Glukhiv mayor Michel Tereshchenko visits a church built in the 19th century by his family in northeastern Ukraine, near the Russian border
Glukhiv (Ukraine) (AFP) - His family was one of the Russian Empire's richest industrial dynasties before Bolshevik collectivisation caused it to flee to the capitalist West.
Almost exactly a century later the 61-year-old scion of the Tereshchenko family -- born and raised in Paris -- is now mayor of his ancestral town of Glukhiv on Ukraine's northeastern edge.
A cordial bon vivant clad in a brown bomber jacket, Michel Tereshchenko says his dream is to turn the town of 35,000 into "a showcase of Europe" where corruption will be uprooted and "historical tourism" flourish.
Tereshchenko trounced his pro-Russian rival by a two-to-one margin in a local election in October and was sworn into office Tuesday.
His glorious familial ties played well with those who look with horror at Russia's 2014 seizure of Crimea and are still haunted by the bloodletting across the separatist east.
Tereshchenko calls the 18-month conflict a "war for independence" from not only former tsars and dictators but also today's Vladimir Putin -- the iron-fisted president who views Russia's western neighbour as its "near abroad".
The boisterous Frenchman -- now a formal Ukrainian citizen who speaks accented Russian -- told AFP "360 years of colonisation" was coming to an end.
And many in this nearly millennium-old town may have hope to believe him: the Tereshchenko family built most of Glukhiv's 19th-century centre and many of its most important buildings still line its leafy streets.
"It is here that we are building the true eastern border of Europe," Tereshchenko said.
- Velazquez and Rembrandt -
Tereshchenko won even greater renown when he was handed his new Ukrainian passport personally by President Petro Poroshenko in March.
Tereshchenko's name will probably mean little outside the troubled east European country -- but it is one that resounds among Glukhiv's elderly residents.
The family made its 19th-century fortune primarily through sugar beet production -- a popular product in Europe and one easy to grow in Ukraine's fertile "black earth".
They then used their phenomenal wealth to build hospitals and co-found churches and museums. They helped establish universities for the upper classes and orphanages for the poor.
Many of these still function not only in Glukhiv but also in Kiev -- a relatively well-off capital city that named a central street in the Tereshchenkos' honour.
They used a good chunk of their wealth to acquire some of the world's most treasured works of art.
Tereshchenko describes glorious years before the communists' 1917 rise to power in which his family collect 15,000 pieces that included such 17th century masters as Velazquez and Rembrandt.
Christie's Auction House in London said that it had once sold an astonishing 42.9-carat pear-shaped "Tereshchenko diamond" -- the fourth largest of the "fancy blue" variety known to exist in the world.
The 1984 purchase by an anonymous bidder was made for a then record $4.5 million.
Family legend says that Tereshchenko's grandmother originally used the gem as ransom to secure the release of her jailed husband -- a man who served as finance minister of the Russian Provisional Government that existed for only a few months in 1917.
- 'A Frenchman in retirement' -
A sudden desire to see his ancestral home nearly a decade ago moved Tereshchenko to resettle from Paris and turn part of the old family mansion into the office of a profitable flax and hemp production plant.
He readily admits he has nowhere near the same means as his great-grandfather -- a man who spent about two decades serving as Glukhiv mayor in the 19th century.
But he still holds out hope to succeed where his grandfather -- the provisional government's finance minister -- failed.
His grandfather wanted to make tsarist-era Russia "into a democracy," Tereshchenko recalled.
"It failed in Russia. But it will succeed in Ukraine," the slightly greying but still bright hazel-eyed mayor promised.
The town sits just 12 kilometres (seven miles) south of the Russian border and is -- like many of its neighbours -- bogged down by corruption and neglect.
But the locals approach and speak to Tereshchenko warmly as he strolls down streets his ancestors called home before fleeing for their lives in France.
Tereshchenko said his biggest surprise was the heartfelt embrace he felt from the natives when he first returned for what was meant to be a brief visit in 2002.
"When you are a Frenchman in retirement, you have no idea how to spend time besides travelling and playing cards," he admitted.
"Meanwhile here, there are plenty of things to do."