Darkness in May. A socialist eye-witness in Odessa

A piece on the violent conflict in Odessa. It featured in People and Nature on 4 May 2014. The principle article is written by Sergei. It is followed by Gabriel Levy, outlining his reasons for publishing the piece by Sergei.

  • Tragedy came to Odessa on Friday 2 May, when clashes between Ukrainian nationalists and pro-Russian separatists led to the deaths of at least 38 people. This report by Sergei from Odessa was published in Russian by the Ukrainian socialist web site “Left Opposition” on Sunday 4 May. I (the editor of People & Nature) agree with those Ukrainian socialists who refuse to take sides in the developing civil war, and who put their efforts into building organisations and alliance that will unite working people, and not divide them. Sergei’s article does not deal with such issues; it is his impressions of how events unfolded on the day, and of the responsibility borne by ultra-nationalists on the “pro-Russian” or separatist side, who are mistakenly being presented as “anti-fascist” by some western leftist writers.

Odessa. Photo: Reuters

A dignified, grey-haired grandpa in a brown jacket talks on the mobile. “Hi. You’re asking where I am? I’m at war.”

Cracked cobblestones, tiny streams of blood on the street, blood-soaked bandages scattered around. A young fellow, about 16 years of age, asks for some space on the bench to sit down. The guy’s head is bandaged, blood drips from underneath the cloth. That’s Odessa city centre for you. Second of May, 2014.

I remember how the events in Zhanaozen in December 2011 left me in a state of shock. [Kazakhstan’s security services killed at least 16 and wounded 60 oil workers, on strike for better pay and conditions. See here] I couldn’t get my head around how they could –kill people on the streets just like that in the friggin’ 21st century! Not somewhere far away, but nearby … one of our neighbours from the deceased Soviet Union. But for whatever reason, somewhere deep inside my heart, I was certain that in Ukraine, a thing like this couldn’t happen. It’s Ukraine, what are you talking about! … On the night of February 18 to 19 [when the Maidan demonstrators in Kyiv clashed violently with the Berkut riot police], paralysed in front of the TV, when the Maidan was raging and bits of the Ukrainian anthem were bursting through the flames, I understood that this certainty was gone. Perished. One certainty, however, remained, however irrational and groundless it may have been – that in Odessa, a thing like that is surely impossible.

On the 2nd of May, it turned out to be very possible.

Who were the culprits in the Odessa tragedy? For me, the answer is clear – Russian fascists and the police.

Fascists, yes, fascists – and cut out your “But our grandfathers fought…” already. You can wrap yourselves up from head to toe in St George’s ribbons [a symbol of military prowess in Russia] – you are still fascists. Your deeds speak for themselves. The radicals from the pro-Russian camp marched to the city centre with one aim – to beat up, or maybe even to kill, people.

The whole city knew that the football fans of [the local team] Chernomorets and Metallist [of Kharkiv] were going to have a march for the unity of Ukraine before the game. Everyone also knew that activists from Odessa’s Maidan would be joining up with them. Already a few days before the planned event, the more radical part of the pro-Russian movement – the so-called “Odessa Squad” druzhina [which roughly translates as “militia”], which is composed of outright Russian Nazis, promised to break up the march. For example, here. (More info about the Squad can be found here; unfortunately the original text is down and this repost has no links). Actually, calls to kill the “Maidan-freaks”[1] popped up regularly on the webpages of the “Kulikovtsy” (that’s what people call the local separatist movement that has its tent camp on one of the city squares, Kulikovo field). On these sites, one could often spot criticism from the rank and file – puzzlingly, very often from young women – aimed at the leaders, along the lines of “enough sitting around twiddling our thumbs, let’s fight”. Well, they came. And fought a bit.

The “Odessa Squad” gathered at the memorial of the fallen militiamen at Aleksandrovskii Prospekt. There were about 300-400 of them, hardly any women (except for a few girls from the paramedics), not one single old man, just fighters, equipped accordingly, wearing helmets, many of them with bullet-proof vests. On some of their shields one could spot the logos of the Russian nationalist organisation “Dozor”, many were bearing corresponding symbols. Lined up alongside the motorway, they beat their bats against their shields and shouted out their slogans. Directly nearby – many cops, and a busload of Berkut [Ukrainian riot police], or whatever they’re called now.

