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Future of Odessa, Ukraine's 'Jewel of the Black Sea,' Uncertain

  • Henry Ridgwell

The violence between pro-Kyiv and pro-Russian groups in Odessa last week killed over 40 people and sent shockwaves across Ukraine and beyond. The city founded by Catherine the Great in 1794 has long been a cosmopolitan port attracting tourists and traders from across the world.

Odessa, a city marked by grand imperial boulevards, conjures romantic images. Ukraine's balmy Black Sea port is a melting pot, with diverse cultures and ethnic groups that have long coexisted, usually peacefully.

Residents say that is why the recent bloodshed inflicted such a wound on the city and the entire country.

Over 40 people died during street battles on May 2 that climaxed in a spectacular fire. Surrounded by angry supporters of the Ukrainian government, pro-Russian demonstrators inside the trade union building could not or would not come out. The smoke and flames killed dozens of people.

Many Odessa residents, like this woman, want their normal lives back.

"We just want peace," she said. "We want just to live our peaceful life, like it was before. When we could walk with our children in the street, and our children were happy."

Orysia Lutsevych of the London-based policy institute Chatham House recalls how Odessa grew to become the fourth largest city in Czarist Russia.

"Odessa was always at that time a city of ports, trade, but also a city of seaside resorts," said Lutsevych.

It also was the scene of a workers' uprising in 1905, immortalized in the film Battleship Potemkin, directed by Sergei Eisenstein and known as a triumph of both cinematic art and propaganda.

Residents are proud of their heritage. Alexander Roytburd, a painter and art gallery director, says Odessa belongs to the world.

"Odessa was a planned city built quickly by efficient managers, and it has become a vehicle for international trade and business," said Roytburd.

The city remains a free port, whose traders can ship goods freely across the globe.

Authorities in Kyiv fear Russia could repeat its takeover of Crimea and annex the entire Black Sea coast, including Odessa, leaving Ukraine landlocked, reduced in size and weakened. Moscow denies there isw such a plan, but Orysia Lutsevych points out that Odessa has great strategic importance.

"Not just for commercial trade, but also [by] using Odessa port for military dispatches. From the security and strategic importance, now that Kyiv authorities are not friendly to Russia, the Kremlin feels that they have to control the southern corridor [through Ukraine], also to supply support to [the Moldovan breakaway region of] Transnistria," she said.

Odessa is considered one of the jewels of Eastern Europe, but that is imperiled by the tension and political struggle now under way.