ODESA, Ukraine — Tilted columns barely holding the dome above the altar, smashed windows, and chunks of debris on the floor of the Transfiguration Cathedral stunned and outraged residents who came to see the destruction wrought by a Russian missile strike.
Polina Horobets and Polina Hrodovska, two 16-year-old girls who live nearby, cried and hugged each other.
“My flat was shaking. I am shocked. I feel only fear,” Hrodovska said.
Serhiy Tkachenko, a priest who came to the cathedral shortly after the strike, when it was still dark, said it was “a soul-shattering sight.”
“I don’t know how it could have happened,” he said.
Volodymyr Vysotskiy, one of the workers collecting the shards of broken glass and shattered plaster, bitterly laughed off the crowd’s indignation: “It is as surprising and incomprehensible as every single day of this war,” he said.
Odesa residents endured several sleepless nights as Russia launched a series of missile and drone strikes on the port city and other coastal areas, many targeting food storage and export facilities, after announcing its withdrawal from the UN-brokered Black Sea Grain Initiative on July 17.
The Russian missile attack on July 23 — the biggest air attack on Odesa since the start of the full-scale invasion in February 2022 — killed at least one person and wounded at least 22, including four children. It also damaged or destroyed at least 25 historic buildings in the city center, which was added to the UNESCO list of endangered World Heritage locations this past January.
The destruction of cultural heritage in the city once regarded as “St. Petersburg on the Black Sea” by many Russians was something so far unprecedented — unlike the fear and death caused by air strikes.
At least 25 civilians have been killed and more than 100 wounded in air attacks on the city of Odesa since the start of the full-scale invasion. In the sprawling Odesa region, the numbers are even higher.
‘Nothing Worse Than Idleness’
The morning after the July 23 attack brought a spontaneous demonstration of defiance and unity, as hundreds of residents rushed to the hard-hit sites to clear the rubble and clean up the mess.
Zenoida and Anastasia Chumak, a mother and her adult daughter, came to help out at the House of Scientists, a municipal organization dedicated to teachers and professors that is housed in the former palace of the Russian aristocratic family best known for its scion Leo Tolstoy.
When a missile hit private houses meters from the palace, its old stained-glass windows were knocked out and numerous pieces of early 19th-century furniture were damaged or destroyed. To Anastasia, a doctor who had attended conferences and concerts at the former palace in the past, the attack was “tragic proof of Russian barbarism.”
“But there is nothing worse than idleness, so we came here,” she added.
Another building hit by the same shockwave was a mid-19th-century residence that has hosted a kindergarten for several decades.
The twin daughters of Oleksandr Babich, a local historian and tour guide, used to come here every day for many years. The beautiful place that was their “second home” will now be out of use, and months of renovations will be necessary to bring it back to its original state, Babich told RFE/RL.
Babich was a member of the team that wrote a report for UNESCO that helped ensure Odesa’s historical center the status many residents expected would protect it from destruction.
“We did what we could, but international organizations are hardly ever efficient or proactive in this war,” he said, looking at a row of demolished buildings on Preobrazhenska Street.
In the wake of the attack on July 23, Russia’s Defense Ministry claimed that the cathedral was damaged by a projectile from Ukraine’s air defenses — not a Russian missile. The claim was picked up by some pro-Russian Telegram channels widely read in Odesa.
The trajectory of the attack is now being studied in detail. Analysts point out that Russia is also to blame when Ukrainian air defenses do damage, because they would not be operating if it had not conducted air attacks in the first place.
Hennadiy Horbach, an Odesa architect who came to Cathedral Square after the attack, told RFE/RL that the destruction at the site clearly indicated it was hit by a missile.
“The Russians want to humiliate us, but they only make us hate them even more,” he said, adding that he believes the attack on historical sites in city center was intentional. Such sentiment was expressed by many residents on the day of the attack.
According to Ukraine’s military, Odesa was targeted with at least five types of missiles, including high-precision Onyx missiles, sea-to-shore Kalibr cruise missiles, Iskander ballistic missiles, and inaccurate but powerful Kh-22 missiles.
Lieutenant Colonel Serhiy Sudets, an officer of the National Guard, told RFE/RL that the cathedral was “undoubtedly” hit by a missile and that the accuracy of the weapons used in the attack indicates that “the city center was targeted intentionally.”
