The Good, the Bad, and the Very Ugly. Michel Terestchenko on Ukraine Regional Politics
Michel Terestchenko, the expat mayor of Hlukhiv and the grandson of a member of the only democratic government in pre-Soviet Russia, talks to Bohdan Nahaylo
Hello and welcome to the latest edition of Ukraine Calling for Hromadske Radio in Kyiv. I’m Bohdan Nahaylo and will your host. This week we’re offering you the latest news from Ukraine, some new music, and a discussion with Michel Terestchenko, the descendant of a distinguished Ukrainian family who emigrated to Ukraine from France and is the now the embattled reformist mayor of the eastern city of Hlukhiv. Politics and life away from the capital – the good, the bad and the very ugly, he’s got plenty to tell you.
Nahaylo: It’s my very great pleasure to invite a very special guest today to Ukraine Calling. It’s Michel Terestchenko, who comes from the celebrated Terestchenko family, particularly famous at the end of the 19th and beginning of 20th centuries. He’s their direct descendant, and he took a very conscious political, cultural, economic choice, which he’ll explain to us a bit later, to leave France where he grew up, and where he was educated. And, as a French citizen, he came to Ukraine, and now is the mayor of Hlukhiv, the famous old Ukrainian Cossack city, which is situated in the East of Ukraine. So bienvenue Michel.
Terestchenko: Glad to be with you Bohdan.
Nahaylo: Michel, let’s start with more of a philosophical, or historical, question. This year, 2018, is a hundred years since Ukraine attempted to establish itself as an independent state. Now we know that one of the Terestchenkos was a key figure in the Russian Provisional Government, and that the Terestchenkos had been very active in promoting cultural and public life in Ukraine when it was part of the Russian Empire. What do you feel 100 years later as their descendant?
Terestchenko: Well I think we all agree that the last 100 years and especially the Soviet period were particularly cruel, particularly tough for Ukraine. And my feeling now when I come back to Ukraine is basically that I find it more or less, and I take it at the point where my grandfather left it, in 1917 my grandfather, also Michel [Mykhailo] Terestchenko, was the last Minister of Foreign Affairs of Russia [before the Bolsheviks seized power]. But he was a Ukrainian, and as a Minister he took several [important] decisions, one of them was to give his own house where he was born – he was born in 1886 in a house which is located on 36 Taras Shevchenko street (this house right now is collapsing, being demolished unfortunately, although we tried to protect it), but he gave his house to the UNR.
Nahaylo: The government of the Ukrainian National Republic.
Terestchenko: Yes. And in this house were chosen the first members of its Directory of the UNR and it is an historical house, I would say. Secondly, as Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Provisional Government of Russia, he gave, that was on 30 June 1917, five oblasts [regions] of what were then called by the name Southern Russia to Ukraine, to the UNR. That was such a shock, that when he came back to Petersburg, he had been with Alexander Kerensky and Irakli Tsereteli, in Kyiv at the negotiations with the young UNR…
Nahaylo: The Central Rada of the Ukrainian Peoples Republic (UNR)…
Terestchenko: And it was such a shock that when they came back to Petersburg it brought down the government. The Cadets [Constitutional democrts, the Russian political party of the period] left it. Basically, all because of my grandfather. That was when – [prime minister] Prince Lvov decided to leave the Provisional Government, and Kerensky took over. So yes, he was, he left the Russian government at the point when very serious questions about the independence of Ukraine, and the future of Ukraine, and about friendship or war with Russia, were still to be discussed and to be decided. And those questions are still actual today
Nahaylo: Yes of course. Now, less than 100 years later you take a very conscious decision to return to your roots, to your family’s roots. Now, was that out of nostalgia? Was it a sense of being Ukrainian? In fact, I wanted to ask you, when you were growing up in France – of course the Russian émigré community is very strong there, “the white emigration” – were you not primarily influenced by them?
Terestchenko: No, I was not part of the Russian diaspora in France. My grandfather was considered as a devil. And I remember when I was seven years old and I was in school in France, Patrick Golitzin, he was the descendent of the very noble Russian family –
Nahaylo: The Golitzins.
Terestchenko: And I remember when I came to his house I was only seven years old, and we wanted to play together. I met his father, Prince Golitzin, and when Patrick told him this his friend was Michel Terestchenko. I was ready to shake his hand, but Pricne Galitzin refused to give me his hand. So no, my family has always been a little bit apart. My grandfather lived between London and Monte Carlo, also Portugal and Paris, but we were not part of the Russian emigration.
