At the end of World War Two, the city of Odessa in present-day Ukraine was declared a Hero City by the Soviet Union for its determined resistance to Nazi occupation. It’s a designation still valued by the people of this metropolis of a million people on the western shore of the Black Sea.
On May 2, 2016, Odessans once again showed their great capacity for courage. Defying threats by local and national fascist organizations, some 3-4,000 city residents, accompanied by international monitors from across Europe and the United States, gathered to pay their respects to the victims of a fascist massacre and press their demand for an international investigation.
Two years before, forces supporting and opposing the right-wing coup of February 2014 had clashed in the streets of Odessa. The pro-coup side was bolstered by thousands of right-wing soccer fans, known as “ultras,” in town for a soccer match.
Not far from the clashes, activists opposed to the coup had set up a symbolic tent city in Kulikovo Pole (field, or square), promoting a referendum to decide if Ukraine should become a federation in which provinces would have a degree of control over local affairs.
After the street clashes, the pro-coup organizations, including the neo-Nazi groups Maidan and Right Sector, whipped up the ultras to attack the tent city. An enraged mob descended on Kulikovo, setting fire to the tents and driving hundreds of “federationists” into the five-story House of Trade Unions that borders the square. The building was then set on fire. At least 46 people died from smoke inhalation, burns, gunshot wounds or from being beaten by the mob while trying to flee the building. Hundreds more were injured.
Although this massacre was recorded by multiple cellphone video cameras, with some videos clearly showing the faces of the perpetrators, to date not one person responsible for this horrific crime has been brought to justice.
The massacre of May 2, 2014, has been described as the worst instance of civic violence in Europe since World War II. Every week since this horrific tragedy, family members, friends and supporters of those who died, organized as the Mothers’ Council for May 2, have gathered at Kulikovo to lay flowers and remember their dead, often while being harassed by right-wing extremists. Thousands of people attended the first anniversary memorial gathering on May 2, 2015.
Just a few days later, several Ukrainian activists, including three from Odessa, attended the United National Antiwar Coalition conference in Secaucus, N.J. They brought a photo display of the massacre and spoke about the situation in Ukraine and the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) into Eastern Europe.
Founded in 1949 with 12 member states, NATO now has 28 members, many of which were formerly part of or allied with the Soviet Union. Three states – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – border Russia, as do Ukraine and Georgia, both of which countries have been told they will eventually be able to join NATO. That would leave only Finland, which militarily cooperates with NATO, moderately-sized Belarus and the Black Sea as buffers between Russia and the NATO alliance. In other words, Russia is being systematically encircled by hostile states. That, along with the U.S.-promoted NATO missile defense system, which would give NATO a first-strike capability, is what lies at the heart of current U.S.-Russian tensions.
From March 11-13, two UNAC members, Ana Edwards and Phil Wilayto of the Virginia Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality, attended the Social Forum of Eastern Europe and Cooperation between East and South in Wroclaw, Poland. There they learned how fascist organizations in the region were taking advantage of the growing economic and social crises to promote ultra-nationalism, racist opposition to immigration and anti-Semitism.
They also met with Odessa activists, who asked if UNAC would attend and help monitor the second anniversary memorial, to be held that May 2, which was being threatened by the extremist organizations. The UNAC members agreed.
Back home, UNAC began putting together a campaign to support the Mothers’ Council, starting with a statement supporting the call for an international investigation. On March 21, Victoria Machulko, president of the Mothers’ Council, spoke in Geneva, Switzerland, before the United Nations Human Rights Committee, asking again for an international investigation into the events of May 2, 2014. In her presentation she referred to the UNAC statement.
UNAC then updated that statement, calling on the governments of Ukraine, Odessa and the United States to ensure the civic rights of those attending the second anniversary memorial on May 2 in Odessa and again supporting the Mothers’ Council call for an international investigation. Within weeks, the statement had been endorsed by more than 150 human rights organizations and prominent figures from 22 countries in Africa, Asia, Europe and North America. (See: www.unacpeace.org)
On April 25, that statement, along with the list of endorsers, was delivered to the Ukrainian Embassy in Washington, D.C., by Ana Edwards, representing UNAC, and Ray McGovern, a former CIA analyst and now prominent anti-war activist and co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity. A press conference followed. The statement and endorsers list also was sent directly to the U.S. State Department and the city government of Odessa.
The following day, at a State Department daily press briefing, Deputy Spokesperson Mark Toner was asked by Russian media about the May 2 memorial. Toner answered that the State Department had strongly condemned the massacre of May 2, 2014, supported holding an investigation to bring those responsible “to justice” and condemned threats being leveled against those attending the memorial.
“The most important thing to stress here is that we would obviously support any commemoration of this event … and we would certainly condemn any threats in the run-up to these events,” Toner said.
Even though the U.S. has been heavily implicated in the coup of February 2014, in which a pro-Russian president was replaced by a pro-Western one, this was an important development in terms of bringing international attention to the May 2 memorial.
Meanwhile, under pressure from Maidan and other extremist groups, Odessa’s city council sought a court order banning all gatherings at Kulikovo square from May 1 through May 10. A judge denied the request, meaning the memorial could be held, but also that other groups could gather at the same site at the same time.
Maidan informed the city council that it planned to hold a rally for the “military-patriotic education of youth” – complete with machine guns and pyrotechnics (fireworks). The court ruled that those items would not be allowed. Another organization, called the Brotherhood, called for a mass violent attack on those attending the memorial.
