Letter from Odessa


There is anxiety in Odessa that Putin’s ambitions may reach as far as this Ukrainian city on the Black Sea.


Heather McRobie
15 September 2014

Friday night, late summer, and the cafes and bars in the Black Sea city of Odessa are overflowing with customers. Ukraine’s third city is both a popular tourist destination and an important commercial shipping centre. Odessa has long been seen as beautiful but seedy, reminiscent of other European port-cities like Naples or Marseilles – laidback is how you might describe it.

But this Friday the atmosphere is charged with more than the usual promises of pleasure; ceasefire or no ceasefire, tension is in the air. NATO has only recently called on Russia to cease its ‘illegal military operation’ in Ukraine, as pro-Russian forces seized the strategically important town of Novoazovsk. Forty kilometres away in the port city of Mariupol, residents have been holding anti-Russian and anti-war demonstrations, and digging trenches in preparation for possible invasion.


This is neither real war nor real peace.

Hundreds of miles away, on the other side of Crimea, Odessa’s anxiety is less immediate – speculative, vague, but swelling in the vacuum of rumours and worry created by the liminal sense that this is neither real war nor real peace. Between my first arrival in the city in mid-July and the nervous end of summer in late August, Ukraine flags began blossoming on every street corner, and out of car windows. The successive rounds of conscription, reintroduced in May, have led to rumours in Odessa that conscripts will have to share flak jackets and guns. Susan Sontag staged Waiting for Godot at the height of the war in Sarajevo in the 1990s, to draw attention to what she considered the need for intervention, but Odessa this summer, though not directly hit by the current war itself, seemed equally Beckett-like: residents went to the beach as normal, yet every weekend brought either a naval parade or a protest for peace.

News from Mariupol brings particular cause for alarm as it indicates the spread of conflict beyond Luhansk and Donetsk. But almost as alarming as the opening of the new Sea of Azov front in the conflict, is the resuscitation of the concept of ‘Novorossiya’ outlined in an official address by Putin to pro-Russia insurgents in late August. The reconstructed concept of ‘Novorossiya’ has generated much discussion since the spring. But in official and diplomatic language, the phrase had lain dormant since the Russian President first used it in a speech in April. On the previous occasion in which Putin evoked the phrase, he did so historically, noting that the territory including ‘Kharkiv, Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, Nikolayev and Odessa’ was mistakenly ‘given away’ to Ukraine by Russia in the 1920s.

Krokodil Gena.jpg

The mood in Odessa is less pro or anti Russia/Ukraine and more pro peace. Photo CC: Krokodil Gena

Just days after the Minsk talks between Presidents Putin and Poroshenko in August, Putin’s position on the conflict shifted as he directly addressed the pro-Russia insurgents. There is little doubt that his decision to bring such a potent phrase back into the discourse on Ukraine is a calculated one. As Western leaders insist that Putin can no longer deny the presence of Russian troops in eastern Ukraine – and with Mariupol preparing for possible invasion – the fear of many Odessa residents in the last few days has been that Putin intends to use the phrase to make historical claims of legitimacy to further anti-Kyiv insurgency that takes place outside of eastern Ukraine.

Putin’s decision to bring such a potent phrase back into the discourse on Ukraine is a calculated one.

Perhaps such an idea is scaremongering, and a panicked overestimation of how events may escalate even if Mariupol is taken. Odessa – eight hours away from Mariupol, on the other side of the Crimean peninsula, and with a population of over one million people – could not be taken without troop movement and coordination of a scale far greater than anything seen in Donetsk, Luhansk or now by the Sea of Azov. The latest move towards Mariupol suggests Russia, using pro-Russia insurgents, aims to create a corridor to Crimea – a significant development, and one that aligns with Putin’s covert moves so far, but one that leaves Odessa untouched and hundreds of kilometres away.


On the other hand, given a prevailing, fatalist sense that a full-scale, country-wide war is now ‘inevitable,’ a combination of several factors mean that there is, at least, an internal logic to the idea that, if Mariupol is taken, Odessa may not be long after. Even as speculative as that development may be, the anxiety it has induced is now a reality for the city.

The first issue Odessans cite is the striking re-emergence of the phrase ‘Novorossiya’ in Putin’s speech, and the fact that his previous evocation of the word included Odessa in his outline of what ‘Novorossiya’ is or would encompass geographically. Moreover, it is striking how Putin chose to bring the phrase out again, just as direct Russian military involvement in the conflict has reached an unprecedented point, with troops advancing into the territory around the Sea of Azov.

