Chernukho-Volich worked in Moscow for several years, but in 2014, when Putin annexed Crimea and instigated a separatist war in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, he said he had an epiphany: the imperial idea was inseparable from Russia, and any politician, like Putin, prepared to unleash its elixir would at once thrive at home and threaten the world. He left.
Now he performs in an opera house first designed by a St Petersburg, Russia, architect and rebuilt after a fire by Viennese architects, with its facade adorned with a bust of Alexander Pushkin; and he lives in a city founded by a Russian empress and substantially laid out by a French duke, home over the years to traders of every faith and creed, drawn from the Mediterranean and from across the steppes of Central Asia.
All this Putin wants to place under the increasingly brutal clampdown of his rule, in the name of a Russian imperium. He wants to silence the polyglot murmuring of Odesa, a city defined by its openness, whose music is its mingling.
“Odesa is its own nationality,” said Grigory Barats, a member of the Odesa Jewish community largely dispersed by the Russian invasion. Attending the concert, he said he was thinking of his 96-year-old mother in New York City who once worked at the theatre.
The applause at the end of the performance was sustained, punctuated by cries of “Bravo!” Backstage, Marina Najmytenko, a soprano who played Juliet, brimmed with pride and emotion. “It is art that is going to help us survive and to preserve our essence so that we win this war,” she said.
When, I asked, would that be? “Unfortunately,” she said, “it will go on for some time. It makes us depressed just how crazy Putin seems to be.” But, she continued, Juliet gave her a particular inspiration. “It is Shakespeare, it is youth, and it is pure love.”
In some ways the opening of the Opera, in a city hit just two months ago by a rocket attack that killed eight people, captured two facets of Ukraine as the war grinds on and front lines move slowly, if at all: a country where something superficially resembling normal life has been restored in wide areas even as fighting is intense in the east and parts of the south.
“It is important to show that Odesa is alive, that Ukraine is alive, that we want to live and create, while the way of the Russian occupiers is killing and death,” Gennadiy Trukhanov, the mayor of Odesa, said. “If Mr Putin dared to strike the opera, the hatred he would face throughout the world is unimaginable.”
Trukhanov, long viewed as having pro-Russian sympathies, has pivoted to become an outspoken defender of Ukraine and his city since the war began. Waving away accusations of association with organised crime, he said he was saddened to see “Russia destroying its claim to be a cultural nation.”
Could Putin strike central Odesa? “Anyone capable of Bucha, of Mariupol, of what is happening down the road in Mykolaiv, is capable of anything,” he said. “That is what we have learned.”
For now, however, the show goes on in irrepressible Odesa, even as cultural tensions rise. Trukhanov is under pressure to rename Pushkin Street, near the City Hall. The brilliant Russian playwright and novelist lived in Odesa in 1823.
“No,” the mayor said. “I would not support that. Odesa is the intercultural capital of Ukraine. I am worried by the growth of hatred of all things Russian.”
But that hatred is perhaps the inevitable result of Putin’s unprovoked war: Tell a nation it does not exist and it will cohere as never before in defiant resolve to safeguard its existence.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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