By Nahia Sanzo
|‘On May 2, 2014, Ukrainian Nazis burned dozens of Odessites here. Mourning and remembrance.’
In the background, the House of Trade Unions.
In the militarized city, May 1 passed without a single act of protest for workers’ day. Without any risk of the “separatist rebellion” imagined a few days ago by Anton Gerashchenko, members of the SBU — with their faces covered and heavily armed — had time to visit some of the most emblematic locations in the city: the Odessa stairs, used in the famous film of the legendary Soviet director Sergey Eisenstein, Battleship Potemkin; the statue of Czarina Catherine the Great, founder of the city; Easter decorations on the main street and the Opera House, possibly the most photographed building in the city.
Despite the alarm, exaggerated to avoid a large number of attendees at the memorial of Kulikovo that would make clear that the nationalists are a minority in Odessa, the authorities are perfectly aware that the capacity of the city’s opposition to carry out important political action has been limited to a minimum. All real resistance seems to be concentrated on the movement seeking to remember the names of those killed in the Odessa House of Trade Unions, that with repression, lies and sabotage, Ukraine tries to erase from history.
With all the focus on Kulikovo, local authorities could not prevent, early in the morning of May 2, activists of youth groups in the city from unfurling a banner of several meters in length covering a stretch of the Odessa stairs. “Poroshenko covers up for the murderers,” read the banner under a huge photograph of the Ukrainian president.
|Demonstration denouncing the role of Poroshenko and Parubiy in the
Odessa massacre and lack of investigation.
The local police, in charge of crowd control, did not prevent members of the youth wing of Azov Battalion, easily identified by their shirts, or members of Right Sector from infiltrating among the hundreds of people gathered in front of the House of Trade Unions. The limitations of the nationalist groups were highlighted once more when they were only able to start a fight that was dissolved in a few seconds. As reported in the local press, Sergey Sternenko, local leader of Right Sector, and his supporters were seeking out Russian journalists. Among the large number of people gathered there, exceeding expectations, all the nationalists were able to do was pick brief fights and sporadically shout “Glory to Ukraine,” immediately silenced by the crowd, which sees in that slogan the ideology of those who set fire to the House of Trade Unions, with shouts of “Odessa city hero city” or “Fascism shall not pass.”
Outnumbered and divided on two fronts, trying to sabotage the Kulikovo memorial and prevent the arrival of representatives of the Opposition bloc, the nationalists were overwhelmed by the crowd and did not succeed in disrupting or intimidating people who had gathered at Kulikovo. Local media estimated that about 5,000 people participated in the event.
But a small group of members of Right Sector and Automaidan did achieve their objective of stopping Yuriy Boyko, party leader, and the rest of the delegation of the Opposition bloc, who polls show would easily win elections in the Odessa region, from leaving the airport. Blocked there by nationalists, after the Ukrainian authorities requested the delegation not to travel to Odessa, deputies of Opposition bloc held a mass tribute at the airport building, rather than trying to cross the barrier created by the nationalists.
While it was clear that the nationalists did not have enough troops in the city, especially if they cannot count on the Azov Battalion, to sabotage a rally, May 2 also made clear that it is the authorities, not extreme right groups, doing more against Kulikovo activists. After recording their homes at the end of last week, several of the most prominent Kulikovo activists were summoned to testify by the SBU at noon. At 20:30, local daily Timer reported that the activists were still in the headquarters of the SBU, which had done everything possible to delay the interrogations so they could not attend the ceremony in memory of those killed on May 2.
In a week in which the word “provocation,” followed by the terms separatist or pro-Russian, had been in the mouths of all institutions and Ukrainian media, it was the authorities themselves who staged the cruelest provocation against a group of people who only asked to pay tribute to the victims in the place where they were killed.
While Kulikovo met as promised, the few St. George ribbons deposited by the flowers were immediately removed by the organizers to prevent the appearance of a provocation, the Ukrainian authorities did everything in their power to prevent the large number of people from participating. In addition to threatening police deployment, it was leaked that groups like Dnieper-1 and Alpha would be authorized to shoot protesters if necessary, and on May 1 rumors circulated around town about a change in the time of the event in a last attempt to create confusion among the population.
|Ukrainian troops with the House of Trade Unions in the background.
At this time, there was supposedly a bomb scare in the same location.
When asked when they would open access, if it was going to open, one of the OSCE observers claimed to have no information. “It’s up to them,” he said pointing to the police. “You have to be patient.” At that time it had already been four hours since Odessa citizens had begun approaching Kulikovo carrying flowers, which were deposited in a field directly in front of the House of Trade Unions, a few meters from the police cordon. The OSCE observers also had no response to the complaint of a group of women demanding that the organization report the presence of soldiers or snipers — from that position it was impossible to ascertain whether they were armed, although the fact that SBU troops were not seen all day suggests that they could be the ones who occupied those positions — on the rooftops of the House of Trade Unions and a nearby hotel.
|For hours, attendees did not lose hope of going to the location where the memorial was planned.|
With the tactic of waiting and not reporting until hours later that Kulikovo was to remain closed, the Ukrainian authorities got that people to wait for hours, bringing the number of people gathered to even greater than expected. Instead of laying flowers and leaving, many waited in place in the hope that the passage to the House of Trade Unions would open. Ukraine had failed to prevent an image of crowds remembering those killed on May 2, 2014, but was successful in spitting on the tribute, surrounded by police and away from the place it should have been held.
The ceremony concluded with speeches by some of the mothers of the dead, many of whom identified their children as citizens of Odessa, not pro-Russian separatists as the press insists on calling them. Without much hope that justice will be done by a government that protects and defends the aggressors, the main message was that of remembering.
|Banner with the names of those killed on May 2, 2014.|
Some of the attendees remained at Kulikovo for several hours, waiting for the Ukrainian authorities to finally open the passage. Past ten in the evening, the Ukrainian troops had not left the grounds, but admitted they would remain throughout the night, and the passage to the House of Trade Unions remained closed. Finally, the police expelled the last three journalists from the area, who only took photographs of the flowers deposited by the population.
The aftermath of the Ukrainian troops’ occupation of Kulikovo was evident in the morning, much of the security contingent that had surrounded the place all day and well into the night was already removed: food scraps, plastic bags and water bottles littered the areas where troops were yesterday. At six in the morning, two buses of Interior Ministry troops remained in the enclosure, one of them in the same place where the May 2 memorial should have been held for those killed there.
|The House of Trade Unions, the morning of May 3, 2016.|
Translated by Greg Butterfield