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.)