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Last Updated: Monday, 9 May, 2005, 10:56 GMT 11:56 UK
Odessa looks back on wayward past

By Misha Glenny
BBC News, Odessa, Ukraine

Port of Odessa, Ukraine
The port's history was shaped by Soviet, gangster and oligarch rule
"V Odyessu pozdno vyecherom priyekhal parokhod..."

So ran the first line of a 19th-Century Russian song my father used to sing to me when I was a boy.

It anticipates the arrival of another boatload of fun-loving sailors preparing for a shore leave consisting excusively of drinking and whoring.

The lyrics attach no opprobrium to this behaviour - on the contrary, the sailors' antics are presented as the natural state of affairs in Odessa.


This Black Sea port, founded just over two centuries ago by a French baron, boasts a quite singular reputation for mixing boisterous fun with criminality.

And Odessa really does feel different from other former Soviet cities. Half-an-hour's drive inland from the port, you can still see the original two-storey housing of the early 18th Century when this was the fastest-growing city in Europe.

Ukraine gives corruption a bad name
George Soros
Mercifully this was not destroyed to make way for the ugly functionalist nightmare of socialist architecture.

True, the sad dilapidation that affects most buildings aside from a few chichi prestige projects in the very heart of the city reflects how Odessa clearly fell on Soviet times followed by 15 years of gangster capitalism.

But despite this, it is a much cheerier and relaxed place than most of Ukraine.

Large ports are, by dint of their economic function, a magnet for gangsters and corrupt officials.

But Odessa is in Ukraine which until the Orange Revolution swept it away at the end of last year, was in the grip of what even its mildest critiques referred to as a mafia regime.

During the misrule of the former President Leonid Kuchma, the billionaire philanthropist, George Soros, made the witty but telling observation, "Ukraine gives corruption a bad name."

Rule of Karabass

Before I arrived in Odessa, I had heard talk that in the early 1990s the town had been largely under the control of a stone-cold mafia killer who went by the name of Karabass, a moniker immediately recognisable to locals as the evil puppet master in the Russian version of Pinocchio.

Soon after reaching Odessa, I learned that Karabass had been gunned down in 1995 outside the Russian steam baths near the city centre and so first thing the next day, I visited the scene of the crime.

In a colourful if somewhat rundown courtyard, I saw several bunches of fresh flowers.

Above these were two plaques - one engraved with the image of Karabass, looking sleek and masterful, cropped hair in a suit over a neat T-shirt, the other had on it a poem written by his closest friends in praise of the man who they said had now flown to heaven to join the angels.

Happily nestled inside some of the flowers were banknotes. Now this really was a mark of respect - in a place like Odessa, where there is a lot of visible poverty and a lot of begging, to see banknotes sitting in a public place untouched suggests profound respect for its late recipient.

"Karabass was no saint," a former policeman told me who like most people in Odessa discussing this subject declined to be named, "but he was from Odessa and loved this place and he maintained order according to some civilised values."

Mafia anarchy

Several people, including a professor of criminology, said that Karabass gave strict orders to the drug dealers who plied their trade in the district of Odessa known amusingly as Palermo, that he would not tolerate any attempted expansion of their business into other areas of the city.

"Under Karabass," the ex-cop continued, "this city really was relatively drug free in contrast to almost everywhere else in Russia and Ukraine which experienced an explosion of drug abuse in the early 1990s."

Karabass's death occured a year after Kuchma came to power. And it appears that without its guardian angel, Odessa slipped very quickly into a mafia anarchy which soon earned it the title of "the most criminal port in the world", despite stiff competition from places like Shanghai.

Parts of the town became a shooting gallery as two rivals fought for control of the mayor's office while behind this an even bigger game was being played out between huge Russian companies determined to gain decisive influence over Odessa's most important industrial asset, the oil terminal.

Like the rest of Ukraine, Odessa is about to begin the process of uncovering just how much money was looted from the state and ordinary people by Kuchma's oligarchy.

It will be very hard to restore normality to Odessa, if only because as a strategic port in which not just Ukrainian but Russian oil companies have a fervent interest, it would be hard to avoid corruption even under the most enlightened ruler.

But after a grim decade of lawlessness, people here are partying with the sailors again.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 7 May, 2005 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.


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