The Odesa Fire: Remembering Tragedy in a War of Memories

On the 2nd of May 2014 in Odesa, Ukraine, clashes between supporters and opponents of the new Maidan-government killed 48 people. All except two were among the opponents of the new post-Maidan government in Kyiv. How are these tragic events remembered at a local scale, in Odesa? Five years later, in the summer of 2019, MA-student Mischa van Diepen went there to find out and wrote his master thesis on the controversial subject. There are four different narratives on the tragedy, that deeply divided the famous harbour city.

misha 1Trade Union Building Commemoration Site (picture Mischa van Diepen)

by Mischa van Diepen

In the wake of President Yanukovich’ ousting in February 2014 by street protests in Kyiv, cities in the southern and eastern regions of Ukraine saw uprisings by groups opposing the new Maidan government. In the Donbas region, this led to a lasting conflict with active involvement of Russia. In Odesa, a port city at the Black Sea, opposition to the new government occurred in less violent ways. An encampment at Kulikove Pole, an open square next to the city’s central railway station, was losing in size and significance by the end of April 2014.

On the 2nd of May, about 2000 pro-Maidanists from Odesa and other parts of the country were set to walk a ‘March for the Unity of Ukraine’. In response, about 300 anti-Maidanists from Kulikove Pole moved into the city center, meeting a crowd that significantly outnumbered them. Here, fights that initially rested on armament with cobble stones from the city’s historical streets and Molotov cocktails escalated when rifle arms were adopted. Hundreds received injuries during these clashes, while two pro-Maidanists and four anti-Maidanists died from gunshots.

Subsequently, pro-Maidanists moved to the Kulikove Pole. Here, anti-Maidanists who were not involved in the prior clashes were warned about the nearing crowd and barricaded themselves inside the Trade Union Building facing the Kulikove Pole. Upon arrival, the pro-Maidanists started tearing down and burning the camp. An exchange of gunshots and Molotov cocktails followed between the anti-Maidanists barricaded in the Trade Union Building and the pro-Maidanists on the square. As the Trade Union Building caught fire locally, individuals inside had no place to go. 42 of them died from the fire or as they desperately jumped from the building’s higher stages.

As opposed to the state-authorized commemoration of the Nebesna Sotnya (‘Heavenly Battalion’) that had died during the clashes with governmental forces in Kyiv, in Odesa the deceased have to do with provisional commemoration signs, poems, and pictures attached to the fence aligning the Trade Union Building. This contrast in the official processing of the memory of two events with high numbers of casualties, within the same country and within the same year, leads one to wonder how personal memories are affected by developments at the level of collectives and the state. Through a month of field work in Odesa in the summer of 2019, during which I conducted 41 interviews, I have delved into this matter.

 Memory in a nutshell

The current conflict between Ukraine and Russia is affected by the in many ways shared, and in other ways conflictual histories of both countries and the peoples that inhibit them. Politics of memory, the negotiation of the past to justify politics and perceptions in the present, serve as an important instrument in the hybrid war that has been ongoing since 2014. Supporters of the Maidan protests generally promote a view of the country’s history that distances it from the years of what is perceived as Russian and Soviet occupation. This is countered by groups viewing the years under Russian rule more favorably and denouncing Ukrainian nationalism. Some refer to this politically-motivated juxtaposition of memories as a ‘war of memories’.

The academic field of memory studies is interested in analyzing and theorizing how recollections of the past are mobilized in perceptions and beliefs regarding the present. Memory is presented as fluid, actual; the justification of the now through what is remembered of the past. It is essential to stress that what is remembered can diverge widely from the events as they actually occurred. Each individual or group, with its own interests in the present, can be expected to hold correspondingly unique representations of the past.

Collective memory, a representation of the past shared by a social group, is often argued to be essential to the association and maintenance of communities. Accordingly, the fostering and manipulation of a certain collective memory is often an important element of nation-building. For a Russian example, see the Putin-initiated Bessmertny Polk during Victory Day, while in Ukraine the recent decommunization laws constitute a centralized effort to rid public space of remainders and reminders of the Soviet Union.

