In the latest issue:

Real Men Go to Tehran

Adam Shatz

What Trump doesn’t know about Iran

Patrick Cockburn

Kaiser Karl V

Thomas Penn

The Hostile Environment

Catherine Hall

Social Mobilities

Adam Swift

Short Cuts: So much for England

Tariq Ali

What the jihadis left behind

Nelly Lahoud

Ray Strachey

Francesca Wade

C.J. Sansom

Malcolm Gaskill

At the British Museum: ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’

James Davidson

Poem: ‘The Lion Tree’

Jamie McKendrick

SurrogacyTM

Jenny Turner

Boys in Motion

Nicholas Penny

‘Trick Mirror’

Lauren Oyler

Diary: What really happened in Yancheng?

Long Ling

Close

Terms and Conditions

These terms and conditions of use refer to the London Review of Books and the London Review Bookshop website (www.lrb.co.uk — hereafter ‘LRB Website’). These terms and conditions apply to all users of the LRB Website ("you"), including individual subscribers to the print edition of the LRB who wish to take advantage of our free 'subscriber only' access to archived material ("individual users") and users who are authorised to access the LRB Website by subscribing institutions ("institutional users").

Each time you use the LRB Website you signify your acceptance of these terms and conditions. If you do not agree, or are not comfortable with any part of this document, your only remedy is not to use the LRB Website.


