Tragedy and Confusion in Odessa


The besieged Odessa Union building. A Molotov cocktail explodes in the top right corner of the frame. Dozens died in the ensuing fire. YouTube screenshot.

The besieged Odessa Union building. A Molotov cocktail has just exploded in the top right corner of the frame. Dozens died in the ensuing fire. YouTube screenshot.

Ukraine's separatist problem turned more ugly than anyone could have imagined, and in the unlikeliest of places, when over thirty pro-Russian protesters died in a fire in the cheerful Black Sea port of Odessa on May 2. From YouTube videos it appears that the fire was started by a mob of pro-Ukrainian activists, many of them soccer fans, who assaulted the several dozen separatists occupying a local Union building. Allegedly, the separatists fired at the crowd, killing two [ru] and wounding several. The mob responded with Molotov cocktails, which set off the deadly fire.

Most RuNet users are incensed at the tragedy, their outrage fed by graphic photographs [WARNING, graphic image] of burned bodies, while pro-Ukrainian bloggers like the prolific @yyasyaa, many of whose tweets were re-tweeted by hundreds of people today, claim [ru] that Ukrainian activists who had surrounded the Union building had tried to help the separatists escape the blaze.

One blogger gave a detailed firsthand account of the inception of the conflict. According to Maxim Motin [ru], a Moscow municipal deputy, core fans of the Odessan and Kharkov soccer teams, which were scheduled to play on May 2, held a combined rally in support of Ukrainian unity. (“Ultras,” or committed soccer fans, were a major part of the Euromaidan protests during the winter.) The rally was attacked by a small group of separatists, which was beaten back. After the attack the crowd turned into a mob and moved to the separatist HQ “burning tents and beating up several people.” Motin called what happened a “provocation,” although he was unclear as to who he thought was behind it.

Whether provoked or not, the violence was deadly, and Internet turned quickly to talk of retribution. One series of images in particular has caused a disproportionate amount of anger — several teenage girls preparing Molotov cocktails, and then walking cheerfully with the deadly weapons:

Two alleged participants in May 2 violence. Faces have been redacted.

Two alleged participants in May 2 violence carrying prepared Molotov cocktails. Faces have been redacted.

The photos spread through Russian and Ukrainian social networks, reposted [ru] by both sides of the conflict — one pro-Ukrainian blogger approvingly tweeted [ru] that it was “impossible not to fall in love” with them. The young women were quickly identified, their VKontakte and Facebook account links spread [ru] through [ru] Twitter [ru]. Within hours the accounts were deleted or closed.

At the same time that pro-Russian bloggers went off in search of the Molotov-makers, Ukrainian bloggers were spreading unsupported information [ru] that 15 of those that died in the fire were Russian citizens, another 10 were from Transnistria, and that “not a single person was from Odessa.” This was later refuted [ru] by Odessan police who said they had identified 8 of the bodies so far, and that all were residents of the city.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian politicians commented on the events through Facebook. The governor of the Odessa region, Vladimir Nemirovskiy, said [ru] that he considers “lawful” the actions of Odessans who tried to “neutralize armed terrorists.” Ukraine's nut-job ultra-nationalist MP Irena Farion was provocative as usual, writing [ru] “Devils should burn in hell. Football fans make the best rebels. Bravo.”

Whether one blames radical soccer fans, Russian secret agent provocateurs, weak central authorities in Kiev, or directly Putin [ru], for what happened in Odessa, one thing is clear — the situation is bound to escalate. As Moscow Echo's Alexey Venediktov tweeted [ru]: “the events have likely reached the point of no return.”


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