2 May, 2022 19:29 

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Burned alive: How the 2014 Odessa massacre became a turning point for Ukraine

Clashes between opposing activists turned into mass murder. The perpetrators have never been punished

Eight years ago this Monday, something significant happened in Odessa, a historically important city in the southwest of Ukraine. Although the West didn’t see it as such, for Russia and the newly formed Donbass republics, what transpired there became a symbolic episode. 

Provincial revolution

From late 2013 into early 2014, a conflict between the government of President Viktor Yanukovich and the pro-Western opposition was unfolding in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine. The series of events that would ensue were dubbed the ‘Euromaidan’. Meanwhile, Odessa, a port city on the Black Sea, was of course affected by these events too, albeit to a lesser extent.

Occasional clashes with police and scuffles between supporters of Euromaidan and those aligned with the government, which became known as the ‘Anti-Maidan’ movement, were nothing compared to the bloodshed in Kiev, where people were being killed.

Many Ukrainians didn’t welcome the Euromaidan, and they had their reasons. Lots of Odessa residents had strong ties with Russia, and still do. When Ukraine gained independence in 1991, a large number of ethnic Russians were living in Odessa and many had relatives in the old country. The city was built during the reign of Catherine the Great and has always been seen as an integral part of Russia’s history.

Thus, the aggressive nationalism of Euromaidan was largely unpopular there and plenty of locals were frightened by what seemed to be a passion for forming militant units. Euromaidan and Anti-Maidan in Odessa began to form parallel paramilitary organizations. Armed with a primitive array of sticks, biker helmets, and homemade weapons, these groups trained for street fighting. At first, nobody sought a fight to the death – the radicals hadn’t yet gained the leading role in either movement.

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In Odessa, Anti-Maidan activists had begun gathering at Kulikovo Field, a square near Odessa’s House of Trade Unions in the city’s historical center. This became the site of an ongoing protest – it could also be described as a forum in the classical sense. People came to hang out, discuss the news, and even sing together. It was a very diverse crowd, from energetic youngsters to the elderly. Those who assembled there weren’t officially united by any specific ideology. One could run into Russian Orthodox activists, Cossacks, and a number of smaller groups.

The movement was led by local pro-Russian and leftist politicians, such as activist Anton Davidchenko and his brother Artyom. Their demands were very moderate – to protect the Russian language, grant the eastern regions economic autonomy, protect Russian and Soviet historical heritage, ensure monuments weren’t vandalized, let the East elect its own judges, etc. But Ukraine was in turmoil, and this program seemed extremely confrontational to the nationalists.

On the third of March 2014, after Yanukovich had already fled to Russia and Moscow had reabsorbed Crimea, Vladimir Nemirovsky, a nationalist politician, became head of the Odessa Region. He intended to harshly crack down on any form of protest. Dispersing the Kulikovo Field camp was a key point in his platform.RT

People hold up flares as thousands of Ukrainian nationalists, veterans and local residents march to commemorate the 2014 clashes between pro-Kyiv and Russia-backed groups on May 2, 2021 in Odessa, Ukraine. © Pierre Crom / Getty Images 

Tensions had been gradually rising throughout March and April. After an armed uprising broke out in Donetsk and Lugansk, Euromaidan activists set up checkpoints on all roads leading to Odessa. Nobody knew who or what they were guarding, but about 500 people, not all of whom were even from Odessa, manned these very strange checkpoints. At the end of April, Nemirovsky announced that ‘Territorial Defense’ units, which are essentially military reserves, had been bussed into Odessa: 

Territorial Defense’ buses were arriving in the region at that time. A lot of them. We tried to keep them away from Odessa whenever possible, but they went to Belgorod-Dnestrovsky and other places. They spread throughout the region. They were coming from the direction of Kiev. The police stayed away from them, the officers were demoralized.”

Even back then, these nationalist units were dangerous. They were arming themselves: we know of at least one case when a Euromaidan activist accidentally blew up a hand grenade. Molotov cocktails were also manufactured at these checkpoints. 

