The Ukrainian City That Refuses to Implode

Two weeks after its darkest day since World War II, Odessa is returning to something resembling normal.

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.”

Yet despite this conviction, Odessa has not descended into additional violence. The one thing everybody seems to agree on—and the dominant theme in discussion of the tragedy in local and national media—is that the killing was appalling; that the truth must be discovered and published; and that nothing like it must ever recur.

A memorial to Odessa's dead (David Frum)

It’s now been more than two weeks since the killing, and Odessa’s characteristic political calm has returned. The chief of the police force that so dismally failed on May 2 has been removed and replaced. The city is decorated with signs advertising candidates for the mayoral election scheduled for May 25—the same day as the election for the president who will replace the absconded Yanukovych. Near Odessa’s famous opera house, a young woman handed me a green balloon printed with the name of one of the candidates. Otherwise, I saw no indication of electioneering excitement: no campaign signs on private dwellings, for example. Odessa traffics as much in illicit as licit commerce, and its citizens shrug off politics as a dirty business best left to specialists. One of the two frontrunners for mayor has held the office off and on for nine of the past 20 years.

Odessa’s apathetic political culture generates nasty results. Park land with views of the waterfront is sold off to private villas. The local government somehow retained responsibility for maintaining the roofs of privatized apartment buildings—and the roofs are visibly crumbling on almost every older apartment complex in central Odessa. School principals charge parents fees for building improvements that never materialize. If an Odessan drives a car, he or she had better be prepared to bribe the police at regular intervals.

This was all true before the Maidan movement toppled Yanukovych, and it remains true now. The one Odessan I spoke with who expressed any interest in the mayoral election explained that she was trying to decide which of the candidates would steal less.

The entrance to the trade union headquarters (David Frum)

Odessa is a city with many problems. On the day I visited, the port was nearly empty, with just one small container ship in dock. Cruise ships—normally an important contributor to the local economy—have canceled their visits for the season. The city’s most popular disco won’t open this summer: the owner isn’t expecting enough tourists to justify hiring staff. But Odessa is not a Belfast or Sarajevo in the making—a city of inherited animosities, easily detonated. Somebody hit the detonator already. And while the resulting bang took nearly 50 lives, it failed to spark the further violence and chaos that Moscow seems to want.

The people who died in the May 2 fire were Ukrainian nationals, not outside agitators. But in Odessa, it’s widely believed that those who fired the first shots of the day were professional troublemakers who arrived from elsewhere: Moscow’s famous “little green men.” Whether this is true or not, the pervasiveness of the belief attests to the unwillingness of everyday Odessans, whatever language they speak, to succumb to disorder and even civil war. They refuse to believe that authentic Odessans have any valid reason to harm their neighbors. If harm is done, the logic goes, somebody from outside must have done it.

Left to their own devices, Odessans will return to their business and their partying. Let’s hope—and let’s do more than hope—that they are left alone. If so, the worst day in this city’s post-World War II history will deserve to be remembered not only as a day of loss and mourning, but also as the day that Ukraine drew back from the precipice toward which Vladimir Putin has been pushing it.