ODESA, Ukraine — Viktoria Sibir remembered when she was called a Nazi for painting the words “Slava Ukraini,” or “Glory to Ukraine,” on her balcony, which overlooked Derybasivska Street, a pedestrian walkway that meanders through the heart of this port city.
A popular vacation spot for Russians prior to 2014, Odesa has long contended with its place in Ukraine and its perceived shared history with Russian royalty.
Catherine the Great is said to have founded the city, but many pro-Ukrainian residents highlight that it was in reality built by people of multiple nationalities and creeds — not just Russian.
Yet 10 years ago, many locals claimed that Sibir, an activist who had grown up in Odesa, was an outsider. Her pro-Ukrainian sentiment was unnatural in this Russian-speaking city. The local government even painted over her floral typography with white paint at one point, she said. Sibir, 30, repainted the words shortly thereafter.
Now, months into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, hundreds of buildings have a simple Ukrainian flag painted on their walls, doors or gates. Odesa’s identity was once a blurry and complicated question, but each Russian missile that hits this city makes the answer clearer for its people: Odesa belongs to Ukraine and Europe.
The change has been years in the making.
Views began to shift in 2014 when the Euromaidan protests across Ukraine forced out the pro-Russian government, a moment followed by Russian proxies in the east seizing parts of the Donbas and Crimea. The crisis and conflict became a tipping point for Odesa: Were they Ukrainian, were they Russian — were they neither?
“Attitudes really changed during the time because in 2014 we saw the first clashes, street fighting and then the invasion, so people really changed their views and became more pro-Ukrainian,” said Sibir, whose painted balcony still celebrates Ukraine. “They started celebrating the balcony and at some point saying that it is a symbol. And now, again, the situation has gotten better.”
Russia as a unifying adversary
Odesa Mayor Gennadiy Trukhanov declared Odesa “a true European city” in an interview with NBC News. He emphasized that he had worked tirelessly to bolster Odesa’s ties to Western cities and denied that he has ever been sympathetic to the Kremlin, as his critics have alleged.
“They have tried to push this whole narrative that Odesa is a Russian city, a Russian satellite, that the mayor is pro-Russian,” Trukhanov said in his sprawling office, “and that is not the case.”
For many years, Trukhanov was a member of a pro-Russian political party founded by Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s former president who was ousted from his position in 2014 after protests roiled the country. Ukraine exiled the party after Russia’s invasion, and Yanukovych is now reportedly living outside Moscow, where he fled after Ukrainians demanded he leave office.
Trukhanov, who is known to carry a pistol, has called the Russian invaders “bastards” and “scum” since the start of the war. He did not equivocate about what label to use for residents of Odesa.
“Odesa residents are united, and they are called Ukrainians,” the mayor said. “Everyone has come together to face our adversaries, to face Russia.”
Russia seems to have come to that same conclusion.
The city was plagued with missile strikes last week, which could signal the Kremlin’s fury that Odesa — previously considered a Russian “imperial spirit symbol” — has turned its back on Russia, said Serhiy Bratchuk, the spokesperson of the Odesa Oblast Military Administration.
“Odesa residents are not behaving as expected. This causes, of course, revenge, anger,” Bratchuk said.
A jewel prized by Russia
Odesa appears to remain an object of conquest for Russia. The city, a commercial power on the country’s southern coast, is essential for Russian President Vladimir Putin to rebuild Novorossiya — a term that refers to a stretch of land in the Black Sea region, including Crimea, that was conquered by Russia in the 18th century.
Encompassing about a third of modern-day Ukraine, it is considered by Moscow and many in Russia to be the beating heart of the former empire. The term means “New Russia” and has been used as a rhetorical dog whistle by Putin to refer to land in Ukraine’s south and east that he said belongs to Moscow. To regain all of Novorossiya, which Putin referred to in a fiery speech delivered in mid-April, Odesa would need to be under the Kremlin’s thumb.
That is still the Russian military’s goal as it continues to press along the southern coast, though Ukraine’s soldiers have stalled it outside the city of Mykolaiv, about 80 miles east of Odesa.
Putin mentioned Odesa specifically in a speech just days prior to the invasion. He spoke contemptuously of and promised to “punish” residents who clashed with pro-Russian forces here in 2014, killing nearly 50 people.
Those who spoke to NBC News said there are likely some in Odesa who still hold pro-Russian views, but they are no longer very outspoken. Still, local authorities have arrested alleged saboteurs, especially in the run-up to the anniversary of the 2014 clash between pro-Russian and pro-European forces.
“They are still here, but they are a minority,” said Petro Obukhov, a city council member who challenged Trukhanov in the last election on a pro-European platform. “They will stay quiet because they understand that this is Ukraine. There is nothing they can do.”
‘To be Ukrainian’
The shift in Odesa toward adopting a clearer Ukrainian identity appears to be underway, particularly among younger people who are further defining this city’s powerful art and culture scene.
For Elena Pidopryhora, executive director of Odesa’s Center for Contemporary Art and Culture, the question of Russian identity over the past eight years has defined her life. Originally from Donetsk, she happened to be in Odesa when Russian proxies took over home and forced her to stay here. She has yet to return.
Pidopryhora is now working on the application for Odesa’s city center to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and she’s pushing for Ukrainian art and culture to be recognized as distinct within the country as well as internationally. She said she knows she “can’t change Odesa’s views alone” but hoped this moment had led to a greater effort “to reshape it, rethink it.”
“Of course there is a great influence of Russian culture. I thought that was OK until the war,” Pidoprhyora said, sitting on a bench in Odesa’s once-bustling open-air Books Market. “I think there will be big changes here in Odesa to be more Ukrainian, to add to the context of Ukraine.”
Though the city has long been a Russian-speaking enclave, some, like Pidoprhyora, are even trying to change that. The war has many more in Odesa working to speak Ukrainian, essentially a second language to some, even if it comes out poorly.
Viktoriia Hrubuyk, 28, has spoken Russian all her life, but she said she is working on speaking only Ukrainian to show her commitment to her country. It can be awkward at times, as many residents still speak Russian, but she doesn’t care.
Hrubuyk is the administrator of the Green Theatre in Odesa, an outdoor performance space central to the city’s creative arts that remains closed for fear of missile attacks. She said her shifting views on language mirror that of many others here. They see themselves as Ukrainian more than ever and believe it is their duty to preserve the country’s culture and language — even if it’s not what they were raised speaking.
“I realized that Ukraine is more than just a country that gives you a passport,” Hrubuyk said, as she sat at the edge of the theater, the green trees behind her swaying between the cement blocks that once functioned as seats when this performance space was operated in Soviet times. “I don’t think I understood before 2014 and now how important it is to be Ukrainian.”
These efforts to more closely tie themselves to Ukraine and Ukrainian identity are a major change for a city that has prided itself on its individuality. Much of that shift seems to be thanks to the Kremlin’s bombs and missiles.
Sibir said there is now a joke that Putin has done more to “awaken the Ukrainian nation” than Stepan Bandera, the famous Ukrainian nationalist.
“Now it is about people’s lives, not only Ukraine’s position and the Ukrainian language,” she said, “but now it’s just about survival.”