Two hundred people are waiting. They huddle in quiet clusters, holding small paper cups of coffee purchased from portable kiosks surrounding the picturesque square’s wide perimeter. A chilly, humid Black Sea wind blows north, gliding past the Potemkin Stairs (made famous in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 silent film The Battleship Potemkin) and the Duke de Richelieu Monument (made famous as one of Odessa’s founding fathers.) Some carry powder blue and yellow banners; most are empty-handed, dressed for a late winter Sunday morning stroll. The mood is tranquil.
Pinched between two Russian-dominated regions—Crimea in the east and Transnistria, Moldova’s breakaway province, in the west—uncertain numbers of Russian soldiers now threaten the city’s freedom. As the gateway to the Black Sea, Odessa blends San Francisco’s maritime weather and cosmopolitan energy with Oklahoma City’s provincial sensibility and moderate pace. In more ordinary times, Odessa’s friendly, relaxed populace hosts foreigners from throughout the western world, attending the operas and strolling the seaside promenade.
But with the city now functioning as Ukraine’s economic and political lifeline, many fear the Russian-speaking citizens will follow Crimea, either caving to Russian cultural pressure or embracing their economic lifeline.
On March 2, when Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the “protection” of Russian citizens throughout Ukraine, Odessa appeared to be the next most likely target. For two weeks, Odessians protested Putin’s threats in surprisingly large numbers; at one point, an estimated 15,000 stretched from the Potemkin Steps to Odessa’s main government building. As Ukraine’s closest city to Crimea, and most vulnerable to Russian attack, this port town has become exceptionally important political terrain in the new not-quite-Cold War environment. As Odessa goes, to some degree, so goes Ukraine.
Today, March 16, Crimea voted to amputate itself from Ukraine’s state body. I arrived at the Potemkin Steps ten minutes ago, expecting to discover a large and volatile crowd assembled. Given what the world had witnessed for two months in neighboring Kiev, I had assumed if the Ukrainian government was going to speak with one voice in contesting Russia’s aggression, they would do so here in Odessa. What I witnessed at the protest taught me much about the belligerents in the struggle for Ukraine, the likely outcomes that could result in this divided and important city.
Ten groups of men in their mid-twenties gather in dispersed clusters of 6-8 people each. They appear ragtag but purposeful, wearing makeshift unit insignia. They wear green pith helmets and surgical masks to protect from tear gas, and arm themselves with dowel rods as makeshift wooden clubs, fastening them to their wrists with packing tape and heavy string. Some carry plywood shields.
“We are here to protect the people from aggression,” says Max, a civilian sailor whose cargo ship had taken him to Mississippi, Florida, California, Washington, Texas, and Louisiana (he loved New Orleans). Max and his new comrade, Alec, volunteered for the security detail, saying they are “prepared to fight and die” to defend Odessa. “Putin is crazy. What does he want?” Twice, Max asks me to tell the United States that Ukraine needs America’s protection.
A frail looking old man, inconspicuously dressed in a gray jacket, walks up to us and gestures in my direction. He is asking Max and Alec who I am. They say I am an American writer. I ask who the old man was and they shrug. “Nobody important,” they say. I wonder if they realize the guy fits the perfect police informant profile. I look around for the old man. He has disappeared.
The authorities whom the squads are theoretically supposed to be defending against are nowhere to be seen. Only four policemen are visible, and none brandish weapons or riot gear. If the police are poised to crack down on the protest, they have stationed their reaction force somewhere else, perhaps back at the station or in some other predetermined location.
Max and Alec pose proudly for a picture, then hurry away to their ramshackle scrums. A man with a megaphone stands under the Duke de Richelieu statue and calls out instructions. He is coordinating protest activity with a laptop, standup speaker system, and portable generator. The logistics are simple and straightforward; music clips on the laptop, a microphone as megaphone backup, and juice in the generator for at least ten hours. The protest won’t last that long.
Twenty minutes pass. A leader twirls his hand above his head, signaling the call to formation. The scrum aligns in rank and file, and, after a few minutes, quiets down. The leader paces back and forth, reviewing his troops. He chants out “Slava Ukraine!” (say “Sla-bo U-kry-een!”); and the group replies “Eroyem slava!” It means “Long live (glory to) Ukraine!” and “Long live (glory to) the heroes!” This happens a few times.
