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Deep Divisions in “Soviet Marseilles”

Peace work in Ukraine

Dolce vita by the Black Sea. The port city of Odesa is a popular holiday destination in Ukraine. However, multifarious conflicts simmer below the surface and the people of Odesa are not unaffected by war in the east of the country. Together with local peace activists, forumZFD is working towards overcoming the divisions amongst the city’s population.
Girl arranging sunflowers in Odesa

On a Tuesday afternoon in late June, Oksana Dovgopolova just narrowly escapes a downpour and takes refuge in a café in downtown Odesa. Dovgopolova, with an elegant summer blouse and subtle make-up, orders a cappuccino. She addresses the waitress in Ukrainian, the language she has preferred to speak for a few years now as she explains. Odesa is predominantly Russian-speaking and many people, Dovgopolova says, still mourn for the past in which the city bore the nickname “Soviet Marseilles”. “For many people, the Soviet Union was a time when Odesa was rich and opulent and nobody needed to worry about losing their job or home,” says the professor of philosophy who lectures at the Odesa I. I. Mechnikov National University.

The city by the Black Sea is still known far beyond the borders of Ukraine for its Mediterranean flair. It has a much less hectic pace of life than the capital Kyiv. Even the corona crisis cannot completely banish the holiday feeling from the streets. The restaurants and cafés are well-frequented, with young people getting in and out of taxis and techno booming out of speakers in front of shops and bars.

Researcher of collective memory Oksana Dovgopolova: “We have a huge problem today in Odesa.”

However, while Ukrainians from all over the country meet up in the popular coastal city to enjoy the beaches and parties, the divisions between the local population have deepened in recent years, explains Dovgopolova. “We have a huge problem today in Odesa. The two groups, who some refer to as being pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian, no longer speak to one another.”

The war in the east can be felt as far away as Odesa

The Maidan Revolution in the winter of 2013/14 and its effects also put the region of Odesa to the test. Just a few weeks after the protests on Independence Square in Kyiv, Russia annexed the Ukrainian Crimean Peninsula, and a war in the east of the country between the Ukrainian Army and Russian-backed separatist groups started shortly afterwards. According to a UN Human Rights Commission report, the only ongoing armed conflict on European soil at the moment has claimed over 13,000 lives. “When the war broke out, there were people in Odesa who hoped that Russia would also occupy this city,” Dovgopolova recalls. “As a researcher of collective memory , I feel ashamed about how the people here have been pitted against one another with different historical narratives, fake news and propaganda,” says the lady in her early 50s, who has intensively studied collective memory for many years.

On 2nd May 2014 the city, which is over 500 kilometres away from the armed conflict in the east of Ukraine and 300 kilometers away from the occupied Crimea, suddenly made international headlines. Street battles broke out in the inner city between supporters and opponents of the Maidan movement. “It was awful to watch,” Dovgopolova recalls. “There were two political factions who hated and argued with each other. Some were saying: you are killing people because they speak Russian. The others were saying: you want to bring the war to our city.” 6 people died as a result of street clashes and 42 anti-Maidan protesters died that day when they fled into the Trade Unions Building during the riots and a fire broke out. Who or what was responsible for the fire remains unclear because the case was never fully judicially clarified. Wreaths and memorial plaques commemorate the tragedy; some of the broken windows have still not been replaced. “Back then,” Dovgopolova says, “the two groups were still talking with one another. Today there is hardly any interaction. But the problems are not being solved and past events are not being worked through.”

Flowers and messages commemorate the tragedy of 2nd May 2014 in front of the Trade Unions Building where 42 people lost their lives in a fire.

That is why together with forumZFD, the researcher of collective memory developed the idea for the “Past / Future /Art” project, which has already hosted a number of panel discussions with activists and artists. It’s an attempt to rekindle dialogue between people in the city. “We want to work through past conflicts and traumas together, take the problems out of the heated context and in doing so highlight our commonalities.” Having to shift events onto the internet because of the Covid-19 pandemic  also had a positive side, Dovgopolova emphasises, because they are now accessible to more people. “Perhaps our fellow citizens in the neighbouring regions can now also participate in the discussions.”

Local initiatives bring people together

Away from the hustle and bustle and the tourist attractions, ten minutes’ walk from the historical centre, Dmytro Kovbasyuk is also committed to re-engaging his compatriots in dialogue. Kovbasyuk is an activist and the initiator of the “Good Neighbourhood” movement. With two quick flashes of the hand, the 38 year old picks up plastic waste from the ground as he passes by an old, two-storey building with a yellow stucco façade before unlocking an iron gate and presenting the centrepiece of his work: the courtyard.

