July 4, 2022 - 4:15pm

Taking back Snake Island was not just a symbolic victory for Ukraine, but a strategic one too. Located around 150 kilometres from the Odessa port, it serves as an important redoubt for the passage of grain through Black Sea trading lanes from the southern Odessa region through the Bosphorus. 

But it appears as though Putin’s forces still plan to take control of Odessa in order to deprive Ukraine of sea access. The night after the Ukrainian assault on the island, a barrage of Russian missiles fanned out over the Odessa region, leading to the destruction of an apartment building and the loss of at least 21 Ukrainian lives (including two children). Dozens more were wounded.

Odessa has long been seen by Putin as a potential weak link due to its deep historical and cultural ties with Russia. The region is fiercely independent and a large swath of the population — especially older and less educated Odessans — had typically looked to Moscow rather than Kyiv as their political lodestar. This Russophilia derived from a nostalgia for 19th century Russian imperial culture, which is visible everywhere you look in the city; the centre brims with masterpieces of Italianate revival architecture where many of the canonical Russian writers and composers had spent their summers. 

But the war has begun to change that dynamic, particularly among younger Odessans. As Ukrainian writer Julia Gorodetskaya notes:

Many of those Odessans who had previously supported Moscow- because the region is still predominantly Russophone and has an intense relation to its past – have now become vocally supportive of the Ukrainian state in the time of war. Of course some of these newly patriotic personages are also keen to demonstrate that they are on the right side of things in order to avoid repercussions for their previous support of Russia.
- Julia Gorodetskaya

A lively debate has also erupted in the city over the legacy of the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin and a street named after him. The young Pushkin, an unhappy Russian Imperial bureaucrat, attended aristocratic balls and worked on his epochal poem ‘Eugene Onegin’ in the city. The bombing has renewed calls for the renaming of Pushkinska street, but the mayor is a staunch supporter of leaving it as is. Within a real war, a culture war has thus emerged.

Like many Odessan Russian-speaking citizens, Gorodetskaya had once been ambivalent about the jettisoning of the historical connection of the poet to the city where he misspent his youth. Yet now it looks as though she has changed her mind. ‘The more of their rockets fall on our homes,’ she wrote, ‘the less I am interested in resisting the changing of the name of the street, or continuing to glorify the Russian part of our history here.’

Ultimately, nothing builds inclusive national identity like a Russian missile destroying an entire apartment building in the middle of the night.

Vladislav Davidzon is a Russian-American writer, the Chief Editor of The Odessa Review, and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council.