Anti-Maidan found itself in a difficult situation. The initial excitement was winding down. There was a feeling that the struggle against the nationalists had been lost and nobody wanted to take a step toward violent conflict. In fact, the Kulikovo Field camp would have disappeared on its own in a few weeks. The Anti-Maidan leaders were already discussing the subject with the local authorities. They had even reached an agreement to shift it from the city center to the World War II memorial, which is in a less central location. The move was scheduled for May. 

However, a less peaceful transition was also in the works. Though the police and governor didn’t want to get their hands dirty, there were enough volunteers willing to take matters into their own hands. A football match against a team from Kharkov, a city in northeastern Ukraine, was scheduled for May 2, and Odessa was flooded with radical football fans. Rumors of potential violence began to circulate in April, and the Anti-Maidan activists had reason to be concerned about a possible raid on their camp. Some anticipated the future clashes with fear, others with excitement, but everybody knew that the Anti-Maidan camp would be destroyed. It was a perfect solution for everyone, except the activists themselves.

While rebels took over one city after another in the Donbass, and people in Crimea enthusiastically welcomed the Russian military, an easy victory for the nationalists in Odessa would give them the opportunity to demonstrate their strength. It would also allow the governor to show that he had the city under control. At this point, though, nobody was thinking that what was going to occur would take a lethal turn. A few Anti-Maidan activists wanted to remain in the central part of the city. Their idea was just to intimidate the nationalists.

On May 2, the football fans were to march through Odessa to the stadium under the slogan “for unity in Ukraine.” Euromaidan activists declared that this was to be a peaceful demonstration, but adherents of Anti-Maidan were convinced that the march would just be a cover for violent tactics.  

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Early in the morning of May 2, Sergey Dolzhenkov, the leader of the Anti-Maidan security group and a former police officer, contacted a member of the local parliament to request that the march be canceled: 

“People saw what happened in Kharkov, Kherson, and Donetsk. The football fans were out of control. We need to make sure there is no bloodshed. No march – no bloodshed,” he said. 

“I was on Kulikovo Field on May 1, and Artyom Davidchenko {the leader of Anti-Maidan in Odessa} announced from the stage that Right Sector {an ultra-nationalist Ukrainian organization whose name has become synonymous with all Ukrainian nationalists} was coming to town, and they would destroy the Kulikovo Field camp. We have to fight them off,” remembers Maxim Firsov, an activist from the left-wing Borotba movement.

Dolzhenkov and his Anti-Maidan group had limited forces. Officially, there were a lot of people at the camp, but the majority were women and elderly, who would not be able to fight. In fact, they themselves needed to be protected. That’s why Dolzhenkov decided to accompany the march with some of his men, while keeping a distance. Not everybody in the Anti-Maidan camp liked this plan, but Dolzhenkov was a man of action and thought it was better to meet the opponent head on and block them if they decided to walk toward the Kulikovo Field camp.

The police and Ukraine’s Security Service knew what was afoot but had no plans to interfere. On May 2, Artyom Davidchenko met with both agencies and was informed that detentions and arrests would start only when there were dead bodies, and there “would definitely be bodies.”

On May 1, activists from both groups were anticipating a fight, but nobody expected what actually happened.

Fighting on Grecheskaya Street

On the morning of May 2, an off-schedule train took around 500 Kharkov football fans to Odessa. Along with them, there arrived Pro-Euromaidan groups having nothing to do with football but who were armed with street fighting equipment, including personal armor and weapons. In the afternoon, they began to gather on Cathedral Square in the center of Odessa. 

An Anti-Maidan group 150-to-300-strong departed from Kulikovo Field, which is about a 30-minute walk away. Although vastly outnumbered by the 2,000-3,000 Euromaidan fighters and fans, Dolzhenkov guided it in the direction of Cathedral Square anyway.

The Odessa police refused to intervene in the events. Its main forces of around 700 officers guarded the stadium, while around 80 followed the Anti-Maidan activists and 60 kept watch over Kulikovo Field. High-ranking police officers had been summoned for a meeting and were ordered to turn off their phones.

A small police unit tried to block Dolzhenkov’s group, but it simply circumvented the officers.

