The Odessa port and the Russia/Ukraine grain export deal – what next?

Friday, 22 July 2022

As I listened to the news about the Russian/Ukraine grain export deal brokered by the Turkish president, Recep Erdoğan, and the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, so that wheat would be able to leave the Black Sea unharmed, we hope, for its destinations around the world, I remembered an image I found on the internet when I was first writing this blog about the 1905 Odessa pogrom. I had been writing about the working class suburb, Peresyp, which bordered the Black Sea beyond the port and housed many of the port labourers.

Peresyp | odessasecrets: the 1905 pogrom (wordpress.com)

It was an image of oxen resting at the Odessa port surrounded by enormous rough wooden carts with wooden wheels filled with large hessian sacks of grain. These oxen had pulled the heavy makeshift carts hundreds of miles along dirt or mud roads or large expanses with no road at all. The trips must have taken weeks. By the time they arrived in Odessa, the oxen were on their last legs and the carts broken and worthless.. There was no way the farmers could make the trip home with them in tow. The oxen were sold, and many were destined for the tanneries and glue factories that grew up around the port. The carts were probably broken up and sold for wood. Eventually the railways would revolutionise moving grain to the ports. Jews were often the middlemen at this time, the grain merchants and shipping agents, who organised the complex choreography of going out into the country to negotiate with the farmers, and at the other end negotiating with the shippers so the whole system would work.

Oxen, carts and grain in Odessa port, 19thc
Odessa port and silos now

The processing of grain is mechanised now, overland transport is quick and easy, and the grain can be stored in silos, but Russian battleships have been blockading the port and around 20 million tonnes of wheat cannot be moved from the Odessa port without this deal.

Kharkiv grain harvest
grain storage

Sunday, 24 July 2022

Less than 12 hours after the signing of the export deal, the Russians bombed the Odessa port with four cruise missiles, two of which were shot down (Guardian 24.7.2022). It was the biggest strike so far on Odessa. Does this suggest that there is some uncertainty about whether the wheat will actually get out of the Black Sea? The Russians say they are still sticking to the deal, and the Ukrainians are preparing to load the wheat onto the ships. What choice do they have? According to the Irish national news service: “Russia said its forces had hit a Ukrainian warship and a weapons store in Odesa with its high-precision missiles.” So the Russians were not actually hitting the grain stores or ships used to transport the grain, but military targets. They are drawing quite a fine line. It is now thought that the Russians will carry on making the transport of the grain difficult, limiting the amount that can get out and causing fear and uncertainty in the people trying to do this difficult job.


A handout image made available by the Odessa City Council Telegram channel on July 24, 2022, shows Ukrainian firefighters battling a fire on a boat burning in the port of Odessa after missiles hit the port on July 23, 2022. Russia on July 24, 2022, said its missiles had destroyed a Ukrainian warship and weapons from the United States after a strike on Ukraine’s Black Sea port of Odessa, crucial for grain exports.