Moreover, on social media – though increasingly awash with unsubstantiated, panicked rumours as well as being the terrain of an active propaganda war – journalists reported that Russian military had told villagers in Novoazovsk that they ‘had orders to go all the way to Odessa.’ If the military presence currently close to Mariupol does enact this plan, moving past the Sea of Azov and beyond Crimea, it would – in taking Odessa – also approach the border with Moldova and its breakaway province, the frozen conflict of Transnistria.

 It is this third factor, Transnistria, which is most alarming.

A wider frozen conflict

It is this third factor, Transnistria, which is most alarming, and gives some reason to believe that Odessa may indeed have a place in any future ‘Novorossiya’ that may emerge from the flux of recent events. Transnistria has already been widely cited as a point of comparison for Russia’s involvement in Donbas – President Traian Basescu of Romania has said that Putin intends to turn the eastern Donbas region of Ukraine into a ‘giant Transnistria.’

Russia’s role in creating the ‘frozen conflict’ between Moldova and its breakaway province Transnistria in 1992 was widely considered the template used, in 2008, to generate a ‘frozen conflict’ situation in South Ossetia. Moreover, since the spring, there have been obvious parallels with the developments in eastern Ukraine: initial Russian ‘support’ for a local and ‘indigenous’ separatist uprising segues into a more conventional ‘intervention’ by Russia, utilising the language variously of ‘peacekeeping’ or ‘humanitarian action’ even as it plays a role in escalating tensions.

When Putin speaks of ‘Novorossiya’, having listed Odessa as one of the cities contained within the conceptual entity – and with pro-Russia forces, although hundreds of miles away, still the closest they have been to the south and west – Odessa residents fear that Transnistria is no longer merely a reference point for the conflict in Ukraine. Odessan men of military age, most immediately preoccupied with the prospect of conscription, have expressed their familiarity with the situation in nearby Transnistria, and consider it a potential element in a wider conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Russia, some argue, could use the region as a springboard to come towards Odessa from the west, or, if Mariupol is taken, from both east and west at once.

A city state

Few Odessans are pleased at the prospect – however remote – that they may be forcibly invited to join some resurrected or constructed entity called ‘Novorossiya.’ This response is indicative of the city’s unique identity: largely Russian-speaking and alienated from (or merely disinterested in) Kyiv, Odessa’s independent character is more that of a city-state, like Venice or Dubrovnik. Everyone tells you they don’t like Kyiv, but it’s rather in the way that people living in Marseille don’t like Paris.

Gail Orenstein sized.jpg

Back in May, dozens of pro-Russia protesters suffocated or died jumping from the window of this trade union building.

A general and long-term sense of estrangement from the capital does not translate into widespread support for Russia or its actions in eastern Ukraine, but more a desire for ‘peace, and to be left alone.’

Its long history of multi-ethnicity is central to Odessa’s identity (in Soviet times it was considered a ‘Jewish city,’ and the Moldovanka area that inspired Isaac Babel’s Odessa Tales was named for the large percentage of Moldovans in the city). Such a melting pot does not fit with the increasingly quasi-ethnicised discourse of fighters on both ‘sides’ in eastern Ukraine.

As in the case of the coastal Croatian city of Rijeka during the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, such an identity built on multi-ethnic tolerance and alienation from all national ‘capitals’ may protect it even as the country fractures into exclusivist and polarized lines – or may leave it vulnerable. Including Odessa in the enactment of a vision of ‘Novorossiya’ would have the considerable advantage, for Russia, of leaving Ukraine without access to the Black Sea.

Odessa has been quiet on the Ukrainian political landscape for the past three months. Odessans themselves are reluctant to discuss the last time the city was in the international headlines: on 2 May, when over 40 people died in a fire after clashes between pro-Russia (or anti-Kyiv) and Ukrainians escalated when a pro-government supporter was shot dead. Retreating to the trade union building that had been the organising centre for anti-Kyiv protests, dozens of pro-Russia protesters suffocated or died jumping from windows. Human Rights Watch called upon the post-Maidan Kyiv government for an official enquiry, to little avail.

Odessans I’ve spoken to throughout the summer are reluctant to discuss the topic of the 2 May fire; some attempt to downplay the political element by framing it, not quite accurately, as a clash between football fans of Odessa’s Chornomorets and Kharkiv’s team Metalist. Another popular perspective is that outsiders came in to orchestrate the events because ‘this is Odessa,’ a city of tolerance.

But people are anxious. As fears increased that Mariupol would fall to pro-Russia fighters, on the last weekend in August, pro-Ukrainian peace demonstrations were held in Odessa as in Mariupol, with the emphasis, in Odessa, not on ‘pro-Ukraine’ but ‘pro-peace.’

Image two: Gail Orenstein via Demotix, all rights reserved. 


Get oDR emails Occasional updates from our team covering the post-Soviet space Sign up here

Related articles


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData