Leonid Chernovetskiy interviewed by Gordon Boulevard, part 1
Leonid Chernovetskiy, former Mayor of Kiev: “My mother is Russian, my father is Jewish, and I’m Ukrainian.”
Every reasonable person living in Ukraine would agree that in Ukraine, every election is a farce, every parliamentary session is a joke. If we compare Ukrainian politics with the theatre, Leonid Chernovetskiy would be one of the most vibrant and eccentric actors. It is hard to get your voice heard in the hustle and bustle of Ukraine’s 450-member parliament, where Chernovetskiy served three consecutive terms between 1996 and 2006; but once elected as Mayor of Kiev, Chernovetskiy got a chance to demonstrate his talents.
Other mayoral candidates, supported by influential political parties or political technologists, were overwhelmed by the news that Chernovetskiy won 32% of votes in spring 2006, and even more – 38% – during the early election in 2008. But what could all those boring, buttoned-up and uninspired people do to compete against that manly artistic charm of Chernovetskiy? Obviously, they couldn’t do anything substantial. The insulting nickname “Lenya Cosmos” and stupid videos on YouTube was all they were able to come up with.
The people of Kiev will remember Chernovetskiy for his heroic efforts to change the city’s fiscal policies: e.g. to make the rich pay for the poor (two times Chernovetskiy’s provisions concerning this matter were cancelled by the President and by the Prime Minister), to introduce bachelorship and luxury taxes (luxury would include glazed balconies, air conditioners and satellite antennas), a pigeon tax (just like in Venice where every resident has to pay €23 per month to keep monuments clean), fireworks tax, vehicle entry tax on vehicles registered outside Kiev. Other vivid memories include multimillion donations from some prominent business people (especially casino owners) paying to book an appointment with Chernovetskiy, the Mayor’s singing, the Mayor’s having a swim during the Epiphany celebrations, plus a number of wacky aphorisms such as: “I’m a successful person: under my supervision people work against common sense”, or “I deny you the right of audience on the grounds of your improper behavior and your cocky face.”
For municipal officials, who were forced to rise to their feet when he showed up and to take polygraph tests to prove their integrity, Chernoverskiy’s mayorship was a real nightmare. But for people of Kiev Chernovetskiy was both Mother Teresa and Batman always eager to come to the rescue after a single call to a so-called Rescue Call Center. He introduced welfare programs for the poor and disadvantaged, sent them gifts on holidays, promoted “The Best House” initiative to provide around the clock nursing care for the elderly in return for their apartments, produced a CD with the 80s music hits under the title “From Mayor with Love.” And you should see the faces of the old women hugging and kissing their hero during Chernovetskiy’s regular meetings with the public.
Chernovetskiy didn’t forget about the young either. For them, he produced two music videos and created a project called “Two Wedding Rings,” where people could rent a car from the Mayor’s garage and make a photograph with the Mayor. Chernovetskiy strongly believed that anything could be used to fill the city’s budget, even dog and horse races.
Furthermore, Chernovetskiy published three bestsellers during his mayorship: “Confessions of the Mayor,” “How to Become a Millionaire?” and “Story of Success.” The books were available in all book outlets and metro cashier’s windows at an affordable price of 15-30 hryvnas per book. The author used his own words as an epigraph for his latest book: “I know the way to the shining top. Forget your doubts, follow me!”
And the people did follow him, because they fully trusted a person, who managed to sell his Pravex Bank with demand at its peak and just before the world’s financial apocalypse. Consequently, in 2013, Forbes magazine ranked Chernovetskiy #13 in the list of Ukraine’s 200 richest people, and Correspondent magazine ranked him #20 in its Golden Club rating
Yet, as it turned out, being a mayor proved to be far more dangerous a job than a senior investigator at the prosecutor’s office of the Kiev area or a banker during the dark gangster years of the 1990s. In 2008, during the session of the National Security and Defense Council, Chernovetskiy announced that the Minister of Interior Affairs Yuri Lutsneko demanded a plot of land in the Kiev area, or he would put Chernovetskiy’s son Stepan in prison. Lutsenko’s answer was a kick in the groin, which put Chernovetskiy in hospital. In 2009, a group of Verkhovna Rada members claimed that Chernovetskiy should be tested for sanity by the Ministry of Healthcare. To challenge these claims, Chernovetskiy publicly demonstrated his excellent physical condition (indeed, wearing nothing but swimming shorts, the Mayor looked as impressive as wearing a tuxedo) and later married a woman who was 19 years younger than him.
