Independent future welcomed in Odessa Ukrainian vote expected to bring new life to port

ODESSA, UKRAINE — ODESSA, Ukraine -- The whole political landscape of what used to be the Soviet Union is undergoing a geologic upheaval of Himalayan proportions.

Here, a country the size of France is about to be born in a referendum next Sunday on Ukrainian independence that everyone expects will be approved. But in one respect, at least, Odessans are like most other people: The great political events are simply not an abiding concern.


In the far-to-the-north Russian capital of Moscow and the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, politics flourishes in a hothouse atmosphere. In a few places, like the western Ukraine, long-nurtured grievances and the genuine pain of Russian domination have made independence and national feeling a deeply felt cause.

But this is a big country. A traveler could go for days without seeing a campaign poster. Millions go about their lives, wondering where to find food or decent clothing or something to fix a leaky roof with, unconcerned with lapel buttons or petitions or rallies. Across broad swaths of countryside, the difficulty of life does not translate into political activism.


"The main problems are how to earn money -- and how to spend it," said Galina Kondroshova, an Odessa engineer.

Odessa is perched on a distant edge. The Russians built the city from scratch in 1794. It lies between the fog and the steppe. The fog rolls in from the Black Sea. The steppe rolls north, mile after mile, until it reaches the settlements that can claim a genuine Ukrainian heritage.

Odessa is closer to Istanbul than it is to Lvov, the city where the Ukrainian independence movement was born.

Two things come together in Odessa: ships and trains. The mixed sound of ships' horns and freight-car wheels wafts up from the docks and drifts constantly and gently throughout the old part of the city.

It carries down the tree-lined cobblestone streets; past the vine-covered decrepit houses and shops and hotels, peeling reminders of a more genteel time; and around the crowds of unclad statuary, bare women and men everywhere holding up cornices and bowing down under bay windows.

Odessa faces the sea. It looks out to the world, and wonders about the Ukraine behind it.

With the elections approaching, signs of interest were few last week,but one slogan had been scrawled on the side of a building: "Yes to independence. No to nationalism."

Dr. Eduard Serdyuk, chief of City Hospital No. 8, explained what that meant. Independence is a fine idea, he said, particularly since it is inevitable. It will mean losing a whole layer of government, and not having to seek permission from Moscow to get anything done.


But the nationalism at issue here, he said, is ethnic Ukrainian nationalism -- Ukraine for the Ukrainians. It is rooted in western Ukraine, which wasn't even absorbed into the Soviet Union until the close of World War II and where people speak Ukrainian and worship in the Ukrainian Uniate Church.

It is, in some respects, militantly anti-Russian.

A tolerant place now

Dr. Serdyuk himself is Ukrainian, but Odessa has people of more than 100 nationalities. Russian is their language. Long ago, the city had a reputation for the pogroms committed against its ** once sizable Jewish population, but today it is a generally tolerant place.

"We never ask people what nationality they are," said Dr. Serdyuk. "Who cares?"

Odessa wants to do deals. It wants to keep shipping Russian freight through its port. It wants foreign partners. It wants to expand its sister city relationship with Baltimore. It wants to join the world.


But will the nationalists take power in Kiev and draw the Ukraine inward?

Seven men are running for the Ukrainian presidency. Five identify themselves as nationalists, ranging from reasonable to rabid.

The strongest, and most moderate, of the five is Vyacheslav Chornovil, who spent several years in jail under the communists. He is the candidate of Rukh, the umbrella group that spearheaded Ukrainian independence.

Of the two other candidates, one is an unreconstructed Communist, and the other is Leonid Kravchuk, the current leader and former Communist apparatchik, a man who has carefully walked away from the wreckage of the old regime, embraced much of the nationalists' platform and is now eyed warily by just about everybody.

Few trust him. Polls say he will probably win.

(Mr. Kravchuk said yesterday his republic would not join in a new confederation of Soviet republics, Reuters quoted Interfax news agency as reporting.


