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KYIV, Ukraine – If you want to challenge that old phrase “you can’t fight the town hall,” you should probably choose a location outside of Ukraine’s capital. This is because the mayor’s previous job title was world heavyweight champion.
Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko held the title intermittently from 1999 to 2013.
Now he is fighting the Russians. Klitschko is quick to the scene when Russian airstrikes hit the capital.
“They killed children, women, civilians, for what reason? Klitschko said upon arriving at a building that was attacked in March. “Where is the military target? Is this building a military target?
The Russian invasion in February transformed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy from a leader of declining popularity into one of the world’s most famous political figures. Yet before the war, Klitschko was better known around the world, at least to boxing fans.
The Russians reached the outskirts of the capital early in the war and had just retreated when Klitschko spoke to NPR in April.
“Kyiv is the biggest city in Eastern Europe. Right now we assume that half of the population (out of 3.5 million) has already left,” Klitschko said. “The city has totally changed. In the spring, this city has energy. And right now, the city is almost dead.”
Now the capital is more relaxed
War is still raging in eastern and southern Ukraine. But in the capital, many residents who initially fled have returned, and the city has in many ways regained a sense of normalcy. There are still soldiers on the streets, checkpoints on the outskirts of town, and frequent air raid sirens. But the streets are full of cars and pedestrians, shops and restaurants are open, and the day-to-day vibe is generally relaxed.
Even when the Russians were nearby, Klitschko never stopped working at City Hall, a huge stone building in the center of Kyiv surrounded by sandbags. He said in a recent interview with The Sunday Times that he has only left town twice since the start of the war.
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At 51, Klitschko is 6ft 7in and still appears to be around his 250 fight weight. When he retired nearly a decade ago, he had won 45 professional fights – 41 by knockout – and lost only twice. His nickname? Dr. Ironfist.
In politics, he lost his first run for mayor. But he won the job in 2014 and was easily re-elected in 2020. He generally gets good marks from Citizens.
“He has done a good job and I am very grateful to him for what he has done so far,” said Dmytro Belov.
Belov offers buggy rides for children in a park that Klitschko improved. The park – one of several renovated by the mayor – now has an elevated walkway with stunning views of the Dnipro River, which bisects the city.
“These are beautiful parks. I think they are the city’s new calling card,” Belov said. “These are historic places and they have been modernized.”
Yet not everyone is a fan of the mayor.
“I think he’s basically a sportsman and he should stick to sports,” said Anya Hovenko, who was pushing her child in a stroller through the park.
“He’s definitely not someone who’s good at governing. I’m not so sure he’s very good at his job.”
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Ukraine is poor compared to most of Europe. But there were signs of growing wealth in Kyiv – with Klitschko presiding over substantial development – until Russia invaded in February.
The city is now a mix of elegant glass towers that have risen in recent years, as well as Soviet-era apartment buildings and grand and ornate architectural gems that date back to Tsarist-era Russia.
Before the war, Klitschko faced critics who said he favored wealthy developers over ordinary residents.
“His reputation is that of someone who has developed the city a lot, but above all a private development,” said Liubomyr Mysiv of the Rating Group, a private polling company. Klitschko, he said, is seen as a mayor who supported “the construction of condominiums and shopping malls, as opposed to public services that employ people.”
Additionally, Klitschko backed President Volodymyr Zelensky’s opponent in the 2019 presidential election. But the war has unified Ukrainians and sidelined most internal political differences, at least for now.
The brothers made a promise to their mother
One of Klitschko’s strongest supporters is his younger brother, Wladimir, who also held multiple world heavyweight titles, from 2006 to 2015. At times, both Klitschko brothers held boxing association title belts rivals, an unprecedented domination of the heavyweight ranks by a pair of brothers.
Yet they never settled it in the ring, keeping a promise to their mother that they would never hit each other like they hammered most others.
Their mother is Russian and their father is Ukrainian. Such marriages were quite common in Soviet times. Moreover, their father was a general in the Soviet Air Force. The brothers grew up on Soviet military bases in the 1970s and 1980s.
In a recent interview with the British Sunday time, Klitschko said his family was deeply loyal to the Soviet Union and viewed the United States as an enemy. But as his boxing career took off, he traveled to the United States in the late 1980s.
“I came back and said to my dad, ‘I went to Florida. I went to Disney World, so many places.’ I said to him, “Sorry, everything you’ve heard about the United States is (nonsense). It’s a great country. They are great people,” he told the newspaper.
The Klitschko brothers say that given the mixed Russian-Ukrainian heritage, they have nothing against the Russian people. But they are staunch opponents of President Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine.
Mayor Klitschko made that point, as he has repeatedly, during a deadly missile strike in June.
“This senseless war. We must do everything to stop this war. Because thousands and thousands of civilians are dying,” he said.
Greg Myre is a national security correspondent for NPR. follow him @gregmyre1.