The mayor of Ukraine’s second-largest city of Kharkiv, the charismatic politician and gangster Hennadiy Kernes, has succumbed to COVID-19 at the age of 61. Known for his weightlifting and trash-talking, the gangster mayor was an intense and canny political survivor who had found himself starting out on the wrong side of two Ukrainian political revolutions, both of which he somehow managed to survive politically. A diminutive, physically brave wise-guy hoodlum, he enjoyed posting pictures of his jacked up pecs on Instagram (The New York Times referred to it as “eccentric,” which is an estimable accomplishment) and possessed a wondrously handsome schnoz straight out of a late 19th-century anti-Semitic newspaper caricature.
A masterful regional politician, Kernes excelled at the arts of political skulduggery while also being renowned across the Russian-speaking world for his hilarious and untranslatable expletive-fueled tirades. Kernes will also be remembered for having been strong-armed into keeping the region of Kharkiv from falling to Russian-led separatist forces in the spring of 2014.
The government of Petro Poroshenko had leveraged its control over Kernes by having him put on simmering trial, over the course of several years, on charges related to his alleged kidnapping, torture, and death threats against local activists of the Euromaidan Revolution. The case would be unceremoniously and unexpectedly closed by the government last summer, without a verdict being delivered, in advance of last fall’s local elections.
As the transactional mayor of a city 20 miles from the Russian border, Kernes had openly flirted with separatism when Ukraine was first invaded in 2014. He supported President Victor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, and was deeply tied to Russia through his personal business relations. The city he led, Kharkiv, was central to the Russian project of carving up Ukraine and establishing an economically and politically viable “Novorossiya” Russian proxy state.
Yet, the Russians had in fact badly miscalculated the level of resistance that would arise against the sort of deniable tactics that had succeeded flawlessly in the takeover of Crimea. As a result, the geography of Europe and the very course of 21st-century European history would be decided partly in Kharkiv between late February and mid-April 2014.
On Feb. 22, 2014, the day after President Yanukovych fled Kyiv, a conference of separatist and Russian delegates gathered in Kharkiv from all across Eastern and Southern Ukraine. Kernes was at that time a central figure in the Russophone Party of Regions, and was known to have sympathies with the pro-Russian separatists after already having switched sides twice during the previous Orange Revolution. Wearing the ribbon of St. George on his lapel (the World War II symbol has since been adapted by pro-Russian and separatist forces), Kernes delivered a speech in which he surprised the gathered attendees by hedging his bets and calling for Ukrainian national sovereignty to be respected.
It is likely that almost no one in the audience or back in Kyiv believed him. More ardent men stood up and gave revolutionary speeches, and the city soon degenerated into weeks of demonstrations and counterdemonstrations between loyalists of Kyiv and Moscow. The Russian flag was soon hoisted over the regional state administration building after it was stormed by locals and Russian men who had arrived by bus from Russia.
By the first week of April, the Ukrainian government prudently sent in units of patriotically minded commandos from Kyiv to retake the regional state administration building from the men huddled inside of it with guns. The Russian flag was swiftly pulled down, and by the middle of April the Ukrainian state had more or less regained control of the city center. The Russian takeover plan had taken too long to unfurl and had effectively been neutralized. Kernes was now once again in favor of national territorial sovereignty.
The mayor’s transparently transactional decision—eventually taken under duress from Kyiv—to throw his lot in with the post-revolutionary Maidan government cemented the fact that Kharkiv (which is after all the most Russified city in Ukraine) would remain Ukrainian territory. Kernes quickly reached an accommodation with the new authorities, and somehow reinvented himself as a critical but loyal pillar of Ukrainian statehood. This may very well be the reason that one of his numerous enemies first ordered a hit on him.
On April 28, just as the war in the East began escalating, Kernes was out for his morning jog when an assassin caught up with him and put a pair of well-placed sniper rifle shots into his back. To this day the identity of the attempted assassin and his paymaster remain unknown—though many speculate that the hit was ordered by Russia and its allies as retribution for his having changed sides.
Israeli doctors saved Kernes life, but his health was ruined and his slow decline after the shooting was inexorable. He had by that time occupied the main hotel in the city, which resembled an armed bunker, and lived there mostly alone, with the exception of his 27 dogs and numerous birds. My colleagues who had interviewed him over the last several years described a formerly vigorous man who was now wheelchair-bound, his once-powerful body atrophied and bloated from the secondary effects of the attempted killing.
The flamboyant mayor was so beloved by the residents of Kharkiv that he cruised to reelection in October with more than 60% of the vote despite having disappeared from view for treatment for what turned out to be a terminal case of COVID, which he appears to have caught at a massive public rally back in August. In fact, he had been gone from public view for so long after having been reelected to City Hall that his political opponents had triggered a police search for him. It had been reported that his kidneys had ceased functioning a week before his death and that he had been placed on dialysis. Rumors of his death may have been greatly exaggerated for months, but in the end they turned out to be true.
Kernes’ “simple straightforward man of the people” populist act occluded the animal political cunning that had been finely honed in the waning days of the Soviet Union. These talents naturally come in handy during the period of extreme violence that descended over Eastern Ukraine in the early ’90s. Kernes sprang from a very modest family and was naturally canny rather than educated, and he was often seen in the leather jackets favored by authentic tough guys.