On the government’s part, the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), the main federal anti-terrorism unit, announced that a cache of explosives had been found in Odessa and supposedly had been linked to anti-Maidan activists. Mothers’ Council President Victoria Machulko, whose apartment had already been raided by the SBU, was ordered to report for questioning at 8 o’clock on the morning of the planned memorial. She was detained until 10 that evening. Then Odessa authorities announced they had received information about a bomb threat at Kulikovo and had closed the square – until midnight on May 2.
Although some 2,500 local and regional police had been mobilized to keep order during the memorial, Provincial Governor Mikheil Saakashvili, who regards Odessa Mayor Gennadiy Trukhanov as too pro-Russian, called on President Petro Poroshenko to send in the National Guard. In response, Poroshenko sent 300 troops – members of the neo-Nazi Azov Regiment that has been accused of wartime atrocities in the rebel Donetsk province.
In addition to the UNAC delegation, other international monitors were coming in from Bulgaria, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland, including members of the European Parliament. The German journalist Ulrich Heyden, who co-produced the 2015 film “Wildfire” about the Odessa massacre, was refused entry, as was Saadi Isakov, also a German journalist, who was held for 20 hours in an airport room with no water or bathroom facilities before being sent home.
The UNAC delegation arrived on the evening of May 1: Bruce Gagnon, International Coordinator of the Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power in Space; Regis Tremblay, an independent filmmaker; and Phil Wilayto, editor of The Virginia Defender newspaper. Gagnon and Tremblay are members of Veterans for Peace. All three are affiliated with UNAC, with Gagnon serving on the coalition’s Coordinating Committee and Wilayto on its Administrative Committee. For whatever reasons, there were no problems at the airport.
While the delegation was in Odessa, Ana Edwards and UNAC Co-Coordinator Joe Lombardo coordinated a support team that was in constant contact with the delegation members.
Suffice to say, no one knew what would happen at the memorial itself, planned for 4 p.m. But early that morning thousands of Odessans began arriving at Kulikovo square, massing against the locked gates and laying flowers in memory of those who died two years before. At 4 p.m. the Mothers’ Council arrived, to the cheers of those who had come earlier. The official ceremony was marked by speeches, songs and the release of white doves and 300 black balloons, By 6 p.m., the official end of the memorial, some 3-4,000 people had visited the site.
The neo-Nazi organizations also were present. Right Sector staged a march of some 75-100 members through the memorial gathering. Azov members and others jeered the bus carrying the mothers to the memorial, with some displaying the Nazi salute. Something hit the side of the bus. But clearly a decision had been made at some higher level to let the memorial proceed without serious incident.
The next day, Gagnon and Tremblay stayed behind to gather more information for articles and a documentary video, while Wilayto traveled on to Brussels, where Victoria Machulko was to speak before a meeting of the European Parliament about the memorial, the ongoing situation in Odessa and the Mothers’ Council request for an international investigation. Other speakers included Odessan Ievgen Milev, whose brother died in the House of Trade Unions fire; the German journalist Ulrich Heyden, who had been refused entry into Odessa to attend the memorial; and Wilayto, who was asked by the Mothers’ Committee to report on the memorial itself and UNAC’s support campaign. The hearing was sponsored by three progressive elected deputies from Latvia and Estonia.
While May 2 has come and gone, the danger to the activists in Odessa has not. May 9 is celebrated as Victory Day in Odessa, marking the surrender of Nazi Germany to the Soviet Union. Anti-fascist Odessans planned to lay flowers at a monument to those who died at the hands of the Nazis. Extremist groups have been threatening violence against anyone attending or promoting the event.
Meanwhile, Victoria Machulko’s apartment has again been raided and she was ordered to report on the morning of May 9 for a second round of questioning by the SBU. Her supporters fear that SBU agents may have planted something in her apartment that can be used to fabricate a criminal case against her.
Organizations like Maidan, Right Sector, Azov and Bandera, named after a World War II Nazi collaborator, participated in the right-wing coup that brought a pro-Western government to power. They now have some influence in that new government and want a lot more. Centers of anti-fascist resistance like Odessa stand in their way and the fascists are determined to try and cower them into submission.
UNAC has been following these developments since the 2014 coup and we are determined to do all we can to support the brave people of Odessa in their struggle. Under the name Odessa Solidarity Campaign and in consultation with our colleagues in Odessa, we will continue to monitor events in that city and in Ukraine as a whole, work to bring world attention to the situation there, support the demand of the Mothers’ Council for May 2 for an international investigation into the massacre of 2014 and support the brave activists of Odessa in any way we are able.
For more information, please view the excellent film “Lauffeuer” (“Wildfire”) by Ulrich Heyden. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OErKKcuBTlY)
To help, please contact UNAC at (phone): 518-227-6947 or (email): [email protected]
Founded in 2010, the United National Antiwar Coalition (UNAC) is a broad alliance of justice & peace organizations opposing U.S. wars abroad and supporting struggles for justice at home.
Join UNAC at the Left Forum in New York City, May 20 – 22, 2016
UNAC will be presenting the three panels listed below:
The Fight to End US Wars (Sunday 12:00 – 1:50 PM, Room 1.123)
Speakers: Joe Lombardo, Phil Wilayto, Bernadette Ellorin and Glen Ford. Chair: Sara Flounders
The Wars Come Home (Sunday 3:40 – 5:40 PM, Room 1.124)
Speakers: Jaribu Hill, Ana Edwards, Abayomi Azikiwe, Margaret Kimberley, Christine Marie
The Situation in Ukraine (Saturday 10:00 – 11:50 AM, Room 1.113)
Speakers: Irina Kovel, Yuri Shakhin, Greg Butterfield, Bruce Gagnon
To register for the Left Forum, please go here: http://www.leftforum.org/
For more information on the UNAC panels including bios of the speakers, please go here: http://nepajac.org/paneldetails.htm