At about the same time, a few blocks away, on Sobornaia square, the participants of the unity march began to gather. Two to three thousand people, with “ultras” making up not more than one-third of them. Just like at all events of the Odessa Maidan, there were many women, senior citizens, and people with kids. The allegedly horrible “Bendera”[2] football fans from Kharkiv, the bugbear brought up by the “Odessa Squad”, mostly walked off to watch footballand did not take part in the fighting. In the crowd, there were a few people sporting “Metallist” football shirts – such as a grey-haired man with an aristocratic posture, about 50 years of age, with wife and kids; or a few teenage girls. The only persons who were at least somehow armed were members of the Maidan Self-Defence.

One just needed to take a glimpse at these two camps to get the idea about who came for a peaceful demonstration and who was prepared for violent action. Another remarkable thing – the tent camp of the “Kulikovtsy” has already been there for a few months. Every week, there are pro-Russian marches. And not even once was there a reaction from the Maidan people that was more serious than raising their middle fingers towards the marchers. Of course, there are enough hotheads among the Maidan crowd, but there never was anything beyond idle talk. In fact, just one day before the massacre, the pro-Russian movement staged a May Day demonstration, marching down the central streets and shouting slogans like “Odessa is a Russian city” and “Hail Berkut” – and yet no one cared to touch them. Neither Maidan activists, nor football fans, nor the Right Sector [an alliance of Ukrainian fascist groups] (whose Odessa branch, to be frank, rather resembles tenth-graders on a school trip than grim radical fighters).

When the unity march reached Grecheskaia street, the “Odessa Squad” was already waiting there to welcome them. How a column of armed men could march up to the meeting spot of their opponents under the eyes of the cops is completely beyond me. After all, they [the police] knew all too well what sort of people they are and what they want. Although, if one considers that some of the policemen had the same red tape armbands as some of the combatants, it’s probably not that surprising after all. Stun grenades rained down on the activists. The sound of a gunshot can’t be mistaken for anything else. Just like gunshot wounds. Just like the bullet casing we found on Deribasovskaia street – knowledgeable people say it comes from a “Saiga”, the hunters’ version of an AK-47. I don’t know, they probably know what they’re talking about. There were also shots from the roof of the Afina shopping mall, where the combatants tried to have a stronghold. There’s enough film footage on the net. The Maidan guys tried to defend themselves as well as they could. My friend and his mates – simple blokes from Odessa, football fans, who had been frowning at the “ultras” with ill-disguised revulsion – came under fire. Only after a few minutes later, they were giving the [pro-Russian] combatants a beating, shoulder to shoulder with the same “ultras”. Later on, when the Russian Nazis were driven up Grecheskaia square and besieged, I saw a few Asian-looking guys, Turks or Arabs, helping the Maidan people to build barricades. Girls prepared the much-famed Molotov cocktails on the spot, using beer bottles bought at the nearby shops. Typical Odessa grannies brought stones for the Maidan crowd. “I didn’t expect any leftists to show up”, I was told by a guy in a balaclava, with whom I was dragging a rubbish bin towards the barricades. “It’s awesome that we’re all here together, like on the Maidan”, he added.

It was hell in the city centre, while the cops behaved as if it was an ordinary, unremarkable day in May. You could already hear the gunshots, people started carrying the wounded out of the battleground, while the cops carelessly trudged to the sidelines of Soborna Square, in order to … line up and head in an unknown direction. “Where are you going? Who will protect us?”, the Maidaners shouted at them. Some of the cops got it in the neck. When the [pro-Russian] gunmen shot an activist dead, the police tried to simply run away from the scene – here it is, enjoy. The [police] special ops unit formed a protective “tortoise shell” (300 Spartans!) and crowded under the wall while a real battle went on.

“Odessa is not Crimea, no way we will give up Odessa!”, shouted the activists. And they didn’t give it up. Apparently, the [pro-Russian] combatants did not expect them to strike back so decisively. A counterattack at the Kulikovo field was probably inevitable. Many activists did not go there for obvious reasons, but the most radical part of the Ukrainian unity march did. Over there the second act of the tragedy started. On Grecheskaia street people were killed by bullets; on Kulikovo they suffocated in the smoke and crushed, having jumped out of the windows. The regional council deputy Vyacheslav Markin fell to his death. The Odessans remember him mainly due to the events of 19 February: when the visiting combatants [then supporting the Yanukovich government], in the same black uniforms, beat up Maidan activists and journalists, Markin said it was self-defence of the city, and that the “Mai-downs”[3] should “get more of it”.

