Notes on a City in Darkness: Odesa After the Russian Infrastructure Attacks

As the one-year mark of the Russia-Ukraine War approaches, the Western political climate increasingly polarizes public attitudes towards Russian aggression and Ukrainian suffering. The rising politicization of the war for various ideological interests occupies more space in discourse than that of the Ukrainians who endure the brutality of Russia’s terrorism against civilians. Meanwhile, American media outlets like the New York Times no longer shy away from suggesting the American public’s fatigue with the war, and that it may be time for Ukraine to consider wrapping up this conflict. A quick Google search for “Ukraine fatigue” lists dozens of articles from major US publications, many of them written within the past couple of months—likely a concerted effort to both influence and reflect US public opinion, after the US government recently suggested that future aid to Ukraine may eventually stagnate.

While Ukraine’s suffering grows more terrible each day, political discussions and publications in the West increasingly desensitize themselves from Ukrainian suffering. With each month that the war continues, Ukrainians find themselves forced to adapt in new ways previously unimaginable. The nationwide blackouts and frequent outages from Russian rocket attacks over the past several months continue to leave much of Ukraine without power, sometimes for days, making every sphere of daily life challenging. In the three and a half months I spent in Odesa, the Ukrainian port city so many of my family and friends still call home, the situation changed drastically, with Russian aggression spiraling in cruelty after events like the Kerch Bridge bombing and the retreat from Kherson. By the time I left at the end of November, life within the city looked very different from when I arrived.

Throughout October and in the lead-up to Russia’s mass rocket attacks that marked November 15th as another turning point in everyday Odesan life, various parts of the city faced random outages that usually lasted several hours. Walking through any part of the city in the evenings, one block in a neighborhood appeared completely dark, while the following block had light. Meanwhile, the Odesan regional administration and the national administration frequently reminded residents to conserve electricity to help support other cities in Ukraine experiencing blackouts as a result of Russia’s mass rocket attacks across the country in October—among them, those which hit the Kyiv city center on October 10th. Fewer trams rode through the streets, while pedestrians, automobile and bus drivers patiently learned to share the roads in the absence of pedestrian and traffic lights. In spite of the circumstances, Odesans adjusted.

On the evening of November 15th, the city of Odesa went completely dark. After hours of air raid warnings that morning, Russia’s mass rocket attacks across Ukraine left all of Odesa and 10 million Ukrainians across the country in a blackout with no light or internet and, in many places, no heat. In contrast to just a day or two before, all of the city’s street lights, pedestrian lights, and traffic lights no longer worked. Phone service and data became unusable 99% of the time, which made finding any information on the sudden changes next to impossible.

The following morning, in an attempt to run errands while it was light outside, I walked along different streets in the city center trying to find access to data, hoping that perhaps a single bar of cellular service would appear to make it possible to check the internet or make a phone call. Across the city center, employees of the dark shops and offices worked by candlelight or phone flashlight; other businesses were closed. Because of the power outages of the weeks prior, some cafes had working generators. The loud rumble of the generators, lined up along the sidewalks, made talking outside almost impossible (although it eventually became almost background noise). People crowded inside the lit cafes to charge their phones, although they did not have Wi-Fi. Many also stood in the lobbies of shopping centers, which had Wi-Fi and electrical outlets, since these spaces were owned by larger corporations that evidently had prepared long in advance for something of the sort. For those businesses without generators, the question of obtaining one proved to be a difficult one, since the abrupt demand far outweighed the supply. As one man working at a café told me, “it’s not even that the generators are expensive right now; there just aren’t any to buy.”

Adjusting to the drastic changes in everyday life routine in such circumstances is a continuous challenge—one can never fully adjust to not having electricity in their home. High-rise apartment buildings had a particularly difficult time—the many Soviet-era nine-story buildings across the city lost access to elevators. This forced their residents to use the stairs, making it difficult for the elderly and those with limited mobility to leave their apartment (they continue to struggle doing so as power outages continue). While many of the newer, more luxurious residential towers across the city (often 20 to 25 stories high) had reserve generators for minimal elevator access, powering the apartments would require generators on each floor. Many of these (previously highly desirable) buildings relied heavily on electricity, both for heating the apartment and for stove access. The older Soviet and pre-Soviet apartment buildings relied more on gas, making it possible to cook even without light. I luckily had lived on the first floor in a pre-Soviet Odessan apartment with my partner, so we were able to prepare food on our gas stove even in darkness, although the refrigerator didn’t work and we had no heat.

The catastrophic rocket attacks on civilian infrastructure could not have been coincidental when considering that a cold front, along with the first snowfall of the season, had occurred further north in the country just a couple of days before, impacting access to heat and freezing temperatures. “Let them freeze,” seems perfectly in line with the Russian military’s logic. On the first day of the outages, I approached a woman working at one of the many cigarette kiosks across the city. She was sitting in the dark, so I asked her whether she had any heating inside. She said because there wasn’t any electricity, she was sitting in the cold. While the Odesan mayor’s office announced just a couple of days before the rocket attacks that most of the city should already have heat, the heating had not yet turned on in many places, and the infrastructural attacks delayed that process even further. Those who relied on any form of electric heating, whether as their primary source of heat or as a backup to the outages, thus had no option for warmth. The State Emergency Service of Ukraine (DSNS) established a series of rules regarding safe use of alternative heat (among them, antique furnaces) and light sources and their potential risks if mishandled. According to the Odesan City Administration and the DSNS, there have been more than 800 fires across Ukraine since the beginning of 2023 related to these alternative options, making even access to heat and electricity risky.

