The Double Tragedy of Odesa's Transfiguration Cathedral: A Symbol of Resilience Amidst the Ashes

The Double Tragedy of Odesa's Transfiguration Cathedral: A Symbol of Resilience Amidst the Ashes
Church personnel inspect damage inside the Transfiguration Cathedral in Odesa on Sunday. Jae C. Hong / AP

July 23, 2023, will forever be etched into the memory of Odesa's people, a day when an 18th-century historic Orthodox cathedral was rocked by a tragic Russian strike. In an unwelcome reiteration of history, the UNESCO-protected Transfiguration Cathedral – once a beacon of spiritual solace and heritage – suffered significant damage for the second time in its existence.

The Transfiguration Cathedral, originally constructed in 1794 under imperial Russian rule, has long been the heart and soul of Odesa, a symbol of its rich cultural heritage. This monument, the largest Orthodox Church in Odesa, emerged from the ashes of destruction once before, when it was demolished by Stalin in 1936, only to be lovingly rebuilt in the 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The recent attack by Russia on this revered religious institution not only claimed the lives of two people but left deep scars on the city's psyche. The Ukrainian government didn't mince words when it referred to the event as a "war crime," reiterating how the cathedral had been "destroyed twice: by Stalin and Putin."

Witnesses to this profound loss expressed disbelief as they navigated the wreckage of the cathedral. Images revealed heartbreaking scenes of smashed mosaics, with clerics engaged in the solemn task of rescuing sacred icons from the debris. Despite the structure's exterior deceivingly remaining intact, the interior, including three altars, was extensively damaged, leaving "only the bell tower intact," as stated by Father Myroslav, the assistant rector.

In an ironic twist of fate, two people – a security guard and a priest preparing for morning liturgy – were inside the cathedral at the time of the attack. Miraculously, they survived, serving as a symbol of resilience amidst the turmoil.

In a convoluted narrative, Russia absolved itself of blame for the cathedral's damage, attributing it instead to Ukrainian air defense. Moscow claimed its intended targets were sites being used for "terrorist acts" against Russia. This assertion, however, was vehemently refuted by locals, who stated that ordinary residential areas were the ones bearing the brunt of the attacks.

These ongoing hostilities have a ripple effect, extending beyond Odesa's boundaries. They are intrinsically linked to global geopolitics, evidenced by President Vladimir Putin's meeting with Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko shortly after the attack on Odesa. During the meeting, they discussed the alleged failure of Kyiv's counteroffensive, casting further shadows on the grim situation.

Amid the rubble and ruins, the people of Odesa – and Ukraine as a whole – stand firm in their resolve. The story of the Transfiguration Cathedral, demolished twice yet always rising again, mirrors the resilience of the people it serves. This attack serves as a reminder of the historical legacy of this resilient city and its unwavering determination to protect its cultural heritage. It embodies the spirit of Odesa: no matter how grave the challenge, the city always finds a way to rebuild and thrive once again.