Odessa: Divided We Stand
BY BENEDIKT HOSEK
A group of around forty people brave the unforgiving heat on this August Sunday to gather in a square flooded with a late-afternoon summer glow. Numerous handshakes are exchanged and almost all of the faces display warm and compassionate smiles. Most of those present seem to have already met; indeed, many have crossed paths through unfortunate and unpredictable events.
The site of the gathering is far from coincidental. The building that dominates this central pedestrian thoroughfare of Odessa, Ukraine, was the site of one of the greatest disasters that happened in 2014, the year during which Ukraine spun through the turbulence of demonstrations and the overthrow of a government, and into civil war. The Union House at Kulykove Pole was the stronghold of those who resisted the revolutionary Maidan movement and who are often labelled pro-Russian. During stand-offs on May 2nd in 2014, the building was overtaken by fire, and over fifty - mostly anti-Maidan - protesters lost their lives.
Odessa’s less-than-300 year-long existence has seen the city quickly rise as one of the main commercial hubs and recreational resorts of the Russian Empire and the USSR. The Pearl of the Black Sea - as Odessa is often called because of its European-style architecture, well-manicured parks and bustling beaches - is not a usual Ukrainian city. Due to its rich history, many Odessites see themselves above all as its proud citizens.
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For a foreigner, however, arriving in Odessa can be a confusing experience. While the local population consists predominantly of native Russian speakers, the streets are lined with a jigsaw of the country’s two main languages, punctuated by English words. As a Russian learner, I came here for a couple of weeks to practice the language while also hoping to pierce its urban veil and see how the inhabitants of this vibrant and cultured city think and live. Although when I arrived at Odessa’s main train station I was aware of the key events that had shaped this city, what I came to discover was just how strong of a role honouring – and forgetting - the past plays in Odessa’s life today.
Our own ice-cream
Since its independence, Ukraine has attempted several times to break with its tormented past and to establish a united Ukrainian nation. Among these have been the removal of many Soviet-era monuments which previously decorated prominent locations, and trying to let go of long-standing, if often nonsensical Soviet traditions. The government has strongly promoted the use of Ukrainian as the country’ main institutional language, which has only intensified since 2014. It may come as little surprise then, that in this city dominated by Russian-speakers, some feel like a part of their heritage is being suppressed.
Those who attend the regular Sunday gatherings are among the most vocal critics of the post-Maidan developments. Shortly after four o’clock, they begin with a short prayer. It’s followed by the laying of flowers at the barrier that separates the public from the building, which still stands empty after being almost completely engulfed in flames three years ago. Several Odessa flags decorated with black ribbons fly above the small crowd. A handful of policemen shelter under a nearby tree, surveying from a respectful distance. After commiserating, some members of the group give speeches in which they inform others of the latest developments in the investigations and criminal cases concerning the tragedy, while others stick to more general, but highly critical, political commentary. The unifying feeling is one of injustice and mistrust directed towards the current authorities.
After about an hour, as the crowd starts thinning out, I am approached by an elderly woman who carries several hand-made posters accusing the current government of corruption and conspiracy. Upon realising that I am a foreigner, she insists on giving me an exhaustive explanation for why people have come there. Her rambling speech is a strange mix of personal anecdotes about her experiences with the authorities and accusations of Western-led conspiracy in the Maidan protests. What unites her with many members of the older generation, though, is a deep sadness over the lost glory of her country. “We used to have our own ice-cream in Odessa”, she tells me, citing the exact location of the former factory, and adds with outrage that “now, they have to bring it all the way from western Ukraine!”
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A few days before, I had met Olga, an eloquent woman who rarely misses the Sunday gatherings, which she attends as a way to pay her respects to a son who perished on that dark day in Odessa’s recent history. In an attempt to explain her position towards the Maidan revolution, she tells me:
“At least under Yanukovych [the president overthrown by the Maidan protests] there was some sort of justice. Of course, it was biased in favor of his family and friends, but now we are all only subject to summary justice”.
In Olga’s view, one which she claims is shared by two-thirds of the city, living conditions have severely deteriorated as a result of what she calls a ‘coup d’état’. “Our industry is being eradicated very fast”, she tells me, citing with hurt pride the names of many Soviet industrial plants that have since ceased to exist, or struggle for survival.
Tired of it all
The remainder of the city is markedly different from the scenes in front of the Union House. The blue-and-yellow national colors, which are quite obviously nowhere to be seen at Kulykove Pole, demonstratively assert the existence of independent Ukraine. For their excessive use of these ostentatious symbols of Ukrainian nationhood, Maidan supporters are often called ‘fascist’ by their opponents.
Although it seems hardly possible to escape politics here, most people are reluctant to enter into a discussion. One afternoon I stroll around the city with Andrey, a recent IT graduate. It is not easy to push the conversation in that direction, but when I finally ask him about his view on Maidan , he says, “You know, we have 3 groups of people here nowadays. Those who are pro-revolution, those who are anti-revolution, but increasingly those who are fed up with everything.” From his tone of voice, I know that there is no need to ask which group he belongs to.
“People here don’t like to talk about politics anymore”, Marina a 25 year-old well-travelled translator, tells me. She is more willing than most young people are to go into greater detail. She explains to me that the 2014 tragedy made people in Odessa realize what the cost of political discord can be. It seems that for now, the desire to live peacefully in their beloved city lies above other interests. The traumatic effects of open discord are still very much alive in Odessa’s collective memory, and so locals of different convictions are trying to live alongside each other as they did before the revolution erupted.
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Nevertheless, diametrically opposed views on what Ukraine was, is, and ought to be have not disappeared. In his excellent account of contemporary Ukrainian society, In Wartime: Stories from Ukraine, journalist Tim Judah concluded simply, “What you believe today depends on what you believe about the past.” Walking around the city, one encounters an array of diverging - and often hard to interpret - historical references scribbled on walls and graven into monuments. A surprising amount of people still find shelter in the nostalgia of an idealised past. Through a glorification of Ukraine’s grand Soviet-era economy, they take pride in having belonged to a powerful empire. With such ideals, it can be very hard to see any good coming out of Ukraine today. Many – and not just those attending the Sunday gatherings – are thus clearly still unsatisfied with the results of the Maidan.
There are others who look towards a better future. Another university student tells me in his pristine American accent that, while he feels that the current system is unable to offer a better future for Odessites, he still holds hope that Ukraine will find its footing as an independent – and Western - state. But like many in his generation, he wishes things had turned out differently.
It seems that for the time-being, a breath of change is unlikely to come from Odessa’s political stalemate. Before leaving the square in front of the Union House, I notice graffiti scribbled on the barrier in front of it. It honors “our dead”. I can’t help but ask myself, who is ‘we’?
In order to protect their anonymity, all names of individuals have been changed.