Meanwhile, an excited crowd had already gathered on Cathedral Square armed with clubs, shields, helmets, Molotov cocktails, and rubber-bullet handguns.

At around 3 pm, the Anti-Maidan activists from Kulikovo reached Cathedral Square via the adjacent Grecheskaya Street. Many accounts describe the arrival of Dolzhenkov’s group as an all-out assault resulting in a breakthrough. This is often referred to as an Anti-Maidan attack on the ultras. At first glance, a group of 300 charging a mob ten times its size would appear to be folly. But if you scratch the surface, new details emerge.

Some football fans saw the Anti-Maidan activists approaching and engaged them. The actual fight was initiated by two small groups of Dolzhenkov’s men and a crowd of Euromaidan activists. The main contingents did nothing at first, keeping their distance, but this was enough to spark the conflict.

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With a thin line of police officers between them, at first the sides threw stones at each other. But the numerical advantage of Euromaidan was overwhelming and Anti-Maidan was quickly put on the defensive. Most of the officers were facing the Euromaidan side, which was throwing bricks, stones, and Molotov cocktails. The police began firing air and rubber-bullet guns almost from the beginning.

For Euromaidan, the altercation on Grecheskaya Street was amusing but accomplished nothing, so some activists went to the parallel Deribasovskaya Street on a flanking maneuver. This is where the first real blood was spilled.

The fight was already on when the Anti-Maidan supporters began shooting their firearms. A Euromaidan activist and nationalist named Igor Ivanov was killed by a bullet. He was likely killed by Kulikovo activist Vitaly Budko (Boatswain), who had arrived at the scene quite late – around 4 pm – with a civilian rifle, and opened fire as soon as he joined his companions. Neither he nor his weapon was ever found in the aftermath, and information on the bullet that killed Ivanov disappeared from the police database. However, several videos and photos show him having been firing his weapon before himself being shot. Another Maidan activist was shot dead with an air gun.

Anti-Maidan protesters soon came under fire too, and some were wounded. The subsequent investigation was conducted so poorly that none of the guns involved in the shootout were identified afterwards. There is footage of at least one injured protester.

The fighting went on for several hours. Reinforcements periodically came to bolster the Euromaidan activists, and they soon blocked all approaches to Grecheskaya Street. The Kulikovo group found itself surrounded at the Athena shopping mall, while well-coordinated Euromaidan teams were cutting off any reinforcements or avenues for retreat. Around 4 pm, the Euromaidan side captured a fire engine and drove it into a small barricade the defenders had built. Around 5:30 pm, a group went out onto the balcony of a nearby building and opened fire on their adversaries. Bullets and pellets extracted from the bodies revealed that at least three guns were involved. Four men died instantly, and several more were wounded, including a journalist, a police colonel, and a couple of officers. The defense crumbled. Some retreated to the shopping mall, barricaded themselves inside, and eventually surrendered to the police. Among them was Sergey Dolzhenkov, who had suffered a bullet wound. It seemed as if everything was over.

Death by fire

The Maidan activists had essentially already won the battle. The Kulikovo Field activists were defeated. By this time, people were simply roaming around aimlessly. Some sports fans from the stadium had joined the commotion after the game ended. But events were about to take a completely different turn.

Mark Gordienko, one of the leaders of Odessa’s Euromaidan movement, was one of those who began shouting, ‘Kulikovo!’ encouraging the crowd to go to the site where the Anti-Maidan protesters had put up their camp. In March of 2014, he was known to have said that he “would shoot down all separatists.” That day, he had an opportunity to fulfill his promise. Later, he seemed to have conveniently forgotten that he had spearheaded the violence.

Gordienko and a number of others managed to reignite the cooling crowd. Later, a recording of a conversation between Odessa Deputy Mayor Igor Bolyansky and one of the Euromaidan commanders was leaked, during which Bolyansky not only suggested that the commanders lead the crowd on the 30-minute walk from Grecheskaya Street to Kulikovo, but even discussed the logistics of how this should be done. In other words, this wasn’t a case of a crowd spontaneously moving in a certain direction but of one being steered there by leaders who made sure it arrived at the destination. 

