Odessa: The Courage to Mourn

Banned from Ukraine for five years for his efforts, German journalist Ulrich Heyden reports for Telepolis on the two-year commemoration of the Odessa Massacre of May 2, 2014. Two years after the tragedy, no perpetrator has been charged for the crimes committed that day.

This piece was first published in Telepolis (Germany) on May 6, 2016, translated to English for CounterPunch

Despite a massive presence of unfriendly security forces, some 2,000 residents of Odessa gathered in central Odessa, Ukraine on May 2 to commemorate the arson massacre in the city center exactly two years earlier that killed at least 42 people. Also present were some international observers.

Police tried to block access to the announced commemoration site, the large, Trade Union House building in the center of the city. But the crowd succeeded in gathering close to the site and laying flowers. Although the violent confrontations in Odessa on May 2, 2014, including at their epicenter, the Trade Union House, have been well documented in videos and photographs, the authorities remain unable or unwilling to provide an explanation. A sign of the Ukrainian authorities’ continued reluctance to probe the matter is their decision to deport and ban three European journalists from the country who were en route to Odessa to report on the commemoration. Among those banned was this writer.

This year, the commemoration was remarkably well attended. Participants laid flowers in and around Kulikovo Square (Field, Pole in Ukrainian), within sight of the Trade Union House where protesters had fled seeking refuge from a radical, right-wing mob. They were attacked by the mob with Molotov cocktails and clubs. They died from smoke inhalation, burning, or jumping out of the burning building. Some of those who survived their jump from the building were then clubbed to death by the mob.[1]

The big, German-language media acted as though there was nothing to report this year from Odessa. One exception was the conservative daily Die Presse in Vienna. It published a report which noted, importantly, that Ukrainian authorities have been unwilling to throw light on the tragedy of May 2, 2014. As well, the great significance of the event for the Russian-speaking countries was at least hinted.

The Berlin Taz quoted a participant in the commemorative event who said that there seemed to be fewer people at it than the previous year. However, the respected, internet journal in Odessa, Timer, used drones to make an exact count of the crowd. Timer’s chief editor, Yuri Tkachev, affirmed that at least 2,000 people had participated in the event which lasted several hours. (Four hours of film footage of the day can be viewed here.)

‘When were you last in Ukraine?’

The Ukrainian government took numerous precautionary measures in anticipation of the second anniversary of the tragedy. Three journalists from EU countries who wanted to report on the commemorative event in Odessa were turned away by border guards. Theirs are the only such cases known so far, though Viktoria Machulkova, the leader of the organization ‘Mothers of Odessa’ which is critical of the government actions during and following the tragedy two years ago, explains that the organization invited 22 foreign journalists to the commemorative event but only one third of them made it to Odessa. The three banned journalists are:

Tomasz Maciejczuk, a journalist from Poland, received a red stamp in his passport from Ukrainian border officials on April 29 at the Dorogusk-Jagodin border control point. The stamp declares that Maciejczuk is not allowed to enter Ukraine for five years. The journalist recalls that he had asked the Ukrainian foreign minister, Pavlo Klimkin, “questions about neo-Nazi formations in his country” during a trip to Amsterdam in February 2016.

Saadi Isakow, a journalist and writer from Berlin, received the red stamp and five-year entry prohibition in his German passport on April 30 at the Odessa airport. After waiting for hours in the transit area of the airport, Isakow was deported. The journalist in September 2014 had conducted a major interview with Oleg Muzyka, an activist critical of the government in Kyiv who had survived the fire in the trade union house and now lives in political exile in Berlin.

* The author of these lines arrived by air in Odessa from Prague shortly before midnight on April 30, only to be told by Ukrainian border officials at the airport that there was an order from the Ukrainian secret service, the SBU, to deny me entry into the country. They asked me when I was last in Ukraine, where I reside, what is my job and whether I had additional identification documents on me.

After waiting seven hours in the transit zone, I was deported to Prague on a Czech Airlines flight. My passport, confiscated by the border officials (with the red stamp imposing a five-year entry ban), was returned only when I was on the steps of the airplane that would take me back to Prague. I am the co-director of the 45-minute documentary film Wildfire: The Odessa atrocities of May 2, 2014 [here with English sub-titles; here in German original] which describes the background to the May 2, 2014 arson attack in the trade union building in Odessa. The film has been screened and discussed at many showings in Germany organized by myself and the colleagues with whom I produced the film.

