The House of Trade Unions fire, which happened on 2 May 2014, left forty-two anti-Maidan protesters dead from suffocation and defenestration. The protesters, alternately described as ‘pro-federalist’ in a 2021 report issued by the Head of the United Nations’ Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, were against the further integration of the country with the West and instead favored preferential relations with Russia.
The anti-Maidan protesters lost their lives after barricading themselves in the Stalinist building amidst clashes with pro-Maidan, or ‘pro-unity,’ protesters. To date, only one person has been criminally charged for their actions on 2 May—a pro-Maidan protestor accused of firing a lethal shot at an anti-Maidan protester elsewhere in Odesa, and that case is still making its way through the court.
No one has been held responsible for the burning of the House of Trade Unions—neither those who started the fire nor the emergency services whose response to it was woefully slow. According to the UN report, “trials fail to progress mainly due to a lack of political will” accentuated by “the lack of security for judges.”
Years later, Odesa’s House of Trade Unions smolders on, in an affecting video work by Nikolay Karabinovych. In the work, “Something Happened This Spring,” a slow-moving, stabilizer-mounted camera roams an Odesa side street at sundown and then cuts to the House of Trade Unions.
The building appears as a shell of its pre-fire self on an overcast day, with blown-out windows, soot-stained walls, and a wisp of smoke slithering out into the sky from one of its upper rooms. Set to a tense, droning dirge, the nine-minute-and-twenty-second film then proceeds through a stairwell piled with wood scraps before entering the building’s theatre, where smoke begins to rise from the empty seating section.
In the film’s last minutes, the camera plods into the thick smoke, and then emerges in the rear of the disturbed hall for drama.
Karabinovych speaks about the “open problem of description and memory” of tragic events like those which took place in Odesa on 2 May 2014, positing that this has “led, on the one hand, to the use of the insult of the victims in Russia propaganda, and, on the other hand, “to the formation of a specific local culture of non-remembrance, a kind of “monument of silence” at the scene of the fire.”
The artist’s comments were published in the exhibition text for the two-person exhibition in Kyiv in fall 2021 where “Something Happened This Spring” was presented for the first time.
Viewed as a meditation on the “monument of silence” at the scene of the House of Trade Unions fire, the smoke in Karabinovych’s film appears as the remnants of a site-wide funeral pyre, the flammable heap of distended memory. Rewatched in the wake of the advent of Russia’s full-scale war on Ukraine, the film seems to contain a coded message.
“Something Happened This Spring” has smoke signals, an old form of long-distance communication that is associated with Native American Indians, but also used by the Cossacks, who, for centuries, fought against imperialism; smoke both reminds and forewarns.