Vladislav Davidzon, Kyiv
The Viking who defeated the Odessa mafia and erected a runestone.
One of the first major laws that Ukrainian wartime President Petro Poroshenko passed upon election was a wide ranging “decommunization” bill. Signed into law in April of 2015, the new law represented a serious attempt to deal with the trauma of the communist past. The KGB archives would be opened to historians, researchers, and descendants of the repressed. Streets glorifying the memory of communist-era heroes would be renamed. Tens of thousands of communist monuments and statues, including every single statue of Vladimir Lenin, would be removed. A moment of great iconoclasm was upon us. Ideologically inappropriate statues were being torn down, from Izmail to Chernihiv. To the collective joy of political reformers and publishers of deluxe coffee table books the world over, the phenomenon known as “Leninfall” had commenced.
As a serious businessman from northern Europe, Sillesen was totally unprepared for a culture of such florid and empty promising.…
Perched atop pedestals across the country, the statues of the Bolshevik leader met varied fates. The majority were simply knocked over. Others wound up in private museums or collections. Fragments of Lenin’s broken visage and limbs were arranged, often with a touch of languid great poetry, in barns, attics and storerooms. The southern port town of Odessa commissioned a local sculptor to convert a statue of Lenin statue standing in a city park into one of Darth Vader and then to install a Wi-Fi router inside the Sith Lord’s helmet. The international media flocked to this easy story, and hipster photographers from the four corners of the globe made pilgrimages to pay homage to the statue.
Around the same time, a local political broker, a libertarian hacker—one who happened to be wanted by the American authorities for tens of millions of dollars’ worth of credit card fraud—set up a Star Wars-themed political party and flooded the streets of Odessa with stormtroopers riding on military-grade Hummers. By means of this fantastical and uniquely Odessan turn of events, the statue of the Dark Sith Lord was trumped.
MY FRIEND THE PROUD VIKING
My friend Thomas Sillesen is a proud Viking. A Danish businessman with a taste for off-color jokes and high-stakes risk, he is very tall, totally bald, and built like a roving berserker. He and I once drove across the border from Moldova into Transnistria, the Russian-dominated separatist enclave: a territory stuck outside of time, an embalmed slice of ‘70s-vintage Soviet Union. On the drive back, we passed a checkpoint manned by the Russian peacekeepers who had been placed there at the end of the Transnistrian war in the summer of 1992. The Moldovans don’t really control their own border, so it was easy for us to neglect to get Moldovan stamps on our passports. A Moldovan border guard lectured me for having violated his country’s sovereignty. The argument degenerated, and I instructed him to fight the Russians better in the next war if he wanted the right to harangue people at the border. Afterward, Sillesen remarked that usually he was the belligerent one. This would prove to be accurate.
After serving out his term in the Queens Life Regiment of the Danish army, and while working on a master’s in economics at Aarhus University, Sillesen had supported himself by working as a bouncer at a local music club. He does not think highly of the masculinity of the Swedes. If asked politely, he will proudly relate the exact patrimony of a fierce Viking heritage which he can trace back to AD 950. His illustrious ancestor, the Danish chieftain Thorgil Sprakling, sired multiple grandsons who wore the crowns of Denmark and England.
He was in the wind turbine business. When the Ukraine war broke out in 2014, members of the Russian-led separatist forces broke into his office in Luhansk and threw a pair of Molotov cocktails into the company’s boardroom. He decided to pull his company out of Luhansk and took them to Odessa for the summer. This was supposed to be a temporary move, but then the Ukrainian army, which had been swiftly retaking territory from the dispersing, hybrid force of separatists and Russian special forces, retook control of the city. Like many provisional solutions, the move would end up being all too permanent. The regular Russian army would invade in August of 2014 and would quickly rout the Ukrainian forces.
