Up until this weekend, Oleksandr Trukhin, a lawmaker for President Volodymyr Zelensky’s 243-member Servant of the People faction, was not widely known. 

A week ago, on Aug. 23, he allegedly rammed several cars in Kyiv Oblast, injuring six people, including two children and Luciano Lucci, a football referee and chairman of the Ukraine Football Association’s Committee of Referees. 

But it was not the accident that made Trukhin infamous. It was the attempt to cover it up.

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Over the weekend, over 30 online media outlets that previously reported about Trukhin’s alleged car accident, took down their reports. These included big news sites Segodnya and TSN as well as news agencies UNN and UNIAN, according to the Institute of Mass Information, a media watchdog.

The Kyiv Post asked some of those media outlets for comment, but they did not reply by publication time.

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Other media outlets, who didn’t take down their reports, said they had received emailed offers to delete the news about Trukhin’s involvement in the car accident for money. The offers reportedly started at $200.

The media went public about Trukhin’s attempt to cover up the incident and eventually caused the Barbara Streisand effect, with the incident topping the news in Ukraine on Aug. 30.

Trukhin did not respond to requests for comment. Neither he, nor the Servant of the People party leadership made any statements about the car accident in the week since it happened.

The car accident

The police confirmed that the accident had taken place and opened a criminal investigation, but did not disclose the names of those involved. 

Ukrainska Pravda news outlet obtained a video from the site of the car accident featuring a person who appears to be Trukhin. The video shows the police trying to shoo journalists away from the site.

Another video, a now-deleted report by Kyiv Live TV channel, was recovered by Ukrainian journalist Oleksiy Bratushchak. It also shows a man who resembles the lawmaker.

A man who resembles lawmaker Oleksandr Trukhin is seen on the site of a road accident that he reportedly caused near Kyiv on Aug. 23. The author of the photo is unknown.

Cover-up

Among those who blew the whistle on the attempts of an unknown PR team to bribe news media to remove the news about Trukhin was Oleg Scherbakov, chief editor of Tribuna, a respected Ukrainian sports publication. 

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Tribuna’s commercial department got two messages on Aug. 27 from a person going under the name “Petro Bistro” asking for the articles about Trukhin to be removed from their website in exchange for money. 

Scherbakov told his employees to ignore the request.

Lawmaker Oleksandr Trukhin attends a parliament session on June 14, 2020. (UNIAN )

When he received the request, Scherbakov was listening to a discussion about ethical journalism at the Lviv Media Forum, an annual conference for journalists. He immediately learned that dozens of other websites took down the news about Trukhin. 

“It was such a contrast,” Scherbakov told the Kyiv Post. “Here I am at this forum listening about messages and narratives — and I receive such a blow. It would feel different if it was five media outlets (who took down the news), but it was so massive.”

“This is a showcase for readers to understand which media is reliable and which isn’t and can be influenced by money or pressure,” he added.

Olga Vytak, the editor of CenterNews, said her agency also received money offers to take down its reporting of the crash.

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“It is a delicate matter. I ask you to keep this confidential,” says an email CenterNews received from Igor Semenov, who calls himself a representative of an unnamed large PR agency in Kyiv. “We are suggesting a commercial solution to the issue, within reasonable limits.”

Vytak published screenshots of the emails on her Facebook account. One of the people who tried to get Trukhin’s role in the accident deleted from the internet used the email address “[email protected]”.

Shady PR campaign

The cover-up attempts that followed the car crash provide a rare look into the shady business of black PR and sell-out media in Ukraine.

The Kyiv Post sent requests for comment to the emails that were used to ask the media to take down stories about Trukhin.

Only one person replied, using the email ofnailsandsinner[email protected], which apparently refers to the name of the 1997 song by Arcturus, a Norwegian avant-garde black metal band.

In an email to the Kyiv Post, the person introduced himself as Yuriy Zakharov, an employee of reputation management agency Artdock.

It was registered in May 2019. Its beneficiary is a Russian citizen, Dimitr Gibinski, according to Ukraine’s company registry. Several PR specialists told the Kyiv Post they never heard about the agency.

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Zakharov claimed that it was Zakhar Chistyakov, a PR consultant, who contracted the agency to remove the news about Trukhin. Chistyakov told the Kyiv Post it was “nonsense.”

The supposed fee the agency charged was enormous.

“I do not know the total budget of the campaign. We received $50,000 in cryptocurrency,” the person going under “Yuriy Zakharov” told the Kyiv Post in an emailed response. He refused to elaborate on how this money was distributed. 

Anastasiya Magonova, head of an international communication bureau Magonova & Partners, says the amount looks overblown. To remove a news item from several dozens of websites would cost closer to $20,000, according to her. 

