With grain in the cross hairs again, so is a jewel of Ukraine

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With grain in the cross hairs again, so is a jewel of Ukraine
Damage inside the Transfiguration Cathedral, which was heavily damaged in Russian missile attacks, in Odesa, Ukraine, July 24, 2023. Odesa, a port city long beloved by travelers, had been largely spared the worst of the war, but that began changing this week. (Emile Ducke/The New York Times)

by Valerie Hopkins

ODESA.- There are no longer walls behind the main altar of the Transfiguration Cathedral, a landmark heavily damaged when Russian missiles struck the Ukrainian port city of Odesa.

So on Tuesday, when the breeze from the nearby Black Sea blew in, it disturbed the stillness inside one of Ukraine’s largest places of worship, sending a chandelier in the nave swinging like a slow pendulum from side to side. Detritus floated down from the roof as building inspectors, United Nations employees and priests donned hard hats to assess the damage to a cultural icon.

“We hope God will protect the heart of our cathedral,” said Father Oleksii after a morning Mass held in front of the red-and-white caution tape roping off the main part of the church.

Outside, residents gathered around the entrance to the cathedral, which is now boarded up with plywood. Many stopped to kiss an icon of the patroness of their city, which an employee of the church said had been pulled from the rubble. Others came simply to witness the destruction, walking by the church with smartphones in hand filming videos, their mouths wide open.

“This is inhumanity,” said one city resident, Ludmila Partinchuk, who had come with her husband, Oleh.

Founded in 1794, the cathedral became the most important Orthodox church in Novorossiya, the name given by the Russian Empire to land along the Black Sea and Crimea that is part of present-day Ukraine. It was destroyed during a Soviet campaign against religion in 1936 and not rebuilt until after the fall of the Soviet Union.

When it was consecrated in 2010, the ceremony was presided over by Patriarch Kirill of Moscow — now perhaps better known as the prelate who has blessed Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine and promised that their sins would be “washed away.”

Now, with Russia targeting port cities to disrupt Ukrainian grain exports, the Transfiguration Cathedral is once again in the cross hairs.

The cathedral was struck Sunday, during a campaign of missile strikes that are new for Odesa, which had largely been spared the devastating attacks that have hit other Ukrainian cities such as nearby Mykolaiv and the capital, Kyiv.

“Before, the Russians focused on targeting us with drones, and most were shot down,” said Petro Obukhov, a member of the Odesa City Council.

Over the past week, getting rest has become difficult. “When you feel the night coming,” said Partinchuk as she stood outside the church, “you cannot go to sleep.”

Although grain shipments from ports like Odesa were blocked in the early months of the war, leading to fears not just for the Ukrainian economy but for countries around the world in desperate need of food, ships began leaving port again last July under the terms of a deal brokered by the United Nations and Turkey.

The agreement, known as the Black Sea Grain Initiative, also afforded Odesa itself a measure of security — but that ended a week ago, when Moscow pulled out of the deal. “We felt we were relatively safe, but now this feeling is gone,” Obukhov said.

On Tuesday, UN Secretary-General António Guterres once again urged a resumption of the grain deal, but with no sign of that happening, Ukrainian and U.N. officials were at work trying to shore up alternative export routes by road, rail and barge.

For years, Odesa was one of the most-visited cities in Ukraine, drawing tourists from both Ukraine and abroad who wanted to wander its cobble-stoned city center, much of it built in the late 19th century. Its history as a port city made it a highly diverse corner of Ukraine, with French, Italian and Greek merchants mixing with Ukrainian, Russian and Jewish families.

But on Tuesday, many of the city’s cafes and restaurants were largely empty.

“Many tourists are staying away,” said Oleksii Khalykhin, 20, a tour guide, who said he was nevertheless continuing his work so that people could get a deeper sense of Odesa’s history — and remember it in case it is obliterated.

“They are trying to destroy the identity of the city,” he said. “Now we are trying to do everything possible to make sure that Odesa’s culture and heritage lives in the souls of its people.”

On Sunday, the vicar of the Odesa Diocese wrote an angry letter to the Moscow patriarch.

“Stop these killings and destruction of peaceful cities and villages,” Archbishop Viktor of Artsyz wrote to Kirill. “Your bishops and priests consecrate and bless the tanks and rockets that bomb our peaceful cities.”

On Tuesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called for more help from Ukraine’s allies to help protect his country’s historical heritage. A day earlier, the United Nations said that its top official in Ukraine, Denise Brown, was in Odesa to examine the toll of a week of near-nightly attacks that have killed civilians, destroyed agricultural facilities and damaged landmarks such as the cathedral.

The intentional destruction of cultural sites could amount to a war crime, UNESCO, the U.N.’s cultural agency, said in a statement Sunday. Russia has denied targeting the landmarks and blamed Ukraine’s air defenses for the destruction.

In eastern Ukraine, Russian forces fired shells at a small reservoir miles behind the front line, killing two people, including a 10-year-old boy, and wounding four other children who had been playing in the summer heat, a senior local official said Tuesday. The attack occurred the evening before in the town of Kostyantynivka in the Donetsk region, said Pavlo Kyrylenko, the head of the regional military administration.

“The Russians once again prove that they are at war with civilians, and in their desire to kill they stop at nothing,” Kyrylenko said. “I appeal to parents once again: There is no place for children in a war zone! Take care of them. Evacuate.”

At Transfiguration Cathedral, Father Oleksii was trying to make sense of the trauma, and praying that his city did not become another Ukrainian ruin.

“As Christians,” he said, “we must accept that all events have been foreseen by God, including war, destruction and even the death of innocent children. We have seen what happened in places like Mariupol and Bakhmut, where there is no space for life, and pray that the Lord delivers us from that type of total destruction.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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