"The threat is that the part of the building where this crazy Russian missile fell is moving," Odessa Mayor Gennady Trukhanov told AFP in front of the Orthodox cathedral partly destroyed on the night of Saturday to Sunday.
"We will immediately start tearing down this wall. He will drag the whole building into its fall," if it collapses on its own, the mayor later added, addressing Metropolitan Agafanguel, an 84-year-old Orthodox cleric in charge of the diocese.
Odessa, a strategic port on the Black Sea whose historic center was listed earlier this year by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, had so far been relatively spared by the Russian invasion launched in February 2022.
After its mid-July withdrawal from an agreement on the export of Ukrainian grain, Russia began shelling the city's port areas, also damaging some of Odessa's oldest and most beautiful buildings.
Founded more than 200 years ago and destroyed by the Soviets in 1936, the Transfiguration Cathedral was rebuilt in the early 2000s thanks to donations. It was consecrated in 2010 by the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Kirill.
The mayor of the city asked the Metropolitan for permission to proceed with a partial demolition of the building. "Explain to parishioners that it is not safe. They shouldn't be here," he told her.
"It's awful, awful. A tragedy. What a holy place!" laments the Metropolitan.
Shortly before, he had visited the cathedral in the company of clergymen in construction helmets. During an open-air liturgy, faithful wept as they listened to the songs and chants.
The destruction inside the Transfiguration Cathedral in Odessa, July 23, 2023, after a Russian bombing. © Oleksandr GIMANOV / AFP
Large golden icons and cherub faces were placed against the outer walls. Inside, volunteers cleaned the floor and stacked torn and splintered icons.
Recently completed murals have been torn down, revealing the concrete and metal structure.
"These walls are not just walls. They were erected with our hands, with our love. Now it's such a blow, such pain, such grief," said Galyna, 58, who sells candles to raise money for the restoration.
"This church is the pride of Odessa," said another 85-year-old worshipper, also named Galyna, examining an icon of the Blessed Virgin, saved and almost intact.
The building belongs to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church attached to the Moscow Patriarchate. Although she has severed ties with Russia, many in Ukraine consider her to be still loyal to it.
The spokesman for the diocese of Odessa, Archpriest Maximian Pogorelovsky, 31, said he had, like other clergy, felt "hatred" and "incomprehension" in the face of the Russian bombing.
"So we can say with certainty that they (the Russians) targeted the cathedral, probably to frighten and trouble us," he said.
The Kremlin denied targeting the building, saying the destruction was caused by Ukrainian anti-aircraft missiles, fired to intercept Russian rockets falling on the city.
Priests contemplate the destruction after a Russian bombing of the Transfiguration Cathedral in Odessa, July 24, 2023. © Oleksandr GIMANOV / AFP
The archpriest links the destruction of the original cathedral by the Soviets in 1936 to the recent attack.
"This cathedral was rebuilt, everyone was happy, and now the heirs of Bolshevism – the Russian rockets – have destroyed this cathedral," he said.
Roof torn off
In addition to the cathedral, the recent strikes have hit the historic House of Scientists, with blown windows, a professional center and apartment buildings near the port.
In the family apartment on the top floor of a nineteenth-century stone building, Assia Kachperouk, a 22-year-old student and dancer, stores her belongings between destroyed walls and a ceiling pierced with holes.
"This is our apartment, what's left of it," the student says bitterly.
An icon of the Transfiguration Cathedral in Odessa, July 24, 2023, damaged during a Russian © bombing Oleksandr GIMANOV / AFP
Staying in a hotel, the family fears heavy rains that could ravage the apartment, whose roof is largely torn off.
According to Katarina, Assia's mother, the authorities said their building was under UNESCO protection and therefore they could "do nothing".
"Will they wait for it to collapse?" she worries.
© 2023 AFP