Diary

Keith Gessen

The last time I was in Odessa my passport was stolen. It was the summer of 1995, and hot. Odessa, sometimes called a mini-Petersburg on account of its handsome 19th-century centre, was a ruin. The opera house was a ruin; the famous boardwalk along Primorsky, which runs at right angles to Eisenstein’s famous steps, was a ruin. Gambrinus, the legendary bar, was still operating in a basement off Deribasovskaya, and you could get a beer and a bowl of shrimps for two dollars while two old Jewish musicians played a kind of wised-up klezmer, but I seemed to be the only person in town with two dollars to spare.

I was standing at the back of a crowded tram. People in this part of the world have a superstitious belief that if you open a window, you’ll get sick and die, and it was therefore a very stuffy and smelly tram. I’d never been this far from home, and I remember thinking, in the tram, that I could tolerate just about anything. Then one of the guys behind me said to his friend: ‘You know, I think I’m going to get off at this stop.’

To which his friend said: ‘That’s interesting. I’m going to get off at this stop too.’

‘What a strange conversation,’ I thought. But Odessans are a colourful people, and proud of it. Because of Odessa’s busy port, its proximity to Bulgaria, Greece, the Ottoman Empire to the south and the Jewish Pale of Settlement to the north and west, it has, historically, been a city with a diverse, active, entrepreneurial population. Where was my passport? My passport was in my left pocket. No, it wasn’t. I jumped off the tram before the door closed. But the funny guys behind me had vanished. My passport was gone.

I visited Odessa again last month. Late March is early in the tourist season, but I saw almost no one on my way to town from the train station down Richelieu Street, wide and lined with sycamore trees shedding their bark. I had seen a photo of the Red Army marching down Richelieu Street in Charles King’s book Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams. It is 1944 and the opera house is in the background, more or less intact. The port appears behind it. From the top of the Potemkin steps you can see ships lined up to receive timber, coal, iron ore, all delivered by a railway that runs along the shoreline. Goods being shipped in now mostly leave by container truck. During the 1990s and 2000s the arms dealer Viktor Bout smuggled the weapons he bought from the failing militaries of Russia, Ukraine and Transnistria through the port. It was also once the base of the Black Sea Shipping Company, in 1990 the largest shipping company in Europe, whose collapse was one of the most spectacular in post-Soviet history. The port isn’t what it once was – Bout is in prison in the US, and the Black Sea Shipping Company is no more – but it’s still one of the two biggest businesses in Odessa, and if, as has been suggested, Ukraine’s new naval fleet, replacing the one lost to the Russians in Sevastopol, is based there, it will become bigger again.

Tourism is Odessa’s other big business, and the Maidan revolution has put it in jeopardy. About half a million Russians come to Odessa every summer, and Russian TV has been doing its best to persuade its viewers that Ukraine has descended into chaos, playing clips every night of mass disorder and young Ukrainians in motley military outfits marching through the streets with baseball bats and nationalist flags. The Russians have been going on about a new group of Banderovtsy (pro-Ukrainian fascists, to the Russians) called Right Sector, active at Maidan. If this kept up, there would be no Russian tourists this year. On the other hand, four million Ukrainians also go to Crimea every summer. They wouldn’t be going there this year. So where would they be going instead? From a purchasing power perspective, you’d want to gain two and a half Ukrainians for every Russian you lost – not impossible.

The first people I met in Odessa were the poets Anatolle Kaplan and Tatiana Barbotina, both transplants from Russia. Anatolle also works with computers; Tatiana is a journalist who left her job in Moscow to come to Odessa with Anatolle. Tatiana has been writing about the various protests for the local press, and Anatolle, an anarchist, has been taking part in them: in fact he’s a member of the infamous Right Sector. When I asked if the neo-Nazi attitudes evinced by some Right Sector members in Kiev worried him, he said he was forming a Right Sector Jewish division. Already they were eight men strong.