At the level of an individual, memory is undisputedly linked to one’s identity. Narratives relating to specific events from the pasts are expected to be shaped and constructed to be coherent with attitudes and beliefs regarding an individual’s self and the world around him. On the other hand, a sane mind should pursue some degree of coherence with the information regarding an event one is presented with. Thus, memorizing and remembering can be seen as at times conscious, at other times subconscious processes of information selection in order to concatenate past events into a coherent chain of recollections and perceptions.

It is especially interesting to consider how the local memory of a tragedy like the events in Odesa interacts with the dominant pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian frames that are fostered by mass media and institutions of the Ukrainian and Russian state. Through interviews with Odesans, I have sought to address the way the memory of these individuals is shaped by, fits into or falls outside of memories held by wider groups, so-called collective memory.

Same scenes, different stories

The 2nd of May events, having occurred about five years prior to my fieldwork in Odesa, was fresh in the memory of many of my interviewees. Moreover, each individual had his/her own access to information regarding the events, either first- or second-hand. Accordingly, every story I heard was different. However, certain elements and modes of narration did repeatedly occur in conjunction with each other and in disjunction with other elements. On this basis, I identified four different narratives globally followed by the interviewees.

Firstly, a ‘pro-Ukrainian’ narrative emphasizes the fact that the first clashes resulted from an attack by the anti-Maidanists on a ‘peaceful march’ for the unity of Ukraine in the city center. Russia is either directly, through its FSB, or indirectly, through its state-tv channels, inculpated in instigating this attack. Anti-Maidanists are accused of pursuing a Crimea-like scenario and therefore violating the territorial integrity of Ukraine. In this narrative, the fire in the Trade Union Building follows as the undesired escalation of an attempt to avenge the Russian attack on their nationalist march.

Secondly, a ‘pro-Russian’ narrative described the events as a massacre of innocent folks that democratically opposed the ‘fascists’ that seized power through a coup d’état in Kyiv. These interviewees would often reproduce a theory stating that prior to the fire in the Trade Union Building, a lethal gas had been planted in the building. Moreover, not 42 anti-Maidanists died, as the official number goes, but about 200-300, the bodies of whom had been hidden in the basements of the Trade Union Building. In this narration, often no mention was made of the clashes in the city center.

odesa vakbondshuis foto mischa van diepenMaterials promoting a rather specific narrative of the events. Picture Mischa van Diepen

The above two narratives in much followed the demarcations of the binary perceptions fed by the ‘war of memories’ between Ukraine and Russia. Stereotypes of Ukrainian nationalists as fascists and Russians as imperialist occupiers pertained throughout. The part of my interviewees that did not constitute or clearly supported one of the warring sides in the 2nd of May events generally refrained from such frames. Instead, they pursued what I identified as an ‘old-Odesan’ or an ‘apolitical’ narrative.

In the ‘old-Odesan’ narrative, interviewees distanced themselves from 'those Western Ukrainians' pursuing a distinct form of Ukrainian nationalism that the respective interviewees did not support. However, they would also state explicitly that they did not desire to be part of Russia. They described Odesa as a multi-ethnic and unique city, which accordingly is neither Ukrainian nor Russian. Maidan-supporters were frequently classified as paid non-Odesans organized to serve the interests of the new central government. But, as several interviewees stated, there were also Odesans amongst them, since also 'Odesa has its share of idiots'. While the interviewees did see a hand of the Maidan-politicians in organizing the violent clashes in the city center, they did generally not perceive the fire in the Trade Union Building as premeditated.

Next to multi-ethnic, Odesa is often described as an apolitical city; a place of leisure, culture, and business, but not of politics. This perception feeds the last narrative, which describes the 2nd of May events as the result of manipulations by politicians of the poor, the lower classes of the society, who participated in return for monetary compensation or as they were aroused by propaganda. Oligarchs, as masters of the puppets, accordingly instrumentalize ideologies to further their personal interests. The respective interviewees distanced both themselves and the city of Odesa from such ideology-driven furies and were often reluctant to talk about the events. Given the local and tragic character of the events, it surprised me to hear rather distanced first responses like 'Oh, you mean when all these people decided to burn each other' or 'Did you know that they burned my car on that day'.

