Photo Gallery: Ukraine's Fading Heroine

Foto: Brendan Hoffman/ Getty Images

A Crude Heroine Nadiya Savchenko's Assault on Ukraine's Elite

After her release from a Russia prison, Ukrainian helicopter pilot Nadiya Savchenko was celebrated as a hero. Now, though, she is making powerful enemies with her coarse verbal attacks against the country's political elite.

In front of the presidential palace in Kiev, where the street climbs up from the Maidan to the steep bank above the Dniepr River, dozens of people are protesting. The group is made up of the wives and mothers of soldiers who have fallen into the hands of pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.

In their hands are photos and documents recording the fates of their loved ones. Over 100 soldiers are thought to be locked away in separatist prisons, though nobody knows the exact number.

"The president should finally exchange the men for our own prisoners," one woman calls out in Ukrainian through a megaphone. "I demand that his staff speak with each and every one of the family members!"

The woman is Nadiya Savchenko, a 35-year-old Ukrainian army captain and helicopter pilot with 170 flight hours and 45 parachute jumps on her résumé. She wears her dark hair short and her blouse and trousers are likewise black. Nicknamed "Kulya," the bullet, her terse, rapid-fire sentences sound as though they are being fired from a machine gun.

Savchenko herself spent 709 days in prison, having fallen into the hands of separatists in eastern Ukraine not long after the war began only to reappear in Russia a short time later, where she was immediately locked away. She was accused of having aimed Ukrainian artillery fire at two Russian journalists on the front near Luhansk, both of whom died, and sentenced to 22 years in prison for complicity in murder. Following significant international pressure, however, she was pardoned by Russian President Vladimir Putin at the end of May and returned to Ukraine the same day.

Savchenko is now famous and serves as a representative in the Rada, Ukraine's parliament. In recent public opinion polls, she has topped the list of Ukraine's most popular politicians, with 45 percent of respondents having a positive view of her. Those same surveys showed that only 3 percent approve of the job being done by President Petro Poroshenko.

A Mouthpiece for Anger

Many of Savchenko's supporters are from rural parts of Ukraine, attracted by the crude verbal attacks she has launched against the elite. She has become a mouthpiece for the anger many simple people have for Ukraine's political leaders -- and gives voice to their impatience in the face of a war that still hasn't been brought to a close and which has cost the lives of almost 10,000 people.

Western observers in Kiev say the former pilot has become a serious threat to the president, the government and Ukrainian political parties. Now, those in government are trying to defuse the Savchenko time bomb, thus far by pursuing a single strategy: silence.

Last week, she began a hunger strike to increase pressure on the president on behalf of those being held prisoner in eastern Ukraine. Still, though, none of the president's staff has appeared at the demonstrations, much less Poroshenko himself. "Someone has to take the initiative to exchange the soldiers. But the children of Petro Oleksiyovych aren't sitting in prison," she says, using the president's patronymic. "And he doesn't care about your children." Her audience nods sadly.

The women have been asking for a meeting with Poroshenko for two years now, Savchenko tells us in a later interview, using her typically crude vocabulary. "He is acting like a complete scumbag, like a pig. He didn't even go out to the mothers when they fainted in the hot sun. He treats his own people like animals." Then, she says: "For me, Poroshenko is no longer the president of Ukraine. He's a nothing."

Barely three months have passed since Poroshenko sent his own plane to the Russian city of Rostov, where Nadiya Savchenko had been serving her sentence. She was flown back to her homeland in the president's aircraft.

A Ukrainian Joan of Arc

Upon landing in Kiev, she received a triumphant reception and was welcomed on the runway by former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who had put her -- even as she was still in prison -- at the very top of the electoral list of her Fatherland party, thus granting her a seat in parliament. Then, in the presidential palace, Petro Poroshenko himself conferred upon her the gold star denoting a Hero of Ukraine, citing her "iron will, civil courage and self-sacrificing service to the Ukrainian people."

On that day, it looked as though the Ukrainians had found a symbol around whom they could rally amid an ongoing war and a ruined economy -- a kind of Ukrainian Joan of Arc. Savchenko had become a national hero, having restored her country's faith that it could emerge victorious against a far more powerful enemy.

Since then, she has spent her time traveling back and forth across Ukraine. She has visited steel workers and livestock breeders, warships in the Black Sea and soldiers on the front in Donetsk. And she has discovered a country in which she feels much is going wrong.

Sometimes, she gets up at 6 a.m. and only goes to bed again at 4 a.m. the next morning. And every day she receives around 200 letters. "Some of them are crazy," she says. "They say things like: I should come by to change a burned-out light bulb in the staircase. They prayed for me when I was in prison and now they want me to help them. They have transformed me into an icon. They need someone they can believe in. They want a miracle to take place in this country with my help."

To truly understand how Savchenko became a national hero, it is necessary to watch the videos of her first interrogation. They were made shortly after her arrest in June 2014 before later appearing on the Internet. Someone close to the separatists must have posted them to the web, though it is difficult to see why. After all, the images were enough to transform Savchenko into a martyr in the eyes of many Ukrainians.