Odessa was a strange place for the Ukraine-Russia saga to be played out. It was always one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the Russian empire. ‘I have left Moldova and arrived in Europe,’ Pushkin wrote on reaching Odessa for his stint in exile there in 1823. (He was soon run out of the city by the governor general, Vorontsov, with whose wife Pushkin was having an affair.) In the mid-19th century it was the portal through which the ‘black soil’ region of what is now Ukraine supplied the world with wheat. The British and French blockade of Odessa during the Crimean War made the world realise it needed to diversify wheat supplies; Kansas and Nebraska rushed to meet the need. Odessa was also one of the centres of Jewish life in the Pale of Settlement, with the proportion of Jews holding steady at around a third of the population, even after the 1905 pogrom, right up to the Nazi invasion. On the question of whether Odessa is a Russian or Ukrainian city, the evidence is mixed. In ‘How It Was Done in Odessa’, Isaac Babel has his Jewish mobster Benya Krik, whose associate has shot an innocent man during a robbery, explain that everyone makes mistakes, even God. ‘Was it not a mistake on God’s part to settle the Jews in Russia, where they have been tormented as if in hell?’ Note that he says Russia, not Ukraine. But then he goes on: ‘What would be the harm if the Jews were to live in Switzerland, where they would be surrounded by first-class lakes, mountain air and nothing but Frenchmen?’ Note that Krik says ‘Frenchmen’, rather than ‘Swiss’. The mobster Krik is imprecise.

Pro-Russia versus, for lack of a better word, pro-Ukraine sentiment in Odessa is split down the middle. Since the Maidan protests began, the Ukrainian supporters have held nightly meetings at the monument to the Duc de Richelieu, the first governor of Odessa, at the top of the Potemkin steps. The anti-Maidan, as they call themselves, the pro-Russian activists, meet at a fairground near the railway station. The pro-Russian marchers have so far mostly avoided the violence that has characterised the demonstrations in Kharkiv and Donetsk. The government, weak and confused, has been adopting a wait-and-see attitude; as it had in Donetsk, it arrested the most vocal leader of the pro-Russian movement, a young firebrand called Anton Davidchenko, but otherwise it has kept a low profile. This seems sensible, though it’s true the government is too weak to pursue any other option.

The pro-Russian groups have their biggest meetings on Sundays. On the fourth Sunday in March a group of toughs stood guard at the entrance to the fairground wearing little black and orange St George’s ribbons (denoting the fight against fascism). They weren’t huge guys like the most violent pro-Russian protesters in Kharkiv, some of whom came from a mixed martial arts training centre called Oplot (‘Bulwark’). But it later emerged that one of the guys in the line that day was a resident of St Petersburg named Anton Raevsky, a member of a neo-Nazi group that calls itself the Black Hundreds. It’s a resonant name in Odessa: the original Black Hundreds organised the pogrom of 1905 that convinced the young Odessan journalist Vladimir Zhabotinsky (later Ze’ev Jabotinsky) to become a militant Zionist and many other Odessan Jews to head for the United States.

A crowd of around ten thousand had gathered. There were old people, and respectable-looking middle-aged people, and even some people holding blue and white flags with the star of David on them, representing the Jewish community, or so they said. Here I met my friend Vadim, a former employee of the Black Sea Shipping Company. These days he works for whatever foreign shipping agent needs a chief mate; he’s away at sea for months at a time, but he’s been home since the autumn. He hadn’t been going to the marches, but agreed to come along with me, and now appeared among the crowd, smoking a Kent and, like just about every other man in Odessa, wearing a cheap leather jacket. It’s amazing. There aren’t many Jews left in Odessa, but I even saw a youngish Orthodox Jew wearing a cheap leather jacket. The threads of his tzitzit poked out from under it.

From the stage, there were speeches demanding the release of Davidchenko and a referendum on the status of the Odessa region within Ukraine: a referendum that would pave the way for Odessa to leave Ukraine and join Russia, and hence a referendum the Ukrainian government can’t really allow. Then the crowd, many of them waving Russian flags, including a giant flag that numerous people carried together like a parachute, marched through the city streets for an hour and a half. ‘Odessa, stand up! Chase away the Banderovtsy!’ the crowd chanted, and ‘Odessa is a Russian city!’ and ‘Rossiya! Rossiya!’ and ‘Referendum, referendum!’ When the crowd passed the Pushkin statue downtown, they chanted: ‘Pushkin! Pushkin!’ And when they marched past a student residence out of whose windows some mostly female students had hung several blue and yellow Ukrainian flags, the crowd chanted, ‘Sluts! Whores!’ and gestured for the students to come outside where they’d get what was coming to them.