The story didn’t check in other ways, too. “Yuriy Zakharov” introduced himself as Leonid Nikonov when writing to other media from the same email, asking for the Trukhin story to be taken down. 

He said that some other media outlets were contacted by “competitors,” implying that more than one agency was contracted to help remove the news about Trukhin.

As for Artdock, the agency told the Kyiv Post they don’t employ anyone named Yuriy Zakharov. They also denied their involvement in the whitewashing campaign.

“We have nothing to do with this. We would like to know ourselves who is behind this campaign,” Andriy Shulgin, who said he was a lawyer of Artdock, told the Kyiv Post over the phone. “Even though our company is called a reputation management agency we do not really provide such services.”

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However, the agency’s website advertises a service called “deleting information.” The agency offers to have damaging information disappear from the first pages of search engines. 

Apart from representing the reputation agency Artdock, Shulgin is an unpaid aide for Oleksandr Kachura, a lawmaker.

Both Kachura and Trukhin represent Zelensky’s Servant of the People faction.

Shulgin used to work for Kachura’s law firm and assisted him during the 2019 parliamentary election run, Kachura confirmed to the Kyiv Post. He said that Shulgin doesn’t work for him anymore.

“I have not seen him for a year and a half,” Kachura said. “I do not know where this guy works now. In some IT company, I guess.”

The parliament’s website, however, still lists Shulgin as Kachura’s aide.

Kachura said he doesn’t know a company called Artdock. 

Regarding his colleague Trukhin, Kachura said that he should go public and explain himself.

“Maybe this was a provocation directed against him — like someone is sending these emails (asking to take down news about the car crash) on his behalf without him knowing,” he said.

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It could be, Magonova told the Kyiv Post. According to her, the entire attempt to save Trukhin’s reputation was unprofessional.

“A professional PR manager would never recommend doing this. Likely, they hired a ‘buyer’ and certainly an amateur. Because professional ones do not communicate with newsrooms via emails,” Magonova said. “Buyers services is a separate and very secretive market hidden inside the media market. They are intermediaries between PR managers and newsrooms. They can get some news published or take them down.”

“Lawmakers often use their services,” Magonova said. “We normally advise against this.”

Yaryna Klyuchkovska, a communication expert, said the practice of paying media to get something published or taken down is indeed widespread.

“This is a very negative practice and I am ashamed that it exists from both sides: those who offer the money and those who take it,” said Klyuchkovska. “I am deeply concerned about the media market that allows this to happen.”

As of Trukhin’s alleged cover-up campaign, Klyuchkovska said such attempts always backfire.

“People who deal with this professionally know that any attempts to cover up a crisis ruin a reputation more than what they’re trying to hide,” she said. 

Trukhin’s background

Trukhin is a member of parliament from the Servant of the People faction and the head of the party branch in Poltava Oblast.

Previously he was a member of Poltava Oblast’s legislature from the previous president’s party, the Petro Poroshenko Bloc.

When he was running for parliament in 2019, Trukhin listed “end lawmakers’ immunity from prosecution” as the first item on his election program.

Incidentally, Trukhin’s ex-wife, Ksenia Martynova, is one of the best-known people to have avoided responsibility for a car accident in recent Ukrainian history. 

In 2009, Martynova struck and killed a 62-year-old woman with her vehicle in Dnipro, an industrial capital 500 kilometers south from Kyiv. 

Martynova is the daughter of Oleksiy Martynov, a wealthy local businessman and partner of oligarch Igor Kolomoisky. His net worth was estimated at $476 million in 2020, but at the time of the accident he was worth over $1 billion, likely making him the richest person in the city.

An undated photo shows Oleksandr Trukhin (L) and Ksenia Martynova at their wedding in Dnipro. Trukhin, now a lawmaker with President Volodymyr Zelensky’s party, reportedly caused a car crash on Aug. 23, injuring six people. Martynova, a daughter of a wealthy businessman Oleksiy Martynov, hit and killed a 62-year-old woman in 2009, and hasn’t been convicted for it. (gorod.dp.ua)

Although at the time the police confirmed that it was Martynova who was behind the wheel, and the case captured the public’s attention, she was never convicted. The latest news about the case dates back to 2012, when local media reported that the police were still investigating it.

On her current Instagram account, Martynova has posted a video of herself singing karaoke while driving a car.

Martynova and Trukhin got married around 2010 in Dnipro, according to photos posted on a local discussion board at the time. They have since gotten divorced and both have remarried.

Trukhin and Martynov have co-founded a water skiing club in Dnipro. It is now owned by Martynova.

Ukrainian media have reported that Trukhin was among the lawmakers under Kolomoisky’s influence. 

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