No-one knows who set the House of Trade Unions on fire: the Molotov cocktails were flying from both sides. Pro-Russian information resources painted a picture of radical Maidan supporters beating those who tried to escape from the burning building. But they don’t mention other facts. For instance, that the Maidaners themselves – primarily, the Maidan Self-Defence – snatched the wounded away from their own [Ukrainian nationalist] radicals, and rendered them first aid. They also don’t mention that the same Maidan Self-Defence fighters made sure that the captive separatists were handed over to the police, not to the angry crowd. Nor do they tell about the gunshots coming from the burning House of Trade Unions. One of the local TV channels, First City Channel, had been broadcasting live from the streets for the whole day, almost without commenting on what was going on. From this broadcast the Odessites learned about the weapons stored in the House of Trade Unions. The website of the “Odessa squad” druzhinniki [i.e. militiamen] immediately responded with a hysterical post, with Caps Lock on and thousands of exclamation marks: “Do not watch the First City Channel, everything there is lies …”

An interesting point: the most radical part of the Odessa Anti-Maidan – the Nazi “Odessa squad” druzhinniki, Imperials,[4] and the Cossacks – had left Kulikovo field on the day before and relocated outside the city, at the 411th troop memorial [a memorial park to Red army defenders of Odessa during the second world war]. Their camp there was also broken up, but no one was hurt. It turned out like that because nobody barricaded themselves in and shot back, and the pro-Russian activists stationed there just quietly left.

Kulikovo field was a unique gathering of conservative forces of all kinds. “All the forces of the old world”, as the revolutionaries of the past would say, joined together there: Stalin admirers and fans of the Tsar-father, Russian Nazis and Ruritanian Cossacks, Orthodox fanatics and old women nostalgic for Brezhnev’s times – and opponents of justice for juveniles, gay marriage and flu vaccinations.

These were the forces of black reaction, from which ever angle you looked. I have grown past the age when you scream about revolution and sing about “drowning the people’s sorrows in blood”. I am a convinced humanist and pacifist. Any death is a tragedy for me – even of a political opponent, even of an enemy. But it infuriates me when this reactionary bunch howls about the people tortured in the House of Trade Unions. Why don’t you honestly tell us how you were going to beat and kill, how you attacked first, how you shot into the crowd from the rooftops? The death of your supporters on Kulikovo is entirely on your conscience. You did everything possible in order to end up that way. And this is another argument to show that you are fascists.

PS. At night, after the defeat of the Kulikovo field, a post appeared on the Odessa druzhinniki web page, ending with the phrase “Odessa is a Hero City, and heroes should live in it, not Jews or traffickers”. Before I had a chance to take a screen capture, in the morning, the word “Jews” was replaced by “traitors”. Yeah, tell us more about how your grandfathers fought in the second world war.

PPS. From one of the official sites of the Odessa Anti-Maidan: “For me that pseudo image of a Ukrainian brother has disappeared, because it’s Russian people who live in Ukraine, and those who don’t consider themselves as such are scum, who must be finished off quickly, by death and death alone.”

PPPS. The Anti-Maidan groups are now putting up links to the Vkontakte pages [a Russian language site similar to facebook] of Maidan activists. Without checking whether they were even present on 2 May, they just pick on people who have put something pro-Maidan on their wall. They put up a link to the page of the wife of an activist of the liberal “Democratic Alliance” (“the bitch is one of the leaders”) – notwithstanding the fact that that organisation always did their best to calm down the hotheads in the Maidan crowd and decisively spoke out against any violence directed at political opponents.

Note (5 May, 10.30 UK time). I have corrected an error in the text. The regional deputy Vladimir Markin fell to his death; he was not beaten to death. My sincere apologies. GL.

Thanks to Olga P and GA for this translation.

