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.


Discuss this issue with other readers!
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verbatim128 09/07/2016
1. Down to Earth
We have little understanding and even less patience with people who refuse to follow the political script of party ideology. She will be thrown to the wolfs by the elites, but what is interesting in the article is the few snippets about what really is going on in Ukraine. Among these, it is clear that the Western-backed regime has no intention to live up to normalization of relations with the the rebels, albeit their own citizens, against whom the government of the day sent the tanks and the fighter jets in April 2014 under the pretext of fighting terrorists. Savchenko seems to me so much closer to truth and justice under all that coarse, down to earth attitude, than the entire hubris of the so-called Ukrainian Western democratic aspirations.
bubasan 09/09/2016
2. Who are The Western Observers that are worried?
'Western observers in Kiev say the former pilot has become a serious threat to the president, the government and Ukrainian political parties.' This got me thinking about who are these Western Observers. Recent stories about George Soros were lingering in my brain and sure enough there appears to be a fa to put n at least one of the 'Western Observers". First reported in June of 2015: 'The hacker group CyberBerkut has published online letters allegedly written by Soros that reveal him not only as puppet master of the US-backed Ukraine regime. They also reveal his machinations with the US Government and the officials of the European Union in a scheme where, if he succeeds, he could win billions in the plunder of Ukraine assets.' There should be an EU investigation into this and sanctions placed on Soros, to cease and desist from his illegal activities for personal gain. This sentence says it all, taking this into account along with the Western Oligarch George Soros interests, it appears that the Western Observers want what they have paid for. Unfettered access to the system.
bicester55 09/10/2016
3. Seems unlikely that she is controlled by Russia
Thanks for this article. Though, searching the internet, it is unclear what she would do were she in power it does seem unlikely to me that she is Russia's pawn. Russia has apparently been consistent in criticising her? She is a member of an out of power party so it seems sensible to rail about the failing of Poroshenko while keeping her aims somewhat hidden (like many a politician). Russia, wisely got rid of her given that by becoming an MP while in prison she gained some rights of immunity that Russia would not want to unnecessarily defy? (I am not certain about this.) It is somewhat odd that Ukraine has been happy to let the disruption in the Donbas to remain unresolved as presumably Russia gains little from its continuation either. So it does seem a valid criticism for her to rail against.
spon-facebook-10000792412 10/28/2016
4. Naydia Shavvchenko
Why do you refer to her as a crude Heroin because she's honest? No, she's not like Donald Trump she truly is for her people and she is a decent person. She is willing to die for her country. She's right the Oligarchs have rapped the country of its assets. It's a crime that many are still doing business with Russia. Putin is devastating Ukraine, killing its people and stealing their land and resources while Ukrainian Oligarchs including Poroshenko look out just for their pocketbooks. . Nadyia is wrong in trying to start another revolution in Ukraine. It might kill the country. She has a great opportunity to help Ukraine but, she needs to go about it smarter. I believe she is the Joan of Arc. The world hasn't seen such a magnificent woman maybe in hundreds of years. She is a Ukrainian Hero...one that Ukraine hasn't had in close to one hundred years. Bravo Ms Shavchenko may you learn to lead your country to peace, happiness and prosperity. That's what all Ukrainians hope for. And as far as your first commentator goes who cares if Soros wants to do business in Ukraine at least he wants to help which is more than I can say for the rest of the western countries. Soros has more money that God he doesn't need to have anymore. I believe he really wants to make a difference in the world and lots of people don't like what and who he supports or doesn't support.
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