The Odessa trade union massacre, ten years later
The House of Trade Unions in Odessa, Ukraine, burns on May 2, 2014.

This article is part of the People’s World 100th Anniversary Series.

On May 2, 2014, heavily-armed fascist militia forces attacked the House of Trade Unions in Odessa, Ukraine. Trapped inside were demonstrators opposed to the right-wing government in Kiev that had been put in place in a U.S.-orchestrated coup just weeks earlier.

The new government had been established in the wake of the February 2014 “Euromaidan” protests that overthrew the corrupt albeit democratically-elected administration of President Viktor Yanukovych. Trying to play Russia and the EU off one another to get the best economic deal for Ukraine when he was in charge, Yanukovych became the target of Western-backed business interests in Ukraine and ultra-nationalist groups. The latter joined together, with U.S. support, to carry out a coup and sent Yanukovych running for Moscow.

In the wake of that coup, labor unions and left-wing parties were severely repressed in Ukraine, and activists of the Communist Party of Ukraine and other groups were forced underground. Across the country, a campaign of ethnic erasure was launched against Russian-speaking Ukrainians, with the Russian language being banned from public life.

In the mostly Russian regions of eastern Ukraine, a violent war ensued between the Kiev government and separatists. By the end of 2021, it had taken over 15,000 lives. Commanders from openly neo-Nazi and fascist groups like the Azov Battalion were integrated to become brigades of the official Ukrainian Armed Forces and given free rein in the Donbass.

So, by the time that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his military to invade Ukraine in February 2022, war had already been raging for years in eastern Ukraine. Chances for peace—both before and after the invasion—were repeatedly scuttled, often at the insistence of Kiev’s allies in Washington.

The Odessa trade union massacre was one of the earliest of many atrocities committed in the war in Ukraine. The Right Sector militia celebrated the mass murder that happened that day, calling it “yet another bright page in our fatherland’s history.” None of the perpetrators were ever brought to justice, and some of the massacre’s coordinators even ended up as members of parliament.

The article below, by John Wojcik, appeared in People’s World just after the attack. As the article reports, the death toll was believed to be 39 at the time; it was later confirmed to be 48.

Much of the Western media either ignored the massacre or blamed the victims themselves for setting the fire that killed them and is one of the most-read People’s World articles of the past decade.

Ukrainian right wingers burn alive 39 at Odessa union building
By John Wojcik
People’s World | May 5, 2014

Some 1,000 Ukrainian rightists, led by the notorious Right Sector, surrounded, stormed, and burned the House of Trade Unions in Odessa last Friday, killing 39 pro-Russia demonstrators in the building.

On their way to attacking the union hall, which was occupied by anti-Kiev government demonstrators fearing for their lives, the rightists recruited members of a Ukrainian football club, the Chernomorets, according to numerous reports in the European press and online.

Many of those who attacked and burned the building wore swastikas and other fascist insignias, according to observers. Eyewitnesses said that the fascists were armed with bats, shields, and metal chains and that the people inside the union hall had run there for protection from them. After the attack by the rightists, streets around the trade union headquarters were reportedly stained with the blood of those who had jumped from windows to escape the flames.

Women and children were reported to be among those burned alive after initial rounds of shots and Molotov cocktails were thrown into the building by the right-wingers.

Those who burned the union headquarters had already set another pro-Russian encampment in Odessa afire. That encampment consisted of rows of tents in Odessa’s Kulikova Field Square.

Police said that many of the victims at the House of Trade Unions had choked to death before burning up. The majority of the victims were found lying dead on the floors but some had jumped from windows, according to police.

As the union hall was engulfed in flames, photos posted on Twitter showed people hanging out of windows and sitting on windowsills, where they appeared to be preparing to jump.

According to numerous reports, those who jumped and survived were surrounded and beaten by right-wingers, including members of the football team.

The videos and photos showed Ukrainian riot police standing by doing nothing to stop or prevent the violence. The Ukrainian police said they could do nothing because they were “unarmed.”

Right Sector has bragged about its role in the killings online and on YouTube:

“At first we broke through the side, and then we came through the main entrance,” said one pro-Kiev rightist who identified as a member of the group.

As the building burned, some of the pro-Kiev activists said on Twitter that “Colorado beetles are being roasted up in Odessa,” using a derogatory term for the St. George’s ribbons worn by many of the anti-Kiev government demonstrators.

There were few official media outlets present, thus the heavy reliance on livestreamed social media.

“The aim is to completely clear Odessa of pro-Russians,” said Dmitry Rogovsky, another Right Sector activist whose hand was injured during the fighting.

Increasing violence by the rightists is a growing embarrassment to the U.S. and the European Union, which have backed the right-wing coup in Kiev and have tried to pin the blame for Ukraine’s troubles on Russia.

Leading circles in those countries had hoped to use the coup government to force an IMF-designed austerity program on the Ukraine. If the right-wingers continue to embarrass the West, however, U.S., E.U., and IMF plans for Ukraine could go awry.

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John Wojcik
John Wojcik

John Wojcik is Editor-in-Chief of People's World. He joined the staff as Labor Editor in May 2007 after working as a union meat cutter in northern New Jersey. There, he served as a shop steward and a member of a UFCW contract negotiating committee. In the 1970s and '80s, he was a political action reporter for the Daily World, this newspaper's predecessor, and was active in electoral politics in Brooklyn, New York.