Revolution versus conspiracy

Not unsurprisingly, interviewees often included their interpretation of the events in Kyiv that preceded and gave rise to the tragedy in Odesa as part of their memory of the 2nd of May. Divergent interpretations of the Maidan-events, ranging from a revolution to a coup d’état, correlated with and consolidated divergent interpretations of the events in Odesa.

‘Pro-Ukrainians’ logically qualified the events as a revolution, justifying the manifestation of the Maidan-movement in Odesa and contributing to their critique of the local authorities in suppressing this movement. On the other hand, qualifying the change of regime in Kyiv as a coup d’état, other interviewees on forehand disqualified the objectives of pro-Maidanists. This interpretation of Maidan then paved the way for further classifications of the events in Odesa as the result of violent provocations by groups striving to consolidate their illegally obtained power. Often, this narrative would refer to a popular theory relating to the deaths of Kyiv’s Nebesna Sotnya not being the result of the actions of Yanukovych’ forces, but a set-up by the politicians that financed the Maidan protests. Accordingly, Maidan politicians would not be shy of provoking lethal violence to serve their political interests.

A frame of conspiracy pertained throughout many of the interviews I conducted. Interestingly, very similar types of explanations of the events were provided by some of the interviewees adhering to the ‘pro-Ukrainian’ and the ‘pro-Russian’ narrative. Here, the same level of causality was suggested in explaining for the tragic outcome in the Trade Union Building. For example, alternatingly the FSB and SBU (respectively the Russian and Ukrainian secret service) were suspected of having staged the attack in the Trade Union Building. Moreover, reasons provided for such a premeditated attack were similar. Anti-Maidanists claimed that it served for Ukrainian nationalists to teach Odesa a lesson not to resist, whereas pro-Maidanists suggested Russia wanted to provoke an escalation in Odesa to serve as a pretext for intervention: 'they needed blood'.

Such workings of a frame as a basic explanatory mechanism transpired in an interview with a tourist from Kyiv. Posted at the Trade Union Building, I overheard a woman of age responding to this tourist: 'How can you not know that? They burned people alive here!' After I explained to the tourist what had happened there, she answered that she had no idea about this. She was not involved in the Maidan-events, referring to the respective protesters in Kyiv as being paid for their participation. Although completely unaware of the events in Odesa, she suggested that they were most likely the result of some oligarchs wanting their way. This suggests that for many, the basic attitude regarding social unrest or crisis in Ukraine is that behind it, there is one or several oligarchs or politicians that manipulate a situation to serve their personal political and economic interests.

Using the past to justify the present

Qualifications in academic literature of a 'war of memories' project a binary vision of Ukraine’s history. Disjunct perceptions of the country’s past consolidate disjunct perceptions of the country’s present. However, one should be wary of oversimplifications in perceiving the Ukrainian society as consisting of a ‘pro-Ukrainian’ and ‘pro-Russian’ part.

As suggested by the titles of the narratives presented above, part of the interviewees did tend to follow this binary division. In those cases, interpretations of the past were often used to justify a perception of being right in the present. In attempts to denounce Ukrainian nationalists, the terms fascists and banderovtsi came forward frequently. The respective framing of Ukrainian nationalists is actively fed by Russian or Russia-favored media and by decades of Soviet narration of World War II, but also by the fact that some figures, like Stepan Bandera, that collaborated with the Nazi’s in WW2 are glorified by contemporary Ukrainian nationalists. Strikingly, one of my interviewees who participated on the pro-Maidan side during the 2nd of May had just returned from a festival celebrating Ukrainian culture in the west of Ukraine: Bandershtat (from Bandera and the Ukrainian shtat- ‘state’). Bandershtat versus bandersovtsi; these completely opposite connotations with the name of a figure like Bandera suggest the difficulty of debating on the history of Ukraine.