But experts say that Kh-22 missiles have a 50 percent chance of hitting a target with a deviation of 300 meters, suggesting that some of the specific sites that were hit may not have been targeted.
In any case, the controversy gained traction among some people in Odesa because the city’s main Orthodox cathedral is arguably the most unfortunate target for a Russian attack.
The Transfiguration Cathedral belongs to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), the denomination historically linked to Moscow that is facing intense criticism in Ukraine over its reluctance to sever all ties with the Russian Orthodox Church and its head, Moscow Patriarch Kirill, who has vocally backed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and said Russian soldiers who die in battle are performing “a sacrifice that cleanses away all of that person’s sins.”
The UOC, which still dominates in Odesa, is a bitter rival of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), which was recognized as independent in 2019 by the spiritual head of all Orthodox Christians, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, ending centuries of Russian dominance over Orthodox Christianity in Ukraine.
The cathedral itself — originally built in the late 18th century, torn down during Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s atheism drive in the 1930s, and rebuilt after Ukraine gained independence in 1991 — was consecrated in 2010 by Patriarch Kirill, who was accompanied by Vladimir Putin, then the Russian prime minister.
“Hitting the Moscow Patriarchate is the only plus in this situation,” Yuriy — a friend of Horbach’s who recently left the city of Kherson, near the front line further east, because of the constant Russian shelling there — said with a half-joking sneer.
After the attack, the head of the OCU, Metropolitan Onufriy, said that “anyone who aims at the sky eventually hits himself,” without laying clear blame on Russia or Ukraine. But to the surprise of many, the Odesa Eparchy, which is under his authority, condemned what it said was a “direct hit by an enemy Russian missile” and called the attack a “terrorist act.”
In an act of solidarity with the outraged worshippers, after the attack the local priests displayed a copy of an icon known as the Kasperovskaya Mother of God in front of the cathedral — the original is held in another Odesa church and is said by believers to protect the city — and organized a public prayer, saying that it was “miraculously saved.”
According to Valeriy Bolhan, editor in chief of the independent local media outlet Intent and associate at the Center for Public Investigations, an anti-corruption NGO in Odesa, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is the “last bastion of pro-Russian sentiment in Odesa.” Echoing an accusation frequently made in Ukraine against the UOC, he claimed that its leaders in Odesa have “close connections to the FSB,” Russia’s main intelligence agency.
But sympathy for Russia is not just the province of UOC priests, and there are others who spread pro-Russian narratives among residents of Odesa, many of whom have relatives living in Russia or occupied Crimea. Some of the Telegram channels focusing on Odesa, such as the popular Typical Odesa channel, which is run by people residing in Russia, oppose the ongoing “Ukrainization” of the public sphere and take frequent aim at the patriotic course set by local authorities.
Many Odesa officials — most notably the longtime mayor, Hennadiy Trukhanov, who was openly sympathetic to Moscow in the past — have backed the national government’s fierce resistance to Russia’s invasion and significantly changed their rhetoric.
Trukhanov, who angrily condemned the recent attacks, was detained by Ukraine’s Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office in May. Investigators accuse him of embezzling 92 million hryvnyas ($2.5 million) from the city budget through a scheme involving the purchase of a building belonging to a bankrupt factory in 2016. He denies wrongdoing.
The mayor, whose rapid switch to Ukrainian and fiercely patriotic slogans bring amused smiles to city residents, had to wear an electronic ankle tag for two months but continues to govern as the case progresses slowly. Bolhan told RFE/RL that the authorities in Kyiv most likely use this situation to keep the controversial but popular politician “under their watch.”
When President Volodymyr Zelenskiy visited what’s left of the Transfiguration Cathedral during a visit to the Odesa region, Trukhanov was conspicuously absent.
Despite the strained relationships of the local authorities with Kyiv, the war has shifted public sentiment in Odesa further in favor of Ukraine.
Bolhan says this transformation has been ongoing at least since the Euromaidan protests that pushed a Moscow-friendly president from power in Kyiv in 2014 and the deadly incident on May 2 of that year in Odesa, where supporters and opponents of the Euromaidan movement clashed and 42 people died in a fire at the Trade Unions House.
“The full-scale invasion strengthened the pro-Ukrainian orientation of the city, and the recent attack will only fuel the anger at Russia,” Bolhan said. He added that he hopes that the spurt of media interest sparked by the images of the damaged city center will draw the attention of Ukraine’s Western backers to the city’s insufficient air defenses.