In Greek tragedy, when the author cornered himself into an unsolvable plot problem, it was abruptly resolved by the introduction of a god, who was brought onto the stage in a special machine. The technique was called Deus ex machina. This time the god from the machine was President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych, who ousted Chernovetskiy from the position of Head of the Kiev City Administration on November 15, 2010. After that Chernovetskiy almost stopped to show up in the City Hall. On July 1, 2012, he officially handed in his resignation. End of story!
Chernovetskiy took the statue of himself from the Kiev City Administration museum, a gift from the family, and left vivid memories in the hearts of all people of Kiev about his outlandish, almost freakish act. Whatever they say about him, the history of Ukraine hasn’t known another politician like Leonid Chernovetskiy.
GORDON’S BOULEVARD newspaper
“Communists buried my grandfather alive,
and my mother was given in marriage
with NKVD officer at the age of 13”
- Leonid Mikhailovich, I’m delighted to have a chance to meet and talk with you today. I have always thought of you as an engaging and charming personality. But I can see that you have completely changed your image, you look like a Hollywood star. How come you have this trendy unshaven look?
- I’m also happy to see you, Dmitry. I trust you, as I know you won’t pick phrases out of context, distort their meaning and create misleading impression. I’ll be glad to have a conversation with you.
In fact, it’s hard trying to look like a Hollywood star at the age of 62. And, since you mentioned it, there is a joke about the difference between a Russian/Ukrainian and a Frenchman. A Russian shaves in the morning to please his boss, whereas a Frenchman shaves in the evening to please his mistress.
Fortunately, I don’t have a boss, as I’m out of politics, and neither I have a mistress. I only have a wife whom I love, so I can adopt a new image.
- Since we mentioned women, let us start this conversation by speaking about the one who gave birth to you, your mother Praskovia Havrylivna. I know that you deeply loved her, she was your ethics role model, but her life was terrible. Is it true that at the age of 13, she was raped by a senior NKVD officer?
- My mother told me many interesting, touching and sad stories, perhaps, enough to fill more than one newspaper issue. In 1957, villages in Siberia saw the return of food requisitioning officially named Ural-Siberian grain procurement method (middle-class peasants were subject to additional taxes, and those who refused to sell their grain to government or cooperative procurement firms at below-the-market prices, were convicted in courts as speculators – D.G.). My grandfather was a prosperous farmer, but he never had laborers; he had 16 children (my mother was the youngest child; two of her brothers, my uncles, died in WWI). Communists buried my grandfather alive, forcing him to give away surplus grain. When they began to take away the cattle, my grandfather had a heart attack and died. My grandmother was deported…
Unfortunately, few authors write about those terrifying years of the Soviet rule. Siberians really did well and were quite well-off, which alone made them criminals according to the Soviet standards. Not just my grandmother, but all adult population of the Volchiya Burla village in the Altai region and many thousands of people from other villages were displaced: all of them, both men and women, almost without clothes – and it was already rather cold outside – were shipped across the Lena (it’s a giant river, five times wider than the Dnieper) and abandoned there with no food or anything…
- …left to die…
- Of course, many died. I don’t know all the details but my mother told me that my grandmother was also among those people, she was supposed to die there. You couldn’t swim back: soldiers patrolled the opposite bank and shot everything that moved. But after a month or two, my uncles waited for the darkest night and somehow managed to smuggle my grandmother back and thus saved her life. She had no documents and had to hide in the forest dugout until the end of the war. My uncles and aunts brought her food, until in 1946, as my mother told me, Stalin granted pardon to people like my grandmother. She was transported to Novosibirsk, where she eventually died.
Soldiers didn’t shoot or deport children younger than 12. So, after their parents were gone, they had to survive in the ravaged villages. Why ravaged? Those people, whom the Soviet government allowed to move in the abandoned houses, were so lazy they preferred breaking fences for firewood to cutting trees in the forest. Such deadbeats!
My mother was almost a child, when an NKVD agent noticed her (I think it was some big shot from the administration of penitentiaries. One day he asked her for a ride on a sled and brought her to her own wedding which she knew nothing about. That’s how she became a wife at the age of 13.
“People were torn to pieces right in front of my father; one soldier’s head was blown off, but the body kept walking and made several steps.”
- What do you know about this man?
- That his young wife hated him, that’s all. I don’t want to judge anyone, God forgive me, but my mother had her first child at 14 and her second child at 15. I had two sisters who are no longer alive: one died of diphtheria and the other when she was still a baby. I also had a brother who was 20 years older than me. God rest their souls.
- A film could be based on this story!
