Ballet, street performances and swimming: Ukrainians defy Russia by embracing ‘normal life’
A girl dances, twists and twirls in the sand while a busker on the boardwalk beats his drum to the rhythm of a pop tune.
With bars and cafes buzzing with activity, the vibe resembles that of countless European hotspots in the summer.
It is a stark and disconcerting contrast to the scenes I witnessed during a visit to this city three months ago.
At the time, the invasion of Russia had lasted two months; most businesses in the town were closed and much of the population was on the run.
Gone are the convoys of cars fleeing west through Ukraine, many with the words “children” taped to the windows.
Instead, despite the proximity to the front lines and the ever-present threat of long-range artillery fire raining death from above, life in this war-torn country can seem deceptively peaceful.
People are still going to work, walking their dogs and playing with their children in the park.
“We got used to it. And it’s horrible that we got used to it,” said ballerina Katryna Kalchenko, as she relaxed for a performance at the 135-year-old Odessa Opera House .
Here too, in this port city on the Black Sea, there is this discordant dissonance between the madness of war and the banality of everyday life.
Odessa was once known as the “Pearl of the Black Sea” of Ukraine, a popular vacation spot for poets, writers and musicians. Even today it retains much of its charm, though its tranquility is occasionally marred by Russian strikes, such as the two Kalibr cruise missiles that struck just hours after Moscow signed an export deal for cereals with Kyiv negotiated by the United Nations.
Ballerina Kalchenko was forced to do her warm-up in the basement of the opera house because an air raid siren had sent the entire orchestra and dance troupe rushing for shelter half an hour earlier.
And yet Kalchenko and his fellow dancers emerged for the first act a few stretches later with enough poise and serenity to leave their audience spellbound – until, that is, the threat of another Russian missile attack forces a premature closure of the show.
A Morale Victory
It is as if, five months after the start of the war, many Ukrainians have finally come to terms with their new reality.
This is partly a reflection of trust in those who fight on their behalf.
Ukrainians are extremely proud of how their soldiers repelled the Russian blitzkrieg attempt on Kyiv in the north of the country in the spring.
It is an expensive fight. An adviser to Ukrainian President Volodmyr Zelensky said at one point the country was losing up to 200 soldiers a day on those front lines.
And yet, it is clear that among these brave defenders there is a will to endure whatever it takes.
Take Serhii Tamarin, for example.
I first met him in March, when he had just been discharged from a military hospital and was recovering from a spinal injury and broken ribs sustained while commanding a Home Defense Battalion. of some 400 troops, fighting northwest of Kyiv.
“It’s not that scary to die, it’s a lot scarier to lose,” he said at the time. In a few days, he was back at the front.
When we log back in, he’s back in the hospital, this time with injuries sustained as a special forces operator fighting in the south.
Is there a word in English, he asked, for when something explodes near your head?
A near miss from a tank fire left him badly concussed, and he now struggles to think straight, he said.
But he insisted he felt well enough to return to action.
“I think in a few days they should send me back to my platoon,” Tamarin said.
But embracing the new Ukrainian reality is not just a matter of trusting men like Tamarin. It was also born out of challenge.
The soldiers describe the war in existential terms, an invasion ordered by a Russian president who questions Ukraine’s right to exist as an independent country.
“They came to capture our territory,” said Senior Lieutenant Andrii Pidlisnyi, who commands a company of around 100 men in the Mykolaiv region.
“To maybe kill my parents and just destroy my house and live here and say this was historically Russian territory.”
Civilians often vent their seething anger by using Russian rhetoric – that it is “freeing” Ukrainians from their own democratically elected government – and throwing it back in the face of the Kremlin.
“Thank you for ‘rescuing’ me from my house, from my family, from my child who is in another country and who I miss every day,” said Anastasia Bannikova, another ballerina I met in the bomb shelter in the basement of the Odessa Opera. .
Like so many others, at the start of the war, Bannikova fled Ukraine. Now she has returned to work in Odessa – although she left her daughter in the relative safety of Moldova.
Almost everyone you talk to in Ukraine has lost something because of the war. Many buried loved ones. Others have seen their businesses fail, their homes destroyed and their futures turned upside down.
How does a farmer plant next year’s crops or a high school student plan to enroll in college when this war rages on with no end in sight?
One answer may be that many have concluded that, in the midst of all the death and destruction, simply continuing to live as normal a life as possible is the greatest victory there is.
The Ukrainians I met all accepted their difficulties with quiet stoicism; rarely did they complain or wallow in victimization.
Sergei, a freighter captain who hasn’t been able to set sail since the Russian Navy blockaded Ukrainian ports, said he was raised by stories of the sacrifices his grandparents suffered during World War II world.
“Now it’s our turn,” he said.