My Night With The Ukrainian Mob

A middle age woman with long, windblown salt and pepper hair wearing a heavy black coat and black pants is standing awkwardly on the shore of a gloomy beach with an overcast sky.
Photo of author: Joyce O’Day on a Black Sea beach in Odessa, Ukraine.

I was held hostage on a Black Sea cruise.

The Setup

In March 2002, I escorted nine students on an exchange trip to Odessa, Ukraine, hosted by the U.S. State Department. We arrived in Kiev on March 9th, and after a couple days of sightseeing, we took the overnight train to Odessa. On the 13th, “community leaders” invited our group on an evening cruise of the harbor. I was beyond excited to take in the views of such a historic city from the water; plus, I love boat rides, and this was a party ship that looked like a disco.

The background is a photo of the Port of Odessa — a massive structure with numerous buildings, including the multistory Hotel Odessa, and dock areas. One large ship is visible at the dock. There are cars, trees, and pedestrians in view. The foreground shows a male and female couple and a teenage male approaching a huge stone staircase.
Photo of the Port of Odessa with the Odessa Steps (made famous from the 1925 movie Battleship Potemkin) in the foreground taken by author: Joyce O’Day.

The Reality

I never saw a thing. Immediately after boarding the boat, myself and our school’s principal were taken to a private cabin below deck. We were joined by the two teachers who were our hosts for the student exchange and the Ukrainian school principal who spoke no English. Waiting for us were three men: “the Commissar;” another man who looked like William Shatner; and Nikolai, who was a younger, better-looking version of Sylvester Stallone. Nikolai, with his fancy new black Mercedes, was my principal’s driver. Rather than stay with a host family in the “suburbs,” like I did, my principal elected to stay at a hotel in downtown Odessa. He noted a listening device suspended from the ceiling, and every time he left the hotel for a walk, he was followed by two men in suits. My principal quickly decided he was better off staying in the company of Nikolai, who insisted on escorting him to his room every night.

Our Evening with the Sopranos

The “Commissar” and “Shatner” informed us — via the Ukrainian school teachers who translated the entire evening — that they were “sponsors” of the school that was hosting our group. They served an impressive spread of raw fish, smoked fish, varieties of sausage, ham, cheese, tomatoes, cucumbers, bread, and fruit, along with copious amounts of red wine and vodka. Abstaining from the alcohol was not an option — under the circumstances, it would have been considered dangerously rude. Plus, the Moldovan wine was among the best I ever had. The only thing I could read on the bottle was 1857. Was it the vintage or the brand? I’ll never know. After I complemented the wine, the “Commissar” said he would send me home with a case.

The conversation centered around life in the United States, and they were especially interested in our hometown of Las Vegas. They were excited to note that there was a casino called “Nevada” in Odessa. In every city I have been to around the world that allows gambling, there seems to be a Las Vegas or Nevada casino. They were amused that my grandparents had migrated from Odessa in 1911; I was one of them. Much of the evening was something of a blur. There were endless toasts of where I was fine drinking wine, whereas my principal was expected to keep up with the vodka-drinking Ukrainians — shot for shot. Ouch! Throughout the night, my principal kept leaning over and whispering, “The Sopranos.” Our soirée ended with coffee and cake.

The photo shows the exterior of a building with “Nevada” written in Cryillic with red letters. Near the door, there is a caricature of a jester beneath the words “jack pot 10,000.”
Photo of the Nevada casino in Odessa, Ukraine, taken by the author: Joyce O’Day.

The biggest challenge of the evening was getting from the boat to our cars and not letting on to the students how totally wasted we were. Throughout the evening, I worried about the students, but by all accounts, they had a lovely time on the disco boat.

Afterwards, my principal and I agreed that we had been vetted by the Odessa mob. He returned home a few days later, whereas I stayed with the students for another two weeks.

Sadly, that case of wine never materialized.

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