We were not really part of the Ukrainian diaspora, because my grandfather decided (he was still young in 1917, he was only 30 years old) to build a new life, that we we will be French, and we will speak either French or English. So I did not have any base in France that tied me to Ukraine.
Just after the collapse of the Soviet Union I decided to come to Ukraine, and here the genes did their thing. I mean it was extremely pleasant to be on Tereshchenkivska Street where all my family had lived. Extremely pleasant to see the very good memories that people of Ukraine kept of my family. People were extremely friendly. I had been in the United States and I had found the same enthusiasm, the same entrepreneurship in Ukraine as in the States, and I liked it very much. So I tried to help.
Nahaylo: Why Hlukhiv?
Terestchenko: Why Hlukhiv? That’s a big question. It’s батьківщина моїх батьків, the small homeland of my family. And where all my ancestors are buried. But it seems to me that that all came after Maidan.
Before Maidan I was like an expat. I was like a tourist. I was pleasantly in Ukraine, I took the best of it and I didn’t care much for the bad part of it, because I didn’t feel myself as a Ukrainian but as a French expat.
But after Maidan it changed. On the 20 February 2014 I was in Hotel Ukraina and I saw 14 bodies, 14 members of the Nebesna Sotnya [Heavenly Hundred] who had been killed. They were there in Hotel Ukraina and I saw them. And this moment was a very strong shock for me and for many people. And I said: “Well, I have to help.”
Those guys, mostly young guys, wouldn’t die for nothing. We have to now make the hopes and ideals concrete. We have to turn this page. We have to end 350 years of Russian colonization and start a new life for Ukraine: European, Western, civilized, democratic, and if possible, without corruption.
So I believed in this dream. But I found myself unable to help in Kyiv, because Kyiv has so much. There was Klychko here, Poroshenko, and all the guys who were on the scene during the Maidan… [and I believed] they would would take the hlm and everything would be okay.
But I could probably help the people of Hlukhiv, because Hlukhiv is on the border with Russia, 300 kilometres east of Kyiv, and there people are not ready. For them Maidan was something you watch on TV. But they were not ready to turn the page. So I tried to help.
Nahaylo: I’m talking to Michel Terestchenko from the famous Terestchenko family, who’s currently the Mayor of Hlukhiv. So, you arrived in Hlukhiv. How were you received? As a stranger?
Terestchenko: Well I couldn’t be a stranger in the city where my family built ten historical and still active buildings: the university, agro-college, the bank, two schools, two hospitals, and their own residence, which is now the Institute of Flax and Hemp. So, no, I couldn’t be anonymous in Hlukhiv.
But it was a surprise for me when people asked me to be the Mayor. I was not really ready to be a mayor, especially a mayor in Ukraine. I told them I was ready to help. I already had a small investment there, a small scutching mill for flax and I was helping the Institute for Flax and Hemp, which is in the former residence of my family in Hlukhiv. I was helping them, to work in cooperation with French people who do the flax and the hemp, and to develop their assets, to develop all the new patents that they had for selection, and so on.
So, I was already working a little bit in Hlukhiv, but I did not know anyone particularly. And then people said, we want things to change also in Hlukhiv. We don’t want to be a no-man’s land between Russia and the European Union. And you know that the plan of Putin is that between the Russian Federation and Europe there would be some kind of…
Nahaylo: No-man’s land, buffer zone, cordon sanitaire…
Terestchenko: …zone of no law, of contraband, where barons are just controlling everything. And the people of Hlukhiv said, we were the capital of the Ukrainian Cossack State, the Hetmanate, for almost 100 years. We were very civilized. We have a very high level university. And the many of the people have received a very high education. They want to be Ukrainian, and they don’t want to be Russian, or to live in a no-man’s land.
Nahaylo: The Wild East?
Terestchenko: The Wild East, but basically without Rule of Law, and banditism, etc. And people say that for the past 20 years, this oblast, especially the northern part where Hlukhiv is, has been controlled by a mafia. And this mafia came from Dnipropetrovsk [called Dnipro now] 20 years ago and tried to control everything. Every director of school, every director of university, every director of college, every chief doctor, every chief of the Pension Fund.
Every chief of whatever institution from the budget that you can name, is a member of the clan of Andriy Derkach, who is our Narodnyi Deputat, Member of Parliament, representing Hlukhiv.