Meanwhile, the people at Kulikovo were confused and disoriented. Most were civilians with no military training whatsoever, and they weren’t particularly keen on participating in any battles. There were many women among them. Artyom Davidchenko had already briefly told them what had just transpired, while some people who had managed to escape Grecheskaya Street returned to give them a run-down of events. Many who had been on the square had already gone home, yet a number of them returned when they heard a crowd was on its way to attack their camp and fellow protesters.RT

According to official information, 38 people died in a fire and 30 others were poisoned by carbon monoxide, in a building, during a clash in Odessa, Ukraine, on May 2, 2014. © Maksym Voytenko / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images 

That’s why a sizable number of the protesters who ended up at Kulikovo knew an attack was coming. Someone suggested taking cover in the massive Trade Unions building on the square, and people began to move their belongings from the camp into the building. They set up an improvised first aid station there, brought in supplies and built a small barricade in front of the building. They also had a couple of hunting rifles and a few Molotov cocktails. Davidchenko then left the square. Aleksey Albu, a low-level local politician, stayed in the building. At the time, he was not the kind who would be eager to participate in any fighting. In fact, he had learned about the clashes from the news.

The Trade Unions House had around 300 people inside that evening.

At 7:20 pm, the angry Euromaidan crowd entered the square. They moved through the abandoned camp and started throwing Molotov cocktails at the barricade in front of the Trade Unions building. Those inside responded by lobbing a few Molotov cocktails back at the attackers from the roof. It was then that a reporter who was filming everything said, “Now, they’ll definitely kill them.”

The attackers kept throwing rocks and improvised bombs at the barricade, which mostly consisted of wooden furniture and crates, and finally set it on fire. The protesters behind it retreated into the hall of the building. Later, many reports exaggerated the scope of the resistance put up by those in the Trade Unions building. Available footage shows that the attackers freely moved around the square, not needing to duck or take cover because there was no fire coming back at them.

The barricade was in flames and the attackers had set fire to the tents on the square. The whole square was full of smoke and flames. The attackers continued to hurl cocktail bombs filled with a home-made napalm mixture consisting of gasoline, acetone, and Styrofoam at the building. The holed-up protesters called the fire brigade, but no one came. The few policemen on the scene did nothing to interfere and just watched as the events unfolded.

The attackers made sure the fire didn’t die out, throwing more and more cocktail bombs into it. They even tossed in a burning car tire, while firing at the windows with anti-riot guns.

Then tragedy struck.

Independent expert Vladislav Balisnsky explained that the fire raging at the building’s entrance ignited the paint and varnish on the hall’s walls and ceiling. The burning entrance door collapsed, and the window panes were broken one by one by gunfire, creating a powerful draft. The resulting chimney effect turned the central staircase into a huge incinerator, with temperatures at the center rising to 600–700 degrees Celsius. The fire spread nearly instantly and everything that could burn was consumed in the fire. The people in the vicinity were essentially burnt alive. Others tried to save themselves by taking refuge in rooms further from the blaze. The draft continued to pull large clouds of smoke down the building’s corridors, killing more and more people on its way.

That’s when people began to jump out of the windows, which seemed a better alternative than being burnt alive or suffocating. 

But for some leaping turned out not to be the lesser of two evils. Those who jumped ended up injuring themselves badly, sometimes fatally. But surviving the hazardous jump did not mean the end of the suffering. One activist was captured on camera running up to a person who had jumped out of a window, injured by the fall but still alive and moving, in order to beat the victim with a baton. Later, local journalist Sergey Dibrov spent some time studying footage and images from the incident and concluded that the victim ultimately received medical assistance and survived.

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It was at this point that some people in the mob started to feel remorse and tried to help those caught in the burning building. Some threw a rope to those on the upper floors. Others dragged scaffolding to the building to help those trapped inside escape. These acts helped quite a number of people get out of the building alive, although some emerged only to be beaten on the ground. The last cocktail bomb was thrown into the building at 8:08 pm. The police reinforcements finally arrived and pushed the most belligerent attackers back. The fire squad arrived at 8:15 – despite being stationed just 400 meters away, it took them 30 minutes to arrive on the scene – and started to rescue the last survivors.