Vadim isn’t a liberal. He thinks Putin is a wise leader, and that Ukraine could use someone like him; he once spent hours explaining to me that Stalin had ingeniously trapped Hitler into invading Russia. He didn’t like the revolution in Maidan at all, and he believed a lot of the propaganda coming from Russian sources. But he isn’t the sort to relish taunting pro-Ukraine students with threats of rape. He told me he’d recently broken with one of his closest friends, who couldn’t understand why he refused to attend the pro-Russia marches.

Concerns over the collapse of the Russophone political space are nothing new. In the 1990s such disparate writers as Solzhenitsyn, Brodsky and Eduard Limonov worried over it. Solzhenitsyn proposed creating a Russian-language superstate, encompassing the Russian Federation as well as the Russian-majority sections of northern Kazakhstan, Belarus and Ukraine. Limonov actually took up arms, or tried to: he was arrested in 2001 for trying to transport a cache of Kalashnikovs and some explosives which he may have been planning to use in an invasion of northern Kazakhstan, with the intention of declaring a Russian republic there. Brodsky’s poem ‘On Ukrainian Independence’, written in the early 1990s, excoriated Ukrainians for wanting independence from Russia. He read the poem once at a public gathering in New York, then forbade its publication, but it’s circulated online for years. It’s a furious poem, but I had never truly realised, until seeing the Russians in Odessa, just how nasty it was. Brodsky warns his Ukrainian readers that on their deathbeds they’ll remember the poetry of Pushkin, not the brekhnya (‘gibberish’) of the Ukrainian national poet, Taras Shevchenko. And maybe he’s right: maybe Pushkin is the better poet, and maybe a Ukrainian inclined to remember poetry on his deathbed would choose Pushkin. But maybe he wouldn’t. And in any case Ukrainian independence isn’t a poetry competition.

Brodsky knew this, which is why he didn’t publish the poem. But the sentiment he expressed is powerful. I remember feeling it in Kazakhstan a few years ago. The country was prospering on the back of the huge Tengiz oilfield. Government officials zipped around the capital in Audis and sharp Italian suits. And gradually the country was switching over to Kazakh. Its leading writers and journalists still worked in Russian, its politicians sometimes seemed more comfortable in Russian, but education was increasingly in Kazakh, and it seemed a matter of time before Russian died out. Which is probably as it should be, and if the oil keeps flowing, before long there will be great writers working in Kazakh too. Nonetheless you had to admit there was something impressive, during the Soviet years, about the way that so many of the ‘minority nationalities’ of the empire produced Russian literature – including Brodsky, a Jew.

I left the march to visit Boris Khersonsky, the best-known Russian-language poet in Ukraine. Born in 1950, he watched most of his family move to Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach in the early 1990s, but decided to stay. He told me that his relations with the Ukrainian literary community were at first strained after independence but that this had changed. He has been translated by some leading Ukrainian poets, and has translated them in turn. In the last few months he’s taken a strong pro-Maidan position, and now sees his situation as untenable. If Russia should come, supporters of Maidan will have a difficult time of it. On the other hand, ‘Let’s say Odessa remains with Ukraine, a Ukraine that’s had a national awakening. How will Ukraine feel about Russian-speaking people when those people are marching through the streets saying: “Odessa, stand up! Russia, take us up!” This is what’s called a fifth column, manipulated by an enemy country. You know, it’s difficult to say: “Russia is an enemy country.”’ But it was.

The next day I took a trolleybus to the end of the line, to the suburb where Vadim lives. He wanted to introduce me to his pro-Russian friend Natasha, who owns a bar. The bar turned out to be one of those improvised structures so common in the former Soviet Union. It was two shipping containers welded together, with windows cut out and plastic walls on the inside, and a sloping roof added on top. It had plumbing and electricity but no heating. It was two in the afternoon, and Natasha, a blonde in her thirties, served tea and beer to her husband, Vladimir, called Vova, a big handsome guy in a tracksuit, and Sasha, a thin man in his early fifties with a small tattoo on the webbing of his hand between his thumb and forefinger which might or might not indicate that he’d spent time in prison. Sasha said he wasn’t working much right now, but he used to run clothes from Turkey to Odessa, among other things. Did he run entire containers? I asked. ‘I ran entire container ships!’ he said.