So it was a totally ideal situation for Putin and his wish to make this a no-man’s land. But it is also a big risk for Ukraine, because all those people are pro-Russian and the Russkiy Mir is very strong in Hlukhiv. We have a monopoly of the Patriarchate of Moscow, there is no Patriarchate of Kyiv. Until now, even after three years, I still couldn’t give any uchastok [plot of land], to the Kyiv Patriarchate to build their church, because nobody wanted to take the risk to vote for it. Immediately Derkach would be applying some kind of repression against those people. I am a free man, but unfortunately the people of Hlukhiv are totally under stress and pressure…
Nahaylo: Michel, you’ve shown courage, you’ve shown leadership. You’ve come up against some very fierce and nasty resistance. Have you feared for your life?
Tereschenko: No, I’ve never feared for my life. I understand that if I am the Mayor of Hlukhiv, like the grandfather of my grandfather, Mykola Tereschenko, whowas Mayor for 22 years. I understand it’s because he was willing me to do that. And he’s protecting me. I do not fear for my life, at all. But I fear a lot, not for the life, but for the quality of life of the people that are helping me.
Nahaylo: We’ve read a lot about the problems that you encounter from the mafia, the attempts to besmirch you, to denigrate your reputation, to destroy you in effect. Where do things stand now? Have you somehow managed to find a position where you feel more comfortable, where you see progress?
Tereschenko: Unfortunately not at all. The situation is getting worse and worse. I think the deal with the President is such… When I started, when I entered the ballots, I was willing to help the President [Petro Poroshenko]. And the first time I met him, on 15 November, right after my inauguration, he was very warm, very supportive; he spoke very nicely about this challenge, and said that he will help and he will come himself to Hlukhiv. Not only did he never came to Hlukhiv, but he did all the contrary. For me, it’s just… I do not understand. If there is someone who betrayed me most in my life, it is Poroshenko. And I think he betrayed not only me, but basically all of Ukraine.
I trusted him, but now for me…
Nahaylo: What’s happening now?
Tershchenko: He basically gave the oblast to Derkach. Even if he said he would do the contrary. I think for some business reasons, or maybe because of some kompromat [compromising material] that they have on him. I don’t know, why he was obliged to give the oblast to Derkach. I think the only thing he [Poroshenko] said, and that is why I don’t fear for my life, “You can do anything you want, you can get rid of this French guy if he is bothering you, but I don’t want any scandal. Especially not international scandal.” So very strangely, I feel very safe. But everything else is possible. Which means the Protocol Against Corruption, forty law suits, three Protocols against Corruption, nine criminal cases. I have to fight in the courts all the time. They are trying to get me out by all possible means: falsification, provocation. They buy my deputies.
The prosecutor is against me all the time. It’s not even persecution. It’s sadism against me. You cannot even believe what’s happening and what’s happened to me. It’s started at the demand of the governor. He is a total bandit. He is my main enemy in the Sumy oblast. It’s like Chicago now at the time of prohibition. This governor is taking all possible means including very illegal means to get me out because he is Derkach’s man.
Nahaylo: So they launched a war of attrition against you trying to grind you down and force you to leave.
Terestchenko: This is a David against Goliath battle. Unfortunately I am not as strong as David.
Nahaylo: Michel, obviously this conversation has gone somewhat differently than I had planned. I thought we would talk more optimistically, about a family tradition. Let’s look ahead. We have elections coming up. Of course there are a lot of people who say that without fundamental change…
Terestchenko: There is no change in Ukraine right now, no de-centralisation.
Nahaylo: So we can only foresee stagnation? So you are not feeling any impact of de-centralization, no control of budgets locally?
Terestchenko: Right now it’s not decentralization. Everything is in the hands of the governor. The governor is basically acting on political instructions of the President or members of parliament that have leverage on him.
We did not see decentralisation in Hlukhiv. We are totally deprived of any financing for infrastructure, regional development, ecology, social-economic development.
I do not see anything good right now. I can see grants are available, but they are all grant–eaters [that cash in on them]. The corruption has never been as high as today. Much higher than at the time of Yanukovych, at least in the Sumy oblast. The reforms are just an imitation of reforms. In Sumy region we still do not have medical reform going. Everything is zero. This government is a total failure. It has betrayed the people of Ukraine, especially the people of Hlukhiv. Yes, we need to prepare for elections, but unfortunately I do not see a light at the end of the tunnel. In Sumy oblast now we are preparing for the parliamentary elections.
Nahaylo: in October 2019.
