Odesans join forces to help their city, their country and compatriots in need

Volunteers, politicians, businessmen and even crime bosses play role in war effort

The month of May usually means weddings to Andrei Bochko, an event planner in the famously fun-loving city of Odesa on Ukraine's Black Sea coast.

“This is normally the big wedding season here. I organise venues, photographers, DJs, bridal dresses – everything – and I act as master of ceremonies. In an average week in May I might do five weddings, sometimes 10,” he says.

Russia's all-out invasion of Ukraine makes this spring very different, but Bochko has quickly turned his hand to arranging another kind of party – for children whose families have fled fighting that has killed thousands of civilians and displaced more than 10 million.

“This is the second free party we’ve organised for evacuee families and the third is later today,” Bochko says as a magician entertains dozens of children, giving their parents a chance to relax a little, share stories and perhaps make new friends in this new city.


Soldiers patrol

They have come to an Odesa much changed by Russia’s invasion, where sandbags now shield venerable statues, soldiers patrol beneath plane trees and cherry blossom, the famed Potemkin Steps are off limits and beaches and bays have been laced with mines.

Restaurants and bars would usually be counting their profits after the Easter holidays and looking forward to the long summer season, but are now boarded up in fear of more strikes from Russian missiles that have killed at least nine Odesans over the last fortnight, including a 15-year-old boy and three-month-old baby.

Yet if Moscow thought many in this mostly Russian-speaking city, founded by Catherine the Great, would welcome the prospect of Kremlin occupation, or that Odesa’s love of the good life would make it a pushover in time of war, then it badly miscalculated.

Instead of surrendering to fear or fatalism or being motivated by self-interest, Odesans have joined forces to help their city, their country and compatriots in need, to the extent that well-armed local criminals are even said to have loaned weapons to the police.

‘Regular weapons’

"At the start of the war, the police only had regular weapons, Kalashnikovs and pistols," said Serhiy Dibrov, an investigative journalist and columnist for Odesa's Dumskaya news website.

“But some criminal bosses got in touch and said they had a surplus of more serious things, like grenade launchers, and these were given to the police.”

Dibrov says, half-jokingly, that the city’s police and notorious crooks are “colleagues who help each other out in hard times”, and quotes a line about fictional Jewish gangster Benya Krik from Isaac Babel’s rambunctious Odesa Tales of the 1920s: “Where do the police begin and where does Benya end?”

People who wanted to see this freewheeling port city become less corrupt and more equitable feared that the powers that be in Odesa – political, commercial and criminal – would always favour their personal interests over those of the citizens and the nation; in short, that everything here was for sale.

For many Odesans, and particularly supporters of Ukraine’s 2014 Maidan revolution, these dubious loyalties were embodied by Gennadiy Trukhanov, who has spent much of his eight-year stint as city mayor denying claims that he is deeply corrupt, closely linked to powerful gangsters and secretly a Russian citizen.

Some still doubt whether Trukhanov could be trusted if Russian troops were at Odesa’s door, but he insists the city’s welfare has always been his top priority.

"Today people say to me, 'Oh, we're so glad you turned out to be like this.' But look at my past. When did I surrender Odesa? To whom?" This is my city . . . my state, where I was born," Trukhanov told Ukraine's Livyi Bereh news outlet this week.

“From the first day, from the first shot at our city . . . we have been preparing to repel the invaders. Odesa is planning its defence, we are building barricades, a line of defence. We are stockpiling food, medicines. Today Odesans have united to protect their city – every street, every house.”

Dibrov says pro-Russian sentiment in Odesa, and radical groups ready to use violence to undermine Ukrainian statehood here, have been on the wane since street fighting on May 2nd, 2014, killed 48 people, most of them opponents of the Maidan revolution who died when fire engulfed their protest headquarters.

Terrorists attacks

Support for Moscow faded further due to terrorist attacks in 2014-15 that caused few injuries but unnerved and angered Odesans, and as they saw Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine sink into conflict, poverty and isolation after being seized by Russian-led separatists.

“I think Odesa is in safe hands,” says Dibrov. “The interests of Trukhanov and Odesa are the same – both want Ukraine to exist as an independent country and for Odesa to be the maritime gates of that independent country.”

Now the Russian navy has barred those gates, crippling the trade – and contraband – that flowed through Odesa and other Ukrainian ports and adding to fears of global food supply problems if the tens of millions of tonnes of grain usually exported by the country are blocked.

Yet as Russia chokes Odesa's commercial ties to the world, civil society here is forging new local, national and international networks at staggering speed, outpacing the major humanitarian agencies.

One such hive of activity is School No 35 on Gagarin Avenue, where dozens of volunteers welcome deliveries of food, medicines and other aid from Ukraine and abroad and dispatch it to frontline areas, and arrange everything from evacuations of people from occupied territory to the children’s parties planned by Bochko.

The effort is a collaboration between Plich-o-Plich (Side-by-Side), a local NGO founded by prominent anti-corruption activist Oleh Mykhailyk, and a Telegram social media channel called Odesa As It Is, which has more than 300,000 followers.

The minibuses they use for deliveries and evacuations are bought with money raised by German charity TMR Flüchtlingshilfe, everyone involved is a volunteer, and the local drivers charge nothing for the risky work of extricating civilians from Russian-held areas.

On a recent visit to Bashtanka, a town 200km from Odesa, Plich-o-Plich handed over a minibus loaded with aid to local contacts who used it the next day to collect escapees from an occupied town 50km away; on the way back to Odesa, the volunteers received news that two more vehicles would soon be on the way from Germany.

"I'm not surprised that this is how we've responded to war. When the chips are down, I know how people here react – you can knock on most doors and people will help," says Julia Pogrebnaya, an organiser with Odesa As It Is, who returned to Ukraine last September after working in Nigeria for five years.

“We know we have problems in our country and with our government, but let us sort them out ourselves. We didn’t invite these ‘guests’ here and this pissed everyone off,” she says of Russia’s invasion.

“Maybe Russia thought there was a 60/40 split in Ukraine between those who wanted to live in an independent country and those who wanted something like Donetsk and Luhansk, and that war would scare another 20 per cent into saying ‘Let’s just go to Russia.’ But immediately 90 or 95 or 99 per cent of people were for Ukraine.”

‘Multicultural mix’

Pogrebnaya remembers her grandmothers’ tales about the easy multicultural mix of Odesa, the balmy, bustling seaport where Jewish, Chinese, Italian, Greek and many other communities mingled, and where “we are accepting, and we don’t say that you’re Ukrainian, but you’re not.”

“We’re very practical and hardworking but we also enjoy life. Don’t disturb us when we’re working but let us relax and play too. We love the sea, swimming, having guests, making people feel welcome, feeding and taking care of them. For me, that’s where the idea of ‘Odesa Mama’ comes from.”

The old nickname feels fitting on a walk through Odesa's sun-dappled centre, where musicians play for evacuees as they queue for aid and advice, and buses deliver children to safety from Mykolaiv 130km away and then return with tonnes of bottled water to a frontline city where infrastructure has been wrecked by Russian shelling.

“So many people are doing what they can to help, and so many friends in Ukraine and abroad are asking what we need,” says volunteer party planner Bochko, as behind him the magician baffles and delights his audience of young evacuees.

“And when people ask me how I’m doing, I say I feel amazing – because there are amazing people all around me and I know that we will win.”