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ODESSA, Ukraine — There is a saying in Odessa that this city’s sharp-witted sense of humor is the glue that binds its diverse population and carries it through tough times.
But defining exactly what makes Odessa’s comedic characteristics funny isn’t easy, even to those who have helped make the city famous for producing some of the Russian-speaking world's best known comedians, playwrights and actors.
“Odessa humor is about our optimistic view of world, and that permeates into everything we do, from how we talk, to how we walk down the street,” said Boris Barsky, an Odessa actor and poet, whose comic troupe, “Maski-Show,” produced one of the most popular programs in the post-Soviet television world. He is now one of the principal actors at the House of Clowns, which is commonly known as the Embassy of Humor in Ukraine.
Perhaps at no other time since the breakup of the Soviet Union has the optimism of Odessa’s quirky character been more important than it is now. In the last year, this independent-minded port city in the south of Ukraine has been dragged reluctantly into the national crisis that grew out of the 2014 Euromaidan protests in Kiev, 300 miles to the north.
A year ago this May, the violence stemming from Ukraine’s military struggle against the pro-Russia separatists in the east came to Odessa’s tree-lined boulevards of 18th century nobles’ homes and palaces. A brutal street fight between supporters of the new, Western-leaning government in Kiev and pro-Russia protesters ended in a tragic fire that killed at least 40 after both sides attacked the other with Molotov cocktails.
Soon after the deadly May fire, a series of explosions sent shock waves of nervous fear through the usually upbeat and optimistic Odessaites, as the locals call themselves. Since April of last year, more than 25 bombs have targeted pro-Ukrainian volunteer bases supporting the military operation against the eastern rebels. Only one person has died — one of the bombers, and Odessaites today say they don’t have much faith that the fear campaign will end anytime soon.
“Whoever is doing the bombings is trying to destabilize things here,” said Stanislav Kuropiatnykov, 22, a teacher who went on to compare his city with a neighbor to the northeast. “But just like Kharkiv, Odessa is now in a fragile state because someone wants us to be scared.”
In reaction to those fears, the city council this year decided to scale back on Odessa’s most celebrated unofficial holiday, April Fools’ Day, by canceling the annual Humorina festival. Traditionally, April 1 is embraced by the entire city, with a parade of clowns, mimes and funny floats. Small city parks host concerts and improvisational skit competitions. Schools and universities hold student performances, and it’s not unusual to see doctors, teachers or professionals in costumes or sporting a red rubber nose.
In past years, daredevils drove souped-up cars down the famous Potemkin Steps leading to the Black Sea.
“I think people understand why they had to cancel, but of course it’s disappointing,” Barsky said.
Humor needed by both camps
Indeed, both Kharkiv and Odessa are included in what the rebels of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic refer to as “Novorossiya,” or New Russia. Kharkiv has also had several explosions, the worst of which killed four at a rally in February commemorating the one-year anniversary of the Euromaidan protests. The rebels have promised to take these cities and the rest of southeastern Ukraine as part of their campaign to create a greater, pan-Russian territory loyal to Moscow.
Recent poll numbers show that more than half of Odessa’s population supports Ukrainian unity, but 12 percent say they would welcome Russian troops in the region. Still, “the size of that number should be a concern,” said Vera Zaporozhets, an investigative journalist in Odessa. “Remember that it only took about 200 guys to take over the buildings in Donetsk and start things in the east.”
In April 2014, pro-Russia protesters seized government buildings across major cities in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, kicking off the Russia-backed separatist rebellion.
And there are still those who say they are afraid to speak up against the current Ukrainian government to express support for giving regions more autonomy or self-governance. “If you mention the word federalism or Russia, you will be arrested as a separatist, so we just keep to ourselves these days,” said Tatiana, a retiree who had come to a recent rally remembering the victims of the May 2 fire. She declined to give her last name out of fear of reprisals, but insisted that “a lot of people don’t support these ‘fascists’ in Kiev.”
Many locals say that trying to push Odessaites into either a Russian or Ukranian camp doesn’t sit well for this city’s multinational population of just over 1 million, most of whom say their loyalty lies first with Odessa before any national state. Set on a hill overlooking the Black Sea, the city was a once a gem in the Russian Empire’s southern flank, and locals still refer affectionately to her as Mama Odessa.
“Odessa was built by hundreds of different nationalities — Jews, Russians, Ukrainians, Bulgarians, Greeks … everybody,” said Igor Kneller, a satirical screenwriter born and raised here. “At first, the different groups laughed at each other’s differences. But after some time, they mixed together, and so then they began laughing at themselves.”
Each culture added to the city’s character, perhaps none more so than Odessa’s once rich and vibrant Jewish population, whose self-depreciating humor infiltrated the city’s daily speech.
“In Odessa, it doesn’t matter if you’re Russian or Ukrainian, you speak with a slight Jewish accent,” Kneller said.
Though several hundred miles from the conflict zone, tourist numbers are down because of Ukraine's war-weary, dragging economy. Still, despite all the bad news and the cancelation of the Humorina this year, many in this city were determined to celebrate April 1 in some manner.
In a show of rebellion typical of Odessa, Barsky and dozens of other clowns led a small group of painted faces and costumed adults to the top of the Potemkin Steps on April 1, where they unveiled a huge petition to send to UNESCO, asking for the day to be declared International Day of Clowns.
“The audience needs to laugh, they need this holiday,” said Giorgy Deliyev, another actor in the Maski-Show comedy troupe, and like Barsky, a National Artist of Ukraine. “Now is the time for humor. It can help unite people who are in these divided camps.”