Foreign journalists were not the only ones to face restrictions on their movements. The leader of the Opposition Bloc party in Ukraine, Yuriy Boyko, traveling to Odessa from Kyiv on May 2 and was also prevented from going to the commemorative event. The reason he could not attend: members of the Right Sector neo-Nazi movement blocked the Odessa airport on May 2. The police did nothing to prevent the blockade of the airport. Confronted with the armed blockaders, Boyko decided to fly back to Kiev.

Yuriy Boyko served as deputy prime minister of Ukraine from December 2012 to February 2014 and has served several times as a minister of energy.

Right sector threatens “a second May 2, 2014”

On the morning of May 2 in Odessa, a bomb threat was made against Kulikovo Field (Pole), the public square across from the Trade Union House in the center of the city. Police then cordoned off the area, which happened to be where the ceremony commemorating May 2, 2014 was supposed to take place. The ceremony then took place on the edge of the Field, still within sight of the union building.

The large participation in the commemoration rally is impressive considering that in the weeks leading up to May 2, massive intimidation took place in online social networks. The ‘State Initiative Yarosh’, created by the former leader of the Right Sector, Dmitry Yarosh, declared, “Hundreds of not indifferent citizens are ready to travel to Odessa” to help “our comrades” there. They were tasked with “preventing a new provocation from the Russian secret service”, which, according to the ‘State Initiative Yarosh’, is responsible for the fire in the House of Trade Unions two years ago. The “forces of the Kremlin” supposedly planned to take revenge for the Maidan events which led to the governmental overthrow in February 2014.

The Ministry of the Interior moved 3,000 police, National Guard and formations of the infamous Azov battalion in Odessa into Odessa in advance of the May 2 commemoration. If police forces anywhere near such numbers had been present in Odessa on May 2, 2014, the tragic riots in the city in that time would quite likely been averted. But in 2014, the new government in Kyiv obviously had an interest in disciplining the Russian-friendly protest movement which at that time was demanding ‘federalization’ (decentralization of power) of Ukraine. On May 2, 2014, Odessa police were not fully mobilized and did not respond to the arson-terror attack against the House of Trade Unions.

In preparation for this year’s commemoration, the government staged a military spectacle in the city on April 30, complete with armored personnel carriers (photos here). Included in the display were forces of the notorious Azov Battalion, wearing on their jackets insignias of skulls and Nazi-like runes (symbols).

‘They came at six o’clock in the morning’

The anti-government activist and head of the group ‘Mothers of Odessa’, Viktoria Machulkova, told Telepolis that the will to participate in rallies to commemorate the deaths of May 2, 2014 is higher among Odessa residents this year compared to last year because the material situation of citizens has deteriorated dramatically. As an example, she explained that her monthly bill for the natural gas in her kitchen and for heating is 1,340 hryvnia (45 Euro), about as much as the monthly rate of an average pension. [News of IMF-ordered hikes to natural gas and electricity prices is here.]

Machulkova experienced the government’s intimidation tactics against the commemoration two days before it took place. On April 30, 2014 at six o’clock in the morning, six members of the Ukrainian secret police service, the SBU, knocked on her door. “They handed me a document without saying a word. It read that arms, ammunition and leaflets were believed to be stored in my apartment.” The police searched the apartment and nothing was found.

The next measure came on May 2, again very early. Machulkova and two other known leaders from the Russia-friendly protest movement were detained at the SBU headquarters until ten o’clock that evening. This was in violation of current Ukrainian law which stipulates that no one can be detained for longer than eight hours unless charged.

Rumblings in the corridors of the European Parliament

For the past two years, Russian-speaking deputies from the Baltic republics have tried to place the issue of human rights in Ukraine on the agenda of the European Parliament for discussion. But so far, neither the fire in the Trade Union House of Odessa nor the arrest and ongoing detention of Ukrainian journalist Ruslan Kotsaba since 2015 have made it onto the Parliament’s agenda. Kotsaba faces serious criminal charges for calling on young Ukrainian men to refuse compulsory military service in the war zone in eastern Ukraine. (Statement of Amnesty International on his case dated April 17, 2015 here.)

