Dissecting the Dead in Odessa

Vladimir Golyshev thinks the Kremlin may have had a hand in Odessa's bloodshed last week. Images remixed by Kevin Rothrock.

Vladimir Golyshev thinks the Kremlin may have had a hand in Odessa's bloodshed last week. Images remixed by Kevin Rothrock.

Several dozen people burned to death late last week in Odessa, when violence between different political factions led to a fire in a heavily occupied building. Afterwards, witnesses uploaded to the Internet hundreds of different videos of the carnage, as well as countless blog posts and social media statuses describing the events. In turn, many Russian bloggers have combed these texts, trying to make sense of what happened. RuNet Echo has translated one such analysis by Vladimir Golyshev, who wrote on Facebook on May 3, 2014, about the tragedy in Odessa.

Born in December 1971, Golyshev has worn many hats over the years. In the late 1990s, he was a diehard fan of Eurasianist philosopher Aleksandr Dugin, even working in his publishing house. Later, he collaborated with various Kremlin-connected political strategists, writing with Gleb Pavlovsky, Alexey Chadaev, Stanislav Belkovsky, and others. Like many such men, Golyshev eventually switched loyalties to the anti-Kremlin opposition, working on several Russian nationalist projects, including the “NAROD” movement, alongside the man who would later become a central figure in the opposition, Alexey Navalny. After Dmitri Medvedev’s election in 2008, Golyshev turned to playwriting, authoring a political satire in 2011 that officials banned from a festival for “indecency.” In the last two years, Golyshev has written in vociferous support of both Pussy Riot and Ukraine’s EuroMaidan movement.

Golyshev’s Facebook post does not represent an objective account of the bloodshed in Odessa. As you will see, he fervently sympathizes with the pro-Kiev nationalist faction, implying that those most responsible for the fire were nefarious agents possibly sent by the Kremlin. The text does, however, do an excellent job representing such bias, and it is worth reading as a typical case of how Kiev’s allies understand the Odessan tragedy.

Vladimir Golyshev, May 2011.

What follows is a full translation of Golyshev’s text (available here in the original Russian), and a few of my comments and questions about its finer points.

The Odessan Tragedy (A few mental notes)

You could have watched it by live feed. The whole thing. Entirely unedited. And after the event, you could watch the gigantic mass of video footage shot from different angles. It seems that it would be impossible to misunderstand anything, if people had eyes and a desire to see.

But no! Dream on!

Fairytales were more interesting. Myth-making and necrophilic ad-lib turned out to be more interesting than raw facts. I can’t even begin to describe the amount of rubbish that I’ve read on Facebook in the past few hours!

So what I’ll do first is say a few things here that have been documented and verified by EVERY SINGLE witness, so that I don’t have to waste time on it later. If you want to consider these points, be my guest. If not, don’t.

1) The “Ultra” fans of the Chernomorets Odessa soccer team are Odessans. The self-defense forces of Odessa’s Euromaidan movement are, too. The rest of the people who were on Grecheskaya Street were locals who came to listen to that Ultra-fan hit song, the name of which everyone knows. Incidentally, the crowd was made up of far more of these music-loving Odessans than various agents and volunteer bodyguards with wooden shields. The only people from outside the city were the eastern Ultra fans from Kharkov.

The only people who were the least bit prepared for a fight were a handful of self-defense forces. (And how! Why, they had with them wood shields! Deadly weapons if I ever saw one!) They all already knew that their opponents at Kulikovo Polye [the pro-Russia side’s tent headquarters] were planning something wicked.

But Odessans, accustomed to the idea that their city is not Kharkov and especially not Donetsk, did not attach any significance to this threat. In any event, nobody was prepared, except for a few self-defense forces experienced in skirmishing with the guys from Kulikovo.

From here we can conclude that the group’s plans did not go beyond music and marching to the stadium. They intended nothing more.

2) When things started, everything was simple. When the enemy appeared, a handful of self-defense forces moved forward, in order to shield the large crowd of festive Odessans and guests from Kharkov. And then Hell began, which no one was prepared for. All hell was let loose by a small group of subversives, acting under police cover. This is well reflected, for example, in this video. Both the bandits and the cops wear the same distinctive armbands—a red stripe. The line of police opens for them on command. The cops hand over their own shields to the bandits. Anyways, see for yourself.

Better still: find and read the testimony of witnesses stupefied by what happened. They’ve already explained the rock-throwing, the shots fired, and so on. Many many times. In every details.

Here is another good video (where people are trying to draw the cops’ attention to the first causality). No comments are really necessary here…

From here we can conclude that it was clearly a joint production by these mysterious subversives (on the Web there is a photograph of a minivan with Donetsk plates, in which some of them arrived) and the local police—a copy of what already happened in Kharkov and Donetsk.

Nothing new there. Something “new” turned out to be the behavior of the large crowd that had turned out to hear the Ultras’ hit song.

