In conversation with Ukrainian grassroots collectives (Part 4 – Odessa)

Fourth segment from social ecologist Davide Grasso’s conversations with Ukrainian grassroots collectives. Grasso is currently travelling throughout Ukraine to meet political activists from anarchist, feminist, and socialist movements.

The excitement, arriving in Odessa, is comparable to that felt in Jerusalem, Istanbul or New York. Cities that command respect for their history, human diversity and cultural richness. The pride and joy of independent Ukraine, Odessa was an ancient Greek settlement, a Genoese possession, an Islamic-Ottoman and then a Russian-Orthodox port. A protagonist of the two Russian revolutions and bulwark of the Soviet war of liberation from Nazi invasion, it is a seaside city where the architecture, libraries and cuisine bear traces of the Ukrainian, Moldavian, Russian, Tatar, Jewish, Armenian, German, French and Italian communities that have inhabited it for centuries. Russian bombings in recent months, unfortunately, have led UNESCO to declare its historic center a World Heritage Site in danger, and caused the army to make the shorelines inaccessible, including the area where the Potëmkin Steps are located.

The Potëmkin staircase is so named for the famous film sequence depicting the workers’ uprising that took place here in 1905. The city was also the backdrop for an uprising by the Ukrainian Bolshevik Committee after Red October. Here, between 1918 and 1921, the communists maintained seesaw but crucial garrisons in the civil war that would lead to the establishment in 1922 of the first independent Ukrainian republic in history – a Soviet republic.

Odessa also has dark sides, however. From the repeated anti-Jewish pogroms (which caused many of its inhabitants to emigrate to Ottoman Palestine, turning them into supporters of Zionism) to the socio-economic power of persistent organized crime, to the massacre of opponents to Ukraine’s EU entry perpetrated by pro-Maidan fascists on May 2, 2014.

Odessa, Artem, a journalist close to the leftist Sozialnyi Ruch movement that I meet with Bologna’s Social Municipalities, tells us, is not Kiev and especially not Lviv. Common sense is wary of the banderist nationalism. For many older people, the liberation of 1945 remains the most important moment of their lives, and it escapes none of them that Bandera and his militiamen acted in the Nazi rear. As and more than elsewhere, many here fear the idea of a further de-regulated labor market by current European Union standards. Artem recounts that the Ukrainian Communist Party-a conservative and xenophobic group similar to Russia’s-had a minority but disciplined consensus here until it was outlawed under the 2015 anti-communist laws. The city’s much-disputed mayor, moreover, is a businessman from Yanukovych’s old Party of Regions, dissolved in 2022 over ties to the Russian state.

No one in Odessa, we are told, believed that Russia would actually attack. “We thought it was Western propaganda, or a way by which Putin intended to raise international tension without getting down to facts,” Artem recounts. The invasion came as a shock.

Not a few, as throughout the former socialist world, regret aspects of Soviet social organization in Odessa related to labor, housing, health care and education. Until the bombings forced a bitter awakening, some even went so far as to identify that past with today’s right-wing regime in power in the Kremlin. Now, David, a socialist university student and active member of Sozialnyi Ruch, tells us, these positions are held by isolated individuals he calls “crackpots” and “clowns.” With more, albeit limited, sympathy, he also tells us of “grannies” who post on Facebook “recipes of traditional cuisine followed by extolling the Red Army that would be ‘returning’ to Ukraine.”

