ODESSA, Ukraine—This Black Sea port and balmy resort has long felt immune to violent politics and revolutions, but right now it feels like it’s just a spark away from civil war. On May 2, more than 40 people died in mob violence that raged through the streets, culminating in an inferno ignited by Molotov cocktails—the weapon of choice on both sides.
Today, the only thing about which everyone seems to agree is that something else very bad is going to happen on Friday, May 9—the anniversary celebrated since the Soviet era as the day Nazi Germany surrendered and the Great Patriotic War (known in the West as World War II) came to an end in Europe.
The conflicts tearing apart Ukraine today echo that huge conflagration of 70 years ago, and are complicated by it, even as the opposing groups define themselves with new terms. On one side are the pro-Maidan activists associated with the European Union-leaning Ukrainian nationalist protest movement in Kiev’s Maidan Square that overthrew the country’s notoriously corrupt president in February and installed an interim regime pending national elections on May 25. On the other side are the anti-Maidan groups, aided and abetted by Moscow in a campaign that supports closer ties with Russia, where President Vladimir Putin is trying to revive old dreams of empire and claims the right to “defend” Russian speakers anywhere, especially those supposedly threatened by crypto-Nazis in the Maidan movement.
Notwithstanding propaganda on both sides that would make it seem so, this is not a simple good-guy bad-guy fight. For those who remember the idealism of the Maidan movement in February, it’s hard to watch the videos of crazed far-right activists who claim they are pro-Maidan cheering savagely in Odessa last week as anti-Maidan demonstrators trapped inside the burning Customs House leaped to their deaths.
Such is the intensity of the anger and fear that incident prompted that even signals from Putin that he may want to calm things down may be coming too late, and in any case, he may have achieved his goals for the moment. The turmoil since the Kremlin-engineered “uprising” in Ukrainian Crimea and its subsequent annexation by Moscow last month has left the Kiev government weak and humiliated.
Putin probably does not want to be forced to invade Ukraine to keep his “protection” promise. If he’d wanted to make that move, he might have done so much earlier. But if major violence erupts here on May 9 it will be difficult for Putin to equivocate. Everything he stands for at the moment, and his soaring popularity in Russia, hinges on his vow to protect Russian speakers. And while Putin said on Wednesday he is pulling his troops back from the frontier, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said he’s seen no evidence of that.
Here in Odessa, immense challenges lie ahead. Unlike the rest of Ukraine’s large cities, where an influential and overwhelming majority of the populations lean either east or west, Odessa is completely divided now, and it is the complexity of the division that makes Odessa’s situation so treacherous. It’s not really linguistic; almost everyone speaks Russian. It is not ethnic, geographic or economic. It is psychological. The events of a single day have transformed Ukraine’s third-largest city into the front line of a conflict most people in the city had hoped to avoid, and now it seems that the events of May 2 may tear Odessa’s neighborhoods, households and even its families apart.
The battalion of “elite” security forces who quietly arrived from Kiev late Monday night, and were supposed to restore order, have virtually disappeared. There seems to be an undisputed consensus by all parties that Friday will be a day of black vengeance.
There are many theories about how that will happen. Twenty-seven-year-old software engineer Pavlo Lykhoviy, who is in the pro-Maidan camp, mentions a pipeline explosion last weekend. He says the anti-Maidan activists released a statement on the Russian social network VK.com that claimed responsibility and called it “practice” for what is to come.
Peter Izrarh, who is also 27 and who also works in software and web design, is anti-Maidan, and says he expects another kind of revenge on May 9: a series of buildings will be occupied by thousands of people who will gather in scenes similar to those in eastern Ukraine. But any demonstration that puts a lot of people in Odessa’s streets at this point is likely to turn bloody.
On May 2, thousands had gathered to watch a soccer game, Chornomorets Odessa vs. Metalist Kharkiv, but the match quickly became irrelevant. Groups of fans from both teams had planned a pro-Ukraine demonstration from downtown Odessa to the stadium, and they marched through the city “singing pro-Ukraine and anti-Russian songs,” until what Lykhoviy calls “a stone and cocktail duel” began.
According to Lykhoviy, the anti-Maidan crowd, who had been camped out in a park near the Customs House, got wind of the march, and got ready for a showdown. But the fighting was much more violent and vicious than almost anyone expected.
With so many dead, suddenly this wasn’t about Europe and Russia or East and West anymore. The pro-Maidan activists, in any case, have about as much in common with European values as the United States’ Tea Party. The anti-Maidan side isn’t longing for Russian rule, but he is longing for order. As Izrarh puts it, “Putin is not good, but he is more good than [having] many dead men in my city. If the Russian army comes here, I’ll be glad.” Before May 2, he didn’t feel that way.
Lykhoviy has an answer to intervention: “We” will kill the Russians “if they try to ‘protect’ us,” he says.
The city of Odessa feels bipolar. “Facts” that one guy spent the morning elaborating regarding the events of May 2, the other guy repeats as if in a parallel and opposite reality. For instance, Lykhoviy says that the police simply sat and watched while armed anti-Maidan thugs assaulted what was meant to be a peaceful march of unity. He says that when the police did move in they “faced us as if we were the threat.” Lykhoviy also says that many of the police were wearing red armbands similar to those of the men attacking the marchers. He says that the police didn’t try to arrest any of the anti-Maidan crowd even after they’d killed several pro-Maidan marchers.
Izrarh says of course the police were wearing the red armbands, they are Odessans, and they were showing solidarity with those being attacked by the pro-Maidan crowd. He also complained that the police did nothing, but in this case they stood by as the Customs House burned and dozens of anti-Maidan supporters died.
Both sides contend that their enemies were bused into town not for a football game, but for the fight. And both sides are looking for the rematch on Friday.