So the Dane decided to establish his company headquarters in the burned-out ruin of an old hotel which stood on the decrepit old road that runs along the side of the port. The space was not much to look at, yet it was easy enough to imagine the seafront developing quickly after the war. In November 2017, Sillesen bought the building directly from the bank, which had taken possession of it after foreclosing on the delinquent previous owner. The court documents and deed would be checked over thrice and the lawyers would pronounce the paperwork to be in order.
The evening the deal was finalized and the ownership of the building formally amended, the director of the company received a curious call from the former owner. The man claimed that he had in fact been the victim of bank fraud and the building had been illegally expropriated from him. That, he said, annulled Sillesen’s paperwork and title deed. “I am a Danish guy,” Sillesen told me. “Property disputes based on obscure legal loopholes are simply a non-existent problem back in my country. So my lawyer and I were shocked. We thought it was a joke.”
It was not a joke. It was a shakedown. The former owner had defaulted on his bank loan and lost control of the property years ago, but had continued to use it. Now he was attempting to regain control of the building. Meanwhile, the bank wanted to keep the money the Dane had paid them.
A series of absurd court decisions followed. It soon became evident that the former owner was a close friend of an influential city lawyer. The court would neither grant Sillesen control of the property nor direct the bank to return the money, as would happen in any ordinary country. A minute error in the legal documents was used as a pretext for declaring them void, but no one wanted to refund Sillesen’s investment. He made repeated appeals, but the politicized courts continued to award the building and the mortgage to the former owner. This was portside robbery, abetted by a brazenly corrupt judicial system.
Sillesen had no intention of standing down or letting himself be swindled. He hired political consultants and experts in government relations who would assist him in a campaign that would quickly morph into a quest. One of them was the canny American consultant Brian Mefford, an experienced hand in Kyiv’s raucous politics who knew who to call in Odessa. Sillesen also began attending high-profile investment meetings with the government and publicly haranguing ministers and functionaries to take an interest in the case. At one meeting, Sillesen raised the issue directly with President Poroshenko. Hearing him out, Poroshenko swore to the heavens to do all that was possible to ameliorate the situation. The president graciously gestured toward an aide and instructed him to be in touch. He also intimated that he would himself be making a personal visit to the Danish company’s headquarters during his next visit to Odessa.
It soon became obvious that these grandiose flourishes meant nothing. There was no presidential visit. As a serious businessman from northern Europe, Sillesen was totally unprepared for a culture of such florid and empty promising. He decided to step up the political pressure. Once again, he confronted President Poroshenko during a closed meeting of the Ukrainian-European Business Association. On this occasion, the chastened Poroshenko was forced to admit that he “could help with a property dispute anywhere in Ukraine with the exception of Odessa,” which he declared to be a veritable “state within the state.” When Sillesen inquired about that with the senior brass of the SBU intelligence agency in Kyiv, they admitted that they had virtually no control over their colleagues in Odessa.
LIKE THE VIKINGS OF OLD
The Dane learned that much like a medieval Italian city state, Odessa was run by an intersecting set of political families and mafia elites. No state assistance was forthcoming. He would have to reclaim his property through less conventional tactics. “We realized that these were not good guys, and that the police, prosecutors and judges in Odessa were all crooked. Unless the dynamic was changed, they would always stick together against a foreign investor such as myself,’ he explained.
At Sillesen`s behest, Mefford deployed his connections in Odessa and set up a back channel to a rival clan of business interests. He familiarized anyone who would listen with the details of the case and looked for a possible opening. Using open-source information, Sillesen procured the home addresses of the city judges, then bought Facebook ads decrying theft from foreign investors, calibrated to be seen by individuals with a legal education living on particular streets.
Soon, Mefford found his man: a muscular Bessarabian gentleman of questionable vocation whose day job was being a member of the Ukrainian parliament. The political clan that the Bessarabian gentleman headed was, Medford reported, “battling the former owner’s clan over several pieces of prime real estate around the city.” Like the influential lawyer of the building’s former owner, this clan also controlled and influenced its own share of city judges. From the very start of the process, multiple individuals materialized to offer to mediate the dispute. Typically, they would offer to make the problem disappear in exchange for a sizable cash payment. The stubborn and valiant Dane refused the offers out of hand. There would be no bribe or any other activity which would compromise his acute sense of ethics.