'Not Afraid of Death'

Question from the interrogator: "You came here with a volunteer battalion? Didn't you have enough adrenalin?"
Savchenko: "I have enough adrenalin for my entire life."
"Why did you come then? Did you just want to make a bunch of money?"
"What? For money? I came here to defend my country."
"Defend? Against who?"
"Against the aggressor. Against Russia."
"Is it true that Poles and negroes are fighting for you?"
"What a load of crap."

Savchenko could not be cowed. "I'm not afraid of death," she said during one interrogation. "I consciously chose to go into battle. Perhaps I will die. But what happens to me isn't important."

On the day of her arrest, she was traveling together with fellow soldiers in a car when they stumbled into the battle in which the journalists died -- and then into the hands of the separatists. Later, she says, she was forcefully turned over to the Russians -- separatists claim that Savchenko fled to Russian territory herself. Savchenko also says that she didn't direct fire at the journalists -- that they died in mortar fire and that it was a tragic accident.

That was the beginning of her odyssey through Russian prisons. First, she was locked away in Voronezh, then in Moscow and then she was sent to a psychiatric clinic. Finally, she ended up in the province Rostov-on-Don.

It was there, in a small town, that she was put on trial, providing her closing statement in March 2016. "I accept neither guilt, nor the verdict, nor the Russian court," she said from her cage in the courtroom. "In Russia, there are no trials or investigations, only a farce played out by Kremlin puppets…. Putin is a tyrant with imperial manners and a Napoleon and Hitler complex put together." When she was finished, she flipped off the bench.

During her imprisonment, Savchenko began a hunger strike which ultimately lasted three months and landed her in the hospital. But was she really prepared to die?

"I knew that I would get back to Ukraine at some point," Savchenko says. "It wasn't important to me whether it was dead or alive. I was going for broke." It sounds authentic. Nadiya Savchenko is a fearless woman.

A Disagreeable Rabble-Rouser

While in prison, she wrote her autobiography. She had always wanted to be a pilot, she writes, but first she trained as a fashion designer before joining the military as a radio operator, which was the only position available to women in the army at the time. She was nevertheless able to get accepted to the Kharkiv Air Force University. Twice, she was thrown out for being unqualified, but each time she fought her way back before ultimately becoming the first Ukrainian woman to qualify as an in-flight navigator on a combat helicopter.

In 2004, at the age of 23, she was the only woman among the Ukrainian peacekeeper contingent in Iraq. In her book, she claims she received two marriage propositions while there: A policeman allegedly offered two sheep for her hand in marriage and an Iraqi prince tried to buy her for $50,000.

The book is called "Nadiya: A Powerful Name" -- and the political elite in Kiev should have taken note. Had they done so, they would have been prepared for what is happening now. Savchenko writes of herself that she is an "uncompromising person" -- someone who relentlessly pursues her goals and doesn't let anyone knock her off course.

Now, three months after Savchenko's return, the country's political elite is in shock. They crowned a woman as a hero and she is now using the title for her own purposes. Nobody is talking anymore of "our Nadiya." Instead, they are calling her an out-of-control "torpedo," Putin's "Trojan horse" or a "traitor," with some saying she needs to be sent to a psychiatric hospital. She has gone from being a Ukrainian Joan of Arc to a kind of Ukrainian Donald Trump.

Savchenko herself isn't blameless. From the very beginning, she refused to adhere to unwritten rules -- by walking into parliament in bare feet, for example, or by not thanking the president during a reception held in her honor. And by giving interview after controversial interview, all of which have scandalized the political classes in Kiev.

'Lying, Deceit and Duplicity'

She had hardly returned before announcing that she would be happy to take on the post of president or defense minister should it be necessary. She accused fellow parliamentarians of "lying, deceit and duplicity," and said: "It disgusts me that I sit together with them in the Rada." Savchenko has criticized the fact that many members of the elite have continued to do business with Russia and that not a single chocolate factory has been converted into a munitions plant, a direct reference to Poroshenko, who owns Ukraine's largest chocolate empire. She likewise hasn't spared the "incompetent" military leadership, saying they are to blame for the army's defeats on the front. "These assholes will have to answer for it," she has said.

Savchenko also no longer limits her commentary to issues pertaining to the war in eastern Ukraine. She has commented on oligarchs, for example ("they are still in power"), and on the country's election system ("there are no fair elections in Ukraine").

But the biggest outcry came when she said that it was time to forgive those in Donbass who had rebelled against the government in Kiev, to end the blockade of the region and to initiate negotiations with the separatists -- proposals that are considered heresy in Ukraine. There will never be talks with these Kremlin puppets, wrote one of Shevchenko's fellow parliamentarians on Facebook -- nobody will negotiate with cockroaches. "You either exterminate them with gas or beat them to death with a shoe."

