In September 2014, I traveled to Ukraine’s 4th largest city, Odessa (often transliterated ‘Odesa’ to reflect the single ‘c’ in the Ukrainian spelling), from the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv. With a fragile ceasefire in effect between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russian separatists in the far southeast of the country, and the southern Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea having been annexed by Russia in March, fears were circulating that the Russian regime might attempt to stir separatist sentiment in the predominantly Russian-speaking Odessa district, home to Ukraine’s largest port and main outlet to the Black Sea. Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s “Novorossia” project was to include all coastal regions of Ukraine – all the way west to the Romanian border. Just over the western border of Odessa district is Transnistria, the separatist region of neighboring Moldova that hosts a Russian military base. Could it serve as a springboard for destabilizing southern Ukraine and creating a contiguous land zone linking Russia’s north Caucasus to Transnistria?
What I found was a place where ordinary people were critical of the pro-Western government in Kyiv, but nevertheless expressed contempt for pro-Russian separatist forces. Some were, indeed, nervous about the proximity of Transnistria and the appearance there of so-called “little green men” (Russian troops in unmarked uniforms), like those in Crimea prior to the Russian annexation. In other words, people expressed “unity” – as citizens of Ukraine.
Odessa was founded in 1794 on the orders of Russian Empress Catherine II. In 1803, Emperor Alexander I appointed the Duc de Richelieu – a Frenchman who had fled the French Revolution – governor of the area. Under Richelieu, the city expanded and developed rapidly. Richelieu’s statue stands at the top of the so-called “Potemkin Steps” (a waterfront staircase of 192 steps that features in the famous film, “The Battleship Potemkin,” by Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein). Another important landmark is the Odessa Opera and Ballet Theater, a lavish building completed in 1883 by world-renowned architects Fellner & Helmer.
There is no way to do justice photographically to a city such as Odessa in only two days. Some time around 2000, a nitwit mayor (I was told) approved the construction of a hideous hotel and conference center complex directly in front of the Potemkin Steps, projecting out into the water and thoroughly ruining the view. This and other tragic constructions have harmed Odessa aesthetically over the years, making photography a challenge. But it is a city worth seeing. I also traveled to the 15th-century fortress of Bilhorod-Dnistrovsky, about an hour south of Odessa city by road, and to the nearby seaside resort town of Zatoka, much improved and cleaned since my last visit in 2001.
Click on the following link to see the whole album: Flickr