27 Jan

Odessa’s burgers, icicles and riffraff


On the street, in front of his burger-joint, Stanislav Vetov blows in his hands, he can barely keep warm. It’s at least fifteen degrees C below zero in Odessa, the famous port city on the Black Sea. Such low temperatures they’d almost forgotten. In recent years it hasn’t been as cold as now. “Probably this cold also depends on our president,” he tells me. While a colleague of him is looking at his back, Stanislav’s face doesn’t betray any emotion; among each other they prefer not to talk about politics.

But if you switch to one of the many local TV-channels, you can see that the media are filled with news about the conflict in the Eastern part of Ukraine. Just with the shelling of a minibus, some days ago, twelve people were killed. The battle between regular troops and separatists is raging on for nearly two years. So far, according to official figures, six thousand people have been killed. A million people have fled the violence, their homes or its remains have been left behind. At various places in Odessa shelter refugees from Donetsk, a city of millions five hundred kilometers to the east.

Under appalling conditions two hundred of them are brought together in a dilapidated, residential flat in Ostrovskogo. In the very first room hangs a penetrant smell, somewhere holding middle between the odors at a trailer camp of Gypsies and the day care of The Salvation Army, early-morning when the homeless are just getting out of bed. There’s far too little place to sleep and people are resting in shifts; per room are seven, eight people laying on top of each other. On mattresses, sofas or on the floor, everywhere are people sleeping.

Natalia Petrova and Larisa Taranova are sitting in the communal kitchen at the end of the corridor. The agony of recent events lies deeply etched on the women’s faces. In the battle of Donetsk both of them have lost a son. With an empty gaze, knowing that their old life will never return, they’ve stayed behind with the knowledge that nothing has meaning any more.

Stanislav bakes a burger. “We bought the best meat in town, but there are no customers. It’s far too cold outside, besides no-one has any money.” The residents of Odessa are fed up with the conflict in the east of the country. In the political polls major politicians have, like the temperature, fallen far below zero. “The social protest over a year ago has been hijacked, and ‘they’ have organized a political revolution in Kiev,” he explains.

After the euphoria of Maidan two years ago, the atmosphere in the Southeast of Ukraine has changed. Since the gruesome killings in Odessa on the second of May last year, at which occasion about eighty people got brutally slaughtered by strangers, the upper layer of society is startled. The bourgeoisie is terrified. There are more than enough weapons in circulation to burn the whole city to the ground.

“Yes, we’re still baking burgers,” says Stanislav, “but I actually don’t know why. The national currency has plummeted, it has decreased three times since a year back. I know many businessmen who don’t earn a penny.” The freezing temperature, fear and hunger have their effect on the population. There’s ground for discontent.

“When the men return from the front, there’ll be a third Maidan,” implores Stanislav. Opportunistic, European politicians like the Swede Carl Bildt and the Pole Donald Tusk have set Ukraine over two years ago up against Russia, but by now the situation in Ukraine starts to look like a dangerous game of Russian roulette. In the current situation, earlier, gross miscalculations seem to play a significant role.

As a statesman Putin might have considerably more experience than any of his democratic colleagues in the west. A year ago he broke a lance on Russian television: “Dying with Putin”. Ideologically, they’re ready in the Kremlin. The relationship with the Ukrainian neighbor can be simply characterized with a Russian joke: “What’s by far the most difficult language in the world?” Russians show little respect for her Ukrainian brother. “Ukrainian!” is the right answer. “Half of their population doesn’t even speak that language.”

This meager joke clearly shows the love-hate relationship between the two nations. Russia doesn’t regard Ukraine as its equivalent. And who knows that maybe, given the bad situation in Ukraine, the office of the Secret Service in Moscow is running down the scenario on a Lumpen-proletariat.

Stanislav flips a burnt hamburger and asks me: “Do you know when the geopolitical conflict between America and Russia will come to an end?” I shake my head. “On the day the last Ukrainian gets killed,” he says wryly.