Odessa, Yesterday

by Andrew Stuttaford

We don’t know if the events in Odessa late yesterday will later be seen as the moment when Ukraine finally slipped into some sort of civil war, and nor do we know what use Putin, the true arsonist, will make of the horror in the burning trade union building — his own Reichstag, should he so choose — but Ben Judah is surely right when he tweets:

Normal middle class Russians in state of shock, emotion, fear after Odessa massacre. State Department needs to tread in awareness of this.

The Guardian has the outline of the story:

More than 30 people were killed in violent and chaotic clashes in the southern Ukrainian city of Odessa on Friday as pro-Ukraine activists stormed a building defended by protesters opposed to the current government in Kiev and in favour of closer ties with Russia.

Odessa’s large Soviet-era trade union building was set alight as the pro-Ukraine activists mounted an assault as dusk fell. Police said at least 31 people choked to death on smoke or were killed when jumping out of windows after the trade union building was set on fire.

Pro-Russia fighters mounted a last-ditch defence of the burning building, throwing masonry and petrol bombs from the roof on to the crowd below.

Bodies lay in pools of blood outside the main entrance as explosions from improvised grenades and molotov cocktails filled the air. Black smoke from the building and a burning pro-Russia protest camp wreathed the nearby square. Medics at the scene said the pro-Russia fighters were also shooting from the roof. At least five bodies with bullet wounds lay on the ground covered by Ukraine flags as fire engines and ambulances arrived at the scene.

Some people fell from the burning building as they hung on to windowsills in an attempt to avoid the fire that had taken hold inside. Pro-Ukraine protesters made desperate efforts to reach people with ropes and improvised scaffolding….

It’s hard to read this without foreboding.

And that it should happen in Odessa . . .

I found this evocative piece in the Tablet from 2011 online. Read it all, but these excerpts will do to start:

Built by Italians and Greeks, its original ruling class was the cream of mendicant European Aristocracy. (The first several governors were French.) Populated to this day by hundreds of nationalities, it was the Black Sea gateway to Constantinople. It was the regional outpost of European trade and thought, and every idea, innovation, caprice, and whim of Europe was there taken up, second hand, from the holds and decks of the ships docked in the port on their way to being spread, along with the occasional bout of plague, throughout the Russian Empire. Demographically the most Jewish city besides Minsk at the edge of the empire, Odessa was the only place inside the pale of settlement where Jews weren’t prohibited from living in town….

Built on the dusty steppe amid borderland anarchy and casual banditry, Odessa retains the entrepreneurial scheming spirit that has always been its most beloved characteristic… As the scene of some of the worst pogroms of the Russian Empire, Odessa harbored Jews who had to get tough fast. Marvelously, and sometimes not, much of the character of the city remains unaffected: Picaresque kleptocracy and violent crime have remained steady features of Odessan life for two centuries. The talk of the town this summer was renewed efforts by the local authorities to expropriate businesses and redistribute them to members of [Yanukovych’s] Party of the Regions. From the largest corporate enterprises to my fiancée’s friend’s graphic design shop with its four employees, no one was safe. The tax police come first asking for the receipts, and the goons arrive shortly thereafter.

The 20th century did the worst that it could to Odessa and its once large Jewish population, but at least we have the words of the city’s greatest writer, Isaac Babel (shot by the Soviets in 1940) to remind us what once was. I re-read some of his work tonight. Somehow it seemed right. This is from Lyubka the Cossack, a story set in the twilight years of Imperial Russia before, well, everything:

Wild muzhiks from Nerubaiska and Tatarka who were staying at Lyubka’s inn crawled under their carts and fell into a wild and sonorous sleep; a drunken workman went out to the gates and dropping his plane and his saw, collapsed on the ground and began snoring then and there, surrounded by the golden flies and the blue lightning of July. Wrinkled German settlers who had brought Lyubka wine from the borders of Bessarabia sat nearby in the shade. They lit their pipes, and the smoke from their curved chibouks blended with the silver stubble of their old, unshaven cheeks. The sun hung from the sky like the pink tongue of a thirsty dog, the immense sea rolled far away to Peresip, and the masts of distant ships swayed on the emerald water of Odessa Bay. 


Looking at Twitter, I see that Ben Judah has been criticized for the use of the word ‘massacre’ in the tweet I cited above. Go over to his Twitter feed (@b_judah) and you can see the discussion, and judge for yourself.  The full facts will doubtless remain disputed for a long time, but “massacre”, at least in the popular sense of the term, doesn’t seem to be the right word.  The primary point of Judah’s tweet, however, is how badly this event will be regarded by “normal middle class Russians” (especially, I imagine, after the way that they have been softened up by their media) and, there, I am sure he is right. The implications of that are grim. If Putin is looking for a casus belli, so far as his own public is concerned he probably has it. 

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