In Russian-speaking Odessa, a call for calm as Putin advances
The Ukrainian town of Odessa has traditionally continued with business as usual even during times of war. But Ukrainian journalist (and chess grandmaster) Mikhail Golubev says Russian aggression has spurred the town into action.
Odessa, on the north-west corner of the Black Sea, is the only Russian-speaking town in the Ukraine not dominated by Russians.
It is an international trading town, built up by Europeans with an ethnically varied population — very unusual for the Russian-speaking world. It is difficult to describe the ethnic makeup of Odessa because so many people are mixed, but the three main groups are Russians, Ukrainians and Jewish people. (My father was Russian, my mother mostly Ukrainian.) The Jewish people speak Russian, but they don’t necessarily feel Russian; generally, we also don’t feel that people in Crimea, or Kiev, are like us. Each regions in Ukraine has significant differences.
In Odessa many people are not political; historically business continued, even during periods of war. So at the time of the “hot” events in Kiev, there were three groups of people in Odessa: pro-Maidan, anti-Maidan, and, perhaps the largest, neutral/waiting. (Maidan is the central square in Kiev where the main protests took place.)
I had never been very political, but my awareness started in 2001 when the Russian independent television station NTV was destroyed by Putin. The administration was changed to suit the regime and reporters resigned. Within two or three years Putin had established control of all the main media. So I decided that I would no longer watch Russian television.
After the Orange Revolution of 2004 politics became like a hobby to me.
When Viktor Yanukovych was elected president in 2010 I hadn’t voted for him but I thought he had a chance to be a normal democratic President. However he did some terrible things, acts against the constitution. He put Yulia Tymoshenko in jail for purely political reasons. His son became an oligarch very quickly. Eschewing European integration was the final straw for many.
I spent 20 years writing for a sports paper but resigned late last year to work for Maidan. In the media, Russia has dominated even since Ukraine’s independence. I wrote for the biggest sports newspaper in the Ukraine — it is in Russian.
To resign was not such a difficult decision because football now takes up 12 or even 14 of the 16 pages of the newspaper, and I don’t write about football. All other sports are neglected.
My job with Maidan is monitoring news and helping disseminate information. I have worked in media for 20 years so I have my channels that are useful. I have been doing this every day for three months. I have also visited 60 or 70 meetings.
I am trying to inform people better. It is hard to believe that I have stopped work for more than three months and now only do political things.
Facebook is very important for the Maidan movement — it is not controlled by the FSB like the Russian social networks. I saw that we had nothing on Twitter so I started to use that; creating hashtags related to @EuroMaidan and posting links on my Russian/Ukrainian language Twitter account.
In December we created a We Are The World-style anthem for EuroMaidan — including the prophetic lines Moscow, Warsaw, Brussels, Washington, Beijing They won’t help us… The EuroMaidan movement has held many cultural events to raise awareness, from concerts to chess tournaments.
Last December the fight was between the people and Yanukovich. We thought that the revolution had won when Yanukovich left but then came the Russian intervention only a few days later.
After Putin’s aggression in Crimea as it seems, moods have changed significantly.
On March 2 there was the biggest demonstration in modern Odessa history — an anti-war and anti-Putin demonstration. About 10,000 people marched for eight kilometres and 2.5 hours to the Russian consulate to protest strongly against any possibility of war.
There are also pro-Putin demonstrations in Odessa but much smaller. It seems that the majority — at least the majority of active people — are supporting the new government of Ukraine and are against Russia’s military involvement. Yanukovich has almost no support nowadays; even pro-Russian people see Yanukovich in a very bad light and the Russian government is only supporting him in order to justify intervention. Soon they will drop him too.
We are not feeling safe in Odessa. A border with Transnistria — the region encouraged by Russia to break away from Moldova in the early 1990s — is only 50 kilometres away. I am not convinced that Transnistria is controlled 100% by Russia but it is a very bad example for Odessa — the result of the fight with Kishinev (Moldova’s capital) is that the people are very poor and it is run by a criminal regime.
However it seems that the Kiev government stabilised the situation. Now we can see that the police in Odessa are on the Maidan side; just 8 days ago [during the big demonstration] this was not certain.
The Maidan opponents, who have strongly pro-Russian sentiments, are perhaps mainly the old people, who for some reason have particularly good memories about the Soviet Union, and also the poorer people who are hoping that Russia will bring a better life for them. But, indeed, not all the old people and the poor people share these views.
Russian propaganda has very painful effects. People here are losing friends, even losing contact with relatives, because their relatives live in an alternative reality. The Russian government are trying to make the Russian-speaking citizens afraid, that they are in danger in the Ukraine.
The anti-Semitism propaganda is just nonsense, and they call us fascists. In my view, for many years Russia can be described as a fascist system. When I compare Putin to Mussolini I see many common features. In Putin’s Russia you can see facets of fascism in a pure form — against liberty, democracy and human rights.
The reality is that there are nationalists here, especially in West Ukraine, but Russia has many more problems with nationalists. (Speaking personally, a colleague, International Master Sergey Nikolaev, a Yurkut, was killed in a racist attack in Moscow not so long ago.)
Ukrainian nationalists are involved in Maidan; the Maidan movement has two legs, a liberal democratic one and a nationalistic one.
There are crazy people on both sides. Personally, I don’t like any nationalists — but pro-Russian nationalists are more dangerous because they can invite their friends from Russia!
Crimea, which will see the Russian forces oversee a referendum about joining Russia next weekend, is a special case; it only became part of Ukraine 60 years ago. Yet it is worth pointing out that the Ukraine had agreements with Russia, both in 1991 and the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, when the Ukraine gave up their nuclear weapons and the Russians guaranteed our safety and territorial integrity.
Apart from Crimea there are two other heavily Russian areas in the Ukraine — Lugansk and Donetsk. Crimea is a resort but they are mining regions. It is impossible to say what will happen but generally in the south and east of Ukraine considerable pro-Russian protest groups exist. I hope other parts of Ukraine will be able to resist the Russian pressure.
So, we are hoping that the situation, at least here in Odessa will stabilise. In December it was protesters against Yanukovich — now it has morphed into a fight between loyal Ukrainian citizens and Russian aggression.
For months we are living without knowing what will happen the next day. I am hoping Odessa can remain in the Ukraine; why should we belong to Russia?