Odessa, the Black Sea city of one million people noted for its seaside holidays and distinctive sense of humor, is deep in mourning this week as funerals take place for the 46 people killed in street fights and a fatal fire on May 2.
Odessans pride themselves on tolerance of different viewpoints and their ability to come to an agreement on just about anything.
But those qualities were little in evidence on May 2, when what was supposed to be a peaceful march of football fans in support of a united Ukraine turned into an hours-long street battle that ended when the Trade Unions House as set on fire with hundreds of anti-Ukrainian government demonstrators inside. Thirty-six people died of smoke inhalation and burns, or when they jumped from the windows.
Who or what exactly caused the fire, and why those inside were unable to escape, remains unclear. But in the aftermath, one unhappy question can be heard everywhere: How could this have happened in our city?
At the funeral today of 26-year-old Andrei Brazhevsky, a large memorial sign said that he was "killed by neo-Nazis."
Computer programmer Brazhevsky had been a supporter of communism, said work colleagues at the funeral, but they could not believe he was an extremist, remembering him instead as thoughtful and passionate about justice.
Relatives said they had phoned Brazhevsky on the afternoon of May 2 begging him to leave Kolykova field, but he refused. He died jumping from a window of the burning building.
Speeches swiftly turned political, as friends and relatives called on people not to vote in the May 25 presidential elections, or said that Odessa should fight “like Sloviansk” (the Donetsk Oblast city held by armed rebels) to oppose the Ukrainian government and fascists. “They say Odessans are patient,’ said one man. “I say we’re cowards.” Several anti-government protesters who were also in the burning building attended the funeral.
At another funeral at the House of Officers, former military officer Alexander Sadovnichy died fighting fascism, said his former classmate Maria Modestova.
“He was from a military family,” she said. “His whole family had been through wars; the first world war, the second world war, and their first words were always – let there be no war. They all hated fascism, and Alexander hated fascism too. He died so there would be no fascism in Ukraine.”
Sadovnichy, born in 1954, was a frequent visitor to the anti-government protest camp that had stood outside the Trade Unions House on Kolykova field for two months before an angry crowd dismantled it on May 2.
“I was also there a few times. People are saying they were terrorists there but it’s not true,” said Alexander Boyko, a friend of Sadovnichy’s son. “It was just people standing up for their rights. They didn’t support the Kyiv government and thought it was illegitimate, they thought it was wrong to join the EU because we’re Slavs and Russians are our brothers.”
Vera Rudakova-Grizlo, another of Sadovnichy’s classmates from when they studied together in school in Tiraspol, had come from Tiraspol for his funeral. Tiraspol is now in Transnistria, the Kremlin-backed breakaway republic that supports Russia.
The Ukrainian authorities have said that some of those who died in the fire were from Russia or Transnistria and had come to Odessa to instigate the violence.
Sadovnichy, however, had lived in Odessa for more than 20 years.
Rudakova-Grizlo said that many more classmates would have come from Tiraspol for the funeral but that men with Russian passports were unable to cross the border into Ukraine, so she had come alone. We’re all one big nation,” she said. “Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians, even in Transnistria.”
At both funerals, people were united in the belief that the May 2 violence had been instigated from outside– although who by was not so clear.
“It was a seriously planned provocation," said Modestova. “Odessa had nothing to with it. Odessans are kind people who help each other.”
And despite the anti-Ukrainian government stance of victims of the May 2 violence, there were signs that Odessa’s traditional tolerance of multi-faceted points of view has not quite disappeared.
Brazhevsky was buried with a St George's ribbon around his shoulders and a red Communist flag over his coffin.
Meawnhile, at Sadovnichy’s military funeral, officers walked in front of his coffin with the Ukrainian flag.
Editor’s Note: This article has been produced for Kyivpost with support from the project www.mymedia.org.ua, financially supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark, and implemented by a joint venture between NIRAS and BBC Media Action.The content in this article may not necessarily reflect the views of the Danish government, NIRAS and BBC Action Media.