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The Odesa Trade Unions building, May 2, 2014

The making of a myth How Russian media uses a 2014 fire in Odesa to justify the war on Ukraine

Source: Meduza
The Odesa Trade Unions building, May 2, 2014
The Odesa Trade Unions building, May 2, 2014
Yevgeny Volokin / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

Ten years ago, in early May 2014, after several months of widespread political unrest in Odesa, Ukraine, street clashes between pro-Russia and pro-Ukraine factions resulted in a deadly fire in the city’s Trade Unions building. It’s still unclear who exactly is to blame for the deaths. Nonetheless, the Russian state-run media machine started churning out propaganda about the fire the very next day, characterizing the events as a merciless attack by “Ukrainian neo-Nazis” on Russian-speaking civilians. In the decade since, the Trade Unions building fire has entered Russian political mythology. It remains one of the main stories Russian propaganda uses to dehumanize Ukrainians and justify its war on the country.

This text originally appeared in Signal, Meduza’s newsletter on the rhetoric that keeps Putinism running. You can sign up here (it’s in Russian). And if you enjoyed this piece, stay tuned for more Signal in English — we’ve got plans.

The May 2, 2014 fire in Odesa’s Trade Unions building was the culmination of several months of street clashes between supporters of Ukraine and the country’s recent Revolution of Dignity, on one side, and pro-Russia activists, on the other.

Russia annexed Crimea in March of that same year. Elsewhere in eastern Ukraine, armed “separatists” captured cities in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, killing government officials and local activists who opposed them. In April, self-proclaimed “people’s republics” formed in the Donetsk, Luhansk, and Kharkiv regions. The Ukrainian authorities swiftly cleared the “separatists” from Kharkiv, but the other “republics” proved more durable.

There was political tension in Odesa, too. Pro-Russia “anti-Maidan” activists had set up an encampment on the square in front of the Trade Unions building. Then, on May 2, ahead of a soccer championship match, fans of the two opposing teams — Chornomorets Odesa and Metalist Kharkiv — decided to hold a joint march “for a united Ukraine.” Various other organizations and local Euromaidan activists joined the event.

The organizers of the united Ukraine march say they agreed on a protest route with the anti-Maidan camp the day before the march, aiming to avoid clashes. Anti-Maidan leaders promised not to hold a counter demonstration. However, some on the pro-Russia side didn’t consider themselves bound by those agreements. 

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The march for a united Ukraine started around 3:00 p.m. local time. The first street clashes took place in another part of the city, about a mile and a half (around 2.5 kilometers) from the Trade Unions building. People on both the pro-Ukraine and pro-Russia sides threw stones, firecrackers, and Molotov cocktails, and smashed storefronts, bus stops, and cars. Firearms were discharged, and six people were killed 

The clashes in downtown Odesa lasted around six hours, spreading to Kulykove Pole, the square in front of the Trade Unions building. Soccer fans stormed and captured the anti-Maidan encampment, and between 300 and 350 anti-Maidan activists hid out in the Trade Unions building. Some of them brought the remains of the camp’s wooden barricades inside, along with gas generators and supplies for making Molotov cocktails. Dozens wound up trapped inside the building, where 32 people died of carbon monoxide poisoning. Ten others jumped out of windows and died. Rescuers arrived at the scene half an hour after the fire started.

Some pro-Ukrainian activists attempted to help free the anti-Maidan protesters locked in the building. But even while the fire raged, the shooting continued.


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‘Law enforcement didn’t understand’

The investigation into the spring 2014 Odesa clashes failed.

City services and law enforcement agencies sat on their hands all day on May 2. According to Viktor Serdyuk, an expert with the independent investigative outlet The May 2 Group, the police were demoralized by Ukraine’s recent revolution, the Russian occupation of Crimea, and the outbreak of hostilities in the Donbas. “Law enforcement didn’t understand what they were supposed to do and to whom they were reporting. Therefore, they made mistakes and acted as if they were untrained,” Serdyuk believes. In the absence of clear official information, rumors spread — some said there were hundreds of dead bodies in the basement of the Trade Unions building, hidden to conceal evidence of torture and the use of poison gas.

Official channels in Kyiv insisted that the deaths were the result of Russian interference. The national authorities suggested that it wasn’t only local anti-Maidan activists behind the fire, but also armed groups who had infiltrated Ukraine from neighboring Transnistria, a breakaway republic internationally recognized as part of Moldova. Their goal, said Kyiv, was to create a separatist, pro-Russia Odesa People’s Republic. There has never been any definitive confirmation of that theory. 

Kyiv sent several task forces to Odesa to conduct detailed investigations into the May 2 events. Pro-Russian groups held regular rallies calling for investigations of the “massacre of ordinary people carried out by Banderites and Nazis.” Their rallies were frequently aired on Russian TV news shows.

