The Mayor of the Ukrainian city of Odessa, Gennady Troukhanov, once considered a politician with pro-Russian leanings, takes time to discuss his feelings towards Russia and President Vladimir Putin, who invaded the country on February 24.
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“The Russians are currently on our land and they are bombing our cities, killing our people and our soldiers,” Mr Troukhanov said in an interview with AFP.
For him, a point of no return has been passed: there can no longer be any talk of a Russian-Ukrainian friendship. He castigated the airstrikes, the blockade of the Black Sea and the millions of tons of grain stuck in ports, including Odessa.
“Putin destroyed everything,” he grumbles.
Before the war, the 57-year-old made a career in the turbulent world of Ukrainian politics as a member of the party of former pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, who was ousted by a pro-Western grassroots movement in 2014.
Despite the troubles and rising opposition to Russia, Gennady Troukhanov continued his breakthrough by becoming mayor of Odessa a few months after particularly deadly and tragic clashes between pro-Russians and pro-Kyiv in that city.
Today, with thousands dead and millions displaced by the Russian invasion, the mayor resents the mention of a menacing neighbor.
With troops from Moscow just 200 kilometers from Odessa, Mr. Troukhanov prefers to focus on defending his city, one of Ukraine’s most important ports, essential for exporting food.
“Not only are they destroying our cities and killing our residents, they are also causing an economic disaster,” he said.
If until now Odessa has avoided a ground attack by Russian forces, the city has suffered deadly bombardments. Founded during the reign of Tsarina Catherine the Great, Odessa is a symbol of the glory of the Russian Empire with its Baroque architecture and emblematic ‘Potemkin Stairs’.
After the fall of the USSR in 1991, Odessa maintained close economic, cultural and family ties with Russia and enjoyed a reputation as one of Ukraine’s most Moscow-friendly cities.
However, residents’ opinions are changing as centuries of mutual goodwill have been reduced to rubble by Russian bombing.
“They think they’re scaring the locals with their rockets. In fact, they increase hatred against the occupiers and invaders,” notes Mr. Troukhanov.
Between meetings, he weaves his way through traffic in his black Range Rover to the scene of a recent bombing. With clasped hands, he nods as locals ask him a series of questions about reconstruction and assistance.
“It’s a crime,” said local resident Igor Chpagin, 55, as he watched the gaping hole left in his apartment building by a Russian bomb last month in the middle of the Orthodox Easter holiday.
“What can we do? It’s a war between politicians,” says Alexandre Groza, a retired police officer.
The timing of certain bombings by the Russians leaves residents perplexed.
On May 9, during patriotic high mass in Russia celebrating the victory over Nazi Germany, Vladimir Putin laid flowers at a monument paying homage to the Soviet Union’s “hero cities,” including Odessa.
A few hours later, a barrage of Russian rockets fell on the city.
“What can you expect from a person who bombs children? People die here every day,” denounces Alexandra Kasseïenko, 29. “This is shocking to many of us. We were (national) brothers”.
Gennady Troukhanov shares the helplessness of his voters. The City Council recalls that in World War II, Russians and Ukrainians defeated Nazi Germany side by side in the Red Army.
“No one could have imagined that our people, Ukrainian refugees, would be hiding from Russian missiles in Germany in 2022.”