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As Russia bombards Odesa, Soviet-friendly mayor rebrands as patriot

May 17, 2022 4:55 pmby Oleksiy Sorokin and Anna Myroniuk
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Mayor of Odesa Hennadiy Trukhanov speaks to the Kyiv Independent in his office on April 27, 2022. (Oleksandr Gimanov)

ODESA – Ukraine’s main port city is a complicated place. Known for its sandy beaches and good food, Odesa has also been associated with organized crime.

Labeled the “crime capital” by Ukraine’s former interior minister, the city has been known for an illegal construction boom. Local mobsters and Russian-friendly politicians regularly made national headlines.

Mayor Hennadiy Trukhanov is often seen as part of the problem.

Trukhanov was charged with organized crime five months before Russia began its invasion. Together with local mobster and alleged partner in crime, Volodymyr Galanternik, the mayor stands accused of privatizing some of the most lucrative land on Ukraine’s most expensive coastline.

His political career was launched by the now-defunct pro-Kremlin Party of Regions. He successfully played on local sympathies towards the city’s Soviet and imperial past, fighting against de-communization and opening monuments to a variety of Russian cultural figures.

Yet, as Russian missiles began to hit the city Trukhanov has been running for eight years, the mayor suddenly became a staunch defender of Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

“I took an oath of allegiance to Odesa and the Ukrainian people,” Trukhanov told the Kyiv Independent during an hour-long interview. “It’s important to me.”

Even though Trukhanov’s new public image is visibly off-brand, the mayor’s political opponents now struggle to list his shortcomings, saying that his new patriotic stance may actually be genuine.

The Kyiv Independent talked to Trukhanov about the war, pro-Russian sympathies among residents, the city’s notorious reputation for crime, and why despite Russia’s attacks on the city, the mayor is keen to see a street named after Soviet Marshal Georgy Zhukov.

Russians at the gate

Reaching Trukhanov’s office is no easy task. To enter the city administration building, one must pass at least three checkpoints, with the National Guard escorting the visitor to the main entrance.

Enhanced security measures have been put in place since the full-scale war broke out.

Mined beaches, anti-tank hedgehogs and increased military and police patrols are now a key feature of a city once known for playing fast and loose with government regulations. 

The city is under constant threat and regular attacks from the sea and air.

“I believe, and I see it from day one, that they have a special plan for Odesa,” which has had a symbolic place in Russia’s imperial narrative, said Trukhanov.

According to Trukhanov, Russia plans to “encircle Odesa and then try to persuade Odesa to surrender.”

“Encirclement remains a possibility,” he added.

Odesa, once known for being the Russian Empire’s main Black Sea port, faces danger from both the east and west. A Russian advance near Mykolaiv, 133 kilometers to the east, would seriously jeopardize Odesa’s security. Another threat lies in Transnistria, the Russian-controlled part of Moldova on the western border of Odesa Oblast. 

According to President Volodymyr Zelensky, Transnistria poses no threat to Ukraine — Russia can muster up to 15,000 soldiers there, yet only 3,000 are combat-ready.

Trukhanov said that this territory may be used to distract Ukraine’s Armed Forces from the eastern front, primarily the neighboring Mykolaiv Oblast.

“Mykolaiv today is that frontier, a serious frontier in the path of the invaders. Good terrain to build an effective defense,” said the mayor. Ukrainian forces have fortified defenses near the cities of Voznesensk and Mykolaiv, he said.

While Trukhanov praised the military and even Ukraine’s “European partners,” something that was unheard of for him in the past, he’s been criticized for being slow to prepare his city for war. 

Even he acknowledged that Odesa could have been sacked in Russia’s first push. The city only started putting together its Territorial Defense Units when Kyiv was already being bombed. Odesa became ready to defend itself a month later than most other Ukrainian regions. 

“We all did not expect the first strikes and an invasion on Feb. 24,” said Trukhanov. “Odesa at that time, I will tell you, was probably not ready to repel a naval landing.”

Mayor of Odesa Hennadiy Trukhanov speaks to the Kyiv Independent in his office on April 27, 2022. (Oleksandr Gimanov)

Trukhanov said that the main problem was the lack of knowledge and experience to deal with a full-scale invasion.

“We may theoretically have been ready for war, but in practice, it turned out to be a completely different matter,” said the mayor. However, Trukhanov said Odesa learned from its mistakes.

“(The Russians) wasted time but we did not,” he said.

Trukhanov said that Ukraine’s military fortified the coastline, brought anti-aircraft defense in order, and took preventive measures such as sinking Russia’s Black Sea flagship, the missile cruiser Moskva.

“It’s now impossible to land on Odesa’s coast,” Trukhanov said.

Soviet love

Even though the city managed to make itself defensible, many see Odesa as Ukraine’s weak spot due to its strong pro-Russian sentiment before the war.

The city is packed with statues of Russian political, military, and cultural figures, with a sculpture of Russian poet Alexander Pushkin – now covered with sandbags to protect it from shelling – looking onto the building of the Odesa City Council.

Trukhanov, alleged to be a former Russian citizen, flourished on the city’s Moscow-centric nostalgia. His latest pre-war campaign promise was to restore Soviet Marshal Zhukov’s name to an avenue that was renamed after the Heavenly Hundred protesters were killed during the EuroMaidan Revolution in Kyiv in 2014.

“There are things that are interpreted in other regions of Ukraine as pro-Russian views,” Trukhanov said, launching into a long monologue about the city’s attitude towards the Soviet Union.

