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.
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.