The difficulty accessing finances only further problematized the situation of everyday life. None of the credit card systems were working, so only cash could be used anywhere, but the banks were closed and all of the shopping centers’ ATMs were empty of cash by mid-afternoon. Walking between four different shopping centers within the center of the city, each of which had three or four different ATMs, I found all of them empty—except for one, which had a line of about 15 people, before it too ran out. Suddenly, the fragility of the contemporary economic system appeared more obvious than ever—an unexpected and unsettling Marxist lesson on currency and value, and how they become arbitrary under crisis. Older generations who had lived through the economic turmoil of the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the Eastern Bloc seem to frequently share one feature: they understand the importance of emergency cash—especially in a stable currency—and in the exchange value of collecting gold. The high value and desirability of paper US dollar bills in Ukraine becomes quite clear within that context, because when money exists only on a card that is impossible to access, that money essentially does not exist.

Odesa persisted, and worked tirelessly to restore the power lines—within two days, lights began to flicker back on in the streets and internet more or less appeared. Of course, by then it became clear that outages were to become a part of everyday life, and that the restored electricity would likely be temporary. Surely enough, Russian rockets targeted electric infrastructure a week later—this time leaving many Odesans without running water as well. Supermarkets ran short on all sizes of still bottled water as customers rushed to stock up on emergency supplies. In an act of unspeakable cynicism, it became clear that Russia waited for Ukrainian cities to restore electricity, only for them to damage it in another series of attacks. Meanwhile, my family across the border in Moldova messaged me that the Russian rocket attacks had caused blackouts in their area, along with other parts of Moldova (which the Moldovan government confirmed as well). Moldova’s electrical infrastructure connections with Ukraine had caused the same problem the previous week—a tangible mark of the war’s impact beyond Ukraine.

In spite of these struggles, it is endlessly inspiring that Odesans manage to approach all of their adversity with both kindness and a sense of humor, continuing to try and go about their daily lives. While I sat charging my phone and waiting for a friend in a café, the generator which powered the establishment ran out of gas, shutting off all of the lights and electricity inside. The patrons sat in silence for a second, then collectively responded with a wave of laughter. Two mothers sitting with their families at a nearby table turned on their cell phone flashlights and gave them to their two young children, who chased each other around the café as if nothing had happened. Musicians still performed on Deribasivska, as they had almost daily in the months before. The second week’s power outages first occurred while I sat for a manicure in a nail salon, and the young women who ran the salon asked their neighbor with a generator to redirect some power to their salon, as they insisted on finishing the job for everyone inside. He happily obliged, and they continued their work. Odesans refuse to give up, and respond with individual resolve and willingness to assist and support one another. Small, random acts of kindness may seem trivial, but they show a strong sense of community and support that becomes difficult to imagine for many people outside of Ukraine— especially in individualistic countries like the US, where the needs of one always trump those of anyone else.

This persistence profoundly marks my memory of the events of my final weeks before I left Odesa, in its refusal to succumb to the immobility of despair. I found a strong example in the experience of my aunt, a steely but charismatic Odesan woman who had encountered seemingly endless hardships, whose birthday was the day after another complete blackout began. After spending her paycheck on groceries to prepare for her party, she was deeply concerned that everything would spoil because there was no electricity to refrigerate it. By the time we arrived at her birthday party the following afternoon, her table overflowed with prepared food. She later said that she and her daughter had stayed up until 1am the night before to cook what they could in the dark, and prepared the rest early in the morning. Under such extreme circumstances, something as seemingly minor a birthday party becomes an act of resistance.

Ukrainians have lived through hell for almost a year now, but still manage to laugh and joke about it, in order to continue living. One of the core facts I grew up with when it concerned Odesa was its famous sense of humor; it represents an essential part of its identity and history as a city, and exists as a great source of pride for its residents, and for Ukraine as a whole. Odesa embraces its unique and eccentric identity, both within itself but also as a part of the greater, diverse Ukrainian identity. Throughout the war, Odesan Telegram pages have published a wide variety of witty memes and jokes as a distinctly Odesan response to a crisis affecting all of Ukraine. The image below is from an Odesa meme page, “Odessa kak ona est” (Odesa the way she is, mostly published in Russian) which translates to: “it’s always darkest before the dawn”—DTEK Odessa Electrical Networks. Meanwhile, the Odesa House of Clowns (“Budinok Klouniv” or “Dom Klounov”), on Olhiivska Street, regularly performs comedy shows for children and adults, in spite of the war, helping visitors distract themselves from the war’s constant tragedy. Long run by Odesa native and renowned “People’s Artist of Ukraine,” Borys Barskyi, the colorful theatre sports a sign at its entrance, “Embassy of Humor in Ukraine,” always reminding passersby of the city’s identity. Odesa continuing to uphold its status as the capital of Ukraine’s humor in the midst of war should not be underestimated, and serves an important role in this war. There is a lot of political, cultural, and social strength in taking horror and turning it into a joke.

In sharing my experience of these past few months in Odesa, I aim only to underscore why we must continue to stand in solidarity with the Ukrainians forced to make such massive sacrifices for the sake of its sovereignty. Solidarity demands patience. When so many facets of everyday life rely on such presumed basics as electricity or internet, even the possibility of being able to go to school or to work falls into precarity. Ukrainians working remotely risk losing their jobs for lack of consistent internet access—especially those working for companies abroad—while the economic struggles of the wartime economy make those jobs more essential than ever. Ukrainian working classes do not always have the privilege to access a generator, which are often expensive and demand large amounts of equally expensive gas. Keeping this in mind and retaining a sense of empathy in spite of manipulation to become resentful or indifferent will determine the future of international support for Ukraine.

Yana Lysenko is a PhD student in Comparative Literature and Slavic Studies at New York University. Her dissertation focuses on Odesan literature, culture and identity in the 20th and 21st centuries. She is also interested in Eastern European solidarity and liberation movements, diaspora, decolonization, and urban studies.