Why Odessa Didn’t Rise up After People Were Burned Alive in the House of Trade Unions

6 years ago there was a tragedy that shocked everyone – Ukrainian nationalists burned 50 anti-Maidan activists alive. The Hero City did not confront the killers – was it conquered?

I met Aleksandr Vasilyev in Donetsk when I was preparing material about political immigrants from Ukraine. Back then in Donbass not only volunteers ready to take up arms came to the front line, but also pro-Russian activists who in the cities of Ukraine were threatened with criminal prosecution because of their stance. Former deputy of the Odessa City Council, active participant of the Russian movement, Aleksandr managed to leave his native city, not waiting for a visit from the SBU.

6 years after the tragedy at the House of Trade Unions, where, according to official data, 48 people were killed, we talked about why the city did not rise up against the killers.

In a simplified view, the tragedy in Odessa is a clash between two subcultures: nationalists and “vatniks”. What was the Russian movement in Odessa really like at that time, what kind of people ended up in the House of Trade Unions?

“It, of course, was heterogeneous and had a rather mass character. There were several internal forces and currents in it. There were people who were engaged in Russian politics before maidan – deputies of the Verkhovna Rada, like Igor Markov, and people in the city council, like, for example, me. It was a legal political force, but on the eve of naidan there was a very strong conflict with Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, which turned on the tracks of European integration. And the legal part of the Russian movement was simply cleansed.

Markov was in prison, TV channels were closed, the businesses that fuelled it all financially were crushed, and a bunch of criminal cases were intiated. Many then started to emigrate. Deputy of the Regional Council Vadim Savenko later fought in the Donbass militia as a field commander. At the time of maidan in Kiev, he was already in political immigration. And after maidan, a lot of new people came to the Russian movement who lacked political experience. There were groups of left-patriotic communists, Komsomol members, and socialists who under red flags appealed to the Soviet past. There were national imperial groups, Cossacks, Orthodox… Very different people, but inside there were no conflicts among them.”

What united them?

“The idea of non-acceptance of maidan, a state coup. Everyone understood that it would definitely be a new round of Ukrainisation, anti-Russian policies, de-communisation…”

I keep thinking about why Odessa didn’t succeeded back then. Maybe it’s just a matter of disunity, weak organisation?

“There is this, of course, too. Most had no political experience. When a movement grows into several hundred people, management skills are required. An ordinary manager or poet is not ready for the responsibility for people and the scale of events. And professional politicians who remained in the city and who had previously portrayed themselves as pro-Russian and who had awards from Russia, like the Order of Friendship, preferred to withdraw themselves, like saying: ‘You walk out there in the street with flags, and we’ll see what you will get’.”

It seems that at first everything was going well, thousands of demonstrators with Russian flags…

“The maidan public was very afraid that Ukraine would lose Odessa. They understood that the balance of power in this city was not in their favour. But the Russian movement in Odessa was focused on a peaceful political format. It seemed to people that there were a lot of us, we marched through the streets in an impressive procession, voiced our demands, and the authorities should pay attention to us and start negotiations. Now it looks naive, but back then it seemed that the authorities can be pushed to make a compromise, to take into account our interests, without allowing bloodshed. Many have stood under our flags because they do not accept violence. At maximum – small street clashes. Leading up to May 2nd there were several, and each time the anti-maidan won in these skirmishes. On our part, no one wanted to shed blood first. Ultimately, that too was a factor in these people becoming victims in the future.”

Who then were your opponents? All were ideological Nazis?

“Typical Ukrainian nationalists who did not possess the resources we had. Mostly – marginals, they tried to distance themselves from them, because Ukrainism in Odessa was bad form. But maidan seriously stirred up the whole country, there were many Odessa residents who participated in street clashes in Kiev, there they had already gained ideologies and returned to the city to establish new order. This environment, especially the siloviki wing, was full of representatives of crime. People who, so to say, when the authorities are replaced know how to quickly navigate immediately ran under their flags.”

Political weather vanes?