  1. By registering for access to the LRB Website and/or entering the LRB Website by whatever route of access, you agree to be bound by the terms and conditions currently prevailing.
  2. The London Review of Books ("LRB") reserves the right to change these terms and conditions at any time and you should check for any alterations regularly. Continued usage of the LRB Website subsequent to a change in the terms and conditions constitutes acceptance of the current terms and conditions.
  3. The terms and conditions of any subscription agreements which educational and other institutions have entered into with the LRB apply in addition to these terms and conditions.
  4. You undertake to indemnify the LRB fully for all losses damages and costs incurred as a result of your breaching these terms and conditions.
  5. The information you supply on registration to the LRB Website shall be accurate and complete. You will notify the LRB promptly of any changes of relevant details by emailing the registrar. You will not assist a non-registered person to gain access to the LRB Website by supplying them with your password. In the event that the LRB considers that you have breached the requirements governing registration, that you are in breach of these terms and conditions or that your or your institution's subscription to the LRB lapses, your registration to the LRB Website will be terminated.
  6. Each individual subscriber to the LRB (whether a person or organisation) is entitled to the registration of one person to use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site. This user is an 'individual user'.
  7. The London Review of Books operates a ‘no questions asked’ cancellation policy in accordance with UK legislation. Please contact us to cancel your subscription and receive a full refund for the cost of all unposted issues.
  8. Use of the 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is strictly for the personal use of each individual user who may read the content on the screen, download, store or print single copies for their own personal private non-commercial use only, and is not to be made available to or used by any other person for any purpose.
  9. Each institution which subscribes to the LRB is entitled to grant access to persons to register on and use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site under the terms and conditions of its subscription agreement with the LRB. These users are 'institutional users'.
  10. Each institutional user of the LRB may access and search the LRB database and view its entire contents, and may also reproduce insubstantial extracts from individual articles or other works in the database to which their institution's subscription provides access, including in academic assignments and theses, online and/or in print. All quotations must be credited to the author and the LRB. Institutional users are not permitted to reproduce any entire article or other work, or to make any commercial use of any LRB material (including sale, licensing or publication) without the LRB's prior written permission. Institutions may notify institutional users of any additional or different conditions of use which they have agreed with the LRB.
  11. Users may use any one computer to access the LRB web site 'subscriber only' content at any time, so long as that connection does not allow any other computer, networked or otherwise connected, to access 'subscriber only' content.
  12. The LRB Website and its contents are protected by copyright and other intellectual property rights. You acknowledge that all intellectual property rights including copyright in the LRB Website and its contents belong to or have been licensed to the LRB or are otherwise used by the LRB as permitted by applicable law.
  13. All intellectual property rights in articles, reviews and essays originally published in the print edition of the LRB and subsequently included on the LRB Website belong to or have been licensed to the LRB. This material is made available to you for use as set out in paragraph 8 (if you are an individual user) or paragraph 10 (if you are an institutional user) only. Save for such permitted use, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt such material in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department.
  14. All intellectual property rights in images on the LRB Website are owned by the LRB except where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited. Save for such material taken for permitted use set out above, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt LRB’s images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department. Where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, reproduce or translate such images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder. The LRB will not undertake to supply contact details of any attributed or credited copyright holder.
  15. The LRB Website is provided on an 'as is' basis and the LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website will be accessible by any particular browser, operating system or device.
  16. The LRB makes no express or implied representation and gives no warranty of any kind in relation to any content available on the LRB Website including as to the accuracy or reliability of any information either in its articles, essays and reviews or in the letters printed in its letter page or material supplied by third parties. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) arising from the publication of any materials on the LRB Website or incurred as a consequence of using or relying on such materials.
  17. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) for any legal or other consequences (including infringement of third party rights) of any links made to the LRB Website.
  18. The LRB is not responsible for the content of any material you encounter after leaving the LRB Website site via a link in it or otherwise. The LRB gives no warranty as to the accuracy or reliability of any such material and to the fullest extent permitted by law excludes all liability that may arise in respect of or as a consequence of using or relying on such material.
  19. This site may be used only for lawful purposes and in a manner which does not infringe the rights of, or restrict the use and enjoyment of the site by, any third party. In the event of a chat room, message board, forum and/or news group being set up on the LRB Website, the LRB will not undertake to monitor any material supplied and will give no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability, originality or decency. By posting any material you agree that you are solely responsible for ensuring that it is accurate and not obscene, defamatory, plagiarised or in breach of copyright, confidentiality or any other right of any person, and you undertake to indemnify the LRB against all claims, losses, damages and costs incurred in consequence of your posting of such material. The LRB will reserve the right to remove any such material posted at any time and without notice or explanation. The LRB will reserve the right to disclose the provenance of such material, republish it in any form it deems fit or edit or censor it. The LRB will reserve the right to terminate the registration of any person it considers to abuse access to any chat room, message board, forum or news group provided by the LRB.
  20. Any e-mail services supplied via the LRB Website are subject to these terms and conditions.
  21. You will not knowingly transmit any virus, malware, trojan or other harmful matter to the LRB Website. The LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website is free from contaminating matter, viruses or other malicious software and to the fullest extent permitted by law disclaims all liability of any kind including liability for any damages, losses or costs resulting from damage to your computer or other property arising from access to the LRB Website, use of it or downloading material from it.
  22. The LRB does not warrant that the use of the LRB Website will be uninterrupted, and disclaims all liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred as a result of access to the LRB Website being interrupted, modified or discontinued.
  23. The LRB Website contains advertisements and promotional links to websites and other resources operated by third parties. While we would never knowingly link to a site which we believed to be trading in bad faith, the LRB makes no express or implied representations or warranties of any kind in respect of any third party websites or resources or their contents, and we take no responsibility for the content, privacy practices, goods or services offered by these websites and resources. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability for any damages or losses arising from access to such websites and resources. Any transaction effected with such a third party contacted via the LRB Website are subject to the terms and conditions imposed by the third party involved and the LRB accepts no responsibility or liability resulting from such transactions.
  24. The LRB disclaims liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred for unauthorised access or alterations of transmissions or data by third parties as consequence of visit to the LRB Website.
  25. While 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is currently provided free to subscribers to the print edition of the LRB, the LRB reserves the right to impose a charge for access to some or all areas of the LRB Website without notice.
  26. These terms and conditions are governed by and will be interpreted in accordance with English law and any disputes relating to these terms and conditions will be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.
  27. The various provisions of these terms and conditions are severable and if any provision is held to be invalid or unenforceable by any court of competent jurisdiction then such invalidity or unenforceability shall not affect the remaining provisions.
  28. If these terms and conditions are not accepted in full, use of the LRB Website must be terminated immediately.
Close

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.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.