Ukraine: Greater war threat rises from Odessa's ashes

May 11, 2014
A man weeps outside the House of Trade Unions, where a deadly fire occurred after fighting between pro- and anti-government forc

In the House of Trade Unions in Odessa on May 2, more people died than over several days of fighting in the Donbass in Ukraine's east.

In Kramatorsk in the eastern Donetsk Oblast province on the same day, however, government forces also excelled themselves, killing 10 unarmed local residents who had tried to block the path of armoured vehicles.

It is obvious to everyone that the catastrophe in Odessa, Ukraine's third-largest city in the south of the country, has become a turning point in the civil war that began when Ukraine government forces attacked Slavyansk and other cities that had raised the flag of the Donetsk republic.

Inevitably, the ferocity on both sides will now grow; escalating violence and the splitting of the country are unavoidable. But it is not only in Ukraine that the events of May 2 have represented a watershed for public opinion. This applies no less to Russia as well.

Civil wars are always accompanied by a brutalisation of society, and there is no reason to assert that in Odessa the notorious “pro-Russian activists” and supporters of federalisation were all admirers of Tolstoy and Gandhi.

Undoubtedly, there were people who brandished weapons and fired shots during the street clashes between the contending groups; even eyewitnesses from among supporters of the “self-defence of the Euromaidan” acknowledge that there were guns on both sides. The only arguments relate to the question of who fired first.

Quite possibly, the first to pull the trigger was someone from among the “pro-Russian” demonstrators. But what, in essence, does this alter? There were people who fought on the streets, and burned other people to death in the House of Trade Unions.

Several hours of “fierce street battles” ended, if we are to believe the reports available on May 5, with four or five dead from both sides. This means that firearms were not used in a really serious way; otherwise, the number killed would have been greater.

But official figures say there were more than 40 bodies on Kulikovo Field square in front of the trade union building, and by unofficial counts more than a hundred. The Ukrainian prosecutor’s office was obliged to admit that no weapons were found in the House of Trade Unions.

Revolutions, civil conflicts and mass disturbances are always accompanied by a range of excesses. It was for this reason that in criticising the Ukrainian Maidan, we did not discuss specific acts of violence, but instead, the political content of the movement ― its ideology, leaders and motive forces. We noted the people who found the movement to their advantage, and discussed the question of where its program would lead the country.

From the very start, however, it was obvious that the actions of the “Euromaidan hundreds” clearly exceeded any norms of “acceptable force” recognised in modern society. In recent times we have seen numerous revolts and mass demonstrations in various parts of the world, but before the Euromaidan it had not entered anyone’s head to throw Molotov cocktails directly at people.

European anarchists have often set fire to armoured police vehicles and have thrown petrol bombs into empty, locked bank and office buildings, wisely abandoned by their staff. But no one has previously tried to set fire to police standing in a cordon, or to premises with people inside. Nothing of the sort occurred even during the “Arab Spring” in Tunisia or Egypt.

Nevertheless, spontaneous violence during street clashes is one thing, while acts of vengeance, permitted and approved by the authorities and justified through propaganda, are something very different. Such phenomena are a distinctive mark of a totalitarian political movement and of its ideology.

While a democratic movement condemns such excesses and strives to overcome them, fascism elevates them to the heroic, justifying and even institutionalising them. This is what we saw in Odessa on May 2 and 3.

Compounding the acts of the pogromists was repression by the state. Immediately after the burning of the House of Trade Unions, hundreds of activists of the Odessa anti-Maidan movement were detained, while there has been no word of arrests among the participants in the pogrom. The governor of Odessa province, Vladimir Nemirovsky, spoke of the “lawfulness of the actions by supporters of the Euromaidan”.

To describe the Kiev government as fascist on the basis of the events of February or March was somewhat premature. But with each day that passes, the message becomes clearer: while some people may have been hasty in their characterisations of the bloc of nationalists, right-wing radicals and neoliberals that has seized power in Ukraine, these characterisations are nevertheless being confirmed.

It is appalling enough to recall the activists who were burned to death or who died of smoke inhalation in the House of Trade Unions; who were beaten on the ground outside; who were shot after the “cleansing” of the building by exultant supporters of the Kiev regime; or who, after suffering wounds and burns, were arrested by the police.

No less appalling, however, has been the reaction by the ideological supporters of the present Ukrainian authorities, the people who have filled the information space with howls of triumph.

If only these were exclusively radical right-wing Ukrainian politicians and official propagandists. But members of the Moscow and Kiev intelligentsia have delightedly posted triumphant reports of mass murder. Then, with the same enthusiasm, they published a wide range of conspiracy theories, contradicting one another with every word but leading invariably to a single conclusion: whoever was to blame for the deaths, it was not the people who personally set the fires and did the killing.

The walls of the burnt-out House of Trade Unions had not even cooled, and not a single corpse had yet been identified, when we began to be informed that no one from Odessa was among the victims, that all the dead were Russians or from the trans-Dnestr region.

Even the people who shared in this anti-humanist logic should, at a minimum, have reconsidered their view of events when it was revealed that the victims of the pogrom were indeed from Odessa. But has anyone apologised for spreading this lie, or acknowledged that they were misinformed? Or simply published other, more accurate information?

No, as soon as one version has exhausted itself, the people responsible have snatched at another. We have learned that the victims of the pogrom set fire to themselves, that they did not allow themselves to be saved, or that for some reason they hid in the House of Trade Unions deliberately to provoke an attack.

Of course, bloggers sitting in front of computer screens cannot be placed in the same category as people who throw petrol bombs at other human beings. But when public approval is given to violence, this becomes a factor stimulating its escalation.

The raptures over the Euromaidan created the psychological and political atmosphere in which the Odessa tragedy became possible. The members of the intelligentsia who have defended and justified the murderers have now finished up on the same side with them, enabling new crimes.

The civil war is not only unfolding in Ukraine. Russia too is being drawn into its orbit. So far this has only been in the form of public discussion, and on the level of words.

But as events in Ukraine have shown, words are readily transformed into actions.

[Slightly abridged from Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal. Boris Kargalitsky is a Russian-based writer. Translated from Russian by Renfrey Clarke.]

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