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on the road

May 24, 2015 | 12:58 GMT

9 mins read

The Old New Russia

Senior Eurasia Analyst, Stratfor
Eugene Chausovsky
Senior Eurasia Analyst, Stratfor
A 1905 postcard showing Odessa’s 142-meter (466-foot) Potemkin Stairs, which lead down to the harbor and were completed in 1841. Stratfor analyst Eugene Chausovsky is on the ground in Odessa.
(Detroit Publishing Company)

Odessa has always been unique among Ukraine's cities. Located on the Black Sea coast, Odessa was founded in 1794 by Catherine the Great to be the Russian Empire's premier warm-water port. Before it became Odessa, the area was sparsely populated and occupied by an Ottoman fortress known as Khadjibey. Russia took this fortress and its environs in 1789 during an era of expansion and incorporated it into Novorossiya — Catherine the Great's New Russia, which stretched from Transdniestria in the west to Mariupol in the east.

A view out from Odessa over the Black Sea with the city's port in the background. (EUGENE CHAUSOVSKY/Stratfor)

From the start Odessa has been a cosmopolitan city. Russian troops commanded by Spanish mercenary Maj. Gen. Jose de Ribas seized the city from the Ottomans. Today, the city's main thoroughfare, Deribasivska Street, bears his name. Catherine the Great was advised to designate Odessa the capital of Novorossiya by Dutch engineer Franz do Voland. Her successor, Czar Alexander I, appointed the French Duke de Richelieu to be Odessa's governor in 1803. Richelieu oversaw the beginning of the city's explosive growth and its evolution into one of Eastern Europe's prime commercial centers. During this period, the city's commercial boom and relatively tolerant atmosphere attracted immigrants from all over Europe, including Russians, Turks, Poles and Jews.

This unique mix of different religious and ethnic communities partly insulated Odessa from the growing trend toward nationalism that swept through Central and Eastern Europe in the 19th century. Such a diverse mix of groups prevented a single nationalist movement from taking hold — least of all a Ukrainian one. However, the city experienced a series of anti-Jewish pogroms, most notably in 1905. During World War II, the Nazis killed 80 percent of the Jews in the city and surrounding region. The post-war years led to ethnic displacement that further stripped Odessa of its diverse minority populations. Today, most of the city's inhabitants are either Ukrainian or Russian.

Odessa's iconic opera house on Tchaikovsky Street. (EUGENE CHAUSOVSKY/Stratfor)

In spite of these changes, the city still bears the marks of its cosmopolitan past. Odessa's opera house, one of Europe's most renowned, was constructed in a neo-Renaissance style with an Italian baroque facade. Near the Orthodox Church of Saint Panteleimon stands the green dome of the Al-Salam mosque. Odessa's thoroughfares include Jewish Street, Greek Street and Bulgarian Street. There is also a street named after iconic Russian poet Alexander Pushkin — the city was one of his favorite sources of inspiration. The crowds walking these streets, while not as diverse as those of the nineteenth century, are still more varied than those of Ukraine's other cities. I spotted numerous people who were not ethnically Slavic and occasionally passed women in headscarves. While riding the train into the city, I even spoke with one man who was half-Chilean, half-Iranian but spoke fluent Russian after having worked in Odessa as a surgeon for a decade.

Submerged Divisions

Odessa's unique character within Ukraine seems to have influenced local attitudes toward the eastern conflict between the government and pro-Russia separatists. Several people I met emphasized Odessa's neutrality. They said they just want to be left to their business and do not want to involve themselves in "the rest of the country's mess." In the western city of Lviv, eastern Kharkiv and the capital, Kiev, I saw numerous yellow and blue Ukrainian flags. Many of Odessa's buildings and souvenir stands, however, were adorned with red, white and yellow — the colors of the city's flag.

A memorial outside of Odessa's Trade Unions House to commemorate the May 2014 fire. (EUGENE CHAUSOVSKY/Stratfor)

Despite this, Odessa has not been entirely unaffected by the Ukraine conflict. In 2014, the city was the site of one of the nation's most violent episodes since the EuroMaidan protests ended. On May 2, pro-Ukraine and pro-Russia demonstrators clashed near the Trade Union building in the center of the city. The fighting left 50 people dead and over 200 injured. Most of the casualties occurred when a group of pro-Russia protesters were forced into a building that was then set on fire by the opposition.

At the time of the May 2014 fighting, it was unclear whether the city would remain part of Ukraine or separate along with Donetsk and Luhansk. In time, Kiev managed to snuff out Odessa's separatist movement, though sporadic bombings by pro-Russia elements continue in the city. The violent episode exposed the submerged divisions within the city that endure to this day. Nearly a year after the fire I visited the Trade Union to find the building, with fire-damaged walls and broken windows, shuttered. People gathered around a memorial outside, covered in photos and flowers, to pay their respects. One man placed 100 hryvnias (around $5) in a donation bucket for victims' families, while two elderly women nearby spoke angrily of hooligans who had vandalized the memorial. They complained that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko had done nothing about the defacement, and said Ukrainian news was full of lies as they saw "no sign of the government" in Odessa.

