On Friday, at least 46 people, mostly anti-Kiev activists, were killed in the southern Ukrainian city of Odessa. At least 39 died after being trapped in the Odessa House of Trade Unions which was reported to have been lit on fire by far-right football hooligans and activists from the far-right Kiev-affiliated group Right Sector (Praviy Sektor). Some were burned alive while others suffocated to death or jumped out the windows to escape. At least three were reportedly shot dead. Close to 200 were injured with at least 25 in critical condition.
The massacre was the bloody culmination of clashes between supporters and opponents of the controversial Turchynov-Yatsenyuk government in Kiev. The supporters were primarily Right Sector and its allies, including far-right football hooligans known as the Ultras, who are said to have instigated the violence. “Glory to Ukraine,” “Death to enemies,” and “Knife the Moskali” they chanted.
The significance of this massacre to the ongoing crisis in Ukraine is threefold:
- It represents the worst violence of the Ukraine crisis since the events in February.
- It will likely further erode the credibility of the Turchynov-Yatsenyuk government throughout all regions of Ukraine.
- It has demonstrated that Russia, though harshly critical about the actions that took place in Odessa, has been nonetheless restrained in responding to this tragedy. This is very difficult for Moscow because of its anger over the overall situation as well as pressure from Russian hardliners who want Russia to invade Ukraine. Still, the Kremlin will likely continue to show restraint on the issue (at least for now) as the stakes of a direct intervention in Ukraine are too high. In the meantime, Kiev appears to be provoking Moscow to respond to events occurring in the Russophone regions. It is specifically using Right Sector to accomplish this. Now headquartered in the southeastern town of Dnipropetrovsk, Right Sector activists have launched attacks on cities and towns in and throughout southeastern Ukraine.
The massacre is an especially tragic event for Odessa, a multicultural, cosmopolitan, and theatrical port city on the Black City. Renown for its humor, Odessa is blessed with a heritage of mixed Russian, Ukrainian, Jewish, and Mediterranean influences. Its people speak their own colorful dialect of Russian with smatterings of Ukrainian and Yiddish. Yet, the May massacre will likely go down as yet another tragedy in Odessan history, a history that also includes several anti-Jewish pogroms, the Russian Revolution, the Russian Civil War, famine, Stalin’s Terror, World War II, and the horrors of the Holocaust. Yet as in these tragedies, the people of Odessa will likely turn to their quick wit, irreverence, and celebrated sense of humor to deal with this latest painful episode in their collective history.