the triumphal verses of the national anthem – “Ukraine is not yet dead, nor its glory and freedom” – in the direction of others filling sandbags to defend the city.
“When our hands got sore, we tried to work a little more,” Mr. Harlamov said. He had a particularly personal reason to contribute.
In a city whose performers bring to the stage works by Gogol, Chekhov and Rossini, the opera house is a rococo masterpiece. It is a place so cherished that, shortly after Soviet troops drove the Nazis from Odesa, Nikita Khrushchev, then a political commissar responsible for Ukraine, flew to the city to inspect the damage. His immediate priority was to see the local Communist Party headquarters and find out “whether the Odesa opera building was still all right,” he wrote in his memoirs. He was relieved to discover that “only one corner of the building had been damaged.”
Nearly 80 years later, “it would be a great tragedy if something happened to the theatre,” Mr. Harlamov said – this time at the hand of Russian troops. “I would be torn apart if that happened.”
As the singers have bagged sand, Dmitry Milyutin, a seller of luxury perfumes, has poured nearly $35,000 of his own funds into equipping local civilians who have joined Territorial Defence Forces. He has bought half of a store’s supplies of uniforms, 15 tonnes of scrap metal to fashion hedgehog defences and more than a kilometre of olive-green, Soviet-made fabric to give people sewing bulletproof vests.
On Sunday, he opened his perfume store as well, taking the revenue from what few sales he could make to fund more purchases. Selling fragrances in wartime, he said, is not new. During the Second World War, people continued to buy the Soviet-made Red Moscow perfume.
And the need for more war provisions is great: Every Territorial Defence checkstop needs to be equipped much like a house – from food to plates to toilets.
“My task is to help the Territorial Defence meet the enemy on land,” he said. But, he acknowledged that, “from the skies we are not protected at all. If they use missiles and bombs, we may as well be naked.”
Yet even as Odesa contemplates a coming hail of destruction, Mr. Milyutin took comfort in the city’s “spirit of resistance. Everyone is trying to do everything they can,” he said.
“What’s important is to say that we no longer feel fear,” he added. “That means we have already won.”
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