Ukraine crisis: Dark new narratives in Odessa

People mourn a pro-Russian separatist killed in Odessa on 2 May Image copyright AFP
Image caption People mourning a pro-Russian separatist killed in Odessa

The city of Odessa in southern Ukraine was the scene of bloodshed on 2 May when 42 people were killed following street fighting between Ukrainian and ethnic Russian mobs. As chocolate tycoon Petro Poroshenko - who hails from the Odessa region - takes over as president, the city reflects on the violence.

In his story How It Was Done In Odessa, the Russian writer Isaak Babel - a Jew with glasses on his nose, and autumn in his heart - describes with awed fascination a hero he could never be - the mafia boss Benya Krik, also known as the King - suavest, brashest, deadliest of all the mobsters of that legendary city by the sea.

Benya Krik - what a fist-in-your-face kind of name - in his chocolate jacket, cream trousers and raspberry lace-up boots - he was a tiger, a lion, a cat… a young Jewish hustler, Babel writes, who could spend the night with a woman and leave her satisfied, who could lay on a magnificent funeral for an accidental victim of his own gang, a character who personified Babel's cosmopolitan, seamy home-town in the dying days of tsarism.

The city, then more than a third Jewish, was so famous for its high living that the Yiddish equivalent of "living in clover" is "lebn vi got in odes" or "living like God in Odessa".

Myths twine themselves around the town as tightly and luxuriantly as the trailing creepers that twine every sweaty summer around its wrought-iron balconies.

Drawn by the tales of easy living, I first came to Odessa 20-odd years ago for a romantic escape, like many other tourists, to stay in its grandest crumbling hotel.

Through the Soviet years, the great port had somehow kept its spirit. It kept it still through its first two decades in independent Ukraine.

But now I am back because new, uglier myths are winding themselves around Odessa, and a new ghoulish tourist attraction disfigures its heart - the burnt-out shell of the Trades Union Headquarters, its blackened Stalinist columns surrounded by heaps of now-withered flowers.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Jewish men congregating in the street in Odessa circa 1800

Earlier this month in and around this building, 42 people were killed in clashes between pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian protesters, part of the conflict that is dividing the country ever more deeply.

Now, it is a place to be photographed. Young women in impossibly high heels totter over the charred timbers, through the paper-strewn sooty corridors, past the mangled office furniture.

Groups of schoolchildren sucking Coke from giant polystyrene cups wander past bloody palm-prints on the walls. So how did so many die in a city famed for its tolerance?

"They burned people alive... and those who jumped to save themselves were finished off with clubs."

That is what I am told from mourners bringing bouquets, by the gawpers inside, by taxi driver after taxi driver.

They are blaming the Ukrainian nationalists, supporters of their country's recent pro-Western revolution who, according to this version of events, drove their opponents - those who want closer links with Russia - into Trades Union House, and set light to it.

And then, from that other, nationalist and pro-Western camp, I hear the opposite: the pro-Russians barricaded themselves into the building and began to rain Molotov cocktails down on the crowd below.

There is talk of how they were supported by a pro-Moscow police chief - who has now fled - and even by the abbot of a Russian Orthodox monastery seen shipping mysterious crates from his cloisters during the bloodshed.

In the absence of almost any agreed facts about what really happened, it feels as though both sides are spinning myths - but unlike the celebratory tales of Isaak Babel, these myths divide the city.

Many locals are horrified: issues like autonomy or federalism, at the heart of the present conflict, do not matter to Odessans, I am told.

They do not even care that much which country they are in. They just want to get on with life.

Babel's Benya Krik - himself an invention, of course - was not much of a patriot either.

Did God not make an enormous mistake settling Jews in Russia? he asks in How It Was Done in Odessa. Why did he not put them in Switzerland, surrounded by first-class lakes and mountain air?

Image copyright AP
Image caption A pro-Russian protester with a poster saying "Odessa, we will not forget"

I am reminded of him again as I attend one of the last funerals for a victim of the Odessa clashes, shuffling through twisting, lilac-filled streets of wooden houses that can have changed little since Babel's time.

At the centre of his story is the burial of a hapless cashier, in the wrong place at the wrong time when one gangster raided another.

Today I am following the coffin of another accidental victim, a real one - Yevgeny Losinsky, a gentle man by all accounts, a passionate member of a historical re-enactment society who joined the pro-Russian protesters because he liked dressing up in medieval and World War Two costume.

Who is to blame for his death? One of his friends says not all Odessans are as innocent as him.

We let political passions boil over, he insists, we must draw back from the brink.

But as the incense and singing waft out of the gold-domed church, there is talk all around of dark, outside forces trying to destroy a unique city.

My head begins to swim. I wonder if I will ever really know how it was done in Odessa, this city of legends.

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