One month in Odessa, Ukraine

One more week comes to an end in the beautiful Ukrainian city of Odessa. It has gone one month since my arrival and I have to say that time runs really fast here.

This week, with the help of some former volunteer combatants, I was introduced to the local Odessa battalion called “Shtorm”. Shtorm’s paramilitary battalion was formulated from the existing self defense personnel and included people from police squads, as well as civilians who enrolled as volunteers. The preceding week Shtorm and its personnel celebrated the fifth anniversary since the creation of the self-defense battalion. According to the stories that I have heard, all Ukrainian battalions including the Shtorm were not created randomly, but due to the anticipation of Russian aggression, as well as the further advance of the pro-Russian separatism into regions other than Crimea and Donbass. So, the paramilitary battalion Shtorm was created in responce to the events of 2014, and the fifth anniversary since the creation had a strong symbolic importance for the Ukrainian independence, as well as the capability of Ukrainian people to defend their country.

The flag of the Shtorm battalion
A child on an armored military vehicle

I had the honour to participate in this important event for both the battalion and its members. Everything began from the military parade ground with the singing of the Ukrainian anthem. Thereafter, the combatants were awarded with rewards and certificates for their deserts. Shtorm’s volunteer fighters played a significant role in impeding the advance of the pro-Kremlin insurgents in the Eastern Ukraine. Therefore, the deeds of the fallen soldiers were met with great respect both under the military performance and the joint lunch. Thanks to my acquaintances within the battalion and the hospitality of the Ukrainian people, I was invited to participate in this joint lunch. During the mingle, I was acquainted with more volunteer combatants who had very interesting stories to tell about their experience at the frontline.

Volunteers at the military parade ground
Award ceremony
At the joint lunch with the volunteers from Shtorm
The poster of fame dedicated to the fallen volunteer combatants

I liked the delicious Ukrainian dishes, especially those dishes with herring.  Herring can be found in almost all dishes such as sallads, sandwiches and in a warm meal with cooked potatoes and dill.

The combatants in the Shtorm battalion were very friendly. What I found interesting was the number of women in military uniform, which indicates a relative gender equality within the Shtorm. The upcoming week I plan to meet more volunteers from Shtorm and talk about their experience during the military operation in the Eastern Ukraine.

Hasta la vista!:)

Talking to volunteer fighters

This week I conducted quite a lot of interviews with people who enrolled voluntarily to various military battalions. We talked about their motivations for voluntary enrollment, as well as their experiences in both civilian and combat zone. Moreover, I met and interviewed the friends and mothers of fallen soldiers. This helped me to get a better insight into the motivations of volunteer fighters. I have to say that these meetings were very emotional, and especially the interviews with the mothers of fallen soldiers were very difficult to conduct. The stories that they told me were very tragic and sensitive. It was very difficult to hold tears during some of the interviews.

I was invited to the environmental event by some volunteer fighters. The purpose of this long planned project was to plant trees in commemoration of fallen soldiers. The event took place in the Maksim Gorkiy park, in Odessa. After the planting of trees was completed, the participants of this event mingled and enjoyed drinking tea with some Ukrainian sweeties. During this mingle, I was acquainted with more volunteers, as well as their friends and relatives. Consequently, thanks to these contacts my schedule is full with planned meetings for the upcoming weeks. I will conduct more interviews with volunteer fighters, and even participate in a celebration event.

Tree planting with Donbass war veterans in commemoration of fallen soldiers
Planted trees in commemoration of fallen soldiers in Donbass
Together with volunteer fighters and their friends

The tenth of April some residents of Odessa were celebrating the 75th anniversary since the liberation of the city from German occupation. To my surprise, the city administration of Odessa and some governmental structures supported the organizers of this event. However, this event was not welcomed by all residents of the city having in mind the Soviet nostalgia evoked by this commemoration. On this day, the police was mobilized in great numbers to prevent violent actions.