Orange lilies grow in a flowerbed enclosed by a seating wall. A free-standing door is positioned in front of an ivy-covered wall which four years ago fell victim to its long-term neglect. From a small open-air stage, Kovbasyuk surveys the courtyard and points to the black stone slabs on the ground. “Italian merchants once brought them to Odesa, probably in the 19th century.” Kovbasyuk, whose mother lives in one of the nine apartments, has been taking care of the shared courtyard to make it more inviting since last year. The goal: to become a community again.

The courtyards are the hidden treasures of Odesa.

With the help of forumZFD, Kovbasyuk organises training sessions where other interested people can learn how Good Neighbourhood works. Activists can network, learn new methods and develop joint ideas for projects in their neighbourhood at these regular meetings. In summer 2019, for instance, they initiated a cultural festival in the courtyards of Odesa. Joint commitment to one’s own neighbourhood forges bonds, revitalises social cohesion and breaks down tensions and conflicts between residents.

Ten minutes’ drive further, Dmytro Kovbasyuk is greeted amicably by three women, the heads of a condominium, a Stalinist housing block with 200 apartments whose roughly 500 residents are connected by a large courtyard. Vines grow along the walls; a cat stretches next to the children’s climbing frame. The women have been taking care of the apartments for many years now, trying to improve the infrastructure in the building and making it a happier place to live. Amongst other things, they have learnt project management and fund-raising methods at Kovbasyuk’s training sessions. Even in the midst of the pandemic, the women continued to pursue their goals.

Together for a Good Neighbourhood

“We spent almost every day in the courtyard during the corona crisis and the nationwide restrictions,” says Alyona, a young lady with a sincere smile and hair in a bun. In recent weeks, the three have spruced up their courtyard with plants, shells and sculptures and tried to make it accessible for the disabled. A small ramp was recently installed next to the dilapidated stairs leading to the washing line to make daily life easier for older people. “Projects like this contribute to positive neighbourly relations,” Kovbasyuk says. “This courtyard is a place for residents to get to know each other.” What has become successful here again thanks to the committed neighbourhood initiative is far too seldom the case in most of the city’s residential blocks, according to Kovbasyuk.

Thanks to activists like Dmytro Kovbasyuk (left), the courtyards are becoming places for residents to meet and talk to each other again.

And yet courtyards have always played a major role as a social meeting place in Odesa. They contributed to promoting personal encounters and trust amongst people and were considered a key place for intercultural exchange. For hardly any other region in Ukraine is so ethnically diverse: people from Ukraine, Russia, Moldova, Poland, Bulgaria, Albania, Belarus and not least the Jewish community have characterised the region around Odesa for decades. However, the now decrepit French and Italian baroque style residential buildings, whose hearts are the courtyards, are barely maintained with some even collapsing in on themselves. Instead of repairing them, large construction companies are building new residential complexes and hotels all over the city.

This local building development  creates  significant potential for conflict, as Alex Azarov, project consultant in the forumZFD Odesa office, explains. “The authorities are focussed on development of profitable hotel complexes.  Many citizens are angry about that.”

Azarov, 39, is sitting at a large conference table. It is the first day for months that some members of the team of seven are working in the office. As of 11th March, successive measures were introduced in Ukraine to combat a fast spread of the coronavirus. Freedom to travel was restricted and everybody who was able to started working from home. The economic effects of the restrictions are huge. Over two million people have since lost their jobs, numerous companies have gone bankrupt.

Support during the corona crisis

“Lots of people I know were under a lot of stress and were scared of losing their jobs. And they were concerned about their health. Lots of emotions built up which were then vented on social media,” says Azarov, who in his work for forumZFD has a lot to do with the concept of Non-violent Communication”. He quickly founded an online support network. Affected people can register online and speak about their feelings, anxieties and thoughts in individual video conferences where 19 dialogue partners specially trained by forumZFD are on hand.

The sky above Odesa is once again bright blue. Groups of people saunter along the shopping streets, wearing flip-flops and eating ice cream. At first glance, there is little sign of anxiety, conflict or worries in Ukraine and in particular in the Odesa region despite Covid-19 infection rates rising again. Tourism is gradually recovering and sets the tone of the city. However, the traumatic discord of recent years still lurks beneath the surface. Together with committed local activists, forumZFD is working to help the people of Odesa become a community again.

Daniela Prugger reports as a freelance journalist from Ukraine. You can read the original version of the article in German here.


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