‘We told ourselves it wasn’t shelling’ The early days of Russia’s invasion through the eyes of Odesa’s residents
Odesa was among the first cities hit on February 24, when Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The city has been continually shelled since the outbreak of hostilities. Prior to announcing the invasion, Vladimir Putin vowed to punish those responsible for the bloodshed at Odesa’s Trade Unions House in 2014. Now, Odesa residents are seeking safety in bomb shelters and are enlisting in territorial defense groups. In a report for Meduza, local journalist Mikhail Shtekel shares stories of the early days of the fighting in Odesa from the people living through it.
Please note. This article was originally published in Russian on February 28, 2022.
‘I’m from Luhansk, but now it’s fucked here too’
In the early hours of the morning on February 24, two explosions marked the war’s arrival in Odesa. Rocket fire rained down on the city continuously, and in the evening, reports emerged that one rocket had struck a military base on the outskirts of the city, killing 22 people.
Odesa returned fire — at times, anti-aircraft systems could be heard in the city.
Lines formed at gas stations and ATMs within an hour after the first explosion. Likewise, residents queued at recruiting posts to join Ukraine’s “territorial defense” —volunteer militias under the command of the armed forces.
Odesa-born Vladimir Katzman joined the 28th Mechanized Brigade as a volunteer during the 2014 clashes in eastern Ukraine. His unit saw combat in the Donetsk region. Vladimir demobilized in 2015 and had no plans to return to military service — he explains that he has suffered from panic attacks ever since his time in combat. Until recently, Vladimir had been living in Kyiv, but returned to Odesa a day after war broke out. He decided to join the territorial defense.
“I was woken by a video call the morning of February 24 — my phone has long been on silent because of my anxiety. A friend called to tell me about the strikes in Odesa, and I decided to return. It’s best for me to be close to the city and to hospitals [on account of health concerns], so I decided not to return to my old brigade,” Vladimir explains.
Vladimir was unsuccessful at joining the territorial defense on his first try — there were too many volunteers. It took until the following day until a spot was found for him in a local detachment.
That same day, Vladimir visited a pharmacy to stock up on gauze, antiseptics, and medicine in case of injury. Two more men queued behind him. “I got out of Luhansk in 2014. And now it’s fucked here too,” worried one of them. The other watched a video on his phone of a recon squad being detained on the outskirts of Odesa. “I just left there an hour ago — otherwise I’d be helping,” he sighed disappointedly.
When asked about those who, unlike him, left Ukraine, Katzman says: “Judge not, lest ye be judged. I have no resentment or anger towards them. If you didn’t want to fight — then don’t go, it’s your choice. We’re fighting for that very cause — so that it’s not like in Russia. Look at this video [of captured Russian soldiers], they’re sending 18–20 year old boys under the tanks to die for nothing in a foreign country.”
Katzman recalls the 2014 fire at Odesa’s Trade Unions House — at the time, 42 pro-Russian activists died after barricading themselves inside. In his recent address to the nation, Putin vowed to “find and punish” those responsible for the tragedy.
“They’re trying to capture Sumy and Chernihiv, two cities that are hardly pro-Russian. But they’re leaving Odesa alone,” reasons Vladimir. “Perhaps they remember May 2 [the day of the fire in the Trade Unions House] and know that they will face resistance from the population.”
‘I’ll sit by the road and wait for the Russian army’
On February 26, the third day of the war, residents of Odesa armed with flashlights inspect their local bomb shelters. Inside, old benches and bunk beds, along with a modest supply of water, make them a good place to seek cover in between intermittent bursts of shelling.
Anatoly, a former railroad worker in his 70s, is searching for an entrance to one such bomb shelter.
“We had people shooting machine guns at 6:00 a.m., we saw tracer rounds [ammunition that lights up when fired]. And yesterday I heard explosions in the city and drone strikes over the coast,” he recalls.
Anatoly has no plans to leave Odesa. “No one could believe that something like this could happen, that it would come to this,” he said. Anatoly explained that he’s a hunting enthusiast, so he has a permit to keep and carry firearms. If need be, he plans to “sit by the road and wait for the Russian army.”
Still, Anatoly is opposed to a complete break in relations with Russia. “They’re our strategic partner, and we have to buy oil and gas. Now they want to sit down and negotiate, but our position will be different. Ukraine has grown up.”
Anatoly finally finds the door to the bomb shelter, but the door is shut. Together with a nearby resident also seeking entry, they pull on it again. This time they’re successful — a commandant from the regional administration opens the door from inside.
This bomb shelter is a large and well-equipped space not far from the regional administration building. Constructed during the Cold War in 1983, it was designed “to lead the region in case of a ballistic missile strike from the United States.” The shelter’s commandant, Konstantin (name changed at his request), draws attention to the shelter’s double hermetically-sealed doors, air pumps for ventilation, and numerous bathrooms — he explains that this bomb shelter was intended for high-ranking party workers.
Now, during the Russian invasion, everyone is welcome to hide here. But it won’t be left open — if an air raid siren sounds, Konstantin has to run about 10 minutes from his home to pry open the bomb shelter’s door.
The conversation with the commandant is interrupted by a shattering boom — it later turned out to be a Ukrainian S-300 surface-to-air missile downing a Russian Su-30SM fighter jet. Everyone hides in response.
“We can fit 300 people here. There are rooms for people, and offices for the regional administration staff. We have running water, an alternate exit. We’ll accommodate,” reassures Konstantin.
The bomb shelter really is in good shape. The commandant is proud to provide a tour, turning on the lights in each room. Soviet-era posters and maps still adorn the walls, matching the shelter’s decades-old furniture.
