Can Polyglot Odessa Avoid Stain of Separatist Massacre?

Bloodshed Comes to Oasis of Diversity on Black Sea

getty images

By Aleksandar Vasovic

Published May 07, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share

(Reuters) — Odessa: the very name conjures up an archetypal melting pot, a balmy oasis of tolerance and diversity, as well as a tsarist port of imperial grandeur, immortalised in film.

But can a city forever associated with a massacre of civilians more than a century ago now avoid becoming known as the place where Ukraine’s regional unrest sparked into nationwide conflict?

The monumental Potemkin Steps that sweep from Odessa’s elegant centre to the port, named for their central role in Sergei Eisenstein’s Soviet propaganda film “The Battleship Potemkin”, should be bustling with tourists and sailors.

Instead, less than a week after at least 37 pro-Russian activists died in a burning building following street fighting with soccer supporters chanting anti-Russian slogans, the steps are all but deserted, and Odessa fears for its identity, both as Ukraine’s main civilian port and as a haven of tolerance.

“This time last year, this place was packed with tourists and sailors. Now there’s no one to buy postcards and souvenirs,” said Valentin Popov, 68, shuffling a handful of postcards. “They would all come to see the Steps.”

The images from “The Battleship Potemkin” - a baby carriage bumping down the steps amid crowds fleeing the guns of tsarist soldiers in Russia’s 1905 revolution, a mother falling to the ground dying - are among the most famous in cinema history.

“Ukraine is like that helpless child in the carriage rolling down the steps,” said Popov.

He meant that the pro-Western forces that toppled Ukraine’s pro-Russian president in March have been powerless to stop Russia seizing Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, just up the Black Sea coast, or to prevent well-armed militias taking control of large parts of mostly Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine, with Moscow’s troops poised just across the border.

Odessa - known for its mix of Russians and Ukrainians, Arabs and Armenians, Georgians and Bulgarians, Jews and Tatars - has always felt “different”, immune to simplistic prejudice and intolerance - albeit that its large Jewish community suffered repeated pogroms in the 19th century.

“PROUD OF DIFFERENCES”

It may be predominantly Russian-speaking, unlike much of western Ukraine, but the idea that it could now become the scene of a conflict of nationalities is anathema to most of its citizens.

Maria Popova, editor-in-chief of a Bulgarian language newspaper and a parliamentary deputy for the Party of Regions, formerly headed by Yanukovich, said there were 133 nationalities, “proud of their differences”, living in and around the city of a million people.

“Odessa knew nothing about bloodletting,” she said. “We have to seek compromise … otherwise there will be a civil war.”

Odessa was a small Muslim Tatar settlement until Empress Catherine the Great founded a city there in 1794 that went on to become the fourth largest in 19th-century imperial Russia, and for much of that time a free port.

One of Kiev’s greatest fears is that Russian forces could sweep east to seize the entire Black Sea coast, leaving Ukraine landlocked. Just to lose control of Odessa, with its two ports including a major oil terminal, would be a huge blow.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, accused by the West of fomenting separatism in the east, has for his part said he has no territorial designs on Ukraine beyond Crimea, and pledged on Wednesday to do everything he could to ease tensions in Ukraine.

But chants of “Odessa is a Russian city!” by demonstrators last weekend have alarmed many.

Odessa’s new regional governor, Ihor Palytsa, installed after Kiev sacked the entire police command and district leadership, said on taking office that he did not come “wielding a sword”, and announced the creation of a round table to resolve differences.

“Our task is to demonstrate that everyone - Ukrainians, Russians and foreigners - can live in Odessa,” he said.

For now at least, the violence has died down, and there has been no sign of it spreading outward like the unrest rippling across eastern Ukraine.

But life is still far from normal in the city of tree-lined boulevards and grand architecture ranging from Russian imperial to Italianate, French and neo-classical.

LIFE ON HOLD

A concert on the Potemkin Steps and dancing on the seaside promenade, intended to mark the anniversary of victory in World War Two, have been cancelled. Authorities fear the occasion, which raises questions over Ukraine’s relationship with its former imperial master to the north, could stir fresh violence.

The Ukrainian interior minister has also asked that, for the rest of the 2014-2015 season, Odessa’s professional soccer teams, among others, should move their matches to other less volatile cities, and bar spectators from the stadiums.

Last Friday’s violence, involving gunfire and petrol bombs, broke out after supporters of two teams marched through town chanting anti-Russian slogans and tangled with pro-Russian activists.

Kiev has dispatched a special police unit based on “civil activists” to Odessa to replace the local command, which authorities said had not only tolerated but collaborated with militants.

Fishel Chichelnitsky, a rabbi with the 70,000-strong Jewish community and a native of Odessa, said last week’s violence had been a huge shock. “I did not believe this could happen … we are praying this never happens again.”

Ghanem Fayad, 35, who fled his hometown of Homs in Syria three years ago to find refuge in Odessa and its 10,000-strong Arab community, was pinning his hopes on the West.

“Syria was far away; the European Union is at Ukraine’s doorstep and Europe will not be able to handle millions of refugees if a major conflict starts - that’s why they will do everything to contain this.”

Tigran, a 28-year-old ethnic Armenian who sells sunglasses at a stand in downtown Odessa, said that, “if they just leave us alone”, the city would find its own solutions.

