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Ukraine crisis: The Odessa file - how a cultural melting pot boiled over into sectarian strife

The vacuum left by last week’s deadly fire has been filled with fear, tension  and recrimination. Kim Sengupta reports from the city

As a shaft of sunlight fell across a desk strewn with piles of paper and files and staplers, Marina Votyakova whispered: “Why couldn’t he have been here? He would have been safe here. Look, there is no damage, the fire didn’t reach here, not a mark.” She looked down at the parquet floor, ran her finger gently along the lemon yellow wall and repeated: “I don’t understand, why didn’t he run here?” Her voice faded away as she wiped her tears with a rolled-up tissue clutched tightly in her hand.

The room she described was on the third floor of the trade union building in Odessa, one among a handful in a wing which had been left virtually untouched while others had been gutted by the raging fire, turned into charred shells, the furniture incinerated. The dead are still being counted from Odessa’s terrible fire: it was 31 at first, then went up to 48, while the number of injured has risen to 200. Some were burnt alive, some were asphyxiated, some jumped to their deaths.

The inability of the authorities to say just how many perished, four days on, has prompted dark tales of bodies in the basement spirited away and buried by the authorities. They show, it is claimed, signs of torture; women victims have been raped. There is no evidence to support these claims, but they fester in this atmosphere of malignant hatred and suspicion which is so bitterly dividing Ukraine. The toll in Odessa was the single largest in one day since the overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych. Most of those who died were pro-Russian demonstrators, some of whom had been meting out their own violence on Ukrainian nationalists before being chased and trapped by a baying mob flinging missiles; both sides are said to have used Molotov cocktails, although most of them appeared to be incoming.

The public began to arrive in large numbers on Monday. Marina, a 60-year-old grandmother, came with an arm full of tulips through the blackened entrance into a shrine of flowers and candles and religious icons. She did not know where her son, Sasha, had spent his final moments. She stopped at the door to look at a list of names and photographs, then flinched and looked away.

“I do not think they should have those up there, what effect will it have on relations? I hope Sasha did not suffer like those poor people; but of course, I have to accept he may have done. But who could do such things? What is happening to us, here of all places, a place where we used to get on? ” she wondered.

Her dead son, a 25-year-old mechanic, was the product of such a mixed heritage. Marina’s estranged husband is of Moldovan and Russian parentage; Sasha bears his father’s surname; she requested that it not be printed because two other sons are also activists and may, she feared, become targets for their enemies.

A service for 17-year-old Vadim Papura, who died after jumping out of the burning trade union building (AP)

Marina was telling me about her Russian, Ukrainian and Romanian background, the family celebration over the years of different saints’ days. A group had gathered to listen, a common occurrence now around the media: at times this has led to hostility towards foreign journalists. But the mood here was much more restrained. “Listen to this poor lady, it is important. You were saying you have been staying in the Donbass – we know things have been bad there,” one woman was keen to explain, clutching my arm. “But this is Odessa, we are very different here from the coal-mining people: OK, like them I don’t want to be part of Ukraine, but we had learnt to get on with each other here, we debate things, it has always been like that.”

Certainly the history of the Black Sea port is a rich whirl of different races and cultures. Captured for Catherine the Great of Russia from the Ottomans by a Spanish-Irish soldier of fortune, Don Jose de Ribas, it began its rise with Armand Emmanuel Duc de Richelieu, a great-nephew of the French cardinal, as governor. One of his successors was Mikhail Vorontsov, who had a Russian father and a British mother who was a sister of the Earl of Pembroke. Even the Odessa Steps were built by an English engineer.

A German company provided gaslights; a British one the waterworks; the Belgians the trams; the Austrians the opera house. A Russian visitor wrote in 1840: “The Russian jostles against a Turk, a German against a Greek, an Englishman against an Armenian, an Italian against a Persian… Everything surges and mixes together.”

Odessa continued to feel cosmopolitan and saw itself as sophisticated and European through the communist time and beyond. There are supposedly the descendants of 200 nationalities here. This place, for liberals, should be the future of Ukraine in a microcosm. But the battle lines now are between the Russian and Ukrainian factions with extremists on both sides threatening retribution. Further violence here would pose huge difficulties for the Kiev administration which has embarked on a difficult military operation in the Donbass. It would also give a glimpse of a future of foreboding for the country.

Ukraine’s interim government was swift to lay responsibility on the security forces for the deaths. Announcing the sacking of the police chief, Pyotr Lutsuk, the Prime Minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, said: “I blame the security services and law enforcement officers for doing nothing; they are inefficient and they violated the law.” The following day riot police offered no resistance when a crowd burst into their headquarters: instead they freed around 70 prisoners from their cells.

The governor was sacked on Tuesday and replaced by Ihor Palytsya, an MP. Arsen Avakov, the acting Interior Minister, announced that an “elite special operations unit”, the Storm, was being sent to bring order to the city.