3) Just have a look at the photographs in which girls who are barely teenagers, together with elderly pensioners, are carrying rocks. Watch how these diabolical “radicals” (in glasses and with iPhones) stupefy a group of cops by tearing from their grasp an iconic “polite person” in full uniform. And they drag him away! And they rip off his mask…

The purpose of the gunfire should have been to disperse the crowd. I remember very well my own experiences in October 1993. When you hear bullets whiz by, the last thing you want to do is head in the direct from which they flew (and I’m not even taking into consideration stun grenades, firecrackers, and police clubs). What kind of person would you have to be to plow ahead, to the place that deals out death, like the people in Kiev in February or those in Odessa in May? How could anyone possibly anticipate such insanity?

From here we can conclude that the fact that people didn’t disperse, but did the opposite and tracked down the gunshots to the “Afina” mall, was a failure in the plan. This much was written in big capital letters on the cops’ fat faces.

4) The march to Kulikovo Polye was really a natural reaction. The same can be said of how people defaced Dobkin’s campaign advertisements on the way to the square.

In this video, you can see clearly how people appeared at Kulikovo Polye. There were various men, young women, large pot-bellied tough guys, and some kids on bicycles. They spilled across the square like cockroaches. Then, when the first tents caught fire, they suddenly retreated from the Trade Unions House. Why?

Shooting rang out from the windows and the rooftop of the building, where, it turns out, their “opponents” dug in. Judging by the behavior of the crowd, they thought that people who left the tent camp would simply run off. Nobody expected them to dig in at the Trade Unions House, let alone start shooting.

(A few hours later, another such camp at the 411th Battery monument would be liquidated without a single injury. This was because the pro-Russia activists there didn’t barricade anything and didn’t open fire on anyone. They just fled.)

How many people burned to death in the Trade Unions House? There are the official numbers. 210 people left the building on their own. 120 were evacuated during the fire (with active assistance from those gathered outside on the square!). 50 remained on the roof. The day ended tragically for those who committed the typical mistakes that people make in a fire: in a panic, they jumped from great heights, and they ran without thinking in every direction, except farther from the flames. In total, 8 people fell to their deaths. Another 30 suffocated from smoke inhalation.

5) So who set fire to the Trade Unions House?

If you study all the footage carefully, it’s clear that both sides tried. There was a minimum of two incidents (on the top floors) when the source of the fire was clearly inside the building. At the same time, you can see easily how Molotov cocktails flew at the building from the outside. (Judging by the size of the flames at the building’s main entrance, most people were throwing them there.)

Two circumstances played a deadly role: the “shut-ins” clearly didn’t have a good sense of the building, and they blocked the main entrance with furniture that they weren’t able to remove in time. Plus, there were another two factors: they panicked in fear of the people outside (having shot at them, finding a lynch mob was more than likely) and they panicked in fear of the flames, like all victims of fires.

Those who kept their cool survived.

But some percentage of people in such fires always falls into a panic. And here there were additional stress factors…

6) The fire, as far as we can see, started spontaneously. That much is clear, anyway, about the flames on the outside. Just imagine: they’re shooting at you. You’ve already had the unfortunate pleasure of seeing people killed and injured. In your hands is a Molotov cocktail. What are you going to do? Spend a half hour on a careful analysis of the consequences (“but what if they’ve set up a barricade behind the doors?” “but what if they panic from fright?” and so on)? Or would you just throw it?

It’s a rhetorical question, don't you think?

And who’s responsible for the fact that this cocktail flew into the building? The one who hurled it, or the one who shot at the hurler? And this doesn’t even account for the minimum two fire sources inside the building! You might have your doubts about the count here, but I see two possibilities:
* somebody blundered out of nervousness (they dropped the bottle, burned the curtains, lit the wick too soon, didn’t manage to open the window, and so on);
* it was all by the design of those who carefully climbed onto the roof (50 of these people were found).

On the outside, everything that happened is transparent. Outside the building, there was a sea of cameras and a motley crowd that included just about all kinds of people. As for what happened behind those walls, we can only guess.

I’ll make another point about how the people outside the building behaved when the fire broke out. This isn’t a joke or an exaggeration: they really did start saving people, climbing up ladders with firefighters and administering first aid. All this is captured on video. All this despite the fact that people continued to shoot at them from the rooftop!

I draw your attention to this not to be melodramatic. I just want to warn against the mortal sin of slandering the innocent.

The people who died from smoke inhalation and jumped to their deaths are victims of a fatal combination of circumstances (which I’ve listed above), not the malicious intent of those who were outside. Moreover, the “shut-ins” who fired their guns were full collaborators in this “combination.” And here, I think, are grounds for some doubts. I certainly have a few, at any rate.