Konstantin admits that he was terrified when he heard the blasts on February 24: his windows open directly onto a military base, a typical target for rocket strikes. But Konstantin overcame his fear and ran to open the bomb shelter.
“Until the last day, I didn’t believe that such a thing could happen. Of course, my attitude towards Russia has changed. And not in a positive way,” he reasons. “In 2014 it didn’t change — it seemed so far away, and hard to believe. I hate politics.” Many of Konstantin’s friends have already left the country, or moved to Western Ukraine, but he doesn’t intend to flee. “If I leave, then no one will get anything done here,” he jokes.
On February 26, crowds pack Odesa’s train station. Many are fleeing the shelling. Passengers are getting their tickets checked for a train to Ivano-Frankivsk in Western Ukraine, but the conductor reveals that they were told to let anyone on regardless. Moreover, special evacuation trains are being sent from Odesa to the west of the country.
Marina, a journalist, already left Odesa in a taxi — she says her friends convinced her. Her apartment is not far from Odesa’s port — a strategic location where Ukrainian air defenses have been protecting the city from drones.
On the night of the invasion, Marina was preparing to submit a piece about coping with the fear of war. Her deadline was that morning. Marina, who always spoke Russian, now converses in Ukrainian on principle.
“I’ve been transcribing an interview with a psychologist since 4:00 a.m. — I reached the question ‘Can you avoid panicking by not thinking about war?’ and heard a blast. At first I thought a railcar had derailed at the port, and considered running to the basement. But I decided not to panic,” explains Marina. “The next explosion was at 5:10. I woke up my friend and we got ready to go downstairs but ended up staying put. If they were firing at our building, I doubt we’d be alive. We did everything slowly, telling ourselves it wasn’t shelling, or that they weren’t targeting us. We couldn’t believe it until the end.” Marina and her friend made the decision to leave town, despite having access to a bomb shelter and supplies stockpiled in case of war.
Marina departed for a village near Odesa where she’s from. That same day, she found a fluorescent marker on the ground near a military base, often used by saboteurs to target airstrikes. She covered it in dirt. Marina found herself unable to relax on the street — she mistook the rumbling of a tractor for army vehicles and was constantly listening for shelling. Now, she doesn’t leave the house.
“How do I relax? I make pierogies, borscht, play with my cat and my cousin. I believe that this week I’ll be back in Odesa already,” she says. “And then I’ll go to Kyiv, enroll in graduate school, meet up with friends, and everything will be alright.”
‘I thought it was fireworks’
On February 25, the Ukrainian authorities banned men aged 18–60 from leaving the country for the duration of the war. Meduza spoke to 30-year-old programmer Gennady (name changed at his request), who managed to leave Odesa and enter Poland amid the chaos. For him, the invasion was the final straw: he says he had long thought about moving to Europe, but remained indecisive.
“I want to take myself and my girlfriend to a safe place. If something happens to me while I fight for this country, then even if we win the government will be paying my mother a pension of 1,900 hryvnias [less than $65],” Gennady continues. He’s also worried about the future of the companies that employ him — he doesn’t want to resign “at a time like this.”
Gennady says that in Poland, volunteers greet Ukrainians and help them settle in to their new homes, though he chose not to participate. “There were lots of people on the train with kids, animals, luggage. They need it more — some don’t have money, others don’t speak English, or they are seniors. I can’t accept the help in good conscience when I am okay and can handle it myself.”
Several days before the outbreak of war, journalist Yuliya Gorodetskaya returned to Odesa. She had arrived from New York, where she had moved with her family. Yuliya says she had to return for “personal reasons,” though she was convinced that war was inevitable: she followed media reports about invasion preparations and saw photos of troops massed on the border. She figured that the advance would happen in stages: first they would occupy Donbas, then perhaps strike deeper into the heartland. She came to Odesa alone and rented an apartment — her husband and kids remained in New York.
“I was telling everyone who would listen about the war, but they told me that I was panicking and that I had watched too much American news. Now my husband and kids joke that they’ll send me to the zoo to replace Punxsutawney Phil, but just two weeks ago they were skeptical — otherwise, they probably wouldn’t have let me leave. Now they’re demanding that I return at any cost,” recounts Yuliya. Nevertheless, she intends to stay in Odesa for now.
Before the bombings began, the journalist was stocking up on food, water, and vital medicine. She installed Bridgefy, a Bluetooth-based offline messenger that works within a 100-meter (328-foot) radius. Gorodetskaya was awake when the invasion began — she had been watching the UN Security Council’s deliberations, but switched to watching Vladimir Putin’s national address. She assumed that if he was giving it at night, it had to be something important.
“By the middle of his speech I knew Putin was going to attack. As soon as he finished, an explosion boomed outside. I thought it was fireworks — from collaborators celebrating his speech. But there were no fireworks that night,” Yuliya recalls.
Yuliya created a makeshift shelter in the hallway of her apartment — she maintains the walls are stronger there. She hardly sleeps at night, instead listening for incoming bombers. In the daytime, she goes outside and visits shops — maintaining a routine on advice from her friend, an Israeli psychologist who has experience with frequent air raid sirens.
“I don’t want to run. Especially not after the boys on Zmiinyi Island and the kid who blew himself up on the bridge [25-year-old Ukrainian sapper Vitaliy Skakun gave his life to sabotage a Russian tank column by destroying a bridge], I feel that it would not be right. Even though I’m sure that the occupiers have journalists on their ‘kill lists,’ I don’t think it would be right to leave” she explains. “I’m scared, but I believe in Ukraine’s armed forces — they’re showing what bravery can achieve. We should live up to our defenders.”