Sasha, Vova and Natasha were worried about the new government. It was a bunch of Banderovtsy, they said, and they were afraid. They showed me some YouTube clips: there was one of nationalists attacking old Soviet war vets in Lviv; one of schoolchildren in Kiev playing a game called ‘Hop if you’re not a Russian’, and all hopping; and a weird video of some nationalists, probably Right Sector, marching with torches at night in Kiev. The videos were scary if you were in the mood to be scared.

The three of them kept talking and, truth be told, they were right about a lot of things. Whenever the nationalists were in power, as they had been after the Orange Revolution and were again now, two things happened: history was reinterpreted from a Ukrainian nationalist point of view and the Ukrainian language was given preference over Russian. Reinterpreting history meant blaming the Russians for the Holodomor (the famine in the 1930s that killed millions of Ukrainians), labelling the Soviets ‘occupiers’ and rehabilitating the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (the Banderovtsy). Some of these reinterpretations are more fair than others, but all of them offended the Russians. ‘My grandfather marched from Moscow to Berlin and was the only one in his division to remain alive,’ Vova said. ‘Now I’m supposed to be told that he was an occupier?’ Equally annoying to them were the language laws. In 2005, under Yushchenko, hero of the Orange Revolution, Ukrainian was made the sole official language for legal documents, dissertations, government statements etc. Yushchenko’s successor, Yanukovich, repealed this law as soon as he came to power, and the post-Maidan Rada, as its first act, had tried to reinstate it (the acting president refused to sign). Russian speakers were facing similar problems in other former Soviet republics; the fact that Ukrainian as a language is so close to Russian makes the issue somehow even more vexed. It’s not easy for a Russian speaker to learn a Finno-Ugric language like Estonian, but Russian and Ukrainian have about a 90 per cent syntactic overlap, and, as one Odessan put it to me, ‘How much do you need to disrespect Ukraine in order not to bother even to learn the language?’

In the case of Sasha, Vova and Natasha, the answer was ‘a lot’. They wanted back into Russia by any means necessary. So it was hard to tell how genuinely scared they were and whether they really thought they were surrounded by fascists. Sasha said the Jewish cemetery in Odessa had been desecrated by Right Sector and covered in swastikas. When I expressed scepticism, he said: ‘Let’s go and see them right now.’

‘OK.’

Sasha hesitated.

‘I want to come, too,’ Oleg said. Oleg was a pro-Ukrainian guy who’d joined us in the bar.

Sasha downgraded his offer. ‘You want to see a swastika?’ he said to Oleg. ‘Come to my apartment building, there’s one on the circuit breaker!’

The afternoon was waning, and we were sitting in a bar made out of two shipping containers. There was a thin blue carpet on the floor, thin orange curtains and orange paper lampshades. Sasha seemed convinced that Right Sector had come from Kiev and drawn a swastika on the circuit breaker in his building.

‘I just hope all this protesting and meeting leads to something,’ Natasha said, as she saw me out.

‘It could lead to war,’ I said.

‘If it’s war, then, so be it: war.’

I got into a minivan and took it back to town. Anatolle had arranged for me to meet the leader of Right Sector in Odessa, but when I got to the Richelieu statue he told me that the leader, codename Akerman, had been in a street fight and was in hospital. Instead I met two of his deputies, Miroslav and Oleg. They were both 26, educated – Miroslav had a degree in psychology, Oleg in law – and well-spoken. Miroslav, in his duffle coat and chukka boots and intermittent beard, wouldn’t have looked out of place on an American college campus. But then he handed me a poster Right Sector had just printed. ‘Mobilisation,’ it said, next to the black and red Ukrainian Insurgent Army flag and a Kalashnikov. It was in Ukrainian, and Miroslav translated it for me. ‘The occupier has begun to take away our rights. We must mobilise … We are not afraid of spilling our enemy’s blood or our own in the battle for independence.’

‘People need to understand that the war is not far away, over the hills,’ Miroslav said. ‘It’s already here.’

‘What are you going to fight them with?’ I asked.

‘First we have to become spiritually ready. Once we’ve done that, we’ll find what to fight them with.’