“We can sit down and talk this over, we can find understanding,” he said. “This is Odessa’s way - we talk and we shake hands and we go on.”Odessa: the very name conjures up an archetypal melting pot, a balmy oasis of tolerance and diversity, as well as a tsarist port of imperial grandeur, immortalised in film.

But can a city forever associated with a massacre of civilians more than a century ago now avoid becoming known as the place where Ukraine’s regional unrest sparked into nationwide conflict?

The monumental Potemkin Steps that sweep from Odessa’s elegant centre to the port, named for their central role in Sergei Eisenstein’s Soviet propaganda film “The Battleship Potemkin”, should be bustling with tourists and sailors.

Instead, less than a week after at least 37 pro-Russian activists died in a burning building following street fighting with soccer supporters chanting anti-Russian slogans, the steps are all but deserted, and Odessa fears for its identity, both as Ukraine’s main civilian port and as a haven of tolerance.

“This time last year, this place was packed with tourists and sailors. Now there’s no one to buy postcards and souvenirs,” said Valentin Popov, 68, shuffling a handful of postcards. “They would all come to see the Steps.”

The images from “The Battleship Potemkin” - a baby carriage bumping down the steps amid crowds fleeing the guns of tsarist soldiers in Russia’s 1905 revolution, a mother falling to the ground dying - are among the most famous in cinema history.

“Ukraine is like that helpless child in the carriage rolling down the steps,” said Popov.

He meant that the pro-Western forces that toppled Ukraine’s pro-Russian president in March have been powerless to stop Russia seizing Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, just up the Black Sea coast, or to prevent well-armed militias taking control of large parts of mostly Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine, with Moscow’s troops poised just across the border.

Odessa - known for its mix of Russians and Ukrainians, Arabs and Armenians, Georgians and Bulgarians, Jews and Tatars - has always felt “different”, immune to simplistic prejudice and intolerance - albeit that its large Jewish community suffered repeated pogroms in the 19th century.

“PROUD OF DIFFERENCES”

It may be predominantly Russian-speaking, unlike much of western Ukraine, but the idea that it could now become the scene of a conflict of nationalities is anathema to most of its citizens.

Maria Popova, editor-in-chief of a Bulgarian language newspaper and a parliamentary deputy for the Party of Regions, formerly headed by Yanukovich, said there were 133 nationalities, “proud of their differences”, living in and around the city of a million people.

“Odessa knew nothing about bloodletting,” she said. “We have to seek compromise … otherwise there will be a civil war.”

Odessa was a small Muslim Tatar settlement until Empress Catherine the Great founded a city there in 1794 that went on to become the fourth largest in 19th-century imperial Russia, and for much of that time a free port.

One of Kiev’s greatest fears is that Russian forces could sweep east to seize the entire Black Sea coast, leaving Ukraine landlocked. Just to lose control of Odessa, with its two ports including a major oil terminal, would be a huge blow.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, accused by the West of fomenting separatism in the east, has for his part said he has no territorial designs on Ukraine beyond Crimea, and pledged on Wednesday to do everything he could to ease tensions in Ukraine.

But chants of “Odessa is a Russian city!” by demonstrators last weekend have alarmed many.

Odessa’s new regional governor, Ihor Palytsa, installed after Kiev sacked the entire police command and district leadership, said on taking office that he did not come “wielding a sword”, and announced the creation of a round table to resolve differences.

“Our task is to demonstrate that everyone - Ukrainians, Russians and foreigners - can live in Odessa,” he said.

For now at least, the violence has died down, and there has been no sign of it spreading outward like the unrest rippling across eastern Ukraine.

But life is still far from normal in the city of tree-lined boulevards and grand architecture ranging from Russian imperial to Italianate, French and neo-classical.

LIFE ON HOLD

A concert on the Potemkin Steps and dancing on the seaside promenade, intended to mark the anniversary of victory in World War Two, have been cancelled. Authorities fear the occasion, which raises questions over Ukraine’s relationship with its former imperial master to the north, could stir fresh violence.

The Ukrainian interior minister has also asked that, for the rest of the 2014-2015 season, Odessa’s professional soccer teams, among others, should move their matches to other less volatile cities, and bar spectators from the stadiums.

Last Friday’s violence, involving gunfire and petrol bombs, broke out after supporters of two teams marched through town chanting anti-Russian slogans and tangled with pro-Russian activists.

Kiev has dispatched a special police unit based on “civil activists” to Odessa to replace the local command, which authorities said had not only tolerated but collaborated with militants.

Fishel Chichelnitsky, a rabbi with the 70,000-strong Jewish community and a native of Odessa, said last week’s violence had been a huge shock. “I did not believe this could happen … we are praying this never happens again.”

Ghanem Fayad, 35, who fled his hometown of Homs in Syria three years ago to find refuge in Odessa and its 10,000-strong Arab community, was pinning his hopes on the West.

“Syria was far away; the European Union is at Ukraine’s doorstep and Europe will not be able to handle millions of refugees if a major conflict starts - that’s why they will do everything to contain this.”

Tigran, a 28-year-old ethnic Armenian who sells sunglasses at a stand in downtown Odessa, said that, “if they just leave us alone”, the city would find its own solutions.

“We can sit down and talk this over, we can find understanding,” he said. “This is Odessa’s way - we talk and we shake hands and we go on.”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.