Terestchenko: If I am still mayor of Hlukhiv…
Probably, I now have to consider doing something else. I understand that decentralization is not working. That the governor is just a political instrument of the President, unfortunately, against the people and not for the people of Ukraine. There is no other presidential candidate in my eyes that can change the system. The system now is not working for people that were on Maidan. They [the leaders] did not destroy the system, they made it work for them. All the candidates that I see will do the same thing, so the system will continue. So we have to start the fight on another level. I will probably enter the battle for the Parliamentary elections in order to fight in the Parliament. It’s basically the only place where you can do something.
Nahaylo: Looking forward let’s hope that changes do occur, that civil society will reawaken again and lesson are drawn and mistakes are not repeated. It’s been a great pleasure to talk to you. I wish you strength, endurance and I hope your message will get across and people will pay attention not only to politics in the capital but also to the very serious challenges that more remote communities face.
Terestchenko: Thank you, Bohdan. Just to finish. You started by reminding us of an experiment by my grandfather, who was a Minister of the Provisional Government. You know our descendants. I am very scared now. The period of reforms, the provisional situation… I am very scared that it will end up the same way it happened in 1917. We have everyday people dying at the front to give us time and possibility for reforms but unfortunately we have lost four years of reforms. Everything is going wrong. The police is more corrupt than before, the justice system is more corrupt more than before. The Presidential Administration is just a nest of corruption.
Nahaylo: Not everything has gone wrong. People like you are setting an example, showing us the way forward, the way it should be done. Thank you very much. Merci beaucoup!
[This is a shortened version of the interview.]
Developments in occupied Donbas
As more Ukrainian soldiers and civilians continue to be killed or injured in the war in the east, the self-proclaimed Russian backed “Donetsk People’s Republic” has appointed Denis Pushilin as its new acting head, instead of Dmitriy Trapeznikov. Meanwhile, the EU and US have condemned a plan to conduct elections in by the Russian puppets in the occupied areas of Donetsk and Luhansk, calling the polls a Russian-backed sham. Both self-proclaimed republics have scheduled votes for November 11, following the murder of separatist leader Alexander Zakharchenko last month.
The European Union has extended by six months sanctions against senior Russian officials, lawmakers and military officers accused of “actions undermining or threatening the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Ukraine. The EU imposed sanctions on Russia after it annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014, and refuses to recognize Moscow’s authority there. Some Crimea officials are also on the list.
During the last two weeks or so, toxic gases from a local chemical plant have posed a major health hazard in and around the Crimean city of Armyansk. All the children have now been evacuated from the area. The ecological disaster has been so vast that residents of mainland Ukraine, in the areas of the Kherson region where it borders with annexed Crimea, have reported symptoms and had to take appropriate measures.
Sentsov prepares for the end
Imprisoned Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov has written a will and is losing hope for a “happy ending,” according to his cousin Nataliya Kaplan. “I no longer believe that I will soon walk free and that we will all live happily in Kyiv,” Kaplan quoted Sentsov as writing in a letter he sent her from prison. Sentsov, 42, is serving a 20-year sentence in Russia after being convicted of terrorism in a trial that human rights organizations consider to have been politically motivated. He has been on a hunger strike for 120 days demanding that Moscow release its Ukrainian political prisoners.
Moscow Patriarchate threatens other Orthodox
The Russian Orthodox Church is denouncing a decision by Orthodox Christianity’s leading body to send two envoys to Ukraine as a step toward recognizing ecclesiastical independence for the Orthodox Church there. The Moscow Patriarchate threatened to take unspecified “retaliatory actions” against the Patriarch of Constantinople.
IKEA in Ukraine
After Irish low-cost airline Ryan Air started operating out of Ukraine earlier this month, it is now the turn of Swedish retailer IKEA to enter the Ukrainian market. IKEA will open its first store in Ukraine next year because of the country’s improved business climate, a senior executive said on a visit to Kiev. President Petro Poroshenko hailed the move as a vote of confidence in Ukraine, which is battling to shake off an image of entrenched corruption that has long deterred foreign investors.
Artificial Intelligence. It’s all around us. And it’s part of war. A Kyiv band Anderson, just released a new song. Robots. It starts with the line, Супротив втратив смисл, which means something like Resistance is futile. The goth song is tough but good.
Join us again next week when we’ll bring you a topical in depth interview and some music. So tune in. And we would be happy to receive any feedback from you. Write to us at: [email protected] This is Bohdan Nahaylo in Kyiv. Thanks so much for listening.
Interview transcribed by Larysa Iarovenko, Oksana Smerechuk and Caitilin O’Hare. News by Iryna Solomko. Music part by Marta Dyczok. Sound engineer Andriy Izdryk.