”Russians shoot at our communal workers, and they just continue taking out the garbage.” Kharkiv Mayor Ihor Terekhov talks about rebuilding the city and renaming the Moscow Avenue — interview

Maria Zhartovska
Tetyana Lohvynenko
”Russians shoot at our communal workers, and they just continue taking out the garbage.” Kharkiv Mayor Ihor Terekhov talks about rebuilding the city and renaming the Moscow Avenue — interview

Sergey Morgunov / Babel

Ihor Terekhov became the mayor of Kharkiv in October last year: he won the early elections with more than 50% of the vote. He was called a "lean character who is hard to sell." He was linked to businessman Pavlo Fuchs and former Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, and Terekhov himself never had an image of a pro-Ukrainian politician.

From the first day of the full-scale invasion, Kharkiv, led by Terekhov, has been living under rocket fire which kills city residents every day. On the day Babel correspondent Maria Zhartovska and photographer Serhiy Morgunov arrived in Kharkiv, three people were killed and seven were injured. Zhartovska and several other foreign journalists met with Terekhov in a small office at a metro station. Assistants to the mayor asked not to mention the name of the station in the text. Dozens of Kharkiv residents live there, and many have nowhere to go as their homes were destroyed by the Russian bombing. Terekhov went into the office wearing a bulletproof vest and tried to joke, asking foreign journalists if their vests are heavy. He complained that because he hardly took off his own, his back hurt. In an interview, he spoke about why flowers are planted in the city, how it lives under fire, whether there will be a place for a monument to Soviet Marshal Zhukov in Kharkiv of the future, which Terekhov admired in an interview with Babel (in Ukrainian) a year ago calling him “a person who won the war against Nazism", and how Kharkiv elites help.

Tell us more about the situation in the city as of now.

For two months Kharkiv, like the whole of Ukraine, has been at war with the Russian aggressors. The war showed us a lot — the unity of the people of Ukraine, the unity of Kharkiv residents who will fight for our victory. The plans of the Russian aggressor did not come true and, I am sure, will not come true. Because I just canʼt tell you the strength of spirit that is in the city, in Ukraine, in our Armed Forces. We are really fighting for our honor, dignity and our future, defending our institutions of democracy. Today we are an outpost of the whole of Europe. I said on one of the earliest days of the war that what the Russians were planning and doing was the genocide of the Ukrainian people and the Ukrainian nation. No matter what language Ukrainians speak, some speak Ukrainian and some speak Russian. Kharkiv is a Russian-speaking city, 90% of people here speak Russian, and they are not less Ukrainians because of that. The radicalization [against Russia] that is taking place in eastern Ukraine is by no means weaker than in the western part of the country. I wonʼt hide that before the war Kharkiv was loyal to the Russian Federation. Every fourth person there either has relatives or had friends or acquaintances in Russia. Today Kharkiv residents have made a U-turn. We understand what the Russian occupier and the genocide of the Ukrainian people are. The war is aimed at destroying us, the civilian population. They donʼt stop the bombing. We are here with you, and at this time on one of the streets of Kharkiv — I have no right to name it — three people were killed and seven were injured.

How many civilians died since February 24?

For ethical reasons, I will not name the number, but there are many victims. Children, people of all ages. You know, when the weather is quiet and good, people, especially children, want to leave the house and go for a walk. They come out — and get under fire. There are no safe areas in Kharkiv today. A shell can fly into any area, they can reach there. With rockets, with planes, with "sushky" [we are talking about Su-type planes] they flew here. I myself fell down when the Su flew or Grad fired. Almost all of my guys [we are talking about City Hall employees] came under fire. The situation is tense.

Can you estimate the extent of the destruction?

More than two thousand houses were destroyed. More than two thousand! And in Kharkiv, there are only eight thousand high-rise buildings. People lost everything, were left homeless, itʼs unrealistic to live there. That is why we are moving them from the area of constant shelling to kindergartens, hospitals and schools. Just think of it, seventy schools — seventy — were destroyed in Kharkiv! And hospitals? We had a day when three hospitals were destroyed at once! That is, they are trying to create chaos in the city. But I can say that they [the Russians] do not succeed and will not get what they want. For example, we plant flowers. We are asphalting the streets, I even asphalted myself [we also saw communal workers patching holes in the road near Kharkiv City Hall]. We repair roads that we never planned to repair, but shells flew there.