It has now become difficult to meet with anyone among Kiev's political elite who does not think she is a Russian spy. Denys Bohush, for example, believes that Nadiya Savchenko is a product of the Russian secret service agency FSB. A trained neurologist, Bohush was part of President Poroshenko's campaign team and says that FSB "reprogrammed" her when she was in prison, adding that Savchenko is a woman with no political education but with inflexible attitudes and that such people are easily manipulated.

Nadiya Savchenko merely laughs at the notion. "People shouldn't think that I am weak. Yes, they tried to convince me of their view of Ukraine when I was in jail. But I found their efforts absurd."

A Bull in a China Shop

One can assume that the FSB would want its agents to behave much more subtly than Savchenko does. She marches through the Ukrainian political landscape like a bull in a china shop. The question is: Does she do so out of ignorance and naiveté? Or because she wants to be provocative?

She is well aware that she has become a disagreeable rabble-rouser in the eyes of many. "Had I returned to Ukraine and praised the leadership, had I said that everything is just fine and Russia alone is to blame for all of our problems -- then I would still be their hero today," she says. "They wanted to use me as their puppet."

Savchenko says she is working extremely hard because she "wants to learn, more than anything." On a recent Monday in August, she could be found sitting in an office located on the street leading to the presidential palace. The space belongs to the Open Dialogue Foundation, a Polish organization that supports the liberalization of post-Soviet states.

That morning, Savchenko had met with delegates from the United Nations and was scheduled to meet with people from the countryside that evening. After that, at 3 a.m., she intended to travel to a small town on the Polish border. The place was hosting a trial against 21 soldiers for desertion during the fighting in Donbass, charges that Savchenko found absurd. She was then to board a plane for her first-ever trip to the United States -- at the invitation of the Ukrainian diaspora in Sacramento.

On that August afternoon, though, she was focused on spending five hours learning as much as she could. The Poles had set up a flipchart and were using drawings and diagrams to explain the relationships that various European countries have with Ukraine. Savchenko was a bit tired and suffering from a cold, so she propped up her head in her hand and looked at times as though she wasn't even listening.

But she kept making observations and comments that made it clear that her mind was not wandering. She doesn't consider the discord between Ukraine's west and east to be a clash of cultures, she said for example, but a conflict between rich and poor. She also said that she was prepared to lay flowers at a cemetery for fallen Polish soldiers, which is not at all customary. "There are some things I don't understand," she admitted during a break between sessions. "But I comprehend everything intuitively."

Nebulous and Unpredictable

She doesn't have her own family, just her mother and a sister, nor does she have a large staff, though she does keep five assistants busy. She doesn't need a husband and children, she says, and spends her evenings sitting alone and writing down her thoughts. She drafted what she wanted to say at her first press conference over the course of two days and then gave the text to her assistants for a read-through. "They crossed out a couple of expletives and fixed a few orthographic mistakes, but that's it," Savchenko says.

She has even developed her vision for her country's future, calling it the "People's State of Ukraine." Currently, she says, the country is still an oligarchy, which means that the focus must be placed on building up state structures. She envisions a republic with far-reaching local autonomy and a president with only a ceremonial role. There would also be self-defense units allowed to carry their own weapons, not unlike in Switzerland. It all sounds a bit like the island of Utopia, about which Thomas Morus wrote 500 years ago.

So will Nadiya Savchenko be the one to finally get her country back on the right track? Few speak as openly about the problems facing the country as she does. But it is also true that hardly anyone else offers the kind of simplistic, populistic solutions that she does. There's something nebulous and unpredictable about her. But if she is successful in assembling a political movement with herself at its center, perhaps even supported by Poroshenko's opponents, then she could represent a serious threat to the ruling elite.

The head of state, who once received her so opulently, hasn't spoken of her again since then and neither has her political mentor Yulia Tymoshenko. Savchenko, after all, contradicts many positions that are considered sacred to Tymoshenko's Fatherland party -- despite the fact that she represents it in parliament.

As a consequence, more organized opposition to the Ukrainian hero has begun to take shape. "Calls for revolution are damaging to Ukraine," warned one representative from Poroshenko's governing party. From Tymoshenko's camp came an appeal to Savchenko to "take a small time-out."

'A Certain Aura'

"We have red lines," says Oleksiy Ryabshun. He too is a Fatherland party representative in parliament and frequently visited Savchenko during her imprisonment in Russia. "The party paid for her lawyer during her captivity and arranged for her current status as a member of parliament. There will be a talk with her: Either she adheres to the party's fundamental positions or we will go our separate ways."

Nadiya Savchenko's response is that she represents the people in parliament and not any political party. She also says that she still plans to meet with separatist leaders in September. The national uproar in Ukraine will be significant.

But she doesn't much care. "Anyone can by physically eliminated should it become necessary," she concedes. "To do so, you only need a truck that makes a wrong turn on the street. Were that to happen to me now, nobody would believe it was an accident. I am still surrounded by a certain aura."

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