As it turned out, quite a lot of people survived the fire. The havoc subsided, and the fire squad and police restored order. Some people had been rescued from the roof, while others were found in rooms untouched by fire or smoke. The last survivors, who had been hiding in the attic, left the building in the early hours of May 3.

Elena was among those from the Kulikovo Field camp who had helped set up the first aid station before the attack. Later, she told reporters that she had been harassed by the people outside after escaping the fire. They shouted insults at her and even roughed her up, while the police paid no attention at all. During the fire in the building, those on the winning side displayed quite contradictory behavior. Some made genuine attempts to save people from the conflagration they had just started, and even risked their lives to do so, while others were happy to take advantage of the opportunity to continue to assault and humiliate the survivors.RT

Pro-Russian residents gather outside the House of Trade Union to commemorate the 2014 clashes between pro-Kyiv and Russia-backed groups on May 2, 2021 in Odessa, Ukraine. © Pierre Crom / Getty Images 

A total of 48 people died: two Maidan activists and 46 Kulikovo Field Anti-Maidan protesters – two on Grecheskaya Street, and 42 at Kulikovo Field Square. Eight people jumped from the building to their deaths, while others suffocated or died from burns. All were citizens of Ukraine. A total of 247 people requested medical help following the incident, of whom 27 had been wounded by gunfire.

Albu, the local politician and one of the leaders of the group, was among those who had taken cover in the building but survived. He later joined the LPR’s Prizrak Brigade in Donbass. Another leader, local MP Vyacheslav Markin, died the next morning from injuries sustained after jumping from the building to escape the fire.

Ashes

In the following years, not a single person responsible for the killings in Odessa was punished in any way. Many of the murderers acted openly, wearing no masks or disguises, and were very straightforward about their intentions. Only a handful even faced criminal investigation. But ultimately, not a single one was brought before the courts to answer for the crimes committed. Whatever hearings did manage to be scheduled were derailed by the so-called ‘patriots’. A number of judges were forced to recuse themselves from the cases after receiving threats from militants.

Meanwhile, high-ranking Ukrainian politicians were quick to identify the ‘culprits’. Ukraine’s acting President Oleksandr Turchinov said that the disturbances in Odessa “were coordinated from a single center located in Russia.” Sergey Pashinsky, acting head of the presidential administration, said that it was “an FSB provocation to divert attention from the [so-called] anti-terrorist operation [in the Donbass]”. Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry declared that “the tragedy was a pre-planned and well-financed operation by the Russian special services.”

From the very beginning, the authorities in Odessa seemed to deliberately obstruct the investigation. By the morning of May 3, the area around Grecheskaya Street had been cleared by municipal workers, who quickly disposed of all the physical evidence. The Trade Unions building remained open to the public for the following month. Citizens could watch live streams from the smoldering ruins, with one cameraman referring to the corpses of a young pair as “Romeo and Juliet.” No attempt was made to preserve the crime scene. The weapons used to kill people were never found. And these are just a few examples of the investigation’s dismissive and negligent attitude toward the case. In September 2015, UN Special Rapporteur Christof Heyns acknowledged that the bulk of the evidence relating to the May 2 events was destroyed immediately after the crime.

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Euromaidan activist Sergei Khodiyak, who fired at people with a hunting rifle, was released from custody, and the judge recused himself from the case under pressure from a group of Maidan activists led by Igor Mosiychuk, an MP from the nationalist Radical Party. Vsevolod Goncharevsky, who used a club to beat and finish off Kulikovo activists who had jumped out of the windows of the burning building, was released due to a “lack of evidence.” 

Dolzhenkov and a number of other Anti-Maidan activists remained in custody. In 2017, after many delays, the court acquitted Dolzhenkov in connection with the case. But he was immediately arrested again on the trumped-up charge of chanting illegal slogans at a political rally that had taken place a month before the tragedy. In December 2017, the last pro-Russian activists were released from custody as part of an exchange of detainees and prisoners from the Donbass conflict.