“I clearly draw a line for myself that the Soviet soldier and the Russian soldier are completely different,” said Trukhanov. To him, the Soviet soldier was a liberator, fighting off enemies if “we don’t go into historic details that is,” he added, hinting that he used this kind of nostalgia to win elections.

Mayor of Odesa Hennadiy Trukhanov speaks to the Kyiv Independent in his office on April 27, 2022. (Oleksandr Gimanov)

The Odesa City Council has epitomized the city’s political landscape – of 64 seats, 24 are held by council members elected on the tickets of the now-banned pro-Russian Opposition Platform party and the Party of Anatoly Shariy, who’s been charged with treason.

“This is happening because they promise the Russian language, May 9 celebrations, Georgy Zhukov,” Trukhanov said. “I say if there is a demand for such things, then we cannot turn a blind eye to it.”

Trukhanov acknowledges that some locals didn’t sour on Russia in spite of the invasion because the war still seemed far away.

“There are still people in Odessa who believe that this is somewhere far away, that this is not happening,” he adds.

Whitewashing reputation

Explaining his worldview, a tangle of Soviet nostalgia and regional patriotism, Trukhanov said he “is offended when people say that they did not expect such a (pro-Ukrainian) position” from him.

“Even those who know me,” he said, emotionally.

Yet, the genuine surprise is easy to explain. The mayor’s ongoing criminal trials, a years-long Russian passport saga, and strong ties with the local mafia didn’t hint at his love for Ukrainian statehood.

The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) published a 1998 Italian police report in which Trukhanov was said to be an enforcer of the city’s kingpin, Alexander Angert.

Soon, according to Ukrainian prosecutors, Trukhanov obtained a Russian passport which was annulled in 2017, three years after Russia launched its war against Ukraine.

Trukhanov said he never had a Russian passport, accusing the “Odesa construction mafia” of slander. 

Ukraine’s National Anti-Corruption Bureau alleges that Trukhanov is part of that very mafia.

Mayor of Odesa Hennadiy Trukhanov speaks to the Kyiv Independent in his office on April 27, 2022. (Oleksandr Gimanov)

In October, Trukhanov and businessman Galanternik, who allegedly lives in London, were charged with the illegal acquisition of land plots, causing Hr 533 million ($18.5 million) in losses to the municipal budget.

The charges were part of embezzlement cases concerning the purchase of Odesa’s Krayan factory building and the Zastava military airfield, the unlawful acquisition of land belonging to the Shkilny airfield in 2016-2017, and the unlawful allocation of land to Greenwood, a firm allegedly controlled by Galanternik.

“The investigators managed to document the unlawful activities of a broad range of people, including the mayor, an ex-chief prosecutor of the region, and a businessman who manipulated them,” Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova said about the case.

Trukhanov told the Kyiv Independent that he has not spoken to Galanternik for a couple of years. He went on to say that the cases against him are fabricated and blamed Odesa construction mogul Adnan Kivan.

“They accuse me that I gave a land plot to the local prosecutor’s office, which then gave it to a private firm,” said Trukhanov, adding that all questions should be addressed to the prosecution and not the mayor’s office.

“They try to frame me because I didn’t give in to what they wanted,” he added, saying the administration of former President Petro Poroshenko warned him of possible legal troubles.

Political truce

Yet, nearly three months into the war, Trukhanov’s past seems to be forgotten. The mayor said he has healthy communication with the government and is doing everything he can to defend his hometown.

“I'm glad the criminal cases against me don't interfere with our communication with the president's office,” said Trukhanov, echoing the president’s words that domestic conflicts will be forgotten by those eager to help defend the country.

“The main task now is to create a strategic reserve of food and medicine,” Trukhanov said referring to Russia’s plans for Odesa encirclement. “We have created warehouses in four districts of the city and are ready to assist people in such an unforeseen situation.”

For a city of 1 million people, 800,000 of whom decided not to evacuate, this is a challenge.

The city is experiencing substantial economic problems due to the Russian naval blockade, with Ukraine unable to export grain and is short on oil imports through Odesa’s ports.

“We already lost Hr 250-300 million, and if the situation doesn’t improve, Odesa will lose around Hr 1.7 billion ($60 million),” said Trukhanov.

He pointed out that with the mined beaches and Russian warships standing within shooting range, the tourism-dependent city is set for a rough summer season.

The mayor added that the economic situation in the city is set to get worse, as the city’s accounts are drying up and it won’t receive substantial financial support from the government as it’s far from the front lines. 

“Like everyone, we hope for foreign support,” he added.

Furthermore, in an attempt to save the historic city center from Russian destruction, Trukhanov is willing to appeal to everyone, even UNESCO.

“There’s a special procedure that allows for a (site to be admitted) in a fast-track procedure,” said Trukhanov.

Odesa with its historic architecture needs UNESCO protection amid increasing Russian attacks. One of the latest attacks damaged the 19th century Vorontsov Palace. 

However, the worst for the mayor was losing his people.

Trukhanov said his worst day since Feb. 24 was when a Russian rocket hit an apartment building in a residential neighborhood on the city’s outskirts on April 23, killing eight people, including a three-month-old girl. This changed his view of Russia.

“My perception has changed, unfortunately. I did not expect that the Russian people would hate us, Ukrainian people, so much,” said Trukhanov. “It’s shocking to me.”

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