ODESSA, Ukraine — Spend enough time in Ukraine and someone will tell you that Ukrainians are the most beautiful women in the world. Spend enough time in Odessa and you’ll hear its women are the most beautiful in Ukraine. Certainly that reputation has been exploited over the years, as Odessa remains a center for the country’s pervasive and lucrative sex trade. But it was the Soviet spy service, the KGB, that first took the organized exploitation of Ukrainian women to a new level.
Odessa was the largest and most important port in the Soviet Union (it remains the largest in Ukraine), which meant a steady flow of news and people from the world beyond the Iron Curtain. The USSR saw that fact as a huge threat. So the KGB assembled a group of young women with an aptitude for languages. They were some of the few citizens who were allowed to speak and learn foreign tongues fluently and interact with the outside world. They also became very fluent in a different sort of language. When foreign sailors called at Odessa they were all herded to one specific bar called Inter Club. Behind the scenes, the KBG was running it.
Ukrainian and Russian men—average Soviet citizens—were not allowed inside Inter Club. And most of the foreign sailors had no idea that this brothel was set up exclusively for them—to keep them occupied, under control, and as an image management operation. As the elite polyglot sex workers entertained the foreign sailors they whispered sweet Soviet propaganda into their ears.
Today in Odessa the sex trade is run by mafias, although it’s sometimes hard to distinguish them from the old security forces. As with the government of KGB veteran Vladimir Putin in Moscow, criminal organizations overlap with the siloviki, the profiteers who emerged from the ranks of the old secret police. Inter Club is just another tourist bar now called Seamen’s Club. But one thing has not changed, or better put, one thing has been coming back: a frenzied fear of foreign influence, especially from Europe and the United States.
On May 2, clashes between pro- and anti-EuroMaidan groups (supporters of the new government in Kiev against supporters of Russia) culminated in the death of more than 40 anti-Maidan activists who were trapped in the Odessa Customs House when it caught fire amid exchanges of Molotov cocktails.
Since then, a bitter xenophobia has emerged in Odessa just as it has in cities across eastern Ukraine. The change is drastic. By now Odessa’s tourist season should be kicking in. Much of the population relies on it for economic survival. But the streets are empty at night and hotel bookings are at record lows. For the first time in decades, foreigners arriving in Odessa are regarded with suspicion, even anger. Instead of being asked where they come from, they are asked which side they are on.
Zoe Accart, 29, is an Israeli medical student studying at the Odessa National Medical University. After the events on May 2, she and other foreign medical students were advised by the university to leave the country as soon as possible. Authorities feared a backlash against foreigners in the city as pro-Russian media resurrected the Soviet the narrative that Ukraine is full of foreign spies pushing the country in a Western direction.
Of course the backlash isn’t only against foreigners. Despite the fact that polls show a slight majority of the city still supports the new government in Kiev, pro-Russian social media sites have begun fiercely attacking those associated with the EuroMaidan movement in Odessa. Young women and some men are being targeted in a series of posts on vk.com as, roughly translated, “Bitches of Maidan.” Their pictures, personal information, and in some cases home addresses and telephone numbers are posted. Comments call for violent retribution against them. As in the old days, some women are deemed reliable by the xenophobes, and some are not, and those who are not must live in fear.
Here in Odessa, the conflict has nothing to do with a linguistic divide. Everyone speaks Russian. As one pro-Maidan activist explained by analogy, “Irish terrorists speak English but fight for Ireland.” Those here in Odessa who believe they are fighting for Ukraine speak Russian. But initial attempts by the new government in Kiev to repeal the official status of Russian, even though quickly reversed, fueled the sense of suspicion and betrayal throughout the east and south of the country.
“Of all things they could have done, that was their first move,” hotel owner Adam Contra told The Daily Beast. “Before even issuing an arrest warrant for the [ousted] president, they did that.”
Contra believes that things are going to become very difficult for the government in Kiev: “People haven’t thought through joining the European Union. You’ve got the IMF ending subsidies. Gas will go up 50 percent in May. That’s before Russia raises the prices. Before winter hits, people will be disenchanted. Right now 70 percent of Ukrainians support the government in Kiev, but it is about to be assaulted from all sides.”
The May 9 celebrations of Victory Day, commemorating the defeat of the Nazis in World War II, had looked like it would be an occasion for more terrible violence. But the shock of May 2 seems to have been such that many people—including many who might have caused trouble—decided to stay off the streets.
Those who did turn out attended a very strange celebration indeed. It’s not every day you see people waving a flag bearing the face of one of the 20th century’s most notorious genocidal megalomaniacs. A babushka brandishing Stalin’s portrait framed in Soviet red did so with the kind of reverent enthusiasm that suggests she had been waiting all year for this occasion.
As the banner bearing Stalin’s face blew in the wind against a clear blue sky, a crowd of uniformed pensioners covered in Soviet medals stood to salute it. But the victory was remembered differently by others. “My family is a victim of the Ukrainian Holocaust, so it’s very painful for me to see that,” said a woman who wanted to be indentified only as Mari. Before the Nazis came, Stalin has starved millions of Ukrainians to death. People were too afraid to talk about it in Soviet times, she said, but you could see it in the eyes of your grandparents, who were scarred survivors. “The older children who starved gave their food to the younger ones,” said Mari.
Not far from Odessa a young girl who does not want to be named plants trees in a hidden grove—one tree for each of those killed by sniper fire in Kiev’s Maidan square in February. So far her group has planted 100 for those they call the Heaven’s Hundred—the same people the Kremlin’s media call fascists financed by the United States to weaken Russia.
In this bitterly divided Odessa even trees, flowers and candles become geopolitical targets, just like the deceased that they honor and represent. The girl, who has every reason to worry about her own well-being, appears concerned mainly about the safety of her plantings, which is why she asks me not to divulge their location.
Perhaps there will come a day when those 100 saplings in Odessa provide shade for tourists once again visiting the coastal Black Sea resort. Perhaps a time will come when parks bring people together and trees are not considered political. But for now they are just sprouts with a future as uncertain as that of Ukraine, while tonight the streets of Odessa remain empty. Tourists tend to avoid potential war zones, and even a majority of activists appear to be staying home. Perhaps they don’t want to add to the garden. Or, perhaps, some of them have found their way to bars where hostesses once again whisper sweet Soviet propaganda in their clients’ ears.