After the Euromaidan protesters won and disgraced Ukrainian President Yanukovych fled in February 2014, Russia started a military takeover of Crimea. In parallel, pro-Russian marches and rallies with Russian flags, whose participants demanded protection against the “Kyiv junta” started taking place throughout southeastern Ukraine. This brought a war to Donbas, while Odesa still lives in peace. The Kremlin’s “Russian Spring” project to tear away eight south-eastern regions of Ukraine from the rest of the country failed. But in the process, a tragic fire took place on 2 May 2014, taking the life of 42 people and giving birth to a myth of “Ukrainian fascists” burning Russian-speakers alive that dominates Russian state media to this day and was even the topic of a “traveling exposition” demonstrated in at least Poland and Hungary.
The film, created by the 2nd of May group, a coalition of experts and journalists seeking an unbiased investigation into the fire, provides much-needed clarity on the events that prevented the creation Kremlin’s puppet “Odesa People’s Republic” but led to the tragic deaths of ordinary people.
The Odesites caught on with the attitudes in Kyiv and created their own Euromaidan protests. Their opponents were organized in an Antimaidan camp. On 18-19 February 2014, when government riot police were shooting protesters in Kyiv, the Odesa Euromaidan held a protest with the message “don’t shoot” to their local authorities. 300 thugs hired by the government attacked the protesters, and 12 journalists were injured – a shock for the tolerant seaport, in which different viewpoints, religions, ethnicities coexisted without trouble for centuries.
From that time on, the Euromaidan and Antimaidan groups created their own self-defense forces, as the state authorities could not be trusted to protect order. And there was good reason for this – Odesa and Crimea always interested Russian special services, which made efforts to breed confromntation and hatred for decades there by investing in humanitarian projects and running a number of TV channels. The self-defense of the Euromaidan and militias of the Antimaidan, the most disciplined participants of the activists from both sides, secretly coordinated their actions up to 1 May 2014, to hold rallies separately and make sure no clashes occur.
However, it was during the so-called “Russian spring” where outright demands to change Ukraine’s adminstrative and political system were made. While the desire for autonomy would be nothing bad under different circumstances, it were calls for federalism that drove the war in Donbas. It was also the time when the generally politically indifferent Odesites saw a threat to their own life and came out on the streets.
Similar to the scenarios unfolding in eastern Ukraine, the Ukrainian flag was torn down near the local administration, and a mob with bats and helmets demanded the Russian flag be raised. The protesters demanded federalization of Ukraine, and Antimaidan suggested initiating a referendum for a “special status” for the Odesa Oblast.
However, this didn’t work out in Odesa. On 3 March 2014, the Odesa oblast council condemned Russian aggression, being the first in Ukraine to do so. The “Russian Spring” lost in Odesa Oblast. During March-April, thousands of activists on the sides of both Maidan and Antimaidan rallied.
The Antimaidan camp was located at the so-called “Kulykove pole” square in front of the Trade Unions building, supported with financial infusions from the Kremlin, which however began to dry out closer to May. After an agreement with the city administration, the tents were to be removed prior to the annual May 9 Victory parade.
On 2 May, a large football match was to be held, and a large pro-Ukrainian march was to precede it, involving the Euromaidan activists, self-defense forces, and football fans, who not only expressed their support for the Euromaidan movement during the months of protests but provided protections against attacks of government-sponsored thugs – a total of 1000 people.
Read in more detail: Timeline of events in Odesa on 02.05.2014
300-400 activists of Kulykove pole also held a march. The police tried to separate the two columns, but leader of Antimaidan militia led his column into the pro-Ukrainian marchers. 4 self-defense forces were wounded.
The Antimaidan camp at Kulykove Pole announced mobilization, and a white Ford of the militia came to scene of conflict delivering a Kalashnikov rifle live ammunition. Two men from the Euromaidan camp were killed. Later, the chief of police Dmytro Fuchedzhi was observed escaping together with the owner of this Ford, a certain Boatswain who was in charge of the mobile group of the Antimaidan, suggesting that they were well aquainted.
Livestreams covering the events made all Odesa flock to the scene of conflict. Times of chanting and peaceful protests were over. The Antimaidan group was surrounded, rocks, self-made explosive devices and Molotov cocktails entered the scene, and a real street fight started, during which four more people died and the number of wounded rose by the minute. The enraged crowd moved to Kulykove pole, where some Antimaidan activists came inside to hide, barricading the doors.
The arriving Euromaidan protesters burned the tents and were met with Molotov cocktails thrown down from the top of the Trade Union building. Some activists begged the police to intervene and were answered that they had orders not to get involved.
The building was ignited by a Molotov cocktail thrown inside the staircase – it is unlikely that we will ever find out by whom. There were five epicenters of the fire, but only the one at the centeral entrance, where wooden barricades caught fire, got out of hand and caused the tragedy. Most people ran to the roof for safety, panic spread, and people started jumping out the windows.
Despite hundreds of calls, a fire truck was not dispatched. The trucks, being stationed 500 meters away from the spot, arrived 40 minutes later. Had they come in time, the tragedy would have been avoided.
When the building caught fire and people started jumping out the windows, some Euromaidan activists took to rescuing them, helping them land safely and elaborating a construction out of a stage construction to help them climb down. They also entered the building looking for survivors and helped evacuate those who suffered. Some took to beating the Antimaidan activists that managed to escape (however, as the film suggests, this was likely a precaution against the armed assault that they experienced upon arriving at Kulykove Pole).
A total of 42 people died inside the building from burns and suffocating on carbon monoxide from the fire. Six others were killed from gunfire and in the street fights.
Despite the obvious leads pointing to the inaction and even involvement of the city authorities, 2.5 years later, no one is held accountable. The prosecutor’s office, police, and Security Service all conduct their separate criminal investigations, but there is no significant progress over 2.5 years. This has been also confirmed by the Council of Europe Advisory Panel.
The reason for this fustrating lack of progress, which only plays into the hands of Russian propaganda? Unfortunately, not everyone in Kyiv saw this as a tragedy. After the bloody crackdowns on pro-Ukrainian demonstrations in Donbas, everyone was fearing a repeated scenario in Kharkiv and Odesa. So after the tragic fire in Odesa, some political forces in Ukraine tried to present this as a victory, not a tragedy. And Russian propaganda capitalized on this.
“The Odesa tragedy was a terrible incident that shocked the entire city,” said Tetiana Herasymova, journalist and coordinator of the 2nd of May group. “We’ll never know how many people went to the war in Donbas after the May 2 events and got killed, though they never intended to go to the war before. That’s why I think that such propagandists as Arkadiy Mamontov, Vladimir Soloviet and many other Russian journalists are drenched in the blood of all those people from Russia and Ukraine who went to the war in Donbas saying ‘We won’t forget and won’t forgive May 2.’“
Who is ultimately to answer for the incident? The film suggests we should always look to who benefits from it. The Odesa situation did not benefit Ukraine at all. Russian ideologists and propagandists badly needed a sacrifice ritual and so here it was.
Throughout all these 2.5 years, attempts to destabilize Odesa are ongoing – 48 bomb explosions alone have been observed. They do not succeed, perhaps because people in Odesa are perfectly aware of what happened on the tragic day of 2 May 2014. And perhaps because in this city, people with radically opposing viewpoints have always lived together in peace, and continue to do so.