Kharkiv was a hub of late Soviet criminality under the slow motion dilapidation of the Brezhnev era. While Kernes had worked as a watch repairman and milk delivery man for a time, rumors of his youthful start indicate that he had once been a street criminal who specialized in three-card monte. As Perestroika commenced in the mid-’80s Kernes was sentenced to several years of imprisonment for petty larceny and fraud. It is a time in his life that he preferred not to speak about later.
Before the seat of power was moved to Kyiv, Kharkiv had been the original capital of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine. The city retains its independent cultural identity and deep sense of self. Citizens of the city are proud of its highly intellectual character and cultural achievements from Soviet modernism onward. No less than rambunctious Odessa, it is also very much a city characterized by trade as well as inventive and flamboyant criminality.
Shimon Briman, an Israeli journalist and historian as well as a native of Kharkiv explained to Tablet that “Kernes personified the spirit and style of Kharkiv—which is why he was so incredibly popular in the city. Kharkiv has a very specific mentality—it is deeply mercantile as well as being stolidly artistic and remains proud of being the ‘first’ capital of the Ukrainian Soviet Republic. Kernes bridged that divide between the mores of the city intelligentsia elite and its extensive semi-criminal business underground.” The organizing living principle of the city being “live and let live.”
Indeed, Kernes possessed an undeniable and authentic emotional connection to his city even as he robbed it blind. He was an adequate steward of city interests, but possessed no particular grand vision for its long-term development. Briman recalled having numerous conversations with Kharkovites of all different social classes who would tell him that, “Yes, of course we know that he is a criminal and that he steals, but he also does good for the city which he surely loves.” Such was the ethos of the town, and in some quarters Kernes was downright worshipped: A visiting American professor of Ukrainian studies wrote that in early 2014 he observed an old Kharkovite woman of Russian sympathies haranguing a pro-Maidan Ukrainian supporter with the induction to “pray for the soul of Hennadiy Adolfovich. It is because of him that you have warm water and electricity!”
Along with his friend, Kharkiv-born Russian Ukrainian billionaire developer Pavel Fuks, who became a prime character in “UkraineGate,” Kernes soon became embroiled in the scandals surrounding a certain Italian American politician who had first made his name prosecuting New York gangsters. A business partner of former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Fuks brought Giuliani along to a comical 2017 junket in Kharkiv, and the city soon began funneling what were likely outrageous fees to provide farcical “Cyber Security consulting” to Giuliani’s own consulting firm.
When Kernes eventually rose to the mayor’s office after having first chaired the city council, he became known for his florid put-downs of his political enemies. One French journalist who interviewed him reported that in the midst of intense questioning Kernes retorted that, “If Monsieur journalist is so smart, why is Monsieur journalist so poor?”
The citizenry of the city loved his ritual theatrical emasculation of members of the city council, which were broadcast live and insured his continual reelection. “You son of a bitch, I will multiply you by zero!” he once memorably yelled at an inept bureaucrat. On another occasion, a city councilwoman stood up to him in a public argument regarding a permit issue. Kernes stared at her with patient contempt and softly demanded to know if she could bake a carrot cake. Many of those aphorisms entered the argot of the local folk culture, even if admittedly, they consisted mostly of physical threats.
It is thus deeply appropriate that the last great peacocking conflict of a picturesque life spent in both petty and grandiose conflicts literally involved peacocks. Over the past five years all of Kharkiv had become entranced with Kernes’ feud with another of the city’s favorite sons, the Jewish businessman, philanthropist, and parliamentarian Alexander Feldman. The businessman had spent years building his own private tropical zoo in a compound that he owned on the outskirts of the city center. Feldman had filled it with exotic animals and named it “Ecopark Feldman.” Naturally everyone loved it.
Enraged at the newly won social renown of his competitor, Kernes proceeded to empty out the city budget of numerous departments in order to funnel the resources into a competing project in the guise of a grandiose reconstruction and refurbishment of the old zoo in the city center. It would be bigger than Feldman’s zoo, and would have rarer animals and one would not have to take the city tram to see it.
While Feldman spent his own fortune to build his zoo, Kernes characteristically chose for the city’s sidewalks to go unrepaired and the buildings to forgo being repainted in order to build his own nature park with the people’s money. It would all be worth it to deny Feldman his glory. Sadly, COVID snatched away his great victory. Kernes did not live to see the day that his grand and beautifully embezzled new zoo would be inaugurated to a grateful public.
Kernes will no doubt be remembered as a swaggering city legend. The scholar Briman added that the entire city of Kharkiv was deeply thrilled by the feud between the mayor and the oligarch. The citizens of Kharkiv were so proud of the zoological competition between the two that they began to say that “typically men compete by measuring their dicks, but here in Kharkiv our Jews compete by measuring their ducks!”
Vladislav Davidzon is Tablet’s European culture correspondent and a Russian American writer, translator, and critic. He is the Chief Editor of The Odessa Review and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and lives in Paris.