All utilities are working, we supply hot water to 3,300 houses. We had a difficult heating season because at that time the Russians on purpose, I emphasize — purposefully destroyed water mains, they wanted to leave the city without water. There were also the demolition of heating networks, boiler rooms were destroyed so that we could not provide services. Communal workers under fire, under bombs, under mortar fire restored water mains, power grid substations, heating mains. This was when the weather was still cold. When we couldnʼt repair the facilities, we laid heat-insulated pipes to supply heat and hot water. And we succeeded.

Despite the fact that the city is under constant fire, the reconstruction of boiler houses has started to prepare for the next heating season. We take out the garbage. Did you see that the city is clean? If you do not take out the garbage, you can bury any city in seven days. There will be fecal water, there will be rats, and diseases will start spreading. We have communal workers being shot at, and they are taking out the garbage.

And I want to say more about doctors. They practically live in medical institutions and are almost never home. Today we are united, we act as one fist, and everyone is in his or her place does what is necessary.

Sergey Morgunov / Babel

How many people left Kharkiv?

About a million remain in Kharkiv. And if you go to the city by car, you will see that people are coming back. I was told that there was a traffic jam at the entrance to the city today.

Do you advise people to come back?

Everyone decides this for themselves, taking into account many conditions and details.

Unlike Kyiv Mayor Vitaliy Klitschko, who has not yet advised Kyivites to return, you are more liberal. Kharkiv is located 40 kilometers from Belgorod, Russia. Where did the townspeople mostly go?

Not to Russia. Nobody went there for sure, does not go and does not want to go. Russians take people out by force, then people flee from there through Latvia, anywhere just to escape. Mostly to the west of Ukraine, a lot of people went to Poland. To all countries, even to Finland. But there is a saying: "Everywhere is good, where there are no us." Kharkiv residents adore their city. We have the most beautiful, cleanest city. People who left said, "If only the war would end with our victory as soon as possible, we will return immediately." Kyiv and Kharkiv are very different mentally. How many indigenous Kyivans there are in Kyiv?

You ask this to the one who moved to Kyiv from Zaporizhzhia.

Well, you see. Kyiv is the capital. And the fate of many capitals is that people moved there, the native population isnʼt so big. And also you canʼt compare Kyiv and Kharkiv in terms of how much the city is cared for.

You mentioned the mentality. A year ago, when giving us an interview, you mentioned why it wasnʼt possible to make the so-called pro-Russian "Kharkiv Peopleʼs Republic" in Kharkiv…

And now it wonʼt work as well.

Iʼm not about that. You then said that there were students near the Oblast state administration waving Russian flags in 2014. How do you explain such cruelty of Russia towards Kharkiv now? Do you think this is due to the fact that they failed to capture the city then?

Well, did you think there would be a war?

On such a scale — no, I didnʼt.

Do you think anyone in the audience thought, including me? I was sure that there would be no war. I well remember telling you about 2014. And I understand todayʼs mentality of people, I talk to those who were at that age, who were with the flags of Russia then.

I understand that today Russians want to destroy us as a nation. A person who thinks soberly, no matter what his or her political orientation was at the time, is obliged to stand for Ukraine today. Because it is higher than any political situation. You know, itʼs higher than life, probably. Because they want to destroy what? Us. The memory of our parents, the future of our children. We did not attack anyone. We do not want any Russia or “Kharkiv Peopleʼs Republic”. But we want to live in a European country. We have seen what Europe is, and we consider ourselves part of it. Can we compare the level of democracy with those who attacked us? They donʼt know what a toilet is. Have you seen their cities? Our destroyed cities are five times better than theirs. Have you seen where [Sergei] Shoigu was born? Tuva or how it is called. There are almost no roads there, you canʼt move around neither by car, nor on foot, as well as to go to a decent toilet.

