A Frenchman Comes to Ukraine

Meet one of Ukraine’s most determined pro-Western politicians and Ukrainian patriots. He’s the mayor of Hlukhiv, a small city located northeast of Kyiv, in Sumy Province, just a few miles from the border with Russia.

His name is Michel Terestchenko.

Until March 2015, the 61-year-old Terestchenko was a French citizen, born and raised in Paris. That month he acquired a Ukrainian passport straight from the hands of President Petro Poroshenko. Why the hullabaloo? Because Terestchenko is a descendant of the Tereshchenko family, one of Ukraine’s grandest, having produced a number of prominent entrepreneurs, philanthropists, art collectors, and diplomats in the 18th–20th centuries. The family fled to France during the bloody years of the Bolshevik Revolution. Their expropriated art collection then formed the core of what eventually became the Kyiv National Museum of Russian Art.

Michel—described by one source as an “art patron, entrepreneur and descendant of the legendary dynasty” and by another as a “cordial bon vivant clad in a brown bomber jacket”—returned to Ukraine about a decade ago. Apparently, “a sudden desire to see his ancestral home nearly a decade ago moved Tereshchenko to resettle from Paris and turn part of the old family mansion into the office of a profitable flax and hemp production plant.”

Terestchenko’s decision to get involved in politics was just as unexpected. He speaks Russian slowly, slightly ungrammatically, and with a charming French accent:

I love Ukraine very much. It’s the homeland of my ancestors. It’s now my homeland. I was on the Maidan. I was no hero, just a simple man. I was still French then…. I was there all the time. I saw how they brought down the Lenin monument on December 8 [2013]…. I saw fourteen corpses. I will never forget this. Until then, I believed it was possible not to take part in politics. But then I saw what had happened…. Things are difficult at the state level. There are reforms, but they’re proceeding very slowly… Many people have died, over 7,000. Every family has experienced a trauma. And in Hlukhiv there are no reforms… The city is dying…. There are no investments, no future…. When the residents of Hlukhiv suggested I run for mayor, I said to myself: Michel, you can’t say no.

In the October 25th local elections, Terestchenko trounced his opponent, winning two-thirds of the vote.

He has no illusions about the size of the task before him. But he remains optimistic:

Tereshchenko told Agence France Presse that he hoped to establish a flourishing, corruption-free democratic government like the one his grandfather had hoped to establish in Tsarist Russia. “It failed in Russia. But it will succeed in Ukraine,” he said.

Terestchenko’s victory is important for several reasons. First, it demonstrates that anti-system candidates are able to win office in the post-Maidan Ukraine. Just these individuals will be able to parlay the greater authority and resources that Ukraine’s soon-to-be-implemented decentralization grants them into more effective local government. Terestchenko actually could succeed in fixing Hlukhiv.

Second, Terestchenko’s deeply rooted Ukrainian patriotism gives the lie (yet again) to Russian and Western pro-Russian propaganda that insists the Euromaidan Revolution was the handiwork of fascists and Nazis and that Kyiv is in the hands of a vicious junta. The Nation magazine might want to take note.

Third, Terestchenko’s election and acceptance by the local population suggests that Ukrainians may not be the xenophobes that the Russian right and the Western left says they are. More important, the emergence of a Russian-speaking, French-born Ukrainian as a prominent local political figure suggests that a new post-Maidan Ukrainian identity is indeed in the process of formation.

Fourth, the Terestchenko phenomenon would have been impossible without the Euromaidan Revolution, showing once again that this overwhelmingly impressive demonstration of “people power” has already had and will continue to have enormous positive consequences for Ukrainian politics and culture.

Small wonder that Vladimir Putin hates and fears Ukraine. If, as Terestchenko hopes, free democratic government “will succeed in Ukraine,” Russia could be next.

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