Instead, he invited all the men who had influence on the Odessa judiciary to a reception in his headquarters. Like the Vikings of old, he plied his enemies with a mighty feast of meat and mead before declaring total war on them (it should be admitted that your humble servant himself attended the feast and got massively smashed on the excellent cognac on offer). Sillesen figured that he should look his opponents in the eyes before continuing his campaign. The munificent show of traditional Viking hospitality was a wise investment.
Shortly thereafter, the Bessarabian gentleman invited Mefford to his office for a drink. Familiar with the fabled code of Odessa business customs, Mefford brought along his reliable Georgian partner Irakli. “I figured that in such matters, it was always good to have a feisty Georgian watching your back.” The meeting took place in the private office of the Bessarabian gangster. Food was served by a blonde secretary and a bottle of Chivas Regal was opened over manly banter. It was only after the second bottle was mostly finished that the host brought up the issue at hand. “When you get invited to such a meeting, you always let your host initiate the discussion” the courtly southerner Mefford later explained. Finally, the obvious question was put on the table: “Who is this guy to you and is he willing to pay?” Mefford casually but intently seized the moment. “He’s just a legit guy, you know, a real man’s man, like you. Your city gets a bad rap because of the crap that this other clan does, and it brings down heat on you guys. It’s your chance to screw your enemies and do a Boy Scout deed for the day that will help the city’s image.” A third bottle of Chivas Regal was opened, and the glasses were clinked to a toast to friendship and bratani. Mefford remarked that “an elucidation had been planted that would last beyond the next morning’s hangover”.
Five days later, the appeals court would at last issue a decision in favor of the Danish engineering company. If one did not count Odessa’s former mayor Hurevitz (who holds Israeli citizenship), this was the first time a foreign investor had won a case in an Odessa court in decades. “We fought the court order out of principle, but the victory burnished the company image,” explained the victorious Sillesen. Less than an hour after the court decision was proffered, Mefford received a congratulatory call from the chuckling Bessarabian politician.
THE GLORIOUS VICTORY
To mark his victory over the Odessa gangsters in the Viking style, Sillesen decided to erect a traditional Viking rune stone at the base of his newly secured property. Several decades ago, when he had been very young, he had met a Danish rune stone carver. The craftsman was a black metal musician and an old-time follower of Odin named Eric the Red. Sillesen had long fantasized about commissioning his own rune stone and realized that this victory would likely be the great signal battle of his life. This was the moment to summon forth his Viking ancestors.
The Obelisk would be carved in Denmark. Weighing more than six and a half tons, it had to be delivered to Odessa by truck. Eric the Red was flown out to Odessa and spent a week finishing the painting of it on site. An emblem of Odin`s mask was carved into its side in order to protect those living with it from the machinations of evil spirits. It also featured a raven—the warbird of the Vikings—in the act of mutilating a snake.
The old Norse inscription carved into the stone explained that the raven had slaughtered the dragon, which in the case of this modern scenario probably represented the specter of corruption. “It also commemorates the friends who helped in the fight,” explained the triumphant Viking
Having placed the rock in its new home, Sillesen took the time to re-read the Viking chronicles, upon which point he realized that his predicament was in fact as old as the Varangian war songs. The old Viking chronicles foretold that after a Viking ship would pass through the end of the Dnipro River and would turn right at the entrance to the Black Sea, a man had to prepare himself for combat. “One arrives at Odessa, and one has to be prepared to fight, this is just the standard operating procedure in the chronicles of old,” Sillesen marvelled.
“And my ancestors were right about that!”
Vladislav Davidzon is a journalist who divides his time between Ukraine and France. He was the founding editor of The Odessa Review and is Tablet’s European Culture Correspondent. This essay is part of the collection, From Odessa with Love: Political And Literary Essays In Post-Soviet Ukraine.