- Yes, but the film shouldn’t be about how my mother’s sufferings…
- It should be about what they had done to the country…
- This is indeed a tragedy. In 1941, my mother became a widow: as she told me, four people were shot dead from her husband’s gun, after he got drunk at some wedding and his gun was stolen. He was demoted and sent to the front line during the first days of the war, but he was killed en route in a train bombing. I do not want to sound judgmental, I’m just telling you the story my mother told me. My father was drafted in Lviv, and he returned to Kharkiv four years later, after the war ended. He was Jewish.
- What about your mother?
- My mother is Russian, and I’m Ukrainian (smiles), because I was born in Kharkiv, just as my own children. Ukraine is my country.
My father told me horrible stories about the war. Always eager to go to the front line, he never stayed in the rear, and his hair turned completely grey by the time he returned from the war at the age of 34. He was a real Soviet superman, a man of courage, athletic. I remember him very well, although he left us early.
- How old were you, when he left?
- I was four, but in actuality my father didn’t leave us. He just went on a search for better life (life was tough back then), so he became a Virgin Land Campaign volunteer and got married there (for a Jew, it was impossible to find a decent job in Kharkiv). There was a photo of my young father where his hair was completely grey, and I once asked him how it was possible. He told me that his hair turned grey in a matter of 40-50 minutes.
During the war, my father was an antitank battery commander with 70 soldiers under his supervision. Once they were ordered to defuse a mine field, and because nobody knew how to do it, they lost 60 people in less than an hour. People were torn to pieces right in front of my father; one soldier’s head was blown off, but the body kept walking and made several steps. After this mission my father had half a kilo of fragments in his body, and they were never removed. He died young at the age of 56.
My father also told me a story about his first days in the military, right after he was drafted together with other students of the Lviv Polytechnic. They were sent to fight the Japanese, but nobody knew how to kill yet, so they didn’t shoot during the attack. After several futile warnings that this kind of behavior was punished by execution, a commander or commissar of the regiment – roughly 1,000 people – ordered a formation. They were in a good mood, cheery, they thought it was a joke, and he ordered every fourth out, put them face down on the ground and shot in the head – more than 200 people were killed! I think there were many such stories during the war, because a human life had no value then.
- Your mother raised you alone. It wasn’t easy, was it?
- Of course, although everything is relative. She was a real fighter: she came from Siberia and brought a cow with her, she entered the Kharkiv Law Institute soon after she had a baby, my elder brother (she told nobody that she was a daughter of a Kulak). In Kharkiv, people starved to death, the railway station was full of corpses, but she managed to graduate from the Institute (with honors – just as I did later), and she raised me. She didn’t blame my father because she loved him…
- It is true that before she died, Praskovia Havrylivna told you your father was the love of her life?
- You know, it is a touching story. I’ve been looking for my father’s grave for years…
Sometimes he visited us… But my mind was elsewhere: I had my own interests, I was crazy about my friends, I liked playing outside, and I hated when people interfered, so my father and I didn’t talk much, which I now regret, of course. Not until I was 16 (two years before he died) did we have a chance to have a heartfelt conversation: I learnt many new things. If I could go back in time, I would have spent more time with my father, but you can’t change your past…
My father was buried in the Arctic.
- What did he do there?
- He worked in the administration of some oil and gas institute, he told me this during our last meeting.
After I became a businessman, I was once introduced to Chernomyrdin (Victor Stepanovich used to be Russian ambassador to Ukraine), and I asked him to help me find my father’s grave. I wanted to pay the final tribute, put flowers, make photographs, so I could show them to my children and grandchildren. My father was a true hero. After that mission where he lost so many people on the mine field, he beat the hell out of his commander and was demoted from captain to first lieutenant. He had many military awards, although he was denied the last one after he had a fight with his commander.
Chernomyrdin asked the local governor to help, and my father’s grave was found, but, after some probing, it turned out that there was no body. Can you imagine that? A couple of years later, a man called my office and told my secretary he was my father’s son living in Jankoi, Crimea. But I knew that my father didn’t have other children.
Anyway, I took a flight to the Crimea, found this family and the puzzle was completed. That man who called my office turned out to be a nephew of my father’s beloved woman, whom he met when he was a Virgin Land Campaign volunteer. He told me a lot about their wonderful relationship, how they lived and cared for each other. He became very close to them and felt as if he was their son (his aunt didn’t have children either). I’m delighted to know that my father spent his last years in this family, where he was so respected. I visited my father’s grave in Jankoi (by the way, I now have all of my father’s records). Now there are always flowers, and I still help the relatives of that woman.
I had an idea. My mother always told me that my father was the only man she ever loved. So I thought it would be nice if their graves were next to each other, and I decided to relocate my father’s grave after my mother’s death (her condition was deteriorating quickly). I’m not sure it’s the right thing to do from the religious point of view… Certainly, it’s selfish, but I think there was something in this idea.
