When I decided to go to Ukraine, I e-mailed my old friend Natalia from the Helsinki Citizens Assembly (hCa).The hCa was an organization composed of Western European peace movements and Eastern European human-rights groups that was established immediately after the end of the Cold War to support civil society in difficult places. Natalia founded the Ukrainian branch. She is a dashing elderly lady who wears lots of scarves and rings and a blue velvet cap. She was a biologist in Soviet times, but after 1990 she became a pro-democracy activist. She speaks wonderful English; her favorite author is Margaret Drabble. Jewish and from a Russian-speaking family, Natalia is passionate about Ukraine and democracy.
When she received my e-mail she was in the south taking part in a civic blockade of Crimea organized by the Crimean Tatars. I had been to Crimea with Natalia 20 years ago in support of the Tatars. They are the original inhabitants of Crimea, but were deported by Stalin to Central Asia during World War II and only returned after the independence of Ukraine in 1991; now they are being persecuted by the new Russian regime. They are imprisoned, tortured, and killed; many lose their homes and many have had to flee Crimea. All this has been reported by Russian human-rights groups, as well as by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the High Commissioner for National Minorities. Natalia invited me to join her and I agreed.
We flew from Kiev to Odessa, together with my colleague Domenika, and hired a car to drive to Kherson, which is near the border. Odessa is a beautiful 18th-century city on the edge of the Black Sea. It used to be 40 percent Jewish, and there is still an active Jewish community. There is a magnificent opera house, where Tchaikovsky composed and conducted. Kherson is a typical Soviet-style town, with very little in the way of cafes, shops, or hotels.
We met activists in both Odessa and Kherson. In both places they are extremely proud of having thwarted the Putin government’s plans to establish a Russian land mass that connected Crimea and the Donbass and Russia, an area Putin and many Russian nationalists called Novorossiya, as it was called in the times of the Russian empire. Even though the area is predominantly Russian-speaking, many local people supported the 2013–14 Maidan protests in Kiev and indeed held their own protests; they wanted to remain part of Ukraine, not least because of their hopes for democracy.
When Russian separatists in the Donbass (Eastern Ukraine) seized administrative buildings with the support of volunteers from Russia, similar groups tried to do the same in the south. The Ukrainian government did nothing in any of these areas, but in the south, Ukrainian citizens resisted. In Odessa, there was a pitched battle between pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian activists. The conflict ended with the burning of the old Soviet trade-union building, which the separatists had occupied—it seems to have been an accident—in which many innocent bystanders were killed alongside Russian separatists. Now the concrete square in front of the building is filled with flowers. In Kherson, the resistance was more peaceful.