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.

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.

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.

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.