But the deputies, who belong to three EU Parliamentary caucuses—Social Democrats, Greens and Liberals–are not giving up hope. On May 4, a hearing took place in the Parliament building in Brussels on ‘Human Rights in Ukraine: Two years after the Odessa massacre’. MEP Jana Toom from Estonia, who belongs to the Liberal caucus in the Parliament, stated at the hearing that conversations in Parliamentary corridors are showing an increase in willingness of members to speak about the violence against dissidents in Ukraine. She said that her Liberal caucus is paying attention “very carefully (not without a little fear) to everything which is connected to questions connected with Russia.” There are very real concerns about the situation in Ukraine, she said.

“In our group, there is great concern about the mysterious deaths of Ukrainian opposition politicians. We have received a list. One of those who died is said to have hanged himself, another is said to have fallen from a window to his death. There have been no investigations into these cases. So dissatisfaction is growing here in the corridors. Eventually, more steps will be taken to investigate. It is difficult for politicians to admit they have made errors; those in Brussels are no exception.”

A first breakthrough in the European institutions was the investigation report of a special panel of the European Council. Its report was issued in early November, 2015. The report describes in detail the level of violence against dissenters in Odessa on May 2, 2014. It severely criticized the failure of Ukrainian authorities to investigate the matter. [The full, 91-page report of the investigative panel of the Council of Europe can be accessed here.]

But as long as the German media is silent on the subject of Odessa, the government in Kyiv will not feel pressured. Those who burned the house of the unions and burned protesters to death using Molotov cocktails, or who clubbed protesters to death after they jumped from windows, can feel safe and continue to run around freely.

This report was based on research in Odessa and Brussels.

[1] Explanatory note by Ulrich Heyden concerning the events of May 2, 2014 in Odessa:
At least 42 people died in and around the Trade Union House on the fateful day of May 2, 2014. At least six people were shot dead earlier the same day by unknown people. The shootings happened during clashes between radical, pro-Maidan-protesters and football fans and anti-Maidan protesters. Many pro-Maidan people had traveled into the city on special trains that morning from Kyiv and Kharkov. Others came into the city earlier, their food and lodgings paid by then-Odessa governor Vladimir Nemirovski, who earlier demanded that the city’s police commander to remove the tents of anti-Maidan protesters in front of the Trade Union House. Commander Dmitry Fuchedzhy declined to do so, saying later that no law was being broken.

In the afternoon of May, 2 near Greek Square in Odessa’s city center, the pro-Maidan crowd, including football fans, numbering approximately 2,000, had their first gathering. Not far from them was a gathering of some 500 anti-Maidan people, also equipped with helmets and shields. Clashes between the two groups began in the afternoon.

The details of why this fight began and exactly what role was played the police, about 200 of whom were present, still require examination. There are many indications that the bullets which killed the six people were fired by provocateurs aiming to fire up the confrontation. Similar circumstance occurred in Kyiv on February 20, 2014 with the infamous ‘sniper massacre’ on Maidan Square. It is obvious that the political elites in Odessa and Kyiv did everything possible to have pro-Maidan extremists believe themselves free for any action on the streets of Odessa.

And that is what happened. Only a portion of the pro-Maidan-demonstrators attended the big football match which took place that day. Another part converged at the House of Trade Unions, looking for revenge for the earlier clashes. They proceeded to burn down the anti-Maidan, pro-federalization tents of the anti-Maidan forces. After that, they threw Molotov cocktails at the trade union building where the anti-Maidan protest had taken refuge.

Ulrich Heyden is a German journalist and author. Since 1992, he has been a freelance correspondent in Moscow for German media, including for Telepolis. He is a co-producer of the 45-minute documentary film (sub-titled in English) ‘Wildfire: The Odessa atrocities of May 2, 2014’, released in February 2015. The film documents the arson attack on the Trade Union House in Odessa which left 42 people dead on that day. In May 2015, Ulrich Heyden’s new book was published (in German, titled ‘War of the oligarchs: The tug of war over Ukraine’, published by PapyRossa). He can be reached at heyden@list.ru. His website is http://www.ulrich-heyden.de.