ODESSA, Ukraine—“Working for Russian TV is a lot of flash, and a lot of cash,” Tina Shumilova, 38, told The Daily Beast in a volunteer center in the city of Odessa in southern Ukraine. “You just have to cut off your brain and never ask yourself what your fucking function in this life is.”
Tina was recalling the time she spent living in Moscow, during which she said she worked as a reporter at Russia’s main state-funded television network, Channel One, before moving back to Ukraine several years ago. Now, instead of working for Russians, she is bracing for an onslaught as the Kremlin’s forces continue to launch attacks on cities across the country.
After moving back to her hometown, Tina said she saved up enough money to become co-owner of one of the most popular strip clubs in the city.
“It is a much more honorable profession,” she said. “Often you really have a good time, often good money, near zero responsibility. I’m very fond of the men we meet here and hearing all their stories.”
Tina said she laughed and cheered when she saw that an old colleague of hers, who she didn’t know personally, from Channel One had interrupted a live broadcast last week to brandish a sign denouncing the Kremlin’s war on Ukraine, telling audiences they were being lied to. “I’m sure it isn’t fake,” she said of the protest. “This ugly channel is not fond of jokes. Anyway, you can’t fake such an honest message.”
The businesswoman is now volunteering as a logistical coordinator at a once-trendy food hall which is now being used to coordinate the distribution of food, medical supplies, and other necessities for the city’s residents. A huge model Chinese dragon hangs over the masses of volunteers in their orange high-visibility jackets. At the entrance of the food hall, visitors are met with a photo of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky welcoming visitors alongside a sign that reads “THE NATION IS NOT FOR SALE!”
If the war enters Odessa, Tina plans to take up arms along with the rest of the volunteers and fight against Russian troops who enter the city. She has left her young son in a safe location—she doesn’t want to say where—but has been training to fight alongside the military and territorial defenders near Odessa.
“I will fight for my country until the end. Why? Because it is our country, not Putin’s, not these Russians!” she told The Daily Beast.
Like Tina, most of Odessa’s residents are Russian speakers and have personal or family ties to Russia. Popular support for Ukraine’s pro-European movement was low here in 2014. In fact, serious clashes broke out between pro and anti-Maidan movements that culminated in a battle that took 48 lives on May 2.
But now, that sentiment appears to be changing. Residents seem resolutely focused on fighting off the Russian invasion.
“Everyone has forgotten about what happened before Feb. 24, the start of the invasion. We’ve all put the past aside and our old problems, and we are all on the same side. It is fantastic,” says Inga Kordynovska, the 30-year-old head coordinator of the volunteer shelter.
A popular joke in the city is that young men used to bribe their way out of conscription. Now, they want to bribe their way into the Armed Forces so they can defend their country. “Every day, I get over fifty calls from people who want to help, we have more offers of assistance than there is work to do,” says Inga. “They say to me, I need to do something, I can’t just watch how this fucking crazy Putin ruin my country.”
As with many port towns, Odessa has a reputation as a hedonist’s paradise, full of strip clubs, casinos, and glitzy nightclubs. All these places have been boarded up and sandbagged. The sandy beaches have been covered in landmines to prevent the reportedly imminent assault of Russia’s amphibious landing craft.
It has been bitterly cold here for most of the last two weeks. Heavy snow has fallen throughout the city—a good thing for Ukrainian defenders, as bad weather makes it harder for Russian forces to launch attacks from the sea. “Thank God for this cold!” Inga said. “Every morning we pray, please God give us disgusting weather.”
Nobody in Odessa pays attention to the air raid sirens anymore. In my hotel, where the staff are obliged to ring our rooms in the middle of the night if there is an alarm, some of the guests just take their phones off the hook.
Many of the volunteers here are young women who have had ample opportunities to leave but have stayed behind, even when they have to leave their families to do so. Olha Khazova, a 27-year-old croupier at a local casino, was originally due to leave with her sister for the safety of Moldova, but changed her mind and decided to stay in Odessa. “Here I can help my people and do my part to support my homeland,” she told The Daily Beast.
Moscow had hoped to have long seized this city, and originally made fast gains in their southern offensive from Crimea, having captured the city of Kherson, and laid siege to Mykolaiv, just over 100 km away. The original plan was to conduct a doomsday style amphibious landing along the coast. But staunch Ukrainian resistance here has so far saved the city from the awful fate of Mariupol, which is under an extraordinarily brutal Russian siege that Ukrainian authorities believe has already killed over 2,000 civilians.
After the bombing of a theater in Mariupol this week, where first responders are currently digging people out of the rubble, the workers here are scared. “We know now that this will be one of the first places they will bomb here, because it is where our people gather and organize,” one young woman, who did not want to be named, told The Daily Beast.
Artoym Vasuta, 35, was one of Odessa’s top city guides before the war, and his specialty was Odessa’s deep network of catacombs, the extent of which rivals those in Paris and Naples.
“Now, of course, no tourists come here,” he says. “Instead, I show the military guys around so they can use them to store supplies and prepare ambushes for invaders. I know my business will come back, and tourists return when we win.”
Inga, meanwhile, wants to know when outside countries will step in to help Ukraine.
“We aren’t even asking you to fight the war. We will do that. Just give us the weapons and close the skies! Now a lot of our refugees go to Moldova. And now Moldova understands, if Ukrainians can’t stop Putin, he comes to Moldova too, to Romania, to Poland. It’s not our war, it’s the world’s war!,” she told The Daily Beast. “Putin destroys whole countries. How many people should die? How many people should be killed before it’s enough?”