7) There’s something off about the mix of Kulikovo Polye’s traditional inhabitants (with their turgid mottos shouted for hours on end, with or without a megaphone) and the edgy, machine-like sophistication of the armed bloodmongers [on the roof] who started the whole bloodbath.

One gets the impression that some ruthless force from outside the city very cynically exploited the pro-Russian Odessans, using them not so much as a “human shield” as “cannon fodder.” Outsiders. It was precisely these people who opened fire on Grecheskaya Street, and turned it into an “Odessan version of [Kiev’s] Institution Street.” It was precisely these people, by all accounts, who skillfully climbed onto the roof [of the Trade Unions House] (maybe having set fire to a couple of rooms below, just to be sure).

One way or another, the main people in this story are those 50 “Karlssons-on-the-Roof.” Unfortunately, there’s a good chance that Odessa’s dirty cops (with the red bands on their arms) have already attached propellers to these “Karlssons-on-the-roof,” and they’ve safely flown away.

But they promised to return.

P.S. Radio Liberty's correspondent ends his Odessa report like this:

“Incidentally, locals told me today that real estate agents ask in complete seriousness, ‘Who are you renting this apartment for? For spies?’ They assure me that all the rented apartments and all the health spas of Odessa are overflowing with men from Russia, living quietly in hotel rooms and private homes, alone or with a partner. They’re waiting in the wings. Who knows if their call came today, or if this was just the beginning.”

Golyshev has produced a thorough recap of the events on May 2 in Odessa, but some of his conclusions are less persuasive than others. For instance, he insists that the pro-Kiev demonstrators on the ground outside the Trade Unions House were compelled to attack the building because gunmen were firing on them from the roof. This claim is problematic, however. Why didn't the people outside simply drop their Molotov cocktails and run in the other direction? When Golyshev describes his own experience with the “whiz of bullets,” he says that human instinct demands fleeing from gunfire—not attacking its source. Is this not a double standard? If the gunfire from the rooftop was such a catalyst for the barrage of firebombs, why weren’t there more casualties on the ground outside the building? If the gunmen didn’t hit anyone, is Golyshev not exaggerating the mortal danger that supposedly provoked the crowd below?

Golyshev asks us to believe that the people atop the Trade Unions House fired on the crowd with the intent of escalating the conflict. But he also admits that people inside the building barricaded the main doors, fearing a lynch mob outside. Perhaps the same fear is what motivated someone on the roof?

Try reversing Golyshev’s mental exercise. Just imagine: they’re coming for you. You’ve already had the unfortunate pleasure of seeing people killed and injured. In your hands is a rifle. What are you going to do?


  • John H Newcomb

    Absent any objective account Golyshev’s review seems like a credible attempt, He does say “only” a bit too often and with a bit too much certainty.

    “Burned to death” is in both introductory sentence and repeated further in the text, evokes a particularly gruesome death, versus “smoke inhalation” mentioned once. Perhaps an autopsy would be the only way to clarify evidence of dying from burning versus dying from the smoke.

    Russia Today seems so eager to pin all the blame on the Kyiv government, Right Sector and the US.

    However, besides Golyshev, other analysis with many questions raised might include Catherine Fitzpatrick’s attempt: http://3dblogger.typepad.com/minding_russia/2014/05/odessatragedy.html

  • John H Newcomb

    Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International jointly request inquiry into Odessa deaths:

  • Maxim Björky

    The logical backflips to which this man has to resort are stupefying. The only thing of which he is more bereft than critical thinking is shame. Golyshev could probably easily get a job scribbling unfunny semi-satire for the Daily Beast when ever he’s done scratching his “activist” itch. Though I suppose we could thank him for illustrating why most Russians, both in the RF and abroad, have concluded that the time for dialogue has passed.

  • […] This article was originally published on Global Voices. […]

  • There is much that is wrong with this but let me start with the most obvious — those gunmen merely “shooting” as you describe it *killed five people*. Their dead bodies were on the ground, visible, wrapped in Ukrainian flags. This is confirmed by the medical examiner’s office and by eyewitnesses even sympathetic to the Russian separatists. If you wonder why the Ukrainian nationalists didn’t run why they were fired on — first of all, they *did* scatter — see the numerous videos of those scenes that amply prove that. Second, they saw themselves in a battle, and they looked up and saw the gunman wasn’t on the roof and came back.

    And you might ask the same question “why didn’t they run” when the Russian separatists knew *days in advance* that the nationalists were planning to destroy their tent camp, and ask the same thing again when women preferred to bring in medicines and stay in the building to treat the wounded in a battle they actively supported, instead of running at the first Molotov cocktail thrown in the window.

    Tendentious, pro-Kremlin take on things as per usual from Kevin.

  • […] “a tragedy.” There are many who justify the massacre at Kulikovo as “understandable” or ”unavoidable” (the gunshots he talks in the last blog linked were shot at the people inside the trade union […]

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