Ukrainian law enforcement opened several criminal cases. The most high-profile case concerned the first riots on May 2, before the unrest reached the Trade Unions building. Seventeen Ukrainians and two Russian nationals were deemed suspects in that case. They were all acquitted in 2017, because the investigation failed to present sufficient proof of the anti-Maidan activists’ guilt. Two of the suspects, Ukrainian national Serhiy Dolzhenkov and Russian national Yevgeny Mefedov, were soon embroiled in another criminal case, this time for infringing on Ukraine’s territorial integrity. In 2019, Ukraine sent Dolzhenkov and Mefedov to Russia in exchange for Ukrainian political prisons. In another high-profile case, a pro-Ukraine activist Serhiy Khodiyak still stands accused of killing an anti-Maidan protester, but his trial hasn’t yet begun. So far, 13 judges have recused themselves.

The acquittals were “open sabotage, corruption, and an unwillingness and inability to deal with such a far-reaching and unprecedented case,” says Tetyana Herasymova, a journalist and coordinator of the May 2 group. She argues that the prosecution crumbled in court due to the negligence of investigators from Kyiv. Ukrainian and international human rights activists believe that the investigation into the clashes didn’t meet the standards of the European Human Rights Convention.

After the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Odesa courts issued the first verdicts on law enforcement and rescue workers’ inaction during the Trade Unions building fire. Dmytro Fuchedzhi, a former deputy police chief in the Odesa region, was sentenced to 15 years in prison. But he never served his time. Like many defendants in similar cases, Fuchedzhi fled the country in 2014.

Local activists and journalists admitted several years ago that they’d stopped following the court cases related to the spring 2014 Odesa clashes — their focus has shifted to other issues.

In the late 2010s, social researchers made a surprising discovery: a majority of Ukrainians reported remembering that the pro-Russian, anti-Maidan protesters were themselves behind the deaths in their own ranks.

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‘A special satanic operation’

In the ensuing decade, Russian state propaganda has used the Trade Unions building fire as an ex post facto justification for Russia’s annexation of Crimea and backing of the self-proclaimed “people’s republics” in eastern Ukraine. Propaganda about the fire also helped the authorities to spread anti-Ukraine sentiment in Russia. Russian diplomats regularly organized exhibitions, conferences, and roundtable discussions geared toward advancing the notion that “neo-Nazi gangs” and “death squads” had created a “civilian genocide” in Odesa.

Just a few days before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin promised to “punish” those responsible for “the immolation of participants in a peaceful protest,” stating that he knew the responsible parties by name. 

The process of transforming the very real and deadly Trade Union buildings blaze into myth began almost immediately. A core component of the propaganda spin was contrasting Odesa residents, who were supposedly all pro-Russia and worried about the status of the Russian language in Ukraine, and the “fascist radicals’’ who had supposedly descended from Kyiv and Lviv to kill them. Never before had Russian propagandists used snuff and dehumanizing rhetoric so freely.

Russian television news started to compare the events at the Trade Unions building to Khatyn, a Belarusian village that the Nazis burned to the ground with nearly all of its inhabitants trapped inside its buildings during World War II. (Khatyn is a famous name in Russia, but the burning of villages and their inhabitants was a fairly common Nazi practice in wartime Belarus.) Since the Soviet period, official memorialization of World War II has been designed to arouse grief and reverence in the Soviet, and then Russian, populace. The propaganda around Odesa marked one of the first times that the propaganda machine used the war to arouse rage, instead. Today, that particular spin has now become so common that it seems to have lost almost all its power.

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During this propaganda campaign, so many different and often contradictory versions of events were thrown around that Russian audiences had no way to distinguish fact from fiction. The Russian news said that members of Right Sector, a loose coalition of Ukrainian right-wing nationalists, had seized the building, killing, raping, torturing, and dismembering men, women, and children. The fire was described as a “planned massacre” preceded by “an order to destroy,” and also as “ritual murder” and “a special satanic operation.” There was a specious story about a pregnant woman burned alive.

Experts on disinformation believe that it was Russian talk shows, more than any other medium, that normalized radical anti-Western and anti-Ukraine positions, and also contributed to Russian popular support for the self-proclaimed “people’s republics” in Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Many Russian volunteers have called the “Odesa Khatyn” events a point of no return that convinced them to go and fight in the Donbas.

Thus, the Trade Unions building fire became a symbolically significant event. Ten years later, it has become almost impossible to separate the actual events from the various interpretations of what happened.

The meaning of the May 2 events now depends entirely on an individual’s political standpoint. Those who support Ukraine simply cannot brook the possibility that Euromaidan activists are responsible for the deaths of 42 people. They might even “feel sorry, on a human level” for the dead, but consider them obviously “vatniks,” a derogatory term for jingoistic Russian patriots, and enemies. Those who support “the Russian world,” similarly, can only see the crimes of the “Kyiv regime” and “Ukrainian neo-Nazis.” Those who died in the Trade Unions building are, for them, martyrs. 

In both cases, the interpretation precedes the facts. And neither interpretation has anything to do with justice.

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By the editors of Signal

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