Ukraine after Odessa’s May 2 tragedy

6 05 2014

People wait to be rescued on the second storey's ledge during a fire at the trade union building in Odessa

Due to travels last week, I was not able to post anything on this blog. I have spent the last few days catching up on the media coverage — Ukrainian, Russian, and international press as well as social media — of the worsening turn of events in eastern and southern Ukraine.

Below is a brief summary of what happened in Odessa on May 2 and its immediate and likely impacts. (updated 4:06 p.m. EST)


What happened

The basic events, agreed upon by most observers, were as follows.

A pro-Ukrainian unity rally of several hundred (up to a couple of thousand) demonstrators, including a significant number of football fans of the Odessa and Kharkiv soccer teams, pro-Maidan activists, and regular pro-unity Odessites, was attacked by a smaller number (one to two hundred) of seemingly armed pro-Russian militants. Enraged, some of the pro-unity activists fought back, with the two groups proceeding to fight pitched battles for several hours. Police seemingly avoided any direct involvement.

When the conflict reached a separatist tent city, pro-Maidan activists lit the tents on fire. The outnumbered separatists retreated to the Trade Unions building. Rocks and Molotov cocktails continued being thrown by both sides (again, without police intervention) until a fire started on an upper floor of the building. The fire grew out of control and many in the building got caught in the smoking inferno that resulted. Some fell or jumped to their deaths from upper story windows. Rescue efforts began, with a fire engine arriving on the scene well after the fire had grown out of control. Several dozen died in the blaze or from smoke inhalation.

Beyond that, the narratives begin to diverge dramatically.

Russian state media reports, without exception, depict the pro-unity activists as “nazis” and “Right Sector fascists” who chased the separatists, along with innocent bystanders, into the building and proceeded to murder (and even rape) them viciously, and to cheer their deaths. More on these accounts in a moment.

Pro-unity accounts (like this one and this one) focus on the strength and greater numbers of the pro-unity side, their determination to help the people in the burning building once they realized the extent of the danger to them, and the culpability of the separatists and the police for what transpired (e.g., see “How Russian special forces killed Odessites“).

Both sides depict the police as working in cahoots with the other side. And both sides depict themselves as “Odessites” and the other side as infiltrated, if not led, by outsiders — Transdnistrian irregulars, Cossacks, and other Russian citizens on the pro-Russian side (according to their opponents), Right Sector activists and western Ukrainian “Banderites” on the pro-Maidan side (according to theirs).

The question of blame lays heavily over the events. Clearly there were individuals on both sides who were blameworthy. The lack of action by the police certainly played a role. The police chief in charge, Dmitry Futedzhi, has already been released by Ukraine’s interior minister, Arsen Avakov, and a new one brought in. (see note 1.)

Among the accounts I think are more reliable is this eyewitness account on the Left Opposition web site (translated into English here), which argues that one side (the separatists) instigated the conflict and blames “Russian fascists and the police” for the tragedy. The former group, which had been using Kulikovo Field as a gathering place, included a diverse group of conservative forces: the “nazi Odessa Squad” (elsewhere called “fascists masquerading as antifascists” and which includes members of the ultra-right Slavic Unity movement), Russian nationalist Cossacks, “followers of Stalin and lovers of the ‘czar-father’,” “Orthodox fanatics, nostalgic-Brezhnevite grandmothers, and fighters against juvenile justice, gay marriage, and flu shots.” The most militant among these groups had planned a confrontation with the pro-unity parade for several days in advance.

The pro-unity side, by contrast, appears more heterogeneous, though there were some among them who identified with the ultra-nationalist Right Sector.

Anthropologist Deborah Jones, who has been working in Odessa, notes that

“Part of the reason things are so contentious in Odessa is that, particularly compared to the far eastern provinces, and contrary to what you might read in Western news (which would have you believe that the pearl of the Russian empire wants to return to the tsardom), there is actually quite a strong Maidan movement (pro-new government, pro-unity, whatever we’re calling it these days). Odessity had to work hard to develop this movement, and they will work hard to sustain it. Unfortunately, it seems that neither side is going to give up easily.”


Russian reports and reaction

Both Russian state media and Russian social media have since erupted into a chorus of indignation, with some among the country’s nationalists calling the event a “Russian holocaust” and vowing revenge. (Similar narratives are echoed in Russia’s western mouthpieces like

Russian ideologue Aleksandr Dugin, who is known to be influential among some of the pro-Russian separatists and in the Kremlin, seems to have introduced the term “Russian holocaust.” On his Facebook page, Dugin wrote, in English:

“After the crimes perpetrated by the Ukrainian neonazis under service to zionist pig Igor Kolomoysky in Odessa and Kramatorsk I politely ask to unfriend me all supporters of Kiev junta and Right Sector among Western fb-contacts. It is the end of the relative tolerance in front of those who support (following Western media misinformation or wrong political analyze) Kiev and its junta. This crap must die. I see no other solution. It is the real Endkampf. The borderline is behind us. 

These men and women were killed for one reason: they were Russian. It is Russian Holocaust, they were shoot [sic], violated and burned. And all that fulfilling the orders of the West, USA, EU, NATO. The serbs first. After them our turn. But we have something to respond. And we will respond.” [emphasis added]

The same day, he posted (in Russian; my translation):

“I think that all forms of Russophobia should be banned: in politics, in daily life, in culture, art, painting. And this isn’t just something for the government to do: it’s up to Russians themselves to show what we think about the fifth column, the traitors of the nation. Their marches and meetings should no longer be allowed in Moscow. If they are, then each of us Russians is publicly spitting on the innocent victims of Odessa and Donetsk…

“They have called our land and our people derogatory names, spat on our history, insulted our President, mocked our Faith and the achievements of our ancestors: we will get you. We’ll trace your IP, locate your address and talk to you like we would talk to the banderites [slang for Ukrainian nationalists]. If not, those bastards will want a Euromaidan in our country. Russophobia needs to be torn out by the roots, choked in the crib.”