So I came to visit my mother. Since she had a stroke 10 years ago, she felt worse every day, always lying in her bed, understanding very little of what was going on around her, and having occasional blackouts. Full of enthusiasm, I tell her, “Mother, I’ve found Misha’s grave, my father’s grave.”
She gives me a foggy look (perhaps she just returned to consciousness) and says, “No way. He was here with me just a moment ago, we were talking and Misha was holding my hand.”
I had an epiphany: my mother spent the last 12 months with my father. I brought up this topic again, and two or three weeks later she died.
I changed my mind about the grave relocation idea, because there was another woman, who had given 16 years of her life to my father and was buried in the same grave with him. He died in the Arctic when she wasn’t around, but later she reburied him in Jankoi, where she lived. Their grave is there, and may they rest in peace.
“Chernovetskiy? – screamed the responsible of the Central Committee. – He is a Jew! – And I was there, standing behind the door and listening this anti-Semitic fanatic telling about the history of Jewish last names”
- Was being Jewish an obstacle to your career?
- In the Soviet times, I never revealed that I was Jewish to anybody, because otherwise I wouldn’t have any chances to make a career. My ex-colleague and friend Oleg Abramovich Kosenko was a first-rate investigator, best of the best, but his patronymic name was Abramovich, and it was a real handicap (smiles). He was an Orthodox, his mother was Ukrainian,
- … and his father – a lawyer…
- … his ideas were close to nationalism, but it didn’t matter… Sometimes Oleg would say to me: “What I like about the Russian Empire is that back then conversion to Christianity was the ticket, but today it means nothing.” He was eventually fired from the prosecutor’s office, and I always feared that I would be exposed, especially in the university, because…
- …they “cherished” Jews there, didn’t they?
- They were obsessed about your ethnic background. But I’ve always thought of myself as Ukrainian, because I have the mentality of the country where I was born, raised and achieved success.
Before my appointment as a deputy pro-rector, I had to obtain approval from the communist party bigwigs. A friend of mine, who worked on a high level in the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Ukraine, arranged an interview with a person responsible for all educational institutions in Ukraine. So, the day comes, my friend asks me to wait and goes inside to introduce me and pass my dossier. A few seconds later I hear a scream: “Chernovetskiy? He is a Jew!”
My friend starts to object, “Nonsense! We’ve drunk so much vodka together, he is our guy. He is a friend of mine, he can’t be a Jew. Besides his last name isn’t Jewish.”
The thing is that Jews were given last names after the cities they lived in: Vinitskiy, Boguslavskiy…
- … Umanskiy, Cherkasskiy…
- So here I was, standing behind the door and listening to a story about the history of Jewish last names. This anti-Semitic fanatic was in charge of the education system of the entire country! I was lucky because my family name is Chernovetskiy, not Chernovitskiy – the letter “e” somehow replaced “i” in my father’s last name (the actual name of the city in Ukraine is Chernivtsi). That was how I joined the rectorate of the Kiev University.
I didn’t hide my background during the elections: people of Kiev won’t tolerate deception or half-truth, and those who plan to run for mayor or member of parliament in Kiev should remember this. I feel sad when I hear that people are willing to sell their conscience and votes for a penny (or buckwheat), but these things happen. When I ran for mayor, one of my contenders spent $40 million, I know it for sure. They handed people money, but all they got was 1-2% of the votes. People of Kiev are not for sale, you need to be open and honest to earn their trust…
- …and be humane…
- …to have achievements, or nobody will vote for you. Those stories about the people of Kiev selling their votes for “Chernovetskiy’s buckwheat” are untrue and very frustrating. Total nonsense! Yes, I admit, I’ve been giving food to the poor, I’ve been donating money…
…for many years…
- But I wasn’t going to run for mayor then. Now I do even more charity work, but I don’t buy votes. That’s A. And B, people of Kiev want to know what kind of person you are, they don’t care about your ethnic background or your language. You have to be a patriot of Kiev and Ukraine, you have to be kind. And most important, don’t waste your time running for parliament, if you have no track record. It could work in the middle of nowhere, but not in Kiev. People of Kiev have dignity, they vote sincerely and have to know you based on your track record.
“I never saw a dollar bill before I was 40 and lived a life of a Soviet everyman.”
- You spent your childhood and teenage years in Kharkiv. They say you were drafted and served in the interior troops as a prison guard in the Dnipropetrovsk area. Is that true?