Sergey Morgunov / Babel

You mentioned two thousand destroyed houses. Is there a plan where to settle people later?

Later we will actually reconstruct the city completely.

In one of the interviews, you said that you want to create a fund for the reconstruction of Kharkiv. What about it?

We are already creating it, [its accounts are] open.

Who is ready to take part [in financing]?

A lot of people. Both countries and patrons. Foster is making a master plan of Kharkiv for us today for free. And he connected not only his architectural office, but more than a thousand other people. We agreed to create the perfect city of the future with him. We have to look 30 years ahead. Make Kharkiv even more beautiful than it was. Therefore, a completely new architecture must appear. But in no case can we forget about our architectural heritage and cultural values. As, for example, "the Becketov mansions". Also planning — we will change transport logistics and outdated system. Today, especially, there is a unique chance to restart a lot of things. And we will do it.

A monument to Soviet Marshal Georgy Zhukov, which has been the subject of controversy for years, was recently dismantled in Kharkiv. You have assessed this very carefully, proposing to return to this issue after the war. But now you the future changes. So will Zhukov have a place in the future Kharkiv, or will you stop clinging to this Soviet legacy?

I do not cling and did not cling to the Soviet legacy. There will no longer be Moscow Avenue and the Moscow District in Kharkiv. At one of the first sessions of the City Council, we will rename them. As for Marshal Zhukov, let us return to this question after the war. There are certain situations I want people to understand. You know that there are a lot of Kharkiv residents who do not treat Zhukov as a marshal of victory. There are different sides. And so I want Kharkiv residents to make decisions. By opinion poll. After our victory, the understanding of many will change. And I want it to be a conscious decision of Kharkiv, not a personal decision of the mayor.

It does not fit in a common sense today to leave the names of Moscow Avenue or Moscow district. I will offer a name and I am sure that there will be heroes who are defending Kharkiv now. There are already several such iconic people and a division that protects the city. And there will be even more. And people will decide about the monument. In principle, I am sure exactly how they will decide. But I have no right to impose my point of view on people.

How do the so-called "Kharkiv elites" help the city now? For example, Olexandr Yaroslavsky, Arsen Avakov, Olexandr Feldman.

I want to tell you that Igor Abramovich does the most of all Kharkivʼs elites.

An MP from Opposition Platform [pro-Russian faction]?

He isnʼt there. He left the faction before the war started and always supported Kharkiv. Today, no one does as much as he does. Therefore, the Kharkiv elites… You can speak and interpret differently, someone supports, someone is somewhere now… But many actually support. I am glad of that.

Sergey Morgunov / Babel

You have never impressed a pro-Ukrainian politician. You surprised many. Did you receive offers to surrender, were there attempts to bribe?

The war has put everything in place, there is nothing to talk about. As for the proposals, I have already told about them — there were text messages, there were some threats, they were passed to me. You see, there is nothing to negotiate on with me. Maybe someone did not understand or does not know what a real pro-Ukrainian position is and what another position is. Even at that time, I had a very clear pro-Ukrainian position. In my opinion, Kharkiv has proved to the whole world that this is a Ukrainian city. None of the Kharkivites betrayed anyone. There are some bastards that we donʼt even want to talk about, but we will deal with them harshly.

How do you think you will be able to coexist with Russia, which is only a few dozens of kilometers from Kharkiv?

Letʼs live and see how it will be. We do not know what will happen to the Russians during this time. What kind of country will it be, and what kind of state will it be? We must have a serious security system, with an air defense system, apparently. And I do not rule out the Israeli security system.

You said that after the victory you were asked to do a ball in Kharkiv by people you did not expect. Who asked?

[Laughs] You know, yeah, I didnʼt expect that. Or maybe it will remain my secret and I will reveal it at the ball? But it was really very touching, and I think itʼs great. When women, despite the colossal hellish work they are doing now, think about the good, about the future. And it is so symbolic! This is Kharkiv. Therefore, there will definitely be a ball.

When do you think the war will end?

When we win.

Translated from Ukrainian by Anton Semyzhenko.

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Sergey Morgunov / Babel