“Yes, like the former deputy of ‘Party of Regions’ and now well-known Mr. Goncharenko, who during the first days started running around the regional council with the flag of Ukraine, which was not seen before. And there were a lot of them. And finally, an ordinary resident who fell victim to massive propaganda. After the Federation Council passed a law in March allowing the use of Russian troops abroad, all channels in Odessa on the same day came out with huge messages on screens ‘Russia declared war on Ukraine’. They started to intimidate people by saying that Russian tanks would come, bombers would arrive. Demonstrations against war started. Since the first days of March this pumping was actively going on. Rumours about military columns coming from Crimea and Transnistria – hysteria. And it contributed to the growth of pro-Ukrainian forces at the expense of those who were afraid of the ‘Russian invasion’.”

But most of them were probably people who are not really ready to fight or die. Why, on May 2nd, having an advantage, did the Russians end up being victims?

“Firstly, the fragmentation of the movement had an effect, there was no total mobilisation, it was not possible to gather into a fist. Second, the opponent clearly prepared for these events, not without bring people in from outside, not from Odessa, who arrived for a specific purpose…”

It is still unclear why the whole of Odessa, after what happened in the House of Trade Unions, did not rise up in a single impulse and chase these monsters with a broom…

“In fact on May 2nd there were clashes all over the city. And the tragedy at the House of Trade Unions is already the finale when one side came to enjoy the fruits of their victory. But there were also consequences. But there were consequences too. On May 4th a large group gathered around the city police HQ, where some of the detained activists of the Russian movement were held. Many were immediately taken out of Odessa because there was fear that they would be freed. But there were so many people arrested that it was not possible to push them quickly through the neighbouring regions. The building was stormed, and all the detainees were released. Why didn’t this wave go any further? At that time, the organised movement no longer existed, it had been defeated. The leaders were either killed, went underground, or left. Any effective action requires organisation, and there was no organisation.”

A lot of my friends from the Donbass militia, including from Odessa, went to fight in Donbass after May 2nd. There was no one left to stand up for Odessa…

“Unfortunately, storming the building of the isolation facility was the maximum at that time. Although the underground in Odessa actively operated for the whole summer of 2014, up to explosions on the railway tracks along which the military echelons went to Donbass, as well as an explosion in the regional SBU building. These people were jailed, jailed, and jailed… If there is no organisational external support, the local population will not be able to do anything in these conditions. There are no such historical examples.”

Including support for Russia?

“As for the Russian movement, perhaps. By the way, I know that there was a strict taboo in Donbass to transfer weapons and ammunition outside the republics, including to Odessa, no matter how often it was requested. And many underground workers simply ran out of ‘tools’.”

And now there is the opinion that Russia betrayed Odessa

“Oh, well, it enters a scheme of mutual resentment. For a Russian person, it’s emotion number one. Some are offended, they say you didn’t help us, and others ask ‘why couldn’t you cope by yourself?’. Then there are emotions that one doesn’t want to comment on. Russia carried out activities in Odessa, but it was emphasised in a socio-political format. There were no siloviki things at all. And after May 2nd, any Russian social movement was doomed – a huge number of people went to prison.”

And those thousands of people who came out under Russian flags, where are they? Why can’t they be heard? Odessa remains a Russian city?

“For them to be heard, they have to have mass media, Internet, social networks. But today in Ukraine all of this is impossible. No one will voice a pro-Russian position. Once we had our own media, thanks to which in Ukraine Odessa was considered to be the capital of separatism and Ukrainophobia long before Maidan. But after Maidan, the repressive apparatus became very harsh in Ukraine. Therefore, the bulk of Russian activists in Odessa are people who simply survive physically. It is not necessary to expect them to jump on an embrasure, these are ordinary residents. But these people exist. And first of all, this is evidenced by the statements of Ukrainian nationalists in Odessa: ‘We are walking on thin ice, everyone hates us, we are scowled at, everyone is only waiting for the opportunity to destroy us’. The fact that they continue to remain the minority in Odessa, albeit it now an aggressive one, can clearly be read in their statements.”

Aleksandr Kots

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