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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

I always dreamed of visiting my ancestral home of Odessa. But not like this.

Washington Post correspondent Isabelle Khurshudyan poses for a portrait with her Baba Zina in Odessa, Ukraine. (Whitney Leaming/The Washington Post)
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ODESSA, Ukraine — The first time in 24 years that I saw my great-aunt, I was wearing my bulletproof vest with “PRESS” stamped on the front.

Visiting Odessa, the city where my parents and their parents were born, had been a dream of mine for years. Each time I mentioned to someone in Ukraine that my family was from there, they’d opine on the city’s charms. And each time, I’d admit in shame that I had yet to experience them myself.

Then, when I got in Ukraine on Jan. 23, I started considering what stories I could report from Odessa so I could at last work in a pilgrimage. It wasn’t hard; my job was to write about the lead-up to what the United States was warning would soon be a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine. Odessa, a large Black Sea port, was an obvious target because of its economic importance to Ukraine.

But while my reporting took me all over Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, where the country’s military has been battling Russian-backed separatists since 2014, and to Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, just 25 miles from the Russian border, the Odessa trip kept getting postponed.

Now that I’m finally here, I wish I wasn’t.

My colleagues and I were in Kharkiv when Russia launched its first strikes in Ukraine on Feb. 24. We saw what a vibrant, hip city it was before the invasion. And then we saw how people crowded onto underground metro platforms to hide from the repeated bombardment. The downtown looks unrecognizable now, scattered with debris from broken windows and shattered buildings.

My fear is that I’ve come to Odessa just in time to witness the same destruction and bloodshed happen here. Russian forces are advancing from the east, where they’ve already captured Kherson, and are in a fight with Ukrainian troops for Mykolaiv, just 80 miles from here. Russian warships are off the coast.

There’s no doubt the Russians will make a move on this city. And the iconic streets I heard so much about as a kid are now blockaded with sandbags and metal antitank hedgehogs. Armed members of the military and reserve Territorial Defense Forces patrol the streets. The 7 p.m. curfew is strict. One museum I walked by has put razor wire over the gate, looking more like a prison than a place with fine art on the walls.

While a Russian attack hasn’t happened here yet, I’ve had a chance to spend some time with the family I have in Odessa. Before I got to the city, I told my grandfather’s 81-year-old sister, Zina, not to cook me anything. “You should conserve food,” I said. I also knew that would fall on deaf ears for a Ukrainian babushka.

“Baba Zina,” as I call her, prepared dumplings when I got to her apartment on Friday. When I took off the bulletproof vest I had to wear for the four-hour drive from Uman, she touched it and said, “Wow.” I was 6 years old the last time we saw each other in person. She helped raise me as a little girl and even taught me how to speak Russian. We used to listen together to cassette tapes she brought from Odessa.

On Sunday morning, I asked her to show me where my grandparents used to live. They met at 14, married at 18 and had my father at 19. My grandmother died in 2015 and my grandfather followed her four years later. They’re the people who raised me from the age of 11, when I moved in with them in South Carolina.

They assimilated into American culture pretty fast, and it was a point of pride in my family that I was the first one born in the United States. But I still always felt like they had some kind of shared experience — Odessa! — that I didn’t. My grandfather would show me pictures of the city and tell me stories of one amazing place or another, but it wasn’t the same as seeing it for myself.

They left Odessa in 1978. My grandmother was Jewish, and antisemitic sentiments were strong in the Soviet Union at the time. My grandfather was Armenian, but just being married to a Jewish woman was causing him to lose career opportunities. When the Soviet Union lifted its ban on the Jewish refusenik emigration in 1971, my family saw their opportunity to start over in America.

But Baba Zina stayed in Odessa. During our drive around the city on Sunday, she pulled out a plain, small, black leather coin pouch from her purse. She said it’s what my grandfather, her baby brother, gave her before he left Odessa. When he came back here a few months before he died, already sick with cancer, he brought her and her two sons each iPads. He looked so frail then, she said.

“I knew it was the last time I was going to see him,” she said.

Just as Zina stayed in Odessa then, she’s insisting on staying now. Her son, Ruslan, evacuated his family to Moldova days ago. He begged her to come with them. She refused.

When I asked why that was, she scolded me, telling me to not get distracted from driving. Then she explained that she was born in this city. It’s her home. She visited the United States four times. Four of her siblings moved there, but she returned to Odessa each time. There’s something about this city — with its roots back in imperial Russia, its classic architecture, its appreciation for artists and its Black Sea beaches — that makes people romantic about it.

Peak Odessa: The opera and ballet theater is the most fortified building in town, surrounded by a wall of sandbags.

“I visited the Vienna opera house just to see how it compared to ours. Ours is better,” Zina said as we drove by the theater. “I went to the one in Paris, too. It was nice, of course. But ours is nicer.”

She then asked me how I thought this war would end. I told her my opinion was pessimistic, that this has already cost Russian President Vladimir Putin so much that he can’t afford not to get what he wants out of it — regime change that would give Putin de facto control over the country.

Zina made a crude hand gesture to that. “He won’t get what he wants,” she said.

All the roads to my grandparents’ old downtown apartment were blocked, so we parked and tried to set off on foot. We made it 30 seconds before a volunteer with the Ukrainian reserve forces stopped us. The area is being used for defense operations, he said.

“She’s from America,” Zina told him. “This might be her only chance to see it.”

“Come back when things are normal again,” he responded.

I could tell she was disappointed. “Do you want to grab some coffee instead?” I asked.

“What I want is victory,” she answered.