International & Antiwar News

THE OTHER UKRAINE STORY

Originally published in the Autumn 2019 edition of the Virginia Defender, printed October 28. Reproduced here for accessibility and archival purposes. To find other stories in this issue or download the full PDF, see this post. For the full web catalog, see our Full Issues page.

This was the scene on May 2, 2016, outside the House of Trade Unions at Kulikovo Square in Odessa, Ukraine. Some 4,000 people defied terrorist threats by neo-Nazis to honor the memory of those killed in the Odessa Massacre two years before. Photo by Phil Wilayto.

By Phil Wilayto

I’m waiting to hear back from the president of Ukraine.

No, I’m not trying to get dirt on a political opponent, or get rid of a prosecutor who might be investigating my son.

Instead, I’m hoping to get an answer to a letter I sent to President Volodymyr Zelensky last Sept. 18 asking him to authorize an international investigation into the Odessa Massacre of May 2, 2014.

I know he got the letter. I sent it Return Receipt Requested, and a few weeks later got back the Receipt, dated Oct. 9. (Slow mail.)

The receipt is signed, but not by the president. I guess he has people who do that kind of thing for him.

Anyway, I’m waiting for his response.

This story goes back more than five years, to shortly after the violent coup in Ukraine that removed a previous president from office.

Viktor Yanukovich was a corrupt official who wanted closer economic ties with Russia. He was replaced by a temporary president, and then by Petro Poroshenko, a corrupt oficial who wanted closer economic ties with the West. Poroshenko also cozied up to neoNazi organizations that supported his brand of right-wing nationalism.

(By the way, the U.S. government was up to its eyeballs in the coup. The Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs at the time, Victoria Nuland, later bragged that Washington had spent $5 billion promoting “democracy” in the former Soviet republic. During the coup she made herself helpful by handing out pastries to the antigovernment protesters.)

Anyway, shortly after the coup, the new government unleashed an offensive against ethnic Russian Ukrainians, who today still make up about 17 percent of the population.

You wouldn’t know it from the U.S. media, but Russia and Ukraine share a long history. Both grew out of the first eastern Slavic state, called Kyivan Rus, which in the 10th and 11th centuries was the largest and most powerful state in all of Europe.

Today, many Ukrainians have relatives who live in Russia and many Russians have relatives who live Ukraine. And polls show that most Russians and Ukrainians have positive views about the people of the other country – but not their governments.

Anyway, after the coup, the people of the Crimea Peninsula, most of whom are ethnic Russian, held a referendum and voted overwhelmingly to break off from Ukraine and rejoin Russia.

I say “rejoin,” because Crimea was part of the Soviet Republic of Russia until 1954, when it was administratively transferred to Ukraine, for reasons that I still can’t figure out.

So Crimea left Ukraine, Russia agreed to annex it, and the U.S. and other Western countries denounced the process as a Russian “invasion.”

Strangely, no one died in the process.

A little further north, in the mostly industrial region of Donbass, the people of two largely ethnic Russian cities – Donetsk and Luhansk, declared themselves People’s Republics, and war broke out with the government of Ukraine. The two republics didn’t try to join Russia, but the West accused Russia of aggression there too.

And then there was Odessa.

Odessa is like the Key West of Ukraine. It’s a very beautiful, multiethnic and cosmopolitan city on the shores of the Black Sea, more given to the arts, commerce, hitting the beaches and merry corruption than with politics.

(Curiously, this third-largest city in Ukraine is actually younger than Richmond, having been founded in 1794 by the Russian empress Catherine the Great.

After the coup, right-wing gangs sporting Nazi symbols began parading in the streets, and the people of Odessa – who during World War II fought a partisan war against the fascist occupation – reacted.

A series of marches and counter-marches raised tensions until May 2, when a large mob of neo-Nazis chased their opponents into the five-story House of Trade Unions in Odessa’s Kulikovo Square, and set it on fire.

At least 42 people died, and hundreds were injured – from flames, smoke, beatings and gunfire. You can Google “Odessa May 2, 2014” and see lots of cellphone videos of the massacre, including the faces of many of the assailants.

And yet, to date, no one has gone to trial for any of the murders. Local family members and friends of the victims, organized as the Council of Mothers of May 2, go to the site of the killings every week to lay flowers and honor their dead.

They also have never stopped calling for an international investigation, which the Ukrainian government has never agreed to.

In March of 2016, I met some of the council members at a Social Forum conference held in Poland. We were shocked at their stories and the videos they showed us of the massacre, and we asked what we could do to help.

They asked us to come to Odessa that May 2 for the 2nd anniversary memorial – which the fascist organizations were threatening to attack, with machine guns.

I took a hard swallow, and said yes.

And flew to Odessa, with Maine anti-war activists Bruce Gagnon and Regis Tremblay.

And that was the beginning of the Odessa Solidarity Campaign. Since then, working with anti-fascist organizations in Europe, Canada and the U.S., the OSC has organized several international campaigns to support the demand by the Council of Mothers for an international investigation.

Up until now, there has been no progress.

Then, this spring, Zelensky was elected president.

Unlike Poroshenko, Zelensky, who is Jewish, doesn’t play up Ukrainian nationalism. In fact, in mid-Ocober, more than 10,000 neo-Nazis marched in the capital city of Kyiv to protest his attempts to negotiate a peaceful end to the fighting in Donbass.

And – while we are in no way claiming credit for this – a few weeks after we sent President Zelensky the letter, the federal police opened up an investigation into the role that a former leader of the parliament, or Rada, played in the Odessa Massacre.

Now, this may just be internal politics. Zelensky, a former comedian who became famous playing a reform-minded president on television, may be trying to weed out more of Poroshenko’s old allies. But it’s something.

Meanwhile, the OSC will continue to tell the story of what happened on May 2, 2014. We’ll continue to call for an international investigation into the Odessa Massacre. And we’ll continue to pump out information about the reality of present-day life in Ukraine, a country that is so much in the news these days, but about which most people here in the U.S. know very little.

For more information, please visit the Facebook page Odessa Solidarity Campaign and the website http://www.odessasolidaritycampaign.org.

Remember the May 2 Massacre

Phil Wilayto is the editor of The Virginia Defender and founder and coordinator of the Odessa Solidarity Campaign.

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