Fragments from a War Diary, Part #68
My anticipated meetings fell through in Dnipro: something I have sadly become used to in the chaos of war-torn Ukraine. Therefore I satisfied myself with a tour of the city to see its sights and to understand its history, and to try to work out a little more about the role of the most enigmatic and curious of all the Ukrainian Oligarchs, Igor Kolomoisky.
Formerly known as Yekaterinoslav, the city now known as Dnipro came to prominence in the nineteenth century as an industrial centre for exploitation of coal and steel from the nearby Donbas region that is now partially occupied by Russia. Dnipropetrovsk, as the Soviets came to call it in honour of Ukrainian Communist Party leader Grigoriy Petrovsky, was rapidly transformed into a centre for heavy industry in the Soviet Union because it was a major port city on Ukraine’s internal waterway system and also in close proximity to Donbas. Dnipropetrovsk became known for its nuclear weapons production, ballistic missiles, iron and steel and cars. Because Dnipropetrovsk was a principal centre of Soviet arms production, the city was closed to foreigners in 1959 and little was known about it by the outside world until the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Regrettably a sense that the city has been entirely forgotten lingers to the present day. In the absence of my imagined prior commitments, I decided to take an extended walk this morning through the city. My ultimate destination was to be the Cathedral of the Transfiguration of the Saviour, a beautiful nineteenth century complex that the Soviets had miserably transformed into a museum of atheism. Now it has been renovated and it sparkles like a jewel on a hill just adjacent to the River Dnieper upon which the city of Dnipro, renamed as part of the “de-Sovietisation” process in 2016, lies.
The remainder of the city centre, however, is a drab and depressing affair, that feels barely renovated after the end of the Soviet Union. The city consists of a single long street close to the bank of the Dnieper River, and a half-hearted attempt has been made to initiate construction of a metro system but only a portion of one line was ever completed and it does not run into the centre of the city. A series of cranes every kilometre or so mark places where construction of central metro stations was anticipated but never completed. The new construction associated with many Ukrainian cities that thrived during the post-Soviet period is marked in its absence from Dnipro. The main road still carries signs saying “Karl Marx Avenue” even though the road has formally been renamed after a Cossack historian. The city feels like Moscow in about 1978. It is thoroughly gloomy and depressing.
I could not find any shops to speak of, of the kind you find on the streets in any large city in Western Europe. Most of the retail outfits are in the nature of corrugated shacks. There was one uninviting mall just off the main drag, very Soviet in appearance, that I did not bother venturing into. The Soviet-era architecture is also gloomy, predominantly fashioned from what appears to be dark grey concrete. I noticed a couple of semi-derelict “Univermag” buildings, Soviet department stores from a bygone era not refurbished and not put to proper contemporary use. However the city centre has for the most part escaped significant war damage. The cynic might comment that there was not much there to destroy.
Post-independence Dnipro has always been associated with Igor Kolomoisky, the notorious Ukrainian Oligarch who founded one of Ukraine’s first independent banks, Privatbank, in 1992 as the Soviet Union lay in ruins, people’s Soviet rubles had been turned to dust by devaluation and they were in desperate need of storing the hard currency in their possession in a tolerably reliable bank. Through his connections with independent Ukraine’s early political leaders, who he manipulated ruthlessly, Kolomoisky ended up ensuring that Privatbank had the only licence to conduct foreign transactions and therefore if you wanted to put your valued US dollars in the bank, and avoid hiding them under mattresses or banking in by then worthless Ukrainian Coupons (the first currency of independent Ukraine, before the introduction of the Gryvna), Mr Kolomoisky had a monopoly.
Kolomoisky became a robber baron not just of Dnipro but of Ukraine as a whole, exerting a stranglehold upon the country’s banking and its currency and he became both excessively rich and very powerful. Whereas other Ukrainian Oligarchs seized the country’s infrastructure assets, Kolomoisky had the nouse to establish a functioning bank but it lurched from one scandal to another as it was associated with various acts of corruption on the part of successive Ukrainian governments. Dnipro itself became Kolomoisky’s private fiefdom. The development of the city’s heavy industry was neglected and much of it remained fallow, relics from Soviet times. Mr Kolomoisky had no interest in industry; he was concerned with finance and banking. Nor was he particularly enthused about the prospect of consumer culture and improving the living standards of ordinary Ukrainians living in Dnipro or the Dnipropetrovsk Oblast. Instead he was interested in continuing to amass enormous quantities of personal wealth; obtaining ever increasing control over the banking and money supply system in Ukraine; using this influence to exert control over other Oligarchs and to become the principal bargainer in Ukraine’s relationships with Moscow; and using his influence to manipulate Ukraine’s political processes, including her elections.
Mr Kolomoisky was notoriously ruthless and unpleasant, a rude, callous yet boastful man by all accounts who thought nothing of tramping on his opponents and had few genuine admirers or allies. He even had the audacity to think he could confront Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is notorious in his total absence of a sense of humour or frivolity. Mr Kolomoisky purportedly kept a shark tank in his private office in his enormous residence in Dnipro, acting in the style of a James Bond villain and snubbing his nose at Mr Putin by supporting the pro-Western Volodymyr Zelenskiy as President in 2019. However his luck had run out. Mr Putin was not the only person who had formed a low opinion of Mr Kolomoisky.
The US Government, who rarely agree with Mr Putin about anything, were of the same view. They indicted him for fraud and money laundering, and under American pressure Mr Kolomoisky was arrested by Ukraine’s Security Service, the SBU, one Saturday evening in early September 2023. He now waits in prison for trial on money laundering and fraud charges, or even extradition to the United States. He is paying the price for alienating too many people and having nobody around him who liked him or sympathised with him, save for the usual circle of sycophants.
Igor Kolomoisky will not be remembered for much positive, but he did issue one notable quote.
“I said to [Viktor] Pinchuk [a rival Ukrainian Oligarch, also from Dnipro], life is like a supermarket. You take whatever you want, but you have to pay when you get to the checkout.”
No doubt Mr Kolomoisky, like others, is contemplating carefully those words as he languishes in a prison in Kyiv awaiting his fate.
It was a beautiful, sunny day as I contemplated the Cathedral of the Transfiguration of the Saviour.