‘Russia Will Get More Aggressive’
Those defenses were dramatically tested when Russia scuttled the Black Sea Grain Initiative, which for a year had provided for the safe transport of Ukrainian grain to the Bosphorus and out to world markets, and launched numerous attacks on Ukrainian food export facilities.
Following Moscow’s withdrawal from the deal, the Russian Defense Ministry announced that all ships traveling to Ukraine would be considered as potentially transporting military cargo. Kyiv responded by saying that it would treat ships traveling to Russia or the Ukrainian territories it occupies in the same way.
Sidharth Kaushal, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, said that Russia is extensively mining the Black Sea, will become “more aggressive,” and may try to stop ships and continue to attack ports. However, he said Russia is likely to refrain from firing on ships, fearing the possible international reaction.
At a briefing in Odesa on July 25, Kaushal said it is unlikely that Turkey or other countries in the region will help Ukraine overcome this blockade because Ankara, which is the only country in the Black Sea region capable of securing Ukrainian exports, has overlapping interests with Russia in North Africa, the Middle East, and Syria.
“Russia is effectively blocking the northern Black Sea. And these actions can cause hunger, and we also see violations of food security,” he said.
Andriy Klymenko, head of the Institute for Strategic Black Sea Studies in Kyiv, told RFE/RL that the campaign of air strikes on Ukrainian ports was “absolutely expected” and preceded by largely successful Russian attempts to minimize the export of Ukrainian grain by slowing bureaucratic procedures within the Black Sea Grain Initiative.
“They wanted to show that they are leaving the deal for real and manifest to Erdogan and the UN that they can do whatever they wish,” he said of the Russian attacks.
Klymenko also said that a “hybrid and conventional war” over the Black Sea has been going on since 2014, when Russia seized Crimea, and that the recent escalation is developing against the backdrop of Ukraine’s current counteroffensive and its strikes at the peninsula, most notably at the Crimea Bridge.
He argued that “until NATO frees itself from the irrational fear of Russia, the Kremlin will raise the stakes to the brink of international conflict and try to turn the Black Sea into its internal lake to pursue its economic and political interests.”
‘We Get On Your Nerves’
Meanwhile, no vessels have been visible at the horizon from the beaches of Odesa, which are emptier than ever before — the result of a ban on swimming due to the mining of the sea and pollution resulting from the breach of the Kakhovka dam on the Dnieper River, which led to an ecological disaster in the region.
Some people swim, and life goes on — but in the second summer of the full-scale invasion, Odesans can’t escape the reality of the war, and some who have suffered are seething with pain and anger.
Anastasia Sirchenko, a 23-year-old Odesa native, told RFE/RL that the missile attacks of the past week were “just scary,” but that people in the city had “made their peace with the prospect of a long war.”
She left Ukraine for Poland after the beginning of the invasion in 2022, only to return a couple of months later as she understood that she is “at home only in Ukraine.”
Odesa is going through a large-scale transformation: As many as 300,000 of the city’s roughly 1 million residents left after the full-scale Russian invasion and a limited number have come back, while more than 120,000 internally displaced people have registered in the city since February 2022.
After she returned, Sirchenko joined what she calls a “nationalist organization” called Robimo Vam Nervy, or We Get On Your Nerves. The Ukrainian name comes from a phrase from an Odesa patois that mixes Russian, Ukrainian, Yiddish, and other influences.
“We take what we find relevant from nationalists such as Yuriy Lypa” — a writer and politician from Odesa — and “fight with the weapon we have that is social media,” she said.
The organization went viral when some of its members carried out “revisions” in restaurants and bars where staff spoke Russian in a breach of Ukrainian language law. They were putting out TikTok videos asking the owners to explain why they keep using the “language of the enemy.”
“I want to feel at home, and I want to feel comfortable here,” Sirchenko said, explaining the activity of the club, which she said “wants to create a safe Ukrainian environment in a city that has been Russified for years by forcing people to reflect.”
In a city that last December dismantled a prominent statue of 18th-century Russian Empress Catherine II, traditionally seen as its founder, this sentiment runs broadly across different segments of its population.
“It is our way of sublimating aggression,” she said of what the organization does in an effort to “destroy the myth of Russian Odesa.”
“If Russia is not stopped, we will be eternal refugees with no place to call our own.”