A meeting with Yulia Tymoshenko is like an appointment at the Vatican, an audience with the pope. It feels like there's incense in the air, an almost religious, idiosyncratic blend of politics and faith.
This meeting with select journalists in the Kiev headquarters of her "Fatherland" party is carefully orchestrated, down to the last detail. Despite undergoing medical treatment for chronic back pain at Berlin's Charité Hospital, Tymoshenko is wearing stiletto heels this evening -- apparently to avoid looking short. She has dispensed with the miniskirt she likes to wear, as well as her expensive jewelry. Now that the very existence of her people is at stake, or at least the survival of Ukraine within its current borders, she has opted for a simpler, more conservative look.
Today she is wearing a gray outfit with a high collar and tasteful makeup. It emphasizes her Madonna-like face, which doesn't seem to have suffered as a result of her recent imprisonment or any other setbacks. Every word and every gesture reveals that this sophisticated and occasionally arrogant mother of the nation has become its deeply determined would-be savior.
She is constantly aware of the TV cameras, making sure they capture her face from the most advantageous perspective, and underscoring her most important messages by pointing at the ceiling with her index finger, as if she expects support from a higher authority. A steelier tone slips into her otherwise soft voice, as she says: "We call upon the West to supply us with modern weapons. We must put the Russian aggressor in his place!"
And how, exactly, is that going to work?
"We cannot give up Crimea for lost, nor should we surrender a single square meter of our country. We must steadfastly refuse to play the role of the victim in the history books of the future!" She adds that she is prepared to make every personal sacrifice needed to serve the greater good, and that the time to reach a decision is approaching, before strutting off the stage on her high heels.
Martyr or 'Gas Princess'?
Fifty-three-year-old Tymoshenko is an extremely divisive figure, more deeply loved and hated than almost any other politician in Ukraine. Some see her as the "Ukrainian Joan of Arc," a martyr who suffered for her nation in prison. Others, however, call her the "gas princess," an unscrupulous oligarch who has amassed a fortune worth billions and, as prime minister, did serious damage to Ukraine.
In 2005, Forbes named her the "world's third-most powerful woman." In 2011, she was sent to prison for alleged abuse of office. And in late 2013, a planned EU association agreement with Ukraine failed in part because Brussels had made Tymoshenko's immediate release one of its conditions.
The relationship between Tymoshenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin was initially characterized by their mutual political respect. In 2005, she described him as a "wonderful, dignified leader," a man Russia could be proud of. "He promotes his agenda, and everyone else is expected to conform to it. I hope the world respects my country just as much one day."
Now that the opposition has prevailed on Kiev's Maidan Square and pro-Russian separatists are occupying cities in eastern Ukraine, her tone has changed considerably. In a conversation about Putin in March, presumably recorded by Russian intelligence, she said: "I'm willing to take a Kalashnikov and shoot the bastard in the head!"
That outrageous statement could mean that she has made a dramatic about-face following Russia's annexation of Crimea, but it is more likely a tactical maneuver. After all, one of the few things everyone in Ukraine can agree upon is that Yulia Tymoshenko is capable of anything.
According to the latest polls on the upcoming May 25 presidential election, Tymoshenko is in second place, trailing significantly behind "Chocolate King" Petro Poroshenko, 48, whose television station supported the Maidan uprising. Nevertheless, she will undoubtedly play an important role in Ukrainian politics after the election. Despite her dislike of Poroshenko, she would probably work with him if made the right offer, and despite the chaotic situation in the country, she continues to campaign tirelessly, as she did in Odessa a week ago, when she accused the Kremlin of pushing Ukraine into a bloody "Yugoslavia scenario."
Her hometown is as filled with contradictions as the country itself. It is located in southeastern Ukraine, at a crossroads between different worlds, slightly closer to the Russian border than to Kiev. The route from the Dnipropetrovsk airport into the city traverses Third-World-like roads, and passes a Porsche and a Lexus dealership. Downtown Dnipropetrovsk, with its Karl Marx Boulevard, a McDonald's restaurant as well as magnificent, classical Russian buildings and a department store called "Europe," feels like a motley collection of influences from around the world, buildings whose architects couldn't decide on a direction.
Dnipropetrovsk represents many things for Tymoshenko: the place where she was born, and where she worked her way up the ladder with irrepressible determination; the community in which she was married, made her first million and developed her political ambitions. She bought her mother a house in Dnipropetrovsk, and she is still fond of making appearances there.
The city is not only a focal point in Tymoshenko's life, it also a momentous significance for the country. The threads of Ukrainian history have and continue to come together along this bend in the Dnieper River.
Dnipropetrovsk has long been an important trading center. In 1775, Catherine the Great ruthlessly destroyed the autonomous Cossack nation and dubbed the region "New Russia." She wanted to give her realm a new, southern capital. According to the plans of her confidant, Count Grigory Potemkin, a cathedral larger than St. Peter's Basilica was to be built in the center of the city. But the grandiose plans came to nothing, and Catherine soon had other worries.
Dnipropetrovsk suffered greatly under Stalin and Hitler's troops, as the dictators terrorized the population with famines and mass executions. After World War II, the city became an important center for the arms industry and was declared off-limits to foreigners. It was also a breeding ground for political leaders. Leonid Brezhnev, the leader of the Soviet Union from 1964 to 1982, was from Dnipropetrovsk, as was Leonid Kuchma, appointed prime minister of independent Ukraine in 1992 and elected president two years later. In fact, an entire generation of political leaders who have shaped the country are popularly known as the "Dnipropetrovsk Mafia."
A Wild Girl
Tymoshenko grew up at 50 Kirov Street, a four-story, prefabricated apartment building with low ceilings and neglected stairwells. "It still looks the same here as it did in her childhood," says neighbor Lyudmila Gregoryanska, as she opens the door to her tiny, three-room apartment. Yulia was a wild girl, says the old woman, "always hanging out in the courtyard, playing soccer and scuffling with the boys." The girl hardly knew her father, who left the family when she was three. Her mother made ends meet with a job in a taxi office.
Tymoshenko attracted attention early in her life, as a winner of debate competitions, gymnastics front-woman in high school and a principal dancer in a theater group. She was a fan of Bach and the Beatles alike, and popular with her fellow students. Tymoshenko was determined to escape poverty and her claustrophobic life in the drab, gray suburbs. She met the son of a local party official at 17, and their marriage soon afterwards became her ticket to social advancement - and a small apartment of their own. The birth of her daughter Yevhenia one year later didn't stop Tymoshenko from pursuing her ambitions.
She studied economics and graduated with honors. In 1984, she began working as an engineer in a machine factory that manufactured radar devices for the military. A few months later, Mikhail Gorbachev became General Secretary of the Communist Party in Moscow, and experiments with the market economy were now allowed. Tymoshenko quickly understood what imagination and connections could do for her. In the past, anything that was not expressly allowed was forbidden -- and now the Soviet bloc was trying the opposite approach.
She borrowed money from friends and, with the help of her father-in-law, who was in charge of film distribution within the party, she obtained previously banned foreign films. She opened a video rental business, and although revenues were modest -- erotic films were the most popular -- the money began to add up.