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.

A protester walks past a burning pro-Russian tent camp near the trade union building in Odessa May 2, 2014.
A protester walks past a burning pro-Russian tent camp near the trade union building in Odessa, Ukraine, on May 2, 2014.

Photo by Yevgeny Volokin/Reuters

“People are worried now more than ever. You hear shooting in the streets, and barricades are going up. … The police are doing nothing or even going over to the side of the thugs.” That was what Lyubov Girs, the wife of a Russian official, jotted down in her diary. Her hometown—the Ukrainian port city of Odessa—was in chaos. The central government seemed to be collapsing, the streets were given over to armed groups, and local officials were colluding with the window-breakers and barricade-builders. It was the autumn of 1905.

Girs would have found the events of this past week tragically familiar. In her time, the lines of conflict ran along religion, ethnicity, and class. Street battles pitted local Russians and Ukrainians against Jewish self-defense organizations, part of a burst of anti-Semitic violence in the waning years of the Russian Empire. Rumors flew through the backstreets long before Twitter. Crowds could converge out of nowhere even in the days before VKontakte, the Russian answer to Facebook.

Odessa seems to have become the latest front in Ukraine’s slow-motion civil war, with supporters of the Kiev government clashing with anti-government demonstrators. More than 40 people were reportedly shot or burned to death in an attack by people waving Ukrainian flags, who themselves had just been targeted by people waving Russian ones. The easy labels of “pro-Ukrainian” and “pro-Russian” groups—the standard shorthand in Western media accounts—are inadequate descriptions of the complex identities, motivations, and backgrounds now dividing Ukraine. In the past few months, what began as a popular uprising in Kiev against corruption and bad governance became a brutal crackdown by the Ukrainian state, and the crisis has continued to evolve since then: forceful takeovers of government buildings by opposition groups, a political revolution, a land grab by Russia, a secessionist struggle by militias in the east of the country, and now a polarizing conflict of escalating fear and thuggery, wrapped up in the language of history and reciprocal grievances.

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More than any other aspect of the Ukraine crisis so far, the violence in Odessa—located in far southwestern Ukraine, not in the more volatile east—highlights the fact that Ukrainian citizens are increasingly living in parallel universes, regardless of ethnicity, language, or access to free media. Every act of violence reinforces a narrative about root causes, collective guilt, and the machinations of foreign governments. Extremists on each side have deployed dehumanizing labels for the other: “fascists” and “separatists,” “ultras” and “beetles.” Recent grievances, coupled with set of a ready-made stories about one’s own heroic and unappreciated past, are how civil wars begin.

Odessans have a long record of getting their history wrong, and that has not always been a bad thing. Odessa is the place where a certain version of Ukraine has had the greatest chance of working: multilingual, proud of its multicultural past, comfortable with Russian culture but happy outside Russia, and skeptical about other people’s grand narratives of greatness and tragedy. If there is a bellwether of Ukraine’s ability to save itself—and to do so without seeing every obstacle as solely a product of Russian meddling—it is Odessa. That is why the spread of violence to this historically cosmopolitan city is both shocking and uniquely emblematic of Ukraine’s parlous condition.

Founded in 1794, the city has long reveled in its newness. It was intended as the southern cousin of St. Petersburg—nearly a century older—a frontier town planted on land that had been conquered by Catherine the Great from the Ottoman Empire. It looked out on the Black Sea and the Muslim world and was intended to showcase the glories of the Russian Empire to foreign audiences.

In the 19th century, wheat poured into the city from the Ukrainian interior and flowed out to eager markets across the Mediterranean and beyond. Families made fortunes in shipping and commerce. Jewish merchants found the freewheeling port to be a liberal alternative to the old centers of Jewish civilization such as Warsaw and Vilnius—a place where Jews could escape the strictures of tradition and find tolerance, perhaps even full assimilation to Russian culture. By the end of the century, they formed a quarter of Odessa’s population.

Yet anti-Jewish violence was a spring ritual in Odessa, as it was in other parts of the Russian Empire. In 1905, for the first time, Jews fought back, a change that produced the swirling street violence that Lyubov Girs and others experienced firsthand. It was the Odessa pogrom that helped launch right-wing Zionism—the signature event in the life of Vladimir Jabotinsky, the Odessa native and prophet of the Israeli right today. News of beatings, murders, and arson in the city reverberated around the world.

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