KYIV (Reuters) – Orthodox chants of mourning resounded in a packed central Kyiv cathedral on Friday as Ukraine buried an agricultural tycoon with his wife after they were killed in a missile strike that hit his home last weekend.
Oleksiy Vadaturskyi, co-founder and director of one of Ukraine’s largest agricultural holdings, was killed with his wife in his southern hometown of Mykolaiv by what Kyiv says was an S-300 missile fired by Russia.
The sudden death of the 74-year-old, described as a “titan of Ukraine’s agricultural sector” by one national farmers association, sent shockwaves through a domestic grain industry that has been devastated by Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion.
His export-focused firm Nibulon is a household name in Ukraine, where exports have been crippled by a wartime port blockade that is easing slightly under a grain deal.
The tycoon was well-known in Ukraine for driving a revival of cargo transportation on rivers, including the vast Dnieper that carves south from northernmost Ukraine to the Black Sea.
“It’s hard to accept this news when you work with someone for 12 years, see them almost every day, and then one morning you understand they’re gone, and what’s more, so cruelly,” said Dmytro Forda, a longtime Nibulon employee, at the funeral.
Several hundred people came to pay their respects. Old women in headscarves rubbed shoulders with forlorn-looking executives in suits and men in military uniforms.
His son, Andriy Vadaturskyi, an ex-lawmaker and chairman of Nibulon’s supervisory board, said he believed his father had been killed deliberately. Russia denies targeting civilians.
“I have every suspicion that this was not an accident … I don’t want to discuss details yet, but I simply do not believe it was a coincidence,” he told reporters.
‘HERO OF UKRAINE’
Pictures of Vadaturskiy and his wife lined the entrance to the cathedral. In several of the photos, he was wearing a Hero of Ukraine medal, which he was awarded in 2007.
Mykolaiv Mayor Oleksandr Senkevych praised Vadaturskyi for staying to help the city as Russian troops approached at the start of their Feb. 24 invasion, although he did not elaborate. Two-thirds of Vadaturskyi’s assets are now on Russian-held territory, he said.
Traders told Reuters his death was unlikely to have a major impact on the day-to-day business of Ukraine’s grain industry. Vadaturskyi was ranked Ukraine’s 24th richest man by Forbes in 2021 with an estimated fortune of $430 million.
His son said he would work with the Nibulon team to keep the company running.
“Today the main task is to preserve the company. Further on, we will look at investment projects, because the company today is ready for investment projects,” he said after the funeral.
The company, which exported more than 4.5 million tonnes of agricultural commodities in the 2020/21 season, emerged from the turbulent 1990s after the Soviet breakup as a key Ukrainian market player.
Nibulon says it has transported 24 million tonnes of cargo by river since its existence, which it says is equivalent to taking one million trucks off the road.
The most famous of these voyages was the revival of a Soviet-era tradition of yearly barges running watermelons from Ukraine’s south to Kyiv, an event that always got publicity in Ukraine.
(Reporting by Max Hunder and Serhiy Voloshyn; additional reporting by Pavel Polityuk; editing by Tom Balmforth)