The effects of Ukraine's weak economy were apparent as I walked through the city. I saw many beggars — several of whom were old women. Odessa feels these effects in particular, because trade with Russia has fallen since the beginning of the conflict. Locals complained of stagnant wages on account of the falling currency coupled with high inflation. Pro-Russia terrorist attacks have compounded Odessa's problems with two explosions occurring in the past few days alone. Accordingly, with military personnel and police prowling the city, there is a large Ukrainian security force presence.

Into Transdniestria

Odessa is in close proximity to Russian military personnel stationed not only in Crimea but also in the nearby Moldovan breakaway territory of Transdniestria. The territory's 1990 declaration of independence has not been officially recognized by any other country, but Russia backs the government with both military and economic support. Over 1,000 Russian troops are currently stationed in Transdniestria.

The capital of the breakaway territory, Tiraspol, is only 100 kilometers (62 miles) away. A short trip by mini-bus from Odessa's central bus station takes you to Khuchurgan, Ukraine, which is right on the border. The route winds through familiar green and brown farmland, dotted with the occasional village. Unlike other parts of Ukraine, however, there's not a single blue and yellow flag.

At the border I expected to encounter difficulties and feared my U.S. passport would raise suspicion. I turned out to be wrong. The Ukrainian customs officials waved me through after briefly glancing at my papers. During the short walk across the no-mans-land between the two checkpoints, I saw a large sign in Russian for the "Pridnestrovskaya Moldavskaya Respublika" flanked by a red and green Transdniestrian flag with its yellow sickle and hammer. Nearby hung a banner commemorating the 70th anniversary of Victory Day. Once at the Transdniestrian customs station I was only asked to fill in a small visa application, which was then processed on the spot without a fee. The young official asked me a number of questions: How long do you plan to stay? Where do you live? What do you do? Where were you for Victory Day? How was it there? He asked all of these politely, especially after he noticed that I had been born in Moscow. Within 15 minutes, I had entered Transdniestria without any issues.

Once over the border, I bought a ticket for another mini-bus to Tiraspol. I paid in Ukrainian currency but received Transdniestrian rubles in change. The landscape on the ride to the capital was nearly identical to that of Ukraine. The road itself, however, was quite different. Unlike the Ukrainian side of the border, this road was well paved, without potholes, and its dividing lines were clearly marked. Along the way I passed a billboard of the breakaway republic's leader Yevgeny Shevchuk wishing everyone in Transdniestria a happy Victory Day.

The Dom Sovetov, or "House of Soviets," in Transdniestria’s capital of Tiraspol. (EUGENE CHAUSOVSKY/Stratfor)

Once the mini-bus entered Tiraspol, the contrast with Ukraine became clear. I suddenly felt as if I had been transported back to before the fall of the Soviet Union. The city's architecture was entirely Soviet. I passed concrete apartment blocs, hammer-and-sickle adorned administration buildings and sprawling parks filled with monuments, including a tank near Suvarov Square. Walking along the central boulevard of October 25th Street, almost every building had a sign commemorating Victory Day, and Russian flags hung side by side with Transdniestrian flags above the streets. At the Dom Sovetov, or "House of the Soviets," a large bust of Vladimir Lenin stood in front of the building, flanked once again by Russian and Transdniestrian flags.

A view of Tiraspol's main boulevard. (EUGENE CHAUSOVSKY/Stratfor)

There were no beggars on the streets of Tiraspol. This was surprising because Transdniestria has had economic trouble since Ukraine clamped down on cross-border trade. Also contrasting with Ukraine was the conspicuous absence of a large security presence, though an occasional lone soldier could be seen in the city's streets. One soldier, a young man no older than 20, boarded one of the mini-buses. It occurred to me that, other than a slight difference in uniform color, there was no visible difference between him and the young troops in Odessa. Yet being born just a few dozen kilometers away places them on opposing sides of a deep conflict with major regional reverberations.

It must be remembered that Transdniestria and Odessa were both originally part of Catherine the Great's Novorossiya. Now this area is split between various states in contention and Novorossiya has taken on a new meaning: Separatism, militancy and political polarization. Though the actual fighting takes place a few hundred kilometers away on Nororossiya's eastern edge, the relative calm out west remains uneasy.

Eugene Chausovsky focuses on political, economic and security issues pertaining to the former Soviet Union, Europe and Latin America. He was previously a researcher at the University of Texas, where he focused on Russian demographic trends and their impact on the country's political and electoral systems. He also holds a degree in international relations from the same university.

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