Gabriel Levy writes Why I published this

I have published this article after some hesitation. So strong is its denunciation of the pro-Russian separatists that it could be understood as a call to intensify the conflict between two sections of the population of a tragically divided city – although Sergei, its author, makes clear that he is not making such a call, and defines himself as “a convinced humanist and pacifist” for whom “any death is a tragedy”. I agree with those Ukrainian socialists who set out to unite working people, to overcome such divisions – a struggle that is becoming harder and harder as Ukraine sinks, apparently inexorably, into a civil war that can only be destructive to working people and whose only possible beneficiaries can be the rich and powerful.

Sergei’s article is valuable for English-speaking readers, mainly because of its view of the politics of the anti-Maidan crowd and its view of the extremely reactionary politics of the factions operating within it. It is clear from reports across south-eastern Ukraine that “anti-Maidan” is a complex series of phenomena – from miners who went on strike in Donetsk last month at pits owned by Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest oligarch, to the proto-fascist leaders of the “Donetsk people’s republic”. This complexity needs to be understood, and Sergei’s article tells us only part of the story. But I am publishing it anyway, because it brings out key points that are disappearing under a wealth of misinformation and disinformation on the internet:

1. The pro-Russian separatists are not “anti-fascists”.

2. They were not the victims of an unprovoked attack.

3. The House of Trade Unions was not attacked because of an association with the labour movement.

(Note that many, many cities across the former Soviet Union have a House of Trade Unions that in Soviet times was a state-funded bastion of the loyal “trade unions” that were used to discipline workers and stamp on workers’ movements. In many places they have been incorporated into sweetheart arrangements with post-Soviet capitalist governments, where they play a role scarcely less anti-working-class than before. Note also that one point on which Sergei’s account of the tragedy agrees with many, many others is that the House of Trade Unions was attacked only because the pro-Russian demonstrators sought refuge in it, not for any other reason.)

The “Left Opposition” editors published Sergei’s article with an introduction stating: “The subjective impressions of the author are shaped to a large extent by his personal involvement in the events”. The editors “do not share all his assessments of the sides in the conflict, but consider it important to try to establish the chronology of events that led to the tragedy. For us [the Left Opposition] it is evident that the main guilty parties are the [Ukrainian] oligarchic power and chauvinism that exists on both sides.”

As the dreadful prospect of civil war unfolds, words change their meaning. Three months ago, when the entire population of Kyiv and many other cities was out demonstrating against the corrupt regime of Viktor Yanukovich, “Maidan” signified that mass movement and its defiance of the government’s hired killers. After that government was overthrown, both “Maidan” and “anti Maidan” signified chaotic blocs within which the right wing has pushed forward on one hand, while ordinary people have tried to express their interests on the other. On the streets of Odessa, it looks to me as though “Maidan” and “anti Maidan” have taken on a new and negative meaning – working people turning on each other, instead of uniting against the powerful elites who are responsible for the harshness of their lives.

■ See also, “No-one wants to die”, a comment by Ilya Budraitskis

More to read on the Ukraine crisis, in English

A statement on the Odessa tragedy by the Autonomous Workers Union

Volodymyr Ishchenko’s column on the Guardian web site

Left East. (You have to scroll down, or search, to find stuff about Ukraine.)

The Ukrainian Revolution & the Future of Social Movements, by the Crimethinc Workers’ Collective

“The main threat is capitalism” (interview with Volodymyr Ishchenko)

“The contradictions of Maidan” (interview with Denis of the AWU)

Statement of the Ukrainian left on “Borotba”

A New York Times article on irregulars in Slavyansk

Earlier comment articles by People & Nature

Take sides with people, not with Putin

Yanukovich’s end is a beginning


[1] The derogatory term (“maidanuty”) is untranslatable; an alternative translation would be “Maida-fucks”.

[2] A common mispronunciation of “Bandera”. Stepan Bandera was a Ukrainian nationalist leader of the 1940s; “Bander-ite” was a Soviet, and now a Russian, derogatory term applied to all Ukrainian nationalists. Bandera’s Ukrainian insurgent army (UPA) at different times fought against both the Soviet army and the fascist axis forces; this history is extremely controversial, partly because of the involvement of UPA units in massacres of Polish and Jewish civilians.

[3] The derogatory term used is “Mai-down-y”, implying that Maidan participants suffer from Down’s syndrome.

[4] Pro-Russian chauvinists who want to recreate the Russian empire.

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