David says he never gave politics any importance; not until 2022. For him, who is of Jewish descent and identifies with the history of his persecuted community even in Odessa, the Maidan versus anti-Maidan opposition was of relative interest. Artem adds that between 2013 and 2014 both pro-Maidan and anti-Maidan were minorities in the city. The majority felt distant from both factions, as is often the case with street movements. Artem, a democratic socialist, was clearly aligned with the movement calling for entry into the European Union. The Ukrainian left was as split as the rest of society on this issue. On May 2, 2014, he went to the pro-Maidan rally convened after groups hostile to the EU tried to occupy City Hall and declare an “Odessa people’s republic.” He was present when the pro-Russian neo-Nazi group Odesskaya Druzhina attacked the rally, and one of the attackers fired a Kalashnikov from behind a police cordon, killing a participant in the pro-Maidan garrison (also far-right). From that moment, he recounts, “no one could stop the violence on the streets,” including armed violence. It lasted for hours on both sides, culminating in the killing of four anti-Maidan protesters.

It was then, according to the reconstruction by the Independent Investigative Group on May 2, that a large group of participants in the pro-Maidan demonstration, which included other militants from the fascist group Pravyi Sektor and supporters of the Odessa and Kharkiv teams (which had played a match a few hours earlier), moved toward the trade union headquarters to “clear out” the anti-Maidan camp that had been there for days. The anti-Maidan activists took refuge in the building, against which the neo-fascists threw Molotov cocktails, setting it on fire. Forty-two people died within minutes from suffocation or from throwing themselves out of windows, under which the attackers chased them if they survived. I personally still remember RAI downplaying the news at the time for fear of stirring up antipathy toward movements in Ukraine that looked to Brussels.

The barbarity of that massacre is a stain that Ukrainian society and the city of Odessa still do not seem to be able to come to terms with, nor do state institutions. Ukrainian governments in recent years have limited themselves to claiming that the massacre was orchestrated by the Russian regime, while the latter (which has given protection to at least two individuals linked to that day’s crimes) uses the episode to denigrate all those who do not accept its influence over the country.

We follow David to the station square, where he meets Bohdana, like him part of the Odessa Mutual Aid Collective. Every day they distribute food, basic necessities and, in winter, protective tools against the cold to the city’s homeless. “It is not charity,” they stress, “but political solidarity. Since the beginning of the war (which they trace back to 2014 as all Ukrainians, of whatever faction) many displaced people and veterans have been living on the streets. “They are victims of trauma, marginalization, and addictions, and they go to exacerbate the social crisis that resulted from the privatization of popular complexes in the 1990s.” Since 2022, refugees from the areas occupied and attacked by Russia have soared: “These are people who have been left homeless, who have suffered bereavement, and who are only partially taken care of by the government.” Explains Arkady, who calls himself a communist: “Acting with these people without the respectable paternalism of social institutions, for which I have worked before, means laying the first bricks of the future left in this city.”

In a building they occupied, from which one appreciates the view of the Black Sea (devoid of ship traffic due to the disruption of grain agreements), David recounts the terror of the people at the news of the invasion. “You cannot understand what it meant, for Odessa in particular. The citizenry feared being bombed by airborne Russian units within minutes. Panic spread.” Bohdana, who works with Solidarity Collectives, which organizes support for the resistance, and grieves for her husband and brother at the front, says, “It was no joke. We thought they would come, and we will end up in some mass grave like so many other people in the occupied areas.” The resistance put up by the army and the people in Nikolaiv, they explain with infinite gratitude, meant that they could talk to us today and look us in the eye.

The way David, Bohdana, Arkady and their friends are now trying to do their part is to provide support for the leftists from Odessa who are enlisting and going to the front. “We support the resistance. Our work is about leftist fighters, our friends and comrades. We support the whole action of the army, but it is not unconditional support.”

According to Bohdana, “We consider it a disgrace that fascist groups have space in the armed forces.” “We will never give them our support,” Arkady echoes her. David agrees, but adds that there is no more “fascist” and “anti-Semitic” force than the Russian army. He is disgusted by the neutralism of many of his Western peers: “Being neutral in the face of an invasion is tantamount to standing with the invader. There are no excuses. They have no idea what they are talking about. They repeat Putin’s propaganda about Ukrainian Nazis, but about Wagner’s Nazis or the fucking republics of Luhansk and Donesk they never talk about. Those who take a neutral stance today would be put by your Dante in the circle of the unsuspecting.”