(His refusal is a blow for Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, who has said he is still hoping the powerful Ukraine will become part of the new grouping agreed between eight republics last week.

("I will take no part in the Novo-Ogaryovo process, that is, talks on signing a new union treaty," Interfax quoted Mr. Kravchuk as saying during an election campaign speech, according to Reuters. "All allegations that I mean to join the treaty later are nothing but fiction," he said.)

Archimandrite Tikhan, a gentle man who helps run the Odessa Seminary, said, "Kravchuk is not perfect, but he will not lead us into nationalism and the church will support him."

Boris Dizenfeld, a no-nonsense businessman who is putting together deals with U.S. and German partners, said, "The parliamentary system that will be introduced will be the best guarantee that the laws are carried out, but I would prefer a good man as leader. For today, it's Kravchuk. Maybe tomorrow we will have a better candidate, but as of now we haven't seen him. We have to work with what we've got."

That's the kind of ringing endorsement that a visitor hears often around Odessa. Dr. Serdyuk, who is a member of the City Council, expects about half the eligible voters to turn out Sunday.

There are, as always, a few optimists. (An optimist, according to the Odessa joke, is someone who says, "Well, we're really down now;" a pessimist is someone who replies, "Oh, no, not at all -- not yet.")


Valery Malakhov, rector of the Odessa Polytechnic Institute, thinks things will get better no matter how the elections turn out, because independence is a foregone conclusion and, having formally blessed it, Ukrainians can then go about building a new life for themselves.

Wants free zone

And Odessa can move closer to realizing a dream hatched earlier this year, of declaring itself a "free economic zone."

Mayor Valentin Simonyenko and the City Council are vigorously pushing the plan, which has been held up by the political uncertainty of the past year.

The general idea is that foreign and local businesses would be given a green light to do what they want without interference from Kiev.

Some people have visions of a little Switzerland flourishing easily on the Black Sea. Others, such as Mr. Dizenfeld, understand that they would have to scramble to stay ahead, once Odessa opens itself up to world business and world standards.


His business, Sepros Center, has turned profits on several manufacturing and assembly ventures, but he knows he would have to drop those lines if exposed to foreign competition because of their quality. He is already working on new ventures that would be up to international standards.

As a whole, the economy of an independent Ukraine, with a population of 52 million, would rest on coal, extensive agriculture, machine and ship building, cheap labor, and a large number of highly educated people. But it would be beset by woefully outdated equipment, poor work habits, severe pollution and the fairly acute poverty that exists today.

Odessans hope that, if left alone, they could help pull the Ukraine toward a more prosperous future. Theirs is an unusual city.

'We are beggars'

People here go to the ballet or opera two or three times a month, in the splendorous and lovingly restored Opera House, where Caruso and Chaliapin once sang, a gilded confection of a building that makes even Moscow's famous Bolshoi Theater look austere.

It's the kind of city where people routinely have friends overseas, where Pushkin is a civic hero because he came here when he was banished from Moscow.


But it's also a place where people wait miserably in line for their monthly sugar ration, in a republic that produces 7 million tons of sugar a year; where apartment stairwells are uniformly dark, dank and foul-smelling; where the drinking water is undrinkable, and the seawater is unswimmable.

"Our country is so rich, and our people are so good -- and look what we've come to," said Dr. Serdyuk. "We are not poor, we are beggars. It's hard not to be mean and cruel when you are in that state. But Russians are not naturally like that. It's the system that made us that way."

Father Tikhan, at the seminary, counts himself as an optimist. Things really have hit bottom, he thinks. Unbelievably, he said, some of the students must wear brown robes now because black cloth has become unavailable.

After 74 years, though, Odessa and the Ukraine finally have a chance to open up to the world again, throwing off their isolation, and that's good because at last people will understand again the value and necessity of hard work, he said.

"And if people are working," he said, "they won't have time to think about sinning."