Anniversary of deadly 2014 Odesa clashes: a city where friends turned into strangers

Trade Union House after the May 2, 2014 fire during the pro-Russian riots in Odesa. (Source: Yuri Kvach/Wikipedia/Creative Commons)

Tuesday 2 May marked the eighth anniversary of a bloody clash in the Ukrainian port city of Odesa that left 50 people dead and hundreds injured. Most of them were pro-Russian activists, who died in a fire at the city’s trade union building. Yan Shenkman, a Russian journalist now in Armenia, brings back nostalgic memories of Odesa before 2014 and of a friendship nearly torn apart by war.

Recently, a woman on the street in Yerevan asked me:

- Have you come here for vacation or for work?

-Actually, I live here, I emigrated.

-How wonderful it is! You will like it here.

And she wished me happiness.

I don't know in what city that's still possible. Certainly not in Moscow, Moscow has become extremely cruel over the last few years. Man comes in all guises there. He is not only a wolf but also a hyena, a possum, and a rat.

Except in Odesa, where, until recently, waitresses in cafes told me: "Eat with your hands, please!", where I went to the local conservatory in slippers and generally felt like I was at my grandmother's house visiting. Remember how, when you were a kid, your parents would take you to Grandma's house for the weekend, and Grandma would let you do all the things that Mom and Dad absolutely forbade?

Pre-war Odesa embodied the possibility of pure, unadulterated happiness. A chance to drop out of the frantic race for a place in the sun for a while and do something meaningless, stupid, but very beautiful, strange, and slightly divine. A city of weirdos, not pragmatists. Plus the charming Odesa boorishness, which is silly to be offended by.

And for me, it's also the city of the brilliant, strange film director Kira Muratova, who gave me her last interview before she died.

It's clear that the city itself is an image, a legend, a symbol. And  Muratova told me so.

In reality people there are living hard, like everywhere else. There are enough scoundrels in Odesa, too. Even more gopniks. In addition to the tourist-hotspots Deribasovskaya, Odesa’s central street, and the Potemkin stairs, Poskot, the village of Kotovsky, is widely known as a fairly dark and dangerous place. After all, it was in Odesa that the tragedy of 2 May unfolded, at the House of Trade Unions on Kulikovo Pole square, which fans of the letter “Z” in Russia poke us in the nose with.

On 2 May, 2014, I wrote to Buncha, a friend of mine in Odesa: “Tell me it’s not true, that it wasn’t the Odesans who did this?” He replied: “Unfortunately, it's true. The Odesa people.” And he told a story.

During the massacre on Kulikovo, two friends, classmates found themselves on opposite sides of the conflict. One was in the House of Trade Unions, the other outside. They cursed at each other and were ready to kill each other. In the end, when the fire started, one jumped out the window and broke his leg. And the other one came to visit him every day at the hospital and took care of him like a mother.

Something similar was said by Russian writer, poet and journalist Dmitry Bykov in a lecture about the genius Soviet writer, Isaac Babel (who was from Odesa), comparing "Odesa Stories" (a series of short stories, set in Odesan ghetto of Moldavanka) and “Konarmia” (or “The Red Cavalry” – stories about the horrors and violence of the war he witnessed).

In "Odesa Stories" there is also blood, and Benya Krik (one of the main characters) is a bandit. And a murderer.

But it's a friendly fight, people who've known each other all their lives, who grew up under the same sun and generally treat each other well. It's just that kind of bad luck. But in "Konarmia" everyone is a stranger to each other, there is no pity, no love, no compassion. They kill as if it was nothing. And that's the worst part. "Konarmia" leaves no hope.

After 24 February, 2022, "Odesa Stories" ended and "Konarmia" began – a ruthless, uncompromising massacre in which there is no place for human feelings.

It happened gradually. Between 2014 and 2022, I came to Odesa many times. And one day, sitting with a beer at the monument to the pilot Utochkin, we had a fight with Buncha – or rather, I attacked him for writing nasty things about Russia on the internet and rejoicing in Russian misfortunes. I said:

- You're a normal guy. Don't you understand what is going on?

- I do. But in the spring of 2014 I was calculating how many hours it would take Russian tanks to get from Transnistria to Odesa. My wife and I packed our bags with the kids. We were scared. And for this fear, I will never forgive Russia.

- Is that why you attack people on the internet?

- Who should I be lashing out at, my wife? I can't keep it to myself.

And this is Buncha, the man who used to say to his friends in Odesa: “Listen Jan, they’ve got big things going on over there in Moscow”. Buncha, who takes little in life seriously, except Frank Zappa and Iggy Pop records. A goofball, a cool guy from underground Odesa, its chronicler, world-famous music-lover, drummer, drunkard, and goody-goody. What, then, of all the others to speak of…

When the war broke out, I wrote to him again. I'm copying our messages here:

- Can I help you?

- Actually you can. Please overthrow Putin, and preferably today, I had a lot of plans for tomorrow.

- I'll try, but no promises.

- Do not delay it.

- It's either me or him.

Further events showed that it was me. I fled Russia, and Putin stayed as if nothing had happened.

But I had no idea about it at that time. I was angry. I wanted to say: "Sasha (Buncha), are you stupid? How am I going to overthrow him? Storm the Kremlin? People in Russia are seized before they have time to open their mouths. The police force can get you just for looking hatefully into their eyes at a rally. I write articles for a newspaper and I try to guess which article will be the last, because authorities close one newspaper after another. Every other friend of mine has been in their clutches. And you’re telling me to overthrow Putin..."

And then I saw pictures of anti-tank weapons on Deribasovskaya Street, found out about the young mother and her three-month-old daughter which were killed in bomb shelling, about the missiles that were covering the Odesa airport (I remember it well, I can still show you the place where you can smoke, if it is still there), and I realised, that he was no fool. It's just a really horrific situation out there and he's hanging on by his last breath. And even trying to make jokes.

A few days later, I chatted with the Odesa poetess Lena Borishpolets. She asked:

- How many people in Moscow have come out against the war?

- A lot. Today there were five thousand, usually less.

- And what is the population of Moscow?

- About fifteen million.

She paused for a while. Then she said:

- We had so much hope for you people. And now I realise that we're screwed.

And I had nothing to respond. Because it's her they are shooting at, not at me. If it had been me, it would have been easier.

A few weeks later both Lena and Sasha left Odesa. They had more reason to flee Odesa than I did to flee Moscow. Although I think they would return home sooner than I would to my apartment on Lesnaya Street in Moscow. Lena is somewhere in Europe now, and Sasha is in Lviv and wants to go to fight in the war. Buncha - to fight! It's hard to imagine anything weirder, nevertheless, it's true.

As he was leaving his home city, he went through the records from his huge collection of “strange” music. He wanted to choose one as a memento. This one. No, this one was better. In the end he didn't take any. He had another more important task: to save his family, to keep them safe. And then go to the war. Now Odesa is without Buncha, and the “Odesa Stories” are over.

At the beginning of March, sitting in Moscow, I was deciding where to go. I had no visa. Short of money. Baku? Tbilisi? Istanbul? The best thing would have been to flee to Odesa. That's where I'd be at home. But if I could go there, there would be no reason to leave Russia. That's why I'm leaving, because with a red passport the road to Odesa is closed to me. While it was open, there was hope that everything would end well. And now we are the heroes of “Konarmia”.

Read the Russian version of this article here.