Why the Ukrainian Crisis Is Nothing New for the People of Odessa

Then, again.
May 8 2014 3:48 PM

Forgetting Odessa

The people of this great Ukrainian port city have a long record of getting their history wrong. Sometimes, that isn’t a bad thing.

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But the most famous film about Odessa’s signature tragedy skips over all that. Twenty years after the infamous pogrom, Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein was commissioned to create a work celebrating the first Russian revolution—the uprising that, also in 1905, briefly curtailed the power of the czar and led to the creation of an elected Russian parliament. Eisenstein chose to locate his film in Odessa, not in the imperial capitals of Moscow and St. Petersburg, and he selected an inconsequential event—a mutiny on board a czarist cruiser—as the centerpiece. The result was Battleship Potemkin, including its massacre scene on Odessa’s famous outdoor steps, probably the most copied sequence in film history. It was in large measure a fabrication.

What Eisenstein created was not history. It was, instead, a version of the past offered in service to his patrons: a narrative through which the Bolsheviks could interpret their own inevitable rise to power and showcase the oppressiveness of the czarist regime they had overthrown. When later generations of Odessans saw Eisenstein’s film, they reimagined 1905 in exactly the way they saw it on the screen: as a battle between a coalition of the oppressed and a brutal state. People who lived through those events remembered them as something more like the end of the world: broken windows, dead bodies, “all the Jewish shops smashed, the goods stolen, and tramps and their wives prancing about in expensive fur coats,” Girs wrote.

Given its geographic position in the extreme west, Odessa was often vulnerable to foreign attack. It was bombarded by British ships during the Crimean War. It passed back and forth between Whites, Bolsheviks, and Ukrainian nationalists during the Russian civil war. And when Adolf Hitler suddenly invaded the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, it was one of the first major cities conquered by Axis armies. For the next 907 days, it lay under Axis control, and virtually the entirety of its Jewish population—by that time, a third of the city’s total—was deported to labor camps and ghettos. As many as 25,000 people, mainly Jews, were hanged, shot, or burned alive in the early days of the invasion.

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After Odessa was liberated by the Red Army in 1944, its sufferings were acknowledged with the collective Soviet title of “hero city.” A small park located a short walk from Kulikovo Square, the site of last week’s devastating fire and street battle, commemorates the occupation and the Holocaust. But that, too, is more myth than history. A small sculpture denounces the “Nazis” for their atrocities, despite the fact that few Nazis were to be found in Odessa during the war. The occupation forces were Romanians—German allies—not Hitler’s troops. “Oh, well, Nazis, Romanians—it doesn’t really matter,” a local guide once told me with a shrug.

But, of course, to many people, it does. The Ukraine crisis—despite the liberal, European-oriented intentions of some of the Euromaidan activists in Kiev—has opened up fissures that everyone knew existed in Ukraine. They are the product not of ancient hatreds but of rival visions of the recent past: whether World War II squelched Ukrainian nationhood or rescued it from the Nazis, whether the Soviet experience was an unmitigated evil or a civilization worthy of nostalgia, whether the truest Russia is a scowling Putin or your favorite cousin in St. Petersburg.

As in most conflicts, extremism debases otherwise noble sentiments—and then distills them into slogans you can shout without ever considering how awful they might sound to someone else. That is why a liberal Odessan can today chant “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the heroes!” without caring that those exact words were also used by anti-Semitic murderers during World War II, and why an equally broad-minded Odessan can wear the orange-and-black ribbon of St. George’s cross—a symbol of Soviet sacrifice during World War II—without acknowledging that it has also become the emblem of Russian revanchism. (If you recoil at a Confederate flag but support the Washington NFL team, you get the picture.)

For the past two decades, the survivability of Ukraine has depended on the strength of a particularly Odessan trait: not caring very much about one’s past and, from time to time, getting it providentially wrong. How could such horrific violence have happened in a cosmopolitan, peaceful place such as Odessa? That people even ask the question is evidence of how forgetful Odessans have become about the shadowy side of their city’s history. This time around, we should dread the remembrance.

Charles King is professor of international affairs at Georgetown University and the author of Midnight at the Pera Palace: The Birth of Modern Istanbul.

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