The Ukrainian City That Refuses to Implode

Two weeks after its darkest day since World War II, Odessa is returning to something resembling normal.
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A memorial to the victims of the May 2 violence in Odessa (David Frum)

ODESSA, Ukraine—Odessa is a tolerant, easygoing town, say local boosters.

Odessa is an apathetic, apolitical town, complain the local disaffected.

As protests and counter-protests have mobilized millions across Ukraine, this southern city of 1 million mustered a turnout of only about 15,000 at its single largest demonstration. So it is not only horrifying, but also baffling, that one of the most violent incidents in Ukraine’s post-World War II history occurred here: a day of bloodshed that culminated in the firebombing of Odessa’s trade union headquarters, a day that left more than 40 people dead. 

I visited Odessa exactly two weeks after the firebombing of Friday, May 2. The torched building still lay unguarded and open to the public. My hired guide refused to take me to the site, but there was not even the slightest indication of trouble when I arrived on my own (although it does look like chunks of the remaining ceiling and the damaged central stairway could tumble down at any moment).

Flowers are heaped in front of the building. Candles and icons solemnize the shattered interior. Small markers mourn the dead. Perhaps a dozen other people filtered in and out of the structure at the same time as I did, paying respects, whispering prayers, or simply gawking. While most of those killed in the fire were pro-Russian, the site of their deaths has been conceded to their friends and family as a place of memory, uncontested by local officials or by neighbors loyal to the central authorities in Kiev. In the large plaza in front of the building, a mobile espresso stand dispensed refreshments and a food truck sold ice cream. Normality has returned. 

Inside Odessa's gutted trade union headquarters (David Frum)

The precise course of events on May 2 remains disputed. National authorities have undertaken an investigation into the incident, but there’s no indication of when the findings will be released. In the interim, here’s a generally accepted outline of what transpired, as gathered by news reports and explained by Odessans I talked to.

That Friday, more than 1,000 pro-Ukrainians marched through Odessa, singing patriotic songs and chanting anti-Putin slogans. A smaller but more heavily armed pro-Russian group confronted the pro-Ukrainian march. Here’s video (from a pro-Ukraine source) of what the confrontation looked like.

The first fatality of the day occurred near the city’s main cathedral: a pro-Ukrainian marcher was killed by gunfire. The killing angered the pro-Ukrainians, who descended on the city’s trade union building, which pro-Russian sympathizers had earlier seized as their local headquarters. Odessa is a largely Russian-speaking city. It voted strongly for ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine’s 2010 presidential election. Yet speaking Russian does not automatically imply adherence to Russia and its authoritarian government. The political authorities in Odessa remain loyal to Kiev. Odessa is a port city that won’t have much of a future if severed from its Ukrainian hinterland. The building seized by pro-Russian elements is located at a distance from the city’s main institutions: It was a place to hide out in, not to govern from. 

But it was a poorly chosen hideout: Set in a large parking lot, near a park, it was easily surrounded and besieged. Angered by the attacks and killings elsewhere in the city, a pro-Ukrainian crowd gathered at the trade union building in the late afternoon of May 2. Gasoline bombs began to fly back and forth. 

Police appear to have hung back uselessly from the violence at the trade union building. The Ukrainian police were systematically corrupted by the Yanukovych regime, and they command little respect from the public. Their main mission on May 2 seems to have been staying out of harm’s way. 

The fire in the trade union headquarters broke out in the upper levels, either because of the impact of a gasoline bomb hurled by the pro-Ukrainian besiegers or because the pro-Russians inside somehow ignited one of their bombs too early. The poorly constructed Soviet-era structure went up in flames. Some two dozen people died inside the building, mostly from smoke inhalation. Eight more died when they jumped to escape the fire. Pro-Russians accuse pro-Ukrainians of attacking and even killing some of those who tried to get away.

Near the burned-out building, small bulletin boards bear posters and photographs repeating this accusation. Whether the charge is accurate or not, it’s widely believed by pro-Russians, who describe the incident as a “massacre.”

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David Frum is a senior editor at The Atlantic.

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