People wait to be rescued on upper storeys of the burning trade union building in Odessa, May 2 (Reuters)

The police had been accused by the Ukrainian nationalists of shielding separatists carrying out attacks. This was denied by two policemen inside the trade union building. They said they were there  to make sure everything was all right, but also to pay their respects. Their views were clear: “It will be a mistake to send in outside forces. What happened was terrible, but very unusual. This is our city, it is a special city, we have an understanding here, we can solve it ourselves,” said one of them, Pavel.

They may not get the chance to do so. At Kherson airport, normally used for package tours, military transport helicopters were unloading equipment, trucks were ready for more flights bringing in forces. Were they going to Odessa or the Donbass? “I cannot say, really cannot say, we are awaiting orders, I am just dealing with logistics,” said a sergeant. How would he feel about Odessa? “We used to go on holiday there, pretty place, shame if there’s more trouble there.”


The separatists in Odessa maintain they are ready, if punitive action does come their way. Yuri Shubovich, 23, had been one of those from the “anti-Maidan” movement, which sprang up in opposition to the Kiev protests, and was among those camping in the central square, Kulikovo Pole, which was attacked on Friday evening. “They burnt down our tents; they have been waiting for four months to do this, and they had their chance that night, the fascists. Then they went and burnt all those people inside the union building,” he exclaimed. “How can there be peace now? So we just wait for the Right Sector to kill more of us? No, people will defend themselves.”

The Right Sector, an extreme nationalist group, has become a bogeyman in the south and east of the country, accused of carrying out the Kiev administration’s dirty war. The few I met in Odessa did not seem capable of killings; they were rather a nasty, homophobic and racist lot who talked tough. They would not last long, one felt, on the streets of separatist Slovyansk.

“Please, don’t say we all support those kind of people. This is just a way of tainting those who are pro-democratic, who want a united Ukraine, people like me,” said an earnest Milla Kornukovenko. “Talk like that just creates trouble, that’s what our enemies want.” The 19-year-old student was on the march on Friday night, escaping as the fighting got fierce. “I was frightened, there were all kinds of people there: us, the separatists, ultras [football fans], people had axes, knives and guns. We don’t get things like this there.”

Odessa has not, of course, been completely free of vicious strife; one of Ukraine’s worst pogroms of modern times took place there in 1871, on the night before Easter, with Jewish homes and businesses destroyed as the police stood by. In 1941, Hitler’s forces killed around 170,000 Jews, 80 per cent of the community, in Odessa and its hinterland.


This week the leader of the city’s Jewish community, Rabbi Refael Kruskal, stated that plans had been drawn up to evacuate families if anti-Semitism begins to rear its head. Tomorrow – 9 May, when Russians commemorate victory over Nazi Germany – is looked upon as a potential flashpoint across the country.

“The next weekend is going to be very violent”, the Rabbi told The Jerusalem Post. “When there is shooting in the streets, the first plan is to take the children out of the city centre. If it gets worse … we have plans to take them out of the city to a different country if necessary.”

Speaking of Jewish fears, Marina Votyakova shook her head: “I hope that does not happen. I think the Romanian part of my family came from Romanian soldiers who came here with the Germans. They did not take part in anything against the Jews. I would be very ashamed if that was not the case. I hope, instead of fighting, everyone gets together on that day. We need to get back our Odessa.”

Kiev's crackdown in Mariupol

“So you want to join Russia?” the masked soldier shouted as he repeatedly  kicked a man who made no attempt to defend himself, at then at the end flying into an even greater rage and pistol whipping him. His comrades were firing into the ground in front of us, the bullets ricocheting up in the air, and doing their own bit of hitting of protestors.

It was an unprovoked attack on a section of people at the back of a demonstration who were not engaged in any acts of aggression. At the end there were a few cracked skulls, a broken nose, some cracked ribs. The incident outside the police station in Mariupol was hardly in the upper end of the violence which had spread across this region. But it did add to the sense of deep anger felt by many who feel under threat by the forces Kiev administration and will further strengthen the hands of those who had turned to the gun.

The Ukrainian soldiers in black combat uniforms, wearing balaclavas were variously described as members of the National Guard, the Ministry of Interior police or special - forces. They were ill-disciplined and disorganised, some of those beaten up were arrested, and punched some more,  hooded and taken away in buses along with someone who was found with a Russian flag in his car. The man with his head split open with the pistol butt had his mobile phone crushed under a boot; he had been talking to his daughter on the phone.

Speaking to the companions of those detained, none seemed to be a hardened terrorist. Elena Rukoshova, a 26-year-old former nursery school teacher, cried as she described how her friend Jaroslav was hit and arrested. “He had his phone in his hand, the men in black thought he was taking photos. He showed them no pictures had been taken, but they hit him and took him away.”

William Hague has accused the Russians were fermenting all the disorder in Ukraine, but on this occasion we had failed to spot the cunning Kremlin agents. Dmitri Vachylaev, who had also been hit, asked: “What do you think of our democratic government, the ones Britain and America are so happy to support? I wasn’t even part of this protest, I am not a separatist. I was on my way to work, I live in that block of flats over there. Anyway, I better go, I am an insurance salesman, perhaps I can sell some policies on being attacked by the Ukrainian government.”

Kim Sengupta in Mariupol