About 150 people have gathered around the formation. The leader raises his hand and starts the first notes of Ukraine’s national anthem; the motley young men join the chorus. Civilians remain quiet as the security crew sings, suggesting a symbolic recognition that they have set themselves apart as willing to sacrifice, even by simply arming themselves with improvised truncheons.
The anthem ends and the formation breaks. Two policemen who have been watching from a distance walk away and disappear. Patriotic Ukrainian music plays from the laptop/speaker system. For thirty minutes, nothing much is happening. The security crew is nowhere in sight, nor are the police. A gaggle of two hundred civilians remains at the Duke de Richelieu statue’s base. Where did Max and Alec go? Where did the cops go?
The megaphone guy takes a call, listens, and hangs up. Things start happening. A few chants get going, and the crowd huddles around the statue, like two hundred athletes waiting for the pre-game pep talk. Ribbons colored blue and yellow are distributed. A guy who looks like Keith Richards meets Vladimir Lenin carries a Ukrainian flag. The megaphone guy turns things over to him. This appears to be the main event.
I finally realize why things took so long. The units from the security crew needed time to push out a perimeter. Each unit strolled a kilometer or two, and stationed somewhere as an early warning unit. In the Marine Corps, these would be called listening and observation posts; their job is to report any inbound authorities and skirmish to delay their approach. I silently admire their tactics.
Keith Lenin turns the podium over to a series of speakers. A Ukrainian woman wearing a floral garland. An old man with a dark grey cap. Another old man with light grey hair. The crowd nods and verbally affirms, pausing for chants in between speakers. The mood has gone from pregame pep rally to outdoor church service.
I look around and finally find the police. They are huddled underneath a building overhang facing the statue, about 100 meters from the protest. I wonder if they have stashed teams or riot gear inside the security perimeter the protesters established. The police casually glance at the protesters but don’t seem to be too bothered by their presence.
The last speaker finishes. Keith Lenin gives one final speech, then hands off to the original megaphone guy. “Slava Ukraine!” “Eroyem slava!” Things start to heat up a little, and the crowd has, for the first time, become animated and truly passionate. It appears they have saved their best for last, and the civilians close with their own singing of Ukraine’s national anthem. The protest ends muted, as though everyone had expected more.
Indeed they had expected more. I talk to Keith Lenin, whose real name is actually Vladimir. “Like Putin,” he says, “but not bad.” Vladimir, 51, is a drummer. Born in Berlin and world-traveled, Vladimir worked in Moscow for two decades. He tells me he actually met Putin once and talked to him for an hour. “I thought he was good man,” Vladimir says. “We shook hands. But he is false.”
Today’s protest was supposed to be much bigger, but rumors of a competing pro-Russian protest that would also be at the Duke de Richelieu statue had filtered out on the Internet. Accusations and violence threats were tossed around online. Authorities had issued cautions, warning people of risk. Only the most fervent supporters and their security crew had remained. No pro-Russian protest was visible anywhere near the square. Though no proof is immediately evident, it seems reasonable to conclude Russian deception operations were behind the Facebook shenanigans.
“So many people are wanting the U.S. to help,” Vladimir says, referring to Ukrainians and reinforcing Max and Alec’s petition. “Your politicians are false too. I like American people, but I do not like your politicians,” Vladimir says, perhaps not aware the majority of Americans agree with him. “We are waiting for help from other countries,” Vladimir concludes, “but for now we must do it ourselves.”
The crowd has dispersed. The laptop, speaker system, and generator are whisked away. I think about the security guys, clad in their makeshift ghetto gear and wielding their fragile clubs. In another place, they might have been called community response teams, or local police, or indigenous defense forces. They didn’t look like much today, but they had organization, discipline, and the will to resist. Militarily, Putin might be able to take Odessa. But he would certainly have a headache keeping it.
I walk into a café labeled, in English, Pizza & Grill. The restaurant seems to be using its English label among the sea of Cyrillic building to appear posh, chic, and Western. It is afternoon, and most tables are empty. I order a burger and Obolon, a Ukrainian national beer. Techno music reverberates.
I look outside the window and see a trio of policemen. They are smoking and laughing, relaxed with each other. Their shift was not stressful. They get in their civilian cars and drive home.