Odesa, Ukraine – According to 86-year-old Vera Tkachuk, Russian invaders are worse than German Nazis.
Vera Tkachuk was four in 1941, when Nazis occupied her hometown of Kropivnitsky, in what is now eastern Ukraine, and two officers lodged in her parents’ wooden house.
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“I remember the Germans, they were kind,” the grey-haired retiree told Al Jazeera, recalling how the “tenants” treated her and her older brother.
“They brought us sugar, chocolate, gave us food in pots. They wept about the children they left back home,” she said, sitting on a bench next to an Orthodox cathedral in central Odesa, Ukraine’s largest seaport city, shortly after the bells proclaimed the end of an Easter service.
“They didn’t rape children, didn’t kill them.”
Russian servicemen did – according to Ukrainian officials, rights groups and survivors who have accused them of killing, torturing and raping civilians, including children.
There was one child death that still convulses every Odesan with pain.
Almost a year ago, Russian cruise missiles killed a three-month-old girl, Kira Glodan, along with her mother and six other adults.
“I weep and I pray for her. For all of them, every day,” Tkachuk, whose niece’s husband volunteered to join the Ukrainian army, said through tears.
Eastern Europe’s New Orleans
Odesa was, perhaps, the most cosmopolitan city of the czarist empire and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).
The Black Sea port felt more connected to the Mediterranean and the Atlantic than the mainland.
Its founder was Russian Empress Catherine the Great, its first governor was a French aristocrat, and its population consisted of Orthodox Russians, Ukrainians and Moldovans, Muslim Tatars and Ashkenazi Jews.
They mostly communicated in Russian – and still do, despite a universal animosity towards Moscow and its actions.
Odesa was a conduit of international trends from Argentinian tango and American jazz to French fashions – and its cultural melting pot spawned entire genres of music and literature.
The groundbreaking silent Soviet drama film Battleship Potemkin by Sergei Eisenstein was shot there in 1925, and its harrowing sequence of a baby stroller rolling down a giant stairway is still seen as a pioneering example of film editing.
These days, the staircase descending towards the port is closed to the public, and a Ukrainian flag is nailed to the pedestal of Empress Catherine’s demolished statue.
Capital of ‘New Russia’
Odesa lies dangerously close to the Crimean Peninsula that Moscow annexed in 2014, and Russian President Vladimir Putin designated the city as one of Russia’s next targets.
“Odesa’s occupation was a key point of assembly in Putin’s project of so-called Novorossiya,” or New Russia, parts of eastern and southern Ukraine where Russian remained a prevalent language, said Kyiv-based analyst Aleksey Kushch.
The plan included Ukraine’s fragmentation into several parts, its isolation from the Black Sea and the restoration of Russia’s dominance in the northern part of the Black Sea region.
“Most likely, Putin wanted to make Odesa the capital of the so-called Novorossiya project and, naturally, still hatches the plans,” Kushch told Al Jazeera.
On the war’s first day, February 24, 2022, Russian shelling killed at least 22 at a military base east of the city.
In mid-April, a Russian fleet spearheaded by the Moskva cruiser headed towards Odesa, but was repelled by Ukrainian torpedoes and artillery.
The Moskva sank, and Ukraine mockingly declared its debris part of its “underwater cultural heritage”.
More bombardment followed for months, killing dozens and wounding hundreds, while city authorities and volunteers installed anti-tank hedgehogs and mined the coast.
Air raid sirens forced many to rush to bomb shelters, basements or limestone mines that meander for some 2,500km (1,553 miles) under the city.
“Of course, it was scary,” Natalya, a 45-year-old school teacher, told Al Jazeera after attending an Easter service.
She sees every predicament as God’s way of testing her faith.
“For Orthodox people, nothing has changed,” she said.
Minutes earlier, a smiling, white-bearded priest doused holy water on her wicker basket with coloured eggs and kulich – sweet cakes with raisins.
The hardship made more people return to the Orthodox Church, the priest said.
“People come in an endless stream,” Father Feognost told Al Jazeera as parishioners with their baskets bowed before him and smiled as holy water splashed on their faces and hair.
A dark winter
Many men in Odesa volunteered to join Ukraine’s armed forces or became part of the territorial defence, or armed militias that installed roadblocks, guarded the city and monitored the seashore.
They welcome the arrival of Western weaponry – including anti-tank grenades that proved lethal to Russian tanks and armed personnel carriers.
“Of course, they are more effective than the Soviet crap we’ve been fighting with,” Volodymyr, a former plumber recovering from a contusion he received on the front lines in the eastern city of Bakhmut, told Al Jazeera.
In October, Moscow started targeting power, transmission and heating stations with massive and almost daily shelling, plunging the city into darkness for hours or days.
But the city lived on, as residents went to work, discussed food and mourned the Black Sea dolphins killed by Russian cannonades and sea mines.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands flocked to Odesa from Russia-occupied areas – and see the city as a bastion of stability in comparison with their devastated homes.
“Here, it’s just a shame to complain,” Liliya Pschenichnaya, a 58-year-old seamstress from the southern city of Kherson who was jailed for two months for “espionage”, told Al Jazeera.
Some Odesans even dare to plunge into the Black Sea despite bans and warnings.
A drunken man took a swim in mid-July to celebrate his birthday – and was decapitated by a floating Russian mine, officials said.
Known to many simply as Mama, Odesa is also Ukraine’s undisputed capitol of satire and stand-up comedy.
One of the ways of coping with wartime stress and anxiety is to make fun of their causes.
“If someone touches Mama, Mama will bury them,” was a popular phrase, placed next to pictures of a drowning Russian warship.
Another joke deals with arithmetic.
As it is told, a squad of Russian soldiers approaches Odesa and they hear a voice from a hill saying: “One Ukrainian soldier is better than 10 Russians.”
Ten soldiers are commanded to storm the hill – and get killed.
The voice then says: “One Ukrainian soldier is better than a hundred Russians.”
A hundred soldiers storm the hill and get killed.
“One Ukrainian soldier is better than a thousand Russians,” says the voice, and, alas, 999 soldiers are dead.
The last one crawls back to the commander and whispers: “Don’t go there, it’s a trap. There are TWO Ukrainian soldiers there.”