Catherine the Great dominates the monument to Odessa founders. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

A statue of Catherine the Great, 18th Century Russian Empress, stands in the center of a main square of Ukraine’s besieged Odessa, a city she had built.

She founded Odessa in 1794 – atop an Ottoman town which itself was built over a Greek settlement – and wanted it to become Russia’s year-round entry to Mediterranean Europe and to Asia, the way St Petersburg was a gateway to northern Europe.

Catherine declared it an open city, a distinction granted nowhere else in the empire. “This unique status allowed a free exchange of foreign goods, free trade with the Middle East and Europe, and a free flow of ideas, a blossoming of the arts and an influx of foreigners,” wrote historian Anna Makolkin.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has other plans for it. Port of entry for goods? Yes. Free flow of ideas? No thanks. At stake is the nature of an independent Ukraine – if Ukraine remains independent.

“Despite the common history and the common linguistic identity, the nationalist imperialism of Putin’s Russia represents a step back rather than hope for the future of the people of Odessa,” the late Russia expert Patricia Herlihy wrote in 2018.

Odessa is a major target of Putin’s rampage through Ukraine. Along with Kiev, the capital, Odessa is a jewel in what Putin apparently sees as a new Russian empire. The birthing of this greater Russia has been slower than expected and viciously painful.

Exhibits A and B in the steamroll style of Russian warfare are the cities of Kharkiv, on the northern border, and Mariupol, a Black Sea port to the southwest. The bombardments by artillery, tanks and missiles are the heaviest in European cities since World War Two.

Although both were the first to be assaulted, the two cities have yet to fall. The Russians have grown impatient and moved some troops westward, from Kharkiv toward Kiev and from Mariupol west to Odessa, Ukraine’s largest port. Artillery and jets are pummeling the two cities left behind.

Black smoke rises from a military airport in Chuguyev near Kharkiv, Ukraine, on February 24, 2022, after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced an invasion of the country. Photo: Screengrab / VCG

Mariupol in particular offers a vivid picture of what’s in store for Odessa if it resists the Russian advance: charred high-rise apartments, shattered office buildings, a flattened theater and battered government offices attest to the frustration of Russian commanders.

Mariupol’s defenses include rows of mine fields, determined Ukraine soldiers plus a far-right nationalist militia known as the Azov Battalion. The latter elicits special anger from Putin, who has railed against “fascists” and singled out the Azov group as being a danger to Russia.

He issued a warning to Mariupol: surrender or face wrathful destruction.

It has faced an attack more damaging than it received from Nazi Germany in World War Two. Russian soldiers have penetrated deeply into Mariupol but have yet to control it.

Putin’s disdain is curious given the affection Russians and Ukrainians alike have for it. They praise it as the Pearl of the Black Sea and boast of its culture, beauty and mirth. Odessans alternately put it on a par with Venice, Florence, Paris and – for some reason – Palmyra. It was the largest warm-water port of defunct Tsarist and Soviet empires.

In the wake of Catherine’s open city policy, Greeks, Turks, Jews, Italians, Russians, Bulgarians, Albanians, Tatars, Swiss, Germans and even a smattering of the French and English flocked in to enjoy its sudden prosperity.

The international mix engendered an urban landscape unlike anything else in the Russian empire. The center of town was laid out by a Scottish city planner. Early seaside buildings adorned with Ionic columns were supplemented by fashionable palazzo-style mansions designed by Italian architects.

By the mid-19th century, Odessa had become the Russian Empire’s third-largest city and one of its most prosperous.

The 20th century would not be so kind. During World War I, several sides took time out to persecute Jews. After that war and the ensuing civil conflict, the city’s new Communist rulers took over mansions for proletarian housing and Communist Party offices. They also confiscated land from Cossacks who had been allies fighting the Germans.

Yet one film masterpiece provided a Soviet claim to part of the Odessa mythology. It was the silent film “Battleship Potemkin,” an account of a 1905 naval mutiny during which sailors take the side of rebellious Odessa workers against the Tsar. A monument to the ship replaced Catherine the Great’s statue.

During World War Two, Nazi-allied Romanian nationalists assaulted Odessa for more than 70 days and eventually drove out the Red Army. The Romanians lost more than 15,000 troops, the Red Army slightly fewer. After the siege, Nazis rounded up Jews and shot or hanged them or sent them to concentration camps. About 30,000 Ukrainian Jews died.

A residential apartment in Odessa’s city center with two statues of Atlantes holding the heavens on their backs. Photo: Facebook

In his memoirs, former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev wrote that he visited the city soon after the Nazi withdrawal and found that damage “relatively was not very great.” To Odessa’s eclectic skyline, Khrushchev would later add bland cookie-cutter apartment buildings known as “Khrushchevkas.”

Not surprisingly, Catherine’s statue has had ups and downs in tandem with Odessa’s during the tumult of the 20th Century. Her son Paul erected it on Ekaterininskaya Square after her death. When they took power, Bolsheviks toppled it, cut it into pieces and put them away.

Eventually, the Communists erected a monument to the Potemkin in its place. Karl Marx likenesses were also erected all over town.

With the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Potemkin was moved elsewhere and Catherine, a new metal head fashioned to replace the damaged original, returned to her place in the square. Just another historical relic to show off Ukraine’s devotion to history.

But some Ukrainians complained that Catherine was an imperialist who brought serfdom to the country and persecuted Cossacks. They wanted her statue retired. Ethnic Russians said her ouster would signify cultural erasure and eventual ethnic cleansing.

Competing protests heralded conflict to come. In 2014, Russia invaded Ukraine, annexed the Crimean Peninsula and sponsored rebellious pro-Moscow Russians in the east. Street battles broke out in Odessa.

Now, Putin has invaded again, insisting that Russia and Ukraine are one. Odessa awaits the Russian assault. Residents are preparing for a battle possibly equal to any that took place in either World War.

Ukraine’s naval band plays “Don’t worry, be happy” in downtown Odessa as residents gird for a Russian attack. Image: Screengrab / El Pais

On the Odessa seashore, mines lie hidden in the sand. The army has provided rifles to civilians and offered rudimentary training, according to cellphone videos from the city. Food distribution centers have been set up in hopes of surviving a siege.

Half of Odessa’s population of one million has fled. The remaining residents have fashioned sandbags to block streets. Women sew cloth to fishing nets to approximate camouflage screening.

With an attack looming, monuments and statues throughout the city have been fortified with sandbag defenses. But not Catherine the Great. Hers has been left uncovered to face Putin’s bombs.

Daniel Williams

Daniel Williams is a former foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Miami Herald and an ex-researcher for Human Rights Watch. His book Forsaken: The Persecution of Christians in Today’s Middle East was published by O/R Books. He is currently based in Rome.