"Death to fascism," say notices pinned on the walls. On a bench is a box of Molotov cocktails, a board studded with nails to puncture car tires, a stack of rifles. Beyond stands a target for shooting practice – the scrawled figure has a swastika where its heart should be.
It could easily be a hideout for militant groups in southeast Ukraine, who over the last two months are using these weapons in what they call a fight against fascism.
But in fact it’s a scene from the Odessa catacombs museum, which recreates the hideout of partisan brigades who fought a guerrilla war from these underground passages between 1941 and 1944, when Odessa was liberated from Axis occupation by the Red Army.
“When on 22 June 1941 the fascist plague descended on our motherland, the first who suffered were Odessans,” said tour guide Tatiana Sazonova at the museum. ‘Peaceful, sun-loving mothers, children, sailors, tradesmen.”
Odessa held out in a siege that lasted 73 days. Partisan brigades continued to fight until 1944 from hideouts in the huge labyrinth of quarries and catacombs that underlie the city. According to Sazonova, the youngest partisan was 13, the oldest 73.
“Odessa is a hero city,” she said, “and all Odessans are proud of that.”
The history of the Second World War, in which 25 million Soviet citizens died, has never been more relevant in Ukraine.
In neighboring Russia, the Soviet victory has become the carefully-managed basis for post-Soviet patriotism and self-identity. Events of almost seventy years ago inform contemporary Russian policy and exacerbate the current conflict in Ukraine, which is being portrayed in Russian media as a continuation of the fight against fascism and Nazism. Wartime fears and prejudices are resurfacing in both countries, as people who were not alive to see them happen recall wartime atrocities and compare them to the violent and tragic events of the last few months in Ukraine.
Outside the Odessa trade union building, where over 40 people died in a fire on May 2 during bloody clashes between pro-and anti-Ukrainian government protesters, a sign says "Our Khatyn." It refers to a village in Belarus which was burnt in 1943 and all its inhabitants massacred by a Nazi brigade that included Ukrainian nationalists and deserters from the Red Army.
Opponents of the EuroMaidan Revolution that toppled President Viktor Yanukovych and installed an interim Ukrainian government are convinced that fascist followers of such Nazi collaborationists are running the new government.
More moderate opponents say the Ukrainian government and far-right groups are destroying their monuments and denying them the right to honor their grandparents who fought against Nazi Germany.
While in language drawn from nearly 70 years ago, the anti-government militants who have taken up arms say they are defending their land and families from fascist invasion just as their grandfathers did.
Russian TV propagated the idea that the Ukrainian government had cancelled May 9 celebrations for Victory Day, weeks before authorities did in fact cancel most parades throughout the country for fear of attacks and provocations.
Victory Day, a huge Soviet holiday that in post-Soviet Russia has become huger than ever, has come to symbolize both the huge influence of World War II, and its ability to divide rather than unite today’s Ukraine.
“Victory Day is a sacred holiday for anyone from the former USSR,” said Sazonova. But the streets of Odessa were eerily quiet this May 9, as people stayed home instead of joining in celebrations, most of which were cancelled by the Odessa city council.
Nevertheless Odessans of ages, many with children, did still gather according to tradition to lay flowers on the monument to the unknown sailor. The few veterans there were overwhelmed with flowers, congratulations and thanks.
“Our grandfathers both died fighting fascism,” said Yuri Oberemok, who had come to the monument with his family. “They cancelled today’s celebration and banned us from coming here to lay flowers, but as long as I live, I and my children will come here to lay flowers and thank those people who gave their lives for us.”
“I can’t find words for the fact that they cancelled it,” added his wife Ina. “We oppose it and we oppose what’s happening in Ukraine.”
Fliers similar to posters from over 60 years ago in the partisan catacombs museum, saying "Ukraine without Nazism: and printed by a youth organization, were tucked under many of the bouquets on the monument. But in a city still burying those who died in the horrific fighting and fire last week, many people did not want to talk about the way this day has become a political tool in the struggle for a united Ukraine.
“Who needs this on this celebration? There is no place for politics today,” said Oberemok.
Nearby, two young men agreed. “This day wasn’t just a victory for the Soviet Union but for all people,” said Igor Goryachekovsky. “It united all humanity not just in victory in war, but against evil. It’s a lesson for us all.”
Goryachekovsky came to study in Odessa in 1996 from Tiraspol in Transdniestria. the pro-Russian breakaway republic bordering Odessa region that suffered a short but vicious war in 1992. The Ukrainian government says mercenaries and provocateurs from Transnistria were behind the violence in Odessa on May 2, and no longer allows men with Russian passports to cross the border from Transnistria. “Now I can’t go home because the border is closed and I’m a separatist,” said Goryachekovsky sadly.
Goryachekovsky’s friend, Alexander Kozechenko from Zaporizhya, was wearing a striped St. George's ribbon, a symbol of the Soviet victory which pro-Russians and opponents to the Ukrainian government wear to signify their political allegiances. But Kozachenko was wearing his ribbon for another reason.
“The black stripe symbolzses the death and suffering of those who died, and the orange color is more like joy, because on this day we shouldn’t just grieve but should be glad that the previous generation gave their lives so that we could live,” he explained. “I don’t agree with the way this ribbon has become linked with politics; that for some reason many associate it with separatism in eastern Ukraine. I don’t wear it for that reason, I wear it in solidarity with Victory Day and those who gave their lives.”
Ukraine lost an estimated eight million people in the Second World War. Of the partisan battalion who lived in the Odessa catacombs between 1941-1944, only 30 percent survived.
Wartime pilot Maria Usatok, who reached Berlin with the Red Army, had no glorious military achievements to recount, only terrible tales of slaughtered Odessans to tell the younger people at the monument today who filled her arms with flowers and chocolates. “War is a terrible thing,” she said. “So many people suffer.”
Deeply-held memories of the war are bringing only more suffering to Ukraine today, as people once more take up arms in a guerilla war against a ‘fascist’ threat which is apparently being deliberately invoked to destabilise the country. But while many young Odessans had turned out at the monument to the unknown sailor on May 9 to pay their respects, the partisan catacombs museum was almost deserted the day before.
“More than half the young people who visit here aren’t interested in it at all,” said museum guide Alexander Ousik. “They know there were people fighting here, but they can’t explain who or why.”
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.