Like the young men in Kiev and Lviv with whom we spoke, these boys have been suffering and coping with the right all their lives. “The spread of these groups,” David denounces, “is not a problem that Western European societies, let alone Russia, are not familiar with. This is an issue to be solved among Ukrainians, certainly not by Russia.” It is hard to describe the anger, sometimes anxiety and fear they allow to shine through; they greet boys like themselves on the street or in beer halls; they tell of meeting through a reading group. “The first book was a text by Black Panther militant Huey P. Newton.” They read several of him; then Marx, Freire, Gelderloos, two books on Rojava (“Taqmil” and “Rojava Laboratory”); an essay on nonviolent communication, to learn how to communicate better with each other and with people who don’t think like them. Now they are to discuss Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Soul of Man Under Socialism’: “I suggested something aesthetically pleasing,” smiles David, and adds, “‘The Banality of Evil’ by Arendt will be next, a text too often… trivialized.”

They constantly repeat the words “colonialism” and “colonization.” They compare their protest of Soviet monuments to the protest of Confederate monuments by Black Lives Matter. I feel anger and they see it. I find the comparison unacceptable, bordering on indecent. Yet I know I have to confront these human beings and what I have not experienced, what leads them to this perception of cultural heritage.

They are happy to see us fascinated by the beauty of their city, but they force us more than once to remember that we might not have seen it that way. I am struck by their torment, the unsettling innocence of their gender fluidity, the uncompromising clarity of principles sculpted in such a short time by injustice and history. Dmitry is an anarchist, a volunteer in the army. When we ask him how things are going at the front he gets gloomy, but tries to hide it. “The counteroffensive is under way. Things are going on. Not always well. It’s tough.” He describes horrific scenarios, in which Ukrainian units try to cross the Dnipro River in boats that are easily hit by Russian artillery, with a good view and well fortified on the eastern bank.

“The width of the river and poor visibility cause the wounded to die after agonizing for a long time in the waters, trying to save themselves. Friends of the injured can hear their cries all night long.” They grieve for Bohdana’s husband Andriy, who is in Kherson. Dmitry operates reconnaissance drones over Russian troops on another front. Arkady tells how the army does not always provide good equipment for soldiers. That’s why they raise funds to help, through Solidarity Collectives, their friends with higher quality protection. “The government said the war will last longer than expected. Sooner or later it will come to each of us,” he adds with a shadow in his eyes that is hard to describe. He knows that he should be exempted for health reasons, but he is not optimistic that this will happen. “The army stops young people on the street and takes them to fight by confiscating their cell phones. Recruits receive little training and sometimes cannot even call their parents once they are conscripted.” Artem and Arkady recount the recent case of a boy from Odessa Oblast who was picked up despite saying he was epileptic. He died of a seizure after just 24 hours, without even reaching the training camp. “These methods cause anger and concern in the population,” Artem explains. “Zelensky, a politician capable of picking up on people’s moods, immediately replaced the leadership of these offices.”

Arkady, Bohdana and David tell us about their tastes in music and film, their laisure and work lives. They are a river in flood. I realize perhaps only now how much of a crime it was to leave these people alone. They show a tremendous need for glances, friendships, and to talk to someone about lives that perhaps, for some of them, will be short. We ask if they would be willing to cede territory to Russia in order to achieve peace. They say no. “Too many people have given their lives for this resistance. We must protect what they fell for.” Eighty percent of Ukrainians now have a dead, wounded or displaced person in their family. According to Bohdana, “We cannot let the Russians take the homes of the displaced people we help every morning.” David shakes our hands at the station; he told me the day before that it was an honor for them to have someone who had been in the YPG visit. The hug Bohdana gives usbefore we part is loaded with meaning. I spent a few hours with these people. They will remain unforgettable for me.

September 1, 2023

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