“Geopolitician” Dugin has been working up this game plan — of dividing up Ukraine, extending Russia’s borders in every direction, and positioning it as the global opponent to the “liberal Atlanticist Order” — for many years.

It’s worth noting here that, according to Andreas Umland, it was Dugin who, in August 2008, first came up with the word “genocide” for the Georgian government’s attack on Tskhinvali. Umland writes that “The term “genocide” was then taken up by mainstream Russian media as well as Russia’s political leadership. Dugin and his assistant Sarifullin may have been also the source of the misinformation that 2000 people had been killed by the Georgian side already on the first two days of the 5-day-war of August 2008. Later, it was established that less then 200 people were killed during the entire war, on both sides.” (See note 2.)

Once Russian media started spreading images from the fire alongside their narrative spin, Russian social media responses quickly grew more virulent. More recent accounts of the events include photos and videos of bloodied and charred bodies, typically accompanied by captions suggesting vicious violence and even rape by pro-Maidan activists. (Apparently, these activists were going around the building assaulting separatists even as the separatists could not exit the inferno. How the rampaging Maidan activists got out alive is not addressed.)

Here’s just one example of the kind of reaction that appears to be being promoted by Russian nationalists, from a VKontakte post (VK is the Russian equivalent of Facebook):

“We will slice, burn, and kill all of you, old to young. So the bitches will remember for 200 years that ‘the only Banderites are dead Banderites.’… We might die ourselves, but we’ll destroy you, as if you had never existed on this Earth. And I’m going to Odessa, too, to pour gas on your kids and burn them in their kindergartens.”

While some of the posters might be internet “trolls” (like those discussed in this Guardian article, about the pro-Kremlin trolling network), their effect, I fear, may be deadly. Once an authoritarian government whips itself up into its own hallucinatory alternative-reality, things can spiral downhill fast — not unlike a fire gone out of control. 


Concluding thoughts

If the Ukraine-Russia conflict continues to build, the tragic events of May 2 in Odessa may come to be seen as a major turning point. Whatever can be said about the actual events — who was involved, how many died, who was responsible for the violence and deaths, how police inaction may have contributed to it, and so on — these questions will likely be overshadowed by the media narratives in which these events have become thoroughly enmeshed.

These narratives show a sharpening of rhetoric on both sides — pro-Ukrainian (pro-unity) and pro-Russian (separatist/neo-imperialist) — but with a marked and precipitous rise in heavyhanded tropes of “holocaust,” “genocide,” and revenge on the part of Russian ultra-nationalists, whose support in the Kremlin appears to have reached frighteningly high levels.

Meanwhile, conflicts in eastern Ukraine continue. On a more everyday level, anti-semitic vandalism appears to be growing as well in the conflicted areas. A Holocaust memorial in the eastern city of Novomosskovsk (Dnipropetrovsk province) was vandalized with red-ink slogans including “Death to Jew-Banderites!” and derogatory eferences to Dnipropetrovsk regional (pro-unity) governor Ihor Kolomoiskyi, a billionnaire and Israeli-Ukrainian dual citizen.

Lost in the din are some of the smarter decisions being made by the interim government in Kyiv. Volodymyr Groisman, deputy prime minister in charge of regional affairs, has drawn up a decentralization proposal that would devolve power to state and local levels in ways modeled after some European states (and the U.S. and Canada). It would, among other changes, abolish the practice of centrally appointing regional governors, and replace them with popular elections for these posts. Intended as a contribution to the process of carving out a modern, viable, and loosely federalist polity, it risks getting drowned out by the din of reactions to the events of May 2.


Other useful sources

There are many places to find photographs, videos, and written accounts of the May 2 events. Though the captions here provides a pro-Ukrainian slant, the links collected there are a good starting point for further reading and viewing.  The first link provides a particularly rich archive of images (and some videos). The last two links are not recommended for sensitive viewers.

Interpreter has a good overview of Russian media coverage on both sides — state and independent — of the Odessa events.

Deborah Jones recommends the site as a reliable, regularly updated news source for Russian language readers. See here for their account of the May 2 events. 

Analyses of Russian media coverage, including the growing censorship of press as well as internet writing on the topic, is easy to find. I’ll post more about it in a future article.



1. Avakov is a Russian-born eastern Ukrainian politician of Armenian origin. This is only worth mentioning because the matter of ethnicity and nationalism is continually stoked up in the Russian press. Avakov is also considered an enemy by Right Sector activists, who blame him for the killing of Right Sector activist Oleksander Muzychko, a.k.a. Sashko Bilyj.

2. Umland makes these claims on his Facebook page, but his writings on Dugin and other far-right Russians are voluminous.





27 responses

6 05 2014
Glen Grant

A good Blog. I think the Odessa fight was probaly more nuanced and complex than written but a thoughtful piec nonetheless. What I have not seen comment about is that there were suposedly Russian forces in the initial skirmishes but these appear to have dissapeared. Where to I wonder?

9 05 2014
Ismail N

I think it’s crucial to identify those who are the key instigators in stoking the fire of hatred – put them in their proper place and then work on a solution. If not, this tragedy will escalate into something much bigger and bloodier. But who’s going to do it?

11 05 2014
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[…] relevant is the way Russian media have been spinning the May 2 events in Odessa, which I wrote about recently. Analyses of some of the photos and images in the Russian press — including one of a pregnant […]

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