- This is a lie, Dmitry. I’m glad you asked me this question, because I can debunk one more lie… There are so many disgracing stories about me, although this one is not entirely disgracing, but still….Yes, I did serve in the interior troops in Dnipropetrovsk, regiment #5444, but it was a police regiment. The conditions were harsh, we had 120 officers and 100 soldiers, we took a lot of abuse. But that’s a different story.
- There was dedovshchina, right?
I had a terrible experience with the military, absolutely degrading treatment. The sooner we have a professional army, the better. A person’s moral code is crushed there (perhaps, this is part of somebody’s comprehensive plan), he turns into …
Yes, an animal. There was no friendship between us: it was every man for himself, you had to survive. By the way, in the army I got the “Otlichnik militsii” (Russian: “The Excellent Police Officer”) award for excellent service and was eligible for scholarship to study in the Kharkiv Law Institute. It wasn’t easy, but the fact that I was an excellent soldier – even though during the last year of service only – helped me.
- They say that when you were a student, you suffered from hunger and had to work as a loader to earn money on the side…
You know, I can’t really remember myself suffering from hunger…
- …because you remember only good things?.
Because I’m a person with modest needs, and when you are young…
- …you need little to feel happy…
Absolutely. A simple potatoes meal was fine by me, so let’s not talk about malnutrition. As for my finances, I never saw a dollar bill before I was 40 and lived a life of a Soviet everyman. Of course, I earned money on the side; when I was a loader in a grocery store, I would haul a total of 20 tons daily.
- That’s a lot…
I had all sorts of moonlight jobs, but I always had excellent marks. The story of that period of my life is quite unusual, you won’t find another one like it. School teachers abandoned me, I was expelled from all schools in our district, and once I finished school, I was drafted in the army immediately. That’s because I’d had to repeat a year twice.
- Who would believe it now?
But that’s the way it was. The first time I had to repeat a year was in the first grade: I was studying so hard I lost weight, and my mother decided to take me home and wait for one more year. The second time was in the eighth grade, where they simply set me up. I detested school, typical sovok. I don’t know how today’s children are treated, but I don’t think there have been any significant changes.
“I have all Cs and only one B in my school diploma, I repeated a year twice, and nevertheless, I graduated from college with honors”
- Obviously, you liked freedom.
Yes, I love freedom. I was always repelled by the idea of sucking up to and being all nice with the teachers, who only liked wheedlers. By the way, although I had terrible marks and had to repeat a year, I was sent to participate in school competitions.
It was the best school in Kharkiv, #36. I used to skip classes a lot, which really vexed our physics teacher, a young fleshy woman. By the way, she later had a great career by becoming a school principal back in the Soviet time.
- Do you really think it was a great career?
Yes, why not… To get rid of me, she conspired with the geography teacher, although I knew geography much better. In fact, my knowledge of school program is very solid, thanks to my good memory.
- I have no doubts…
So they gave me two Ds: the geography teacher (he must have been dead already, God rest his soul) and the physics teacher (she may be alive, bad person). This was a real blow to my mother and me, we were overwhelmed. I quit school and went to work at the Kharkiv Aviation Plant as a fitter. My stepfather was a theatre institute professor (a very interesting person, actor of the Kharkiv Russian Drama Theatre named after A. Pushkin and later a theatre institute professor). He strongly opposed the idea of me becoming an actor, so he didn’t let me enter the institute. Although it might have worked…
- Yet, he did familiarize you with the theatre, didn’t he?
Yes, I saw many performances. By the way, although I had to repeat a school year, by the age of 14 I had read all Russian classic literature twice, I loved reading. Eventually I moved from an evening school back to a normal high school, #4. I had a wonderful teacher, Larisa Mikhailovna, she was the only teacher I ever liked – we still keep in touch, and I help her. She is a remarkable person: I wouldn’t have got a high-school diploma unless she hadn’t helped me. I have all Cs and only one B in this diploma, I repeated a year twice, and nevertheless, I graduated from college with honors with nothing, I had nothing but excellent marks, nobody had better performance.
My problem was that if you misbehaved at school, if you were emotional and refused to kiss the teacher’s feet, then you got a label “slacker.”
- A stigma…
Right. At school, you change grades, but all your teachers dislike you, give you unfriendly looks. In contrast, a college professor never sees you before the examination, he is more interested in your knowledge rather than your grades. Of course, I’m talking about a teacher who has a gift from God, and most of my teachers in the Kharkiv Law Institute were of this kind.
Once there was an episode with a teacher named Olga Fedorovna Skakun, who disliked me for some reason. She taught social philosophy or some other discipline dealing with religions. At the exam, she wanted to give me a C without even hearing me out, and after I demanded a fair treatment, she asked me questions covering the entire course. Our battle lasted 1 hour and 40 minutes, and she eventually gave me an A. Other students were mad at me because I made all of them wait. By the way, all those A-students I studied with at various schools…
- …nobody achieved success?