10th of April, in front of the monument to an unknown sailor in Odessa
April 10 – in front of the monument to an unknown sailor in Odessa
Celebration on the “square of 10th April”
Soviet remnants
Together with Ukrainian Guard of Honor in the “Park of Victory”

I was also invited to Rukh’s office in Odessa by the former volunteer fighter who works there. Rukh is people’s movement and a political party that mostly attracts Ukrainian nationalists. I have met many Ukrainian volunteer combatants who support right wing political movements and parties. However, it is important to mention that these nationalists differ from those in Western Europe and Scandinavia. My encounter with Ukrainian nationalists was always nice, and at least out of my experience, I can conclude that these people express civic nationalism rather than ethnic. I would call these Ukrainians passionate patriots and not radical far right nationalists as some call them in various media outlets. These are people who love their country. They welcome all ethnicities who respect the sovereignty of Ukraine.

Rukh’s office in Odessa

This was all from the city of Odessa. See ya next week!

A country in crisis:(

My first impression about the generous Ukrainian people, but also the rotten Ukrainian system that makes one’s life intolerable began with an incident at the airplane. I was flying with Ukrainian International Airlines (UIA), which I strongly don’t recommend to anyone else. This is because the personnel working on board did not fulfill their obligation. When I bought my ticket I paid for a meal, which I was supposed to get during my journey. However, despite the indication of this information in my ticket, the personnel tried to find various excuses and persuaded me that UIA did not inform them about this. I was told that I have to pay for my meal anew. Seeing me somewhat disappointed Ukrainian passengers sided with me and criticized the personnel of UIA. A middle aged man who was sitting next to me said ironically: “welcome to Ukraine”! Then I thought and wondered how bad the situation should be in this country that the “best” airlines skimped on its passengers.

I did not know what to expect from a country that has experienced a revolution, coup d’etat, annexation of its territories and military conflict during the last five years. Moreover, Ukraine is literally on the verge of bankruptcy. I recall what the man sitting next to me in the airplane said when we went into conversation. He said that “people in Ukraine do not live, they survive, and make a living as they can”. Nevertheless, Ukrainian people are very kind, hospitable and always willing to help. When I arrived to Odessa a friend of mine came to the airport to meet me and followed with me to my accomodation. This was very kind of my friend who lives in Odessa. Because when taxi drivers see visitors and tourists, the price from airport to downtown can vary from 50 to 100 $.  Thanks to the local knowledge of my friend the taxi costed only 5 $. In general, during my short period in Ukriane I clearly understood one thing that Catherine Wanner wrote for more than twenty years ago in her book called “Burden of Dreams: History and Identity in Post-Soviet Ukraine”.  Ukraine is one of those post-Soviet countries where you still have to know someone or to have “blat” so that things can work efficiently.

The flags of Odessa, Ukraine and EU

The city of Odessa is located in the south of the country. It is also called the pearl of Black Sea. The city was founded in the 18th century. One can encounter plenty of buildings and other architecture built during Tsarist and Soviet eras. Everyone who has visited Odessa would say that this city is frozen in time.  It is still possible to see plenty of Soviet cars in the streets that were manufactured in the Soviet Union. Even some people I have met here express Soviet nostalgia from time to time.

Volga, Qaz 24, Made in USSR.

Russian language is widely spoken in Odessa, which makes my everyday encounter with locals somewhat easy due to my proficiency in Russian. The city of Odessa is very multicultural, and beside the majority Ukrainians the city is home to Russians, Bulgarians, Jews, Moldovans and other ethnic groups.  Potemkin stairs, the famous Deribasovskaya street and Arkadiya beach are the favourite sites visited by tourists.

Potemkin Stairs
Potemkin stairs from the bottom
Odessa Maritime Station
Richelieu square
Port of Odessa

There is one thing about Odessa that I can not be silent about. Although there are beggars in almost every city of the world, the poverty in Odessa is expressed differently, especially by the youth. Instead of asking for money, teenager boys and girls can approach someone in the street and simply ask to buy them food, water or a bus ticket. It is heartbreaking to see the young generation in such condition!

I could not meet my second contact person at the Odessa National Mechnikov University this week since most of the lecturers were busy due to the ongoing examinations. My gatekeeper had also a tight schedule at work and could not meet me this week. So, I will meet my contact person at the University, as well as my gatekeeper next week. My gatekeeper will inform me about the Right Sector’s activities and introduce me to the research participants that I plan to interview and observe.

It was all from me for this time but I will be back with new stories next week!