in Odessa, the cats on the walls go to war

Odessa (Ukraine) (AFP) – On a thoroughfare in Odessa (southwest), a blue cat smiles, a pile of Russian planes at his feet. Since the beginning of the war, a street-art collective has painted dozens of felines on the walls of the city, testimony to the almost unreal carelessness reigning in this part of Ukraine.

“Odessa is a port city, so there are a lot of cats,” says Matroskin, a graphic designer with the LBWS group. In the current context, the “icon” of the metropolis of one million inhabitants, according to him, could not continue to purr peacefully. “Cats had to become patriots.”

“It’s the only option we have, continues the 32-year-old artist. Some are volunteers, others are military. We paint patriotic cats.” Now ubiquitous in town.

On the wall of the Privoz covered market, an emblem of Odessa, a tomcat carries a bazooka, while his friend screws a silencer on his pistol. Elsewhere, a cat crushes a warship. Another, dressed in a military jacket, makes the “V” for victory with his fingers.

Nothing to do with the political and precise stencils of Banksy, the illustrious British street-art artist who has colonized the walls of the whole world, and whom Matroskin does not know. In Odessa, the lines are more naive, willingly humorous, but the message gets through.

Passers-by in front of a creation by the street-art collective LBWS, on a street in the port city of Odessa, April 13, 2022
Passers-by in front of a creation by the street-art collective LBWS, on a street in the port city of Odessa, April 13, 2022 Ed JONES AFP

Around the gozillesque cat, lover of Russian planes, an ironic: “Good evening. We are Ukrainians”, which has become an antiphon in the country, a challenge launched to the adversaries. A sign also that the city, Moscow’s priority objective, has not fallen into its hands.

Shopping

Because Mykolaiv, located 130 km further east, a strategic lock in the context of a conquest of Odessa, fiercely resisted in March. And Russian offensives to bypass Mykolaiv have been repelled by Ukrainian forces.

While the Kremlin suffered very heavy losses for having multiplied the assaults in the four corners of Ukraine, the threat weighing on Odessa now seems “very low”, estimates George Barros, an analyst of the Institute for the Study of war.

A creation by the collective of graffiti artists LBWS in a street in Odessa (Ukraine), April 13, 2022
A creation by the collective of graffiti artists LBWS in a street in Odessa (Ukraine), April 13, 2022 Ed JONES AFP

“The Russians do not have the human resources or the logistical support necessary to carry out an attack (on the city) at this time of the war”, he observes. As they now have “less combat power, they must use it wisely and focus on their objectives”, either the Donbass territories in the east or Mariupol, hundreds of km from Odessa.

A data completely integrated by its inhabitants, who seem to live normally, without checkpoints or almost hindering their movements, with the exception of the hypercentre, near the port, to which sandbags and other barricades restrict access.

Elsewhere, the traffic is steady, people chat around a coffee outside… at least until 9:00 p.m., when the curfew transforms the city into a ghost town. But before that, Odessa lives on another planet than eastern Ukraine, where destruction, death and desolation reign.

In 50 days of war, less than ten strikes have targeted the city, mainly for material damage.

“Denial”

“The people of Odessa are not in a panic. They are on autopilot. Ready for anything, hoping nothing will happen,” said Mikhail Beyzerman, a cultural figure in the city.

Alex Krugliachenko, a psychologist, diagnoses there a very “human” “denial” of the war. “We all know how much people are suffering in other cities, but we want to share the hope that everything will be fine for us,” he deciphers.

Mikhail Beyzerman, an artist from Odessa, at a market in the city's port on April 13, 2022.
Mikhail Beyzerman, an artist from Odessa, at a market in the city’s port on April 13, 2022. Ed JONES AFP

Even though the economy of Odessa, in unison with the rest of Ukraine, has collapsed, the population is satisfied with small pleasures, a “cappuccino”, “to have lived one more day “, continues the psychologist.

Gennadiy Suldim, a once-thriving construction entrepreneur, isn’t quite there yet. His business, which previously employed 172 people, is at a standstill. “I have become poor”, he remarks without feeling moved.

“All I do is help the army, from morning to night”, by collecting donations and equipment from Ukraine and elsewhere, says this fifty-year-old. And to let go: “The only feeling I have left is hatred. (…) I would like all Russian soldiers to be exterminated.”

The graffiti artist Matroskin helps the Ukrainian army by painting vehicles in camouflage colors.

“I am a pacifist, but not when my country is invaded”, affirms the artist, who says “not knowing how to hold a gun”. This does not prevent him from wishing “to see the Russian troops lying on the ground (dead, editor’s note), so that they can no longer walk in our country with their weapons.”

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