That’s not exactly what I’m trying to say… Maybe some of them did, even though not the kind of success I’ve achieved. Later one of the teachers said: “If I had known that he would become a parliament deputy, I would have treated him differently.” Let’s not talk about them. During the final exams, I couldn’t help behaving in my usual way, so Larisa Mikhailovna should be given credit for the fact that I got a high school diploma.
I wanted to get an A in physics because I knew physics well, I was prepared. But on my way to school, I met a group of my friends near the grocery store.
“Where are you going?” they asked me.
“Exam,” I replied.
“So have a drink, because…”
- Indeed, being sober at the exam is weird…”.
“That’ll make you eloquent,” they told me. So I had a glass.
- Of Vodka or bum wine?
I don’t remember exactly how we called this stuff. But it was strong as hell.
- Perhaps, porter.
So I came to the exam, pulled a ticket and my mind went blank. So I figured I wouldn’t say a word and get my C: in the Soviet time, nobody gave you a D, if you were in the final grade. So, I stood with my mouth shut and all my classmates witnessed the whole thing (because I was so desperate to get an A, I was the first to pool the ticket). I don’t know how long the silence lasted, but they eventually decided not to give me any mark at all. I didn’t want to disappoint my mother, so I went to the country house of one of my female classmates. My friends brought me food and wine, the nature was amazing…
- Was your female classmate with you?
Yes, but I didn’t hit on my classmates because I was two years older than them. I was always attracted to my adult friends whom I liked a lot. Larisa Mikhailovna was responsible for our class and she came to visit me. She was so beautiful, master of sports, she was our gym teacher and worked in the school administration.
- Did you have a crush on your teacher?
I have always admired her as a person, but I was never attracted to teachers. Larisa Mikhailovna begged me to give it another try, and so I did. When I came to school, I saw the examiners waiting for me. When I sat behind the desk, they left the classroom, and Larisa Mikhailovna gave me the assignment and all the keys (smiles). I can’t remember all the details, but I somehow managed to get a C. I really hate the Soviet school and all my memories about it. The same goes for the army by the way.
- Soviet army?
Exactly, but I think I hate school even more.
- For four years you worked as a senior investigator at the prosecutor’s office of the Kiev area, you investigated famous cases, you saw professional criminals. What is your most vivid memory from that period?
Indeed, I saw some violent criminals, rapists, and I had many interesting cases. By the way, during the last years of my service they I was mostly assigned to cases concerning grand property theft.
- Socialist property?
Right. And after one of such cases, I began to question the credibility of the laws: the system penalized talented people, who had bright ideas about streamlining technological processes.
- Are you talking about shadow entrepreneurs?
No, I’m talking about unique specialists, who had a number of diplomas summa cum laude, sharp mind and deft hands. Imagine a factory with a very special problem, and these experts could find a solution. But they only agreed to work for a very handsome fee, e.g. 10,000 rubles. Such fees were unheard of then, so, to make necessary payments, factory directors paid invoices for services whose alleged amount was much larger compared to the amount of service actually delivered. I could see that these people were out of the ordinary, but I put all of them in prison.
- What were the sentences?
Up to 15 years. People were rarely sentenced to less that 12-15 years in my cases, but I eventually started to doubt that I was doing the right thing. By the way, I resigned from the prosecutor’s office voluntarily. There was no another case like that at the time, because the usual way to leave was to go to jail or to die, there were no other options. I decided to have it my way and applied for a postgraduate course.
When I came to work in the prosecutor’s office (it was 1977), I was 26, and you couldn’t become a senior investigator unless you had minimum 3 years of experience and a good track record. Most of my coworkers were 45, 50 or older. And one day there was this murder case in Rakitnoe: a body of a girl (I can’t remember her name) was found in a well 11 meters deep.
The victim’s mother went nuts, she was sure that her daughter was raped, murdered and thrown in the well. But nobody could explain the reasons of the murder or find murderers. And Rakitnoe is a small town, the population of perhaps 7,000 people, who know all about each other.
Our best people were assigned to the case, major case investigators from the national prosecutor’s office. The girl’s mother was a real nuisance, she constantly complained on the highest level that investigators were incompetent. The prosecutor of Ukraine at the time, Glukh, if I’m not mistaken…
- …yes, Fedor Kirillovich…
…he had to see and listen to her, because if something bothered her, she went to complain to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Ukraine. She was a member of the party…
- And any member of the communist party could have an appointment…
After one of her visits, he wrote a memo: “Assign an experienced investigator from the area prosecutor’s office to the Rakitnoe case.” The area prosecutor Victor Stepanovich Bogachev, former tanker, hard like a rock, great man, figured that any person taking this case would fail, because that woman wouldn’t get off that poor fellow’s back…
- And Chernovetskiy is dispensable…
No, he thought that he could use my lack of experience as an excuse for her, so he assigned me to the case.
