Odessa, Ukraine, May 21 – Once derided as a Kremlin sympathizer, Odessa Mayor Gennady Trukhanov likes to gather his thoughts before delving into his feelings about Russia and President Vladimir Putin.
“The Russians are on our soil today and they are bombing our cities, killing our people and our soldiers. Our people are dying,” the mayor of the port city in southern Ukraine told AFP.
“It’s hard for me to talk about any future friendship or relationship. I can’t imagine that,” the mayor added, his steely blue eyes shining as he fumed at the Russian airstrikes, the blockade of the Black Sea and the millions of tonnes of grain trapped in its ports.
“Putin destroyed everything,” he fumed.
Before the war, the 57-year-old Odessa native carved out a polarizing career on Ukraine’s raucous political scene as the sole member of former President Viktor Yanukovych’s Kremlin-backed party, which was overthrown by a popular uprising in 2014.
But even as unrest rocked Ukraine and anti-Russian sentiment grew, Trukhanov continued to rise through the ranks and was elected mayor of Odessa just months after Yanukovych’s ousting and violent clashes over Fallout rocked the port city.
But now, with thousands dead and millions displaced as a result of the Russian invasion, the mayor bristles at the mention of Moscow.
With Russian troops just 120 miles away, Trukhanov is overseeing the defense of the country’s most valuable port amid a stifling Russian naval blockade that has sparked economic disaster in Ukraine and threatens famine elsewhere if the abundant grain stocks of Odessa remain landlocked.
“Not only are they destroying our cities and killing our people, but they are also causing an economic collapse,” the mayor said.
– ‘Occupiers and invaders’ –
The war with Russia has been particularly painful for Odessa, even as the city has avoided the fierce ground fighting that is taking place across swaths of eastern and southern Ukraine.
Founded during the reign of Catherine the Great, the city – with its baroque architecture and sandy beaches – became emblematic of the glory days of the Russian Empire and was later one of the most prized ports of the era. Soviet.
And as Ukraine gained independence, Odessa has maintained its deep economic, family and cultural ties to Russia as well as its own share of accusations in recent years of harboring pro-Kremlin sympathies.
But the sentiment changes.
On Friday, a member of the Odessa City Council unveiled a proposal to replace city streets with the names of Russian historical towns and figures and give them new names in honor of US President Joe Biden and the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
As Trukhanov points out, the centuries of goodwill that once flourished between the cosmopolitan port and Russia are being undermined with each new airstrike.
“With their rockets they think they are spreading panic and fear among the people of Odessa,” Trukhanov said.
“In fact, they increase even more the degree of hatred of the inhabitants of Odessa towards the occupiers and invaders.”
– ‘It’s a crime’ –
Between Friday’s meetings, Trukhanov weaved his way through Odessa’s crushing traffic in his black Range Rover to the scene of a recent airstrike, where he sought to reassure residents.
With clasped hands, Trukhanov nodded as area residents asked the mayor a host of questions about the reconstruction efforts and potential paybacks.
“It’s a crime,” said Igor Shpagin, 55, as he surveyed the four-story hole a Russian strike ripped through his building over the Orthodox Easter weekend last month.
“What can we do, it’s a war between politicians,” added retired police officer Groza Alexander, whose family survived the attack.
The schedules of some strikes have been particularly infuriating for the residents of Odessa.
On May 9, amid festivities to celebrate victory over Nazi Germany in Moscow, Putin laid flowers at a monument honoring the Soviet Union’s “heroic cities,” including Odessa.
A few hours later, a barrage of Russian missiles fell on Odessa.
“What do you expect from someone who bombs children? People are dying here every day,” said 29-year-old Odessa resident Alexandra Kaseyenko. “It’s shocking to a lot of people. Before, we were brothers.”
Trukhanov shares the dismay at the stunning turn of events.
Russians and Ukrainians together helped defeat Nazi Germany in World War II, the mayor explained.
“No one could have imagined that in 2022 our people – Ukrainian refugees – would be hiding in Germany from Russian missiles,” he said.