ODESSA, Ukraine (Reuters) - A statue of Catherine the Great has sparked a fierce row in the multi-ethnic Ukrainian port of Odessa, with riot police confronting Cossack demonstrators in the street after midnight.
The members of Ukraine’s revived medieval Cossack movement are enraged about the resurrection of a monument to the 18th-century Russian empress — which city officials see as a step towards rebuilding Odessa’s historic centre and securing patronage from the U.N. cultural organization UNESCO.
The modern-day heirs of the Cossacks, aligned with Ukrainian nationalists, vilify Catherine as a foreign despot who crushed Ukraine’s limited autonomy at the time, and disbanded units of their celebrated predecessors.
“We used to have communism. Now we are told how wonderful things were before the Bolsheviks. And people believe it,” said Serhiy Gutsalyuk, an “otaman”, or leader, of an Odessa Cossack group as preparations went ahead to restore the monument.
“City authorities will hear nothing of reconciliation. And we will never accept any monument to Catherine the Great.”
Born in Germany, Catherine expanded and centralized the Russian empire over 34 years in power, doing away with the autonomy long enjoyed by Ukraine and other regions.
She never visited Odessa, but the city was linked to her as surrounding territory was seized from the Ottoman Turks by armies serving in her name in the late 18th century.
The 11-metre (35-foot) high monument depicts the empress pointing to the site of the city standing astride a furled banner. Below are four “city founders”, including Grigory Potemkin, a general who colonized the region and was the empress’s lover.
At demonstrations in July, protesters knocked down a fence at the monument’s designated site and erected an Orthodox cross.
Authorities removed the cross and hundreds of comrades from Cossack groups throughout Ukraine massed again days later and clashed with waiting police.
But when the monument was finally put in place on Wednesday, there was no fanfare and no Cossack protesters in sight.
The image of the cossack, with single wide tuft of hair, baggy trousers and sabre, is frequently used as the archetypal symbol of Ukraine. Now dressed in standard attire, the Cossacks are generally viewed as a quaint part of the country’s folklore.
Formed as a community of former outlaws in a camp on the Dnieper River, Cossacks in the early 17th century made their living raiding Turkish territories, including those along the Black Sea coast.
They were a force for Ukrainian autonomy until the middle of that century when their leader, or hetman, Bohdan Khmelnitsky, agreed to Ukraine’s unification with Russia. Cossack rebellions led to Catherine abolishing the hetmanate as a symbol of self-rule.
The Ukrainian Cossacks — who keep alive traditional Cossack horsemanship and enforce hunting rules in the countryside — have lacked a clear role since Soviet times despite attempts to incorporate them into the armed forces.
Right up to the eve of the monument’s installation, they vowed new protests and legal action against it, while darkly suggesting they could not control their radical followers.
The Cossacks also demanded public hearings on a compromise: abandon the monument and relaunch construction of a never-completed church devoted to Saint Catherine on the site.
The revived Cossacks’ backers say the movement underpins the new Ukrainian state. Detractors say Cossacks were used to mete out punishment to Jews or rebellious peasants, and should have no place in a modern society.
Mayor Eduard Gurvits has dismissed the protests as “pure hooliganism”, and a straw poll in a city which hosts an annual comedy festival and includes a patchwork of Jews, Greeks and Bulgarians, Tatars and other groups, showed broad support for the monument.
“The monument looks good, let it stand there,” said Alyona Ventgerson, an entrepreneur. “None of those protesters came from around here anyway.”
First erected in 1900, six years after Odessa’s 100th anniversary, it stood for 20 years and was dismantled, like most monuments to the monarchy, on the orders of the Bolsheviks.
A monument to the communist theoretician Karl Marx was erected instead, replaced later by one honoring the 1905 mutiny aboard the battleship Potemkin, immortalized by Sergei Eisenstein’s film and revered by communists.
Oleg Gubar, a historian and writer who helped advise city authorities on the monument, predicts the row will blow over.
“Cossacks swore allegiance to Catherine the Great, Polish kings and Turkish sultans. This was simply the nature of their work,” he said. “Today, these people are being manipulated. It is, quite frankly, no more than a tragic, uncivilized joke.”