So, I arrive in Rakitnoe, I live there for 2 months, I make a minute-by-minute reconstruction of events of the victim’s last day (I usually dig deep). That evening, she was a guest at a wedding party, at 11:30 pm she was last seen on her way home. My task was to establish how she got in the yard of one the Rakitnoe houses and how her body ended up in a well. As an investigator from the regional prosecutor’s office, I had all the resources of the criminal investigation department (CID) of the Kiev Regional Police Department at my disposal, and that was a real force.
For your information, in the Soviet times, if you happened to get on the radar of the KGB or the CID, you were toast, because they put you on file and did their utmost to get you into prison at any cost: the idea was that you couldn’t capture their attention for no reason. I saw many people’s lives shatter this way. I had the power to take anyone into custody (now it’s illegal) without any warrant. I always carried blank arrest forms and I could apprehend anyone whom I considered suspicious, or to whom a witness might point. Or I could collar a suspect to make him talk…
- Before the court hearing?
Yes, and because I was young, I did this, and I regret it now. During that case, I put many people in jail in just two months. The truth was that this girl studied in a vocational school in Uman, she was overly affectionate and dated multiple guys at once. One of them started a rumor that she had a venereal decease, and the girl was so depressed that…
Meanwhile, one of my suspects in prison pleaded guilty, because cops put him in the same cell with repeat criminals, who… Frankly, I don’t know what they did to him, but a phone call woke me up in the middle of the night. I arrived to the prison, interrogated the suspect for 4 hours (my cases never went to court before I got to the bottom), making a minute-by-minute reconstruction of the evening: Where were they together? Who saw them together? And I finally saw that his story didn’t match with the facts: he wasn’t telling the truth. At 2:00 in the morning he burst into tears and said, “I didn’t kill her.”
After that I felt I couldn’t keep an innocent person in prison. To release him, I had to call for deputy regional prosecutor Zanudin, a wonderful man. He came and verified the person wasn’t guilty, and that was a disaster for the police, as they already reported that the murderer had been arrested, but that doesn’t matter…
“The bodies had cuts and stab wounds, which evidenced that the young couple had been killed by an axe.”
- There was something special about this story. The body of the victim was covered with many wounds, the sperm was discovered in the vagina (or, rather, it was deemed to be sperm in the beginning of the investigation), and the underwear was torn and pulled down. It looked like a clearcut case that the girl was raped and thrown down the well, but the story didn’t match. I’m now positive that the girl wasn’t murdered, she was under extreme stress and committed suicide. But what would be her mother’s reaction, who was already on the verge of a nervous breakdown after her daughter’s death, tormenting everyone around her.
At that point, I was given a partner from the General Prosecutor’s Office of the USSR, Victor Petrovich Karyakin. This grey-haired man (God bless his soul) was assistant to Chief Prosecutor of the USSR, who acted as the Chief Soviet Prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials…
– …Roman Andreevich Rudenko…
Exactly. But Karyakin was eventually fired because he was a reckless person. He was allowed to report directly to the top officials of the prosecutor’s office of the country. To make a good impression, he began to suggest unbelievable scenarios of the murder, he made such a mess… A lot of investigators and the entire CID of the Kiev region were assigned to this case to help us. What an action movie…. Karyakin and I had searched every corner of Ukraine trying to find witnesses, dozens of people were put in jail by Karyakin’s order. And at every place we visited he told the same true story (“Investigative Practice” magazine had an article about it).
Soon after the war, as a major case investigator, he was assigned to a case about the death of Marichka and Piotr in western Ukraine. Their mutilated bodies were found in the abandoned mine 500 meters deep: they hit shaft walls during the fall (a body never falls straight, it always hits the walls if there are any). The local investigators had a romantic explanation: beautiful Marichka and handsome Piotr fell in love, but he came from a rich family, and she was poor, so the groom’s parents opposed their marriage. So one night the couple decided to commit suicide.
The case was closed, but after Karyakin conducted an experiment – a dummy was thrown down the shaft – it became clear that the wounds hadn’t been made by the walls. The bodies had cuts and stab wounds, which evidenced that the young couple had been killed by an axe. After interrogation, the parents made a confession (I don’t know if their fingers had been squeezed or something). Piotr wanted to marry Marichka, but his rich parents couldn’t let it happen, so one day they ambushed the couple at a place, where they usually met, killed them and threw the bodies down the shaft.