Ukrainian society reacted to the events in Odessa in a very peculiar way. Naturally, the majority of the population sympathized with the victims. Flowers would be brought to the Trade Unions building every year on May 2. The public realm and the media, however, were dominated by nationalists. For a few months after the events, social media platforms were overflowing with ‘jokes’ about the ‘Odessa barbecue’, the ‘burning of vatniks’ (a typical Soviet-era wool-padded jacket that became used to refer to Ukrainians espousing pro-Russian views and to Russians themselves), as well as slogans eerily reminiscent of those employed by Nazis about the Jews that they murdered in World War Two. The Ukrainian internet was flooded with pictures of burnt corpses accompanied by derisive comments. Many of the people who took part in the Odessa event soon thereafter ended up in the Donbass, fighting in the volunteer battalions of the Ukrainian army. “All it takes is to kill fifty ‘vatniks’ in every city, and then we shall have peace, then the war will end,” remarked Maksim Mazur, a member of the Aidar Battalion – a statement that was eagerly endorsed by many of those who had attacked people in Odessa.

In fact, Ukrainian social media did exactly what is commonly attributed to Russian propaganda. The piles of burnt corpses evoked feelings of horror, but also of rage. May 2014 was a breaking point: volunteers from Russia started to arrive in the breakaway republics en masse and even some men from Western Europe came to fight on their side. Slogans about autonomous status and the need to engage in talks with Kiev gave way to an unwavering resolve and determination to stand and fight to the bitter end. Just a few days after May 2, a Donbass rebel wrote on a destroyed and burned-out Ukrainian infantry fighting vehicle: “This is for Odessa, you bastards.”RT

Flowers and the word ‘Genocide’ outside the burnt trade union building in Odessa, Ukraine, Wednesday May 7, 2014. © Zacharie Scheurer / NurPhoto / Corbis via Getty Images 

The voice of those who were horrified by the events from the very beginning and understood what had really happened was simply not heard. But they were probably worth listening to. Two years later, Artem Sushchevsky, from the Donbass town of Makeevka, wrote:

“I can repeat all I want that not everyone is crazy and that most Ukrainians are still the good and sensible people they always have been. I’m convinced this is true, and I’m not contradicting myself by saying this. But there’s one ‘but’: these good and sensible people can live peacefully with the events that transpired on May 2 in Odessa, already two years ago. And they also somehow live with the shelling of Donetsk. And in general, they have to put up with this shameful war, consoling themselves with fairy tales about a Russian invasion. But I can’t live with those who can live with this. I don’t care how I live – as long as it’s not with you.”

Alexander Topilov, an Odessa musician and Euromaidan supporter, wrote a few days after the tragic events:

“…there were boys born in 1994. There were young girls, university professors, mechanics. I don’t know. Not all were quick enough to jump. Not all survived the landing. It’s not a victory, like hell it is! Don’t cheer us. I saw some exalted comments. Who the f*ck wants a victory like that? And who can even call it a victory? That’s a f*cking fiasco. It’s civil war. Odessa residents at each other’s throats. Who’s the winner here? I don’t need victories like that, the f*ck I do. Some people are like animals and some beasts are humane, that’s what I’m talking about. The line between ‘us’ and ‘them’. I lost mine on May 2. I don’t know where to draw it. I see people. And I see animals. Animals on my side, people against me. So, what do I do next? Damned if I know, boyo, as they say on the other side… And there are not less real people there than animals here…”

That desperate cry fell on deaf ears. On the same day that the Trade Unions building was burning, there was intense fighting in Slaviansk in the Donbass. The Ukrainian army was trying to enter the city. Soon, the militias armed with a motley assortment of hunting rifles, handguns stolen from police officers and Molotov cocktails were replaced by battalions and brigades equipped with artillery and tanks. Eastern Ukraine quaked with the blasts of howitzers and the rumbling of tanks.

By Evgeny Norin, a Russian historian focused on Russia’s wars and international politics

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