When we sat down Miroslav took off his bulletproof vest, as militant as anyone in a duffle coat could be. ‘We don’t currently have the right, legally or morally, to take matters into our own hands,’ he said, ‘but if the government fails to do so soon, we’ll have no choice.’ He spoke of fighting corruption and banning Russian television channels from airing in Ukraine.

Then they had to run to the police station: the guys who’d attacked Akerman had been arrested, and they wanted to make sure they weren’t released. I had the feeling that everyone had simply gone mad. This is the way it starts. These were ordinary people, nice people. Back at her bar, pro-Russian Natasha had made me some pelmeni, but if you handed her a gun, she’d probably shoot Miroslav in his beard.

I went to meet a friend of a friend called Lika, who has lived in Odessa all her life. Though her father emigrated to Brighton Beach some years ago, she intends to stay. She took me on a walking tour of the city with evident pride. Many of the magnificent 19th-century buildings that had been in such disrepair in the early 1990s have been renovated, and a few years ago the old monument to Catherine the Great, which had been taken down by the Bolsheviks, was reinstated. I had seen it in a horrible YouTube video: a group of students had set up a protest against the monument (on Ukrainian nationalist grounds) and been viciously beaten by a group of men led by a pro-Russian Rada deputy called Igor Markov. I mentioned the incident to Lika. ‘They deserved to be beaten,’ she said, her love of Odessa overcoming her liberalism. ‘It belongs here. Look how it brings the square together.’ She was right about that.

Lika and I went for supper – I ate a giant bowl of borscht – with a friend of hers called Sergei. He was a cynic, and it was a relief to listen to him after a day in the company of maddened idealists. ‘What’s changed?’ he asked Lika, about the new government. ‘Have they replaced anyone? They moved one guy here and then moved the other guy there – that’s all. It’s all the same guys. And they gave up Crimea. Now they want me to fight? I’m not going to fight for a government that pissed away Crimea. Why should I fight if they’re not willing to fight? If Putin comes here, so what?’

Sergei seemed to think that a Russian invasion was as likely as not, for the simple reason that Russians currently had no way of reaching Crimea except through Ukraine. The Russian government had said it would build a bridge over the Kerch Strait, which separates Russia from the eastern edge of Crimea, but Sergei claimed that the sea there was too rough to build a bridge, which is why it hadn’t been done in Soviet times. ‘So what do you do?’ he asked.

‘You build a bridge through Ukraine?’ I suggested.

‘That’s right,’ Sergei said. ‘And why not take Donetsk and Kharkiv and Odessa while you’re at it? Then you get all the way to Moldova. That makes sense.’

If the army had fought back in Crimea, he said, if people started getting killed, then there’d be something to talk about. Then Putin might have to think twice. Ukrainians may not have an army worth mentioning, but they know about guerrilla warfare, having perfected it during the Second World War. ‘People like you, Lika, will join the partisans,’ Sergei said. ‘During the day you’ll be a nice and ordinary person, and then at night you’ll start shooting them.’ Sergei mimicked Lika shooting at the Russians at night. ‘Then the coffins will start coming home.’

Lika was more optimistic. She had been impressed by one of the Maidan candidates for the mayor of Kiev, who spoke three languages.

‘She speaks three languages?’ Sergei said. ‘She’ll never be mayor.’

Lika said she hoped Putin wouldn’t come to Odessa. That would just be too horrible. ‘Why can’t Odessa just live independently?’ she said.

‘Lika, study history,’ Sergei said, putting on his very nice leather jacket. ‘No one lives independently. And Putin – Putin shmutin. He’ll die soon enough.’

Sergei took his leave, and I asked Lika what he did for a living. ‘No one knows,’ she said. But he seems to be doing well. Lika herself gives private English lessons to the children of the city’s rich, who want them to be prepared for boarding school in England. While we sat in the restaurant she answered numerous messages on her phone from parents trying to schedule lessons.

Soon I finished my borscht and we walked out into the night. There were lights hanging from the trees in the park. ‘How beautiful Odessa is!’ Lika said, and it was true. I walked her home. She showed me some burn marks on the front of her building, under a poster advertising Yulia Tymoshenko’s party, which was running the post-revolution interim government and had its local headquarters on the first floor. During the Russian march the day before someone had come by and warned the door lady that if they didn’t remove the Tymoshenko sign, next time they’d burn the whole building down.