It’s an interesting story, I heard it from Karyakin more than once, although it is quite typical for a seasoned investigator. But there’s more to it.
At that time, the chief of Kiev Regional CID was colonel Valery Sporyshko, great man. We were in his office, and Karyakin was telling the story of Marichka and Piotr for a 100th time. “I’m gonna tell you one of my own personal experiences,” Sporyshko told Karyakin. “When I was a detective in the district police department, I had an informer, a criminal whom I saved from prison every once in a while in exchange for information.”
So one day, around midnight, this informer called Sporyshko, who was doing the night shift that day, and said to him, “Valera, I’m near the grocery store, come to pick me up right now, because I killed a person. I’m finishing a bottle and I’m gonna leave once the store is closed. Come quickly and check if he’s dead or not, and take me with you.”
Sporyshko, an experienced detective, didn’t believe him, but the man swore he was telling the truth. So they went to Nivki… What district was it? I don’t remember.
- It used to be Radyansky…
Right. So they arrived at the address and found a freshly dead body, an axe lying on the table, and the wall covered with pieces of brain matter…
- Fingerprints on the axe…
The apartment had been burglarized, the confession had been made…
“I turned the lights on and saw a freshly dead body, an axe, pieces of brain matter on the wall”
The informer Vasya was arrested and put in prison (he was supposed to be executed for murder). “10 years later”, Sporyshko continued, “I became chief of a district police department, I didn’t have any informers (by the way, in those years, 1970s, he was the youngest district police chief in Kiev, he was in charge of Leninsky district).” One night a night shift police officer woke him up, “There’s a man here, who claims he is responsible for the murder for which Vasya got a sentence 10 years ago.” Sporyshko couldn’t believe it at first. So he came to the police station to meet that man, a utilities engineer, who made a confession, “I can’t bear it any more, I killed a man 10 years ago.”
After he told the location of the crime scheme, it became clear he was talking about that particular murder. “I have three kids to feed,” he explained. “We lived in poverty, we had nothing to eat. And one night I saw an apartment with an open window and the lights off. I decided to beak in and steal something valuable, but while I was rummaging through the drawers, a person rose from the couch. I saw an axe on the table, I grabbed it and killed that man.”
“Where is the loot?” they asked him.
“At my house,” he replied.
And they did find pieces of nylon shirts which his wife had used as diapers: some pieces of fabric even had blood stains on them.
Valery started looking for Vasya, who was supposed to be executed for murder. However, he was sentenced for 15 years, maximum sentence, and was in prison somewhere on Sakhalin.
- …doing time…
…serving sentence. So he was brought to Kiev, and Sporyshko asked him, “Vasya, we have known each other for many years. Tell me the truth: Did you kill that man?”
“No, I didn’t,” Vasya replied.
“Why then did you tell us you did?” Sporyshko said.
Vasya gave Sporyshko a cold look and answered, “I was disgusted with being an informer, working for you, cops. So I decided to commit suicide, my life was worthless. I was either in prison or living as a bum, I was an alcoholic, so I kept thinking about suicide, but I didn’t have enough courage. One night I saw an opened window to an apartment, and, a skilled burglar, I thought I could break in and steal something. I turned the lights on…”
- …and saw a dead body…
A body, an axe, pieces of brain matter on the wall. Vasya decided to plead guilty and get the capital punishment.
After Sporyshsko told this story, I never ever heard the story of Marichka and Piotr from Victor Petrovich again.
- What was the end of the story in Rakitnoe?
Nothing happened. There was another person who continued to investigate the case after me, but it wasn’t a murder (if I hadn’t found a murderer, then nobody could, because I dug very deep). I closed the case, because the second test showed no sperm in the vagina: a mistake was made during the first test. More importantly, we conducted a costly experiment, which has a story of its own.
The victim’s mother came to my office one day, she was a big fleshy woman, she almost filled the entire room. She began to harass me, “This man killed her. Why don’t you put him in jail? Did he bribe you?”
I didn’t know what to tell her and finally said, “You see, we need to conduct a costly experiment, but we have no money to buy a dummy to throw it in the well.”
So she went to the prosecutor of the Kiev region and made a scene there, “Why don’t you provide Chernovetskiy with adequate funding?”
The prosecutor was a tough man, ex-tanker, but he hated me after that episode, although I didn’t want to set him up, I didn’t think she would kick up such a terrible fuss.
Ultimately, we got our dummy and we threw it down the shaft. A costly experiment it was. Experts confirmed that all wounds on the girl’s body were inflicted by the walls while the body was falling…
(to be continued in the next issue)
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