Ukraine fears iconic port city of Odesa could be Putin’s next target

The cosmopolitan city has a Russian-speaking majority and a rich history as the birthplace of the Jewish Russian mafia and the storied setting for crime novels

A couple embrace as they stand in front of an evacuation train at the central train station in Odesa on March 6, 2022. (BULENT KILIC / AFP)
A couple embrace as they stand in front of an evacuation train at the central train station in Odesa on March 6, 2022. (BULENT KILIC / AFP)

Odesa, which Ukraine fears could be the next target of Russia’s offensive in the south, is the country’s main port and is vital for its economy.

But the city of one million people close to the Romanian and Moldovan borders also holds a special place in the Russian imagination.

A cosmopolitan port with stunning 19th-century architecture, sandy beaches and a Mediterranean climate, it has a Russian-speaking majority from its days as the empire’s second port.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warned on Sunday that Moscow was “preparing to bomb Odesa,” saying, “it will be a war crime… a historical crime.”

Founded near the mouth of the Dniester River in 1794 by the Empress Catherine the Great, Odesa became one of the great ports of the Russian Empire.

A melting pot of Russians, Ukrainians, Greeks, Turks, Jews, Romanians and Bulgarians, the average Odesan in its 19th-century heyday is said to have spoken a smattering of five languages.

It also provided the spark for the 1905 Russian revolution, when sailors on the Battleship Potemkin mutinied. Their uprising was bloodily suppressed by Tsarist forces, with 2,000 Odesans dying alongside them.

Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 film of the events was shot in Odesa. Its pram scene on the Potemkin Steps is one of the most famous in cinema history.

As a Russian-speaking island in the far west of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has long had his eye on the city, saying in 2014 that it was never historically part of Ukraine but of Novorossiya — a part of southern and eastern Ukraine that was controlled by imperial Russia.

A young girl carries a birdcage as she arrives on a train originating from Odesa, Ukraine, at the station in Przemysl, Poland, March 7, 2022. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

Odesa is only 70 kilometers from Transnistria, the tiny unrecognized separatist Russian-speaking statelet that broke away from Moldova as the Soviet Union collapsed. NATO member Romania is a four-hour drive away.

But the city resisted the separatist push that took the mainly Russian-speaking Donbas region in the east out of Kyiv’s control when Putin annexed the nearby Crimea peninsula in 2014.

However, 48 people — most pro-Russian — died in clashes in May 2014 after being trapped in a building that was set alight after they attacked a group of Ukrainian nationalists with guns and grenades.

A family in an evacuation train says goodbye to a young man staying on the platform at the central train station in Odesa on March 6, 2022. (BULENT KILIC / AFP)

Odesa is Ukraine’s main port complex. The one in the city itself handles petrol and metals, while others in nearby Youjni and Illytchyivsk handle chemicals and containers. A large part of Ukraine’s enormous corn and barley exports pass through the ports.

Odesa’s beaches, Italianiate architecture and relaxed way of life made it a tourist magnet, with numbers increasing since the annexation of Crimea.

Alongside its picturesque beaches and buildings, Odesa has long had a reputation both in literature and in reality as a crime capital.

Ostap Bender, the conman hero of a string of popular Soviet novels was from Odesa, and the great Jewish writer Isaak Babel based his crime boss Benia Krik in his “Odesa Stories” on the real-life Jewish gangster Michka Iapontchik (“the little Japanese”).

This nefarious reputation followed Odesans abroad. The Jewish Russian mafia in the United States got its first foothold in the Brooklyn district of Brighton Beach. “Little Odessa,” as the neighborhood was dubbed, inspired the 1995 mob movie of the same name, starring Tim Roth and Vanessa Redgrave.

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