Another example in which the past is addressed to color perceptions of the present is the use of the term ‘Odeskaya Khatyn’ (‘Odesan Khatyn’). This refers to a war crime in 1943 in the Belarussian village Khatyn, during which 149 of its inhabitants were either burnt or shot by a battalion commanded by Germans, but including Ukrainians, as a reprisal for a trap erected by partisans in close proximity to the village. Departing from a classification of Ukrainian nationalists as fascists and drawing on a collective memory of the war crimes committed in Khatyn, the parallel to the 2nd of May events is drawn. Here, the resemblance in the form of a fire with casualties is enough to feed a perception of a premeditated massacre of innocent people. Often, storytelling by such interviewees was set to accommodate this perception. Accordingly, no mention was made of the preceding events and casualties in the city center. In some cases, interviewees would explicitly refer to those in the Trade Union Building as innocent people, mostly women and children, who ended up there in search for a safe refuge.

Other interviewees explicitly rejected divisions along the lines of pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian. For example, a taxi driver, whom I asked about the events, stated that he was also a patriot, loved Ukraine, but not in the way “those Western Ukrainians” did. A woman selling paintings at the touristic Soborna Plosha, gave a telling interpretation of the concept Russkiy Mir. Whereas the term is generally understood as ‘Russian World’, a reference to the sociocultural entity supposedly formed by ethnic Russians around the world, she interpreted the word Mir in its alternative meaning, as ‘peace’. This led her to respond: “Russian peace, American peace, I do not care where it comes from, as long as we have peace”.

 Preserving the self and the other

Memory theory tightly associates memory with identity. In some interviews, such identities appeared shaped largely by for example a Ukrainian nationality or the feeling to be part of the sociocultural entity of a Russkiy Mir. In other cases, the lines of identification were less concrete and did not necessarily coincide with the demarcations of a concrete social group.

Irrespective of the narrative interviewees pursued, memory was often instrumentalized to feed perceptions of a division between the self and a certain other. Similar methods to delegitimize actions and demands of the respective other appeared across all narratives. For example, pro-Maidanists denounced the ideas of their opponents as the result of propaganda, often referring to them watching Russian state-channels on their ‘zombieboxes’ (zombyjashiki). On the other hand, Ukrainian nationalism was generally qualified as an element foreign to the city of Odesa, blaming the new regime for actively importing this element. An accusation made from both sides was of the other side’s participation in the events being financially driven. Through all such argumentative tactics, the possibility of the presence in Odesa of antagonists that genuinely and autonomously supported ideas that the interviewees disliked was undermined.

Among the supporters of the ‘apolitical’ narrative, some narrated referring to their religious beliefs, others seemed to argue based on the fact that they were from a higher socioeconomic class or too intelligent to get involved in political games. However, their narration did share a representation of the other. Namely, both sides involved in the clashes were supposedly paid to participate or victims of propaganda. The idea of moving to the streets on the basis of one’s political ideas was often rejected by the narrators. Across all narratives, the identification of a guiding hand of politicians and oligarchs, through money, propaganda, or armament, serves to suggest reduced levels of autonomy of the respective other.


The 2nd of May events in Odesa, Ukraine, provided an excellent case to study the workings of individual memory in the context of a highly polarized field of collective memories. I found that some, mostly those who explicitly stated to support one of the warring factions, gratefully addressed contrasting interpretations of the past to justify their contrasting perceptions of the present. However, in more abstract notions, similarities appeared across all narratives.

Memory of the events appeared to be shaped in such a way as to confirm existing perceptions of Odesa and Ukraine. Demarcations between the self and the other were made and consolidated, justifying actions and beliefs of the self and delegitimizing those who are respectively perceived as the other. For example, in Ukraine the supposed association with an oligarch is a frequently recurring tactic to delegitimize the other. This finding that across different groups and factions, the same stereotypical beliefs with respect to the respective other exist, can serve to feed processes of reconciliation between these groups.

 This Master Thesis can be read in full here.