Russian President Vladimir Putin talked about “New Russia” last week during a long question-and-answer session on national television. He was giving a little history lesson about the 18th century and making an observation, a promise—or a threat—for the future.
“I would like to remind you that what was called Novorossiya [New Russia] back in the tsarist days—Kharkov, Lugansk, Donetsk, Kherson, Nikolayev and Odessa—were not part of Ukraine back then,” he said. They were conquered by Catherine the Great and Prince Grigory Potemkin and it was just an inexplicable fluke of history, as far as Putin was concerned, that they’d wound up on the far side of the Russian border still full of Russian people.
Connect Putin’s dots on a map—Lugansk, Donetsk, Nikolayev, Kherson, Odessa—and you see not only the whole troubled east of Ukraine, but the whole south along the Black Sea coast all the way to the border with Moldova and its troubled breakaway province of Transnistria, where Russian “peacekeepers” have been based since 1994.
Putin’s remarks were broadcast on Thursday. On Saturday in Odessa pro-Russian protesters declared a square called Kulikovo Field “a piece of the Republic of Novorossiya, free of fascists.” The leader of the movement there, Artem Davydchenko, said that together with groups in other cities they were organizing first-aid clinics, field churches and defense units made up of local army veterans who are not armed, at least for now.
Why? Davydchenko said these partisans did not want to be ruled by “pro-American, neo-Nazi, oligarchic and corrupt” authorities in Ukraine. The idea of resurrecting the largely forgotten polity of Novorossiya has been in the air for years, says Davydchenko, who is 28, but only among people like him in Russian nationalist groups. So it was “a happy news” for the people gathered in Kulikovo Field when they heard Putin finally making the idea public.
But the government in Kiev, which has been forced to stand by while Russian agents and sympathizers seized buildings and imposed their authority on whole towns in the east of the country, may well draw the line in Odessa, which is Ukraine’s main outlet to the Black Sea.
This week, the leaders of Novorossiya were threatened with arrest warrants and a new law. that could mean 15 years in jail for calls for separatism.
Around noon on Tuesday, at a Cossack headquarters set up on Kulikovo Field, the air buzzed with rumors that several hundred members of the Ukrainian armed forces were arriving in Odessa from Kiev “to cleanse” the square before the May 9 celebrations of Victory Day, for the victory over the Germans in World War II.
“We look for peaceful solutions, we have no weapons,” Davydchenko told The Daily Beast. “Our main goal is to have a democratic referendum and establish Novorossiya as a part of a federalized state with its capital in either Donetsk or Kharkiv, and Odessa as its intellectual center, as St. Petersburg is in Russia,” he said. “Later, as Vladimir Putin said, economically Novorossiya could be a part of one big Europe, from Lisbon to Vladivostok, but before that we need to get ourselves free of the fascist junta [in Kiev].”
Last month, Ukrainian Security Service officers arrested Artem’s older brother, 29-year-old Anton Davydchenko, for organizing the pro-Russian separatist movement in Odessa. Large portraits of him now frame the stage on Kulikovo Field.
As with the building occupiers in Donetsk and elsewhere, the leadership of this movement is not always clear. After two months camping in downtown Odessa downtown, Artem Davydchenko is one of three Kulikovo Field leaders supposed to have the authority to coordinate the movement’s actions with other Novorossia figures by traveling to meet with them in Crimea or conferencing daily on Skype. But on Tuesday someone named Valery Kaurov—in Moscow—suddenly proclaimed himself the president of Novorossiya. Leaders in Donetsk and Lugansk were outraged and agreed they did not want “any political prostitute Kaurov” to rule them from the Russian capital.
Who else in this city of 1 million sympathizes with this movement of a few thousand people? The activists on Kulikovo Field say that police do. Police supported Novorossiya’s idea to install a monument in memory of the Berkut riot police killed on Euro-Maidan in Kiev last February. Odessa protesters hope that when the moment comes for police to storm their camp on Kulikovo Field, police will refuse to obey the orders, just as police refused to cooperate with Kiev authorities in Donetsk.
As history students at Odessa’s Mechnikov National University, both Davydchenko brothers “promoted the idea of uniting all Slavs on the planet,” says Artem: “Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians and eventually Serbs, whoever wants to join us,” he said. “It would be great to include Transnistria, too, but for now that is not our goal.”
“The university eventually expelled me for my ideas,” he said. But now, thanks to Putin, he thinks he may have a chance to connect all those dots.