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How Nadiya Savchenko became Ukraine's Joan of Arc

She was her country's first female combat pilot, and stood trial in Moscow after being captured in eastern Ukraine. Now, she's taking on political corruption.

The Podil district of Kyiv is a regenerated industrial area, full of old warehouses that have been transformed into art galleries. There are crumbling baroque buildings on many of the cobbled streets. Ukraine’s Batkivshchyna Party has its offices here – and it is here that I meet Nadiya Savchenko.

The 35-year-old politician is often called “Ukraine’s Joan of Arc”. When we meet, she has just ended a hunger strike highlighting the plight of political prisoners and survived an accident in which a drunk driver hit her car. Striding across the courtyard, soberly dressed in a shirt and trousers, with her military cap at an angle, she looks relaxed.

Savchenko was Ukraine’s first female combat pilot. She graduated from the Air Force University in Kharkiv in 2009. Five years later she was captured by pro-Russian separatists while serving in eastern Ukraine. She had volunteered to fight in the conflict in the Donbas region that followed Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Savchenko stood trial in Moscow, where she addressed the court from a cage. She was sentenced to 22 years in prison for her alleged complicity in the deaths of two Russian journalists: prosecutors accused her of having guided a mortar strike on a Russian TV crew on 17 June 2014.

Savchenko was recognised around the world as a political prisoner. In December 2014, she began a hunger strike that lasted for 83 days. She refused to eat as guards fried potatoes and onions under her nose, until grave health concerns forced her to stop. She was released in May this year under a prisoner exchange between Ukraine and Russia. In Kyiv, she was welcomed as a hero. And abroad, the comparisons with Joan of Arc began.

When I ask Savchenko about the Russian tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda’s view that she is “a killing machine in a skirt”, she laughs and denies ever hearing it. She has, however, heard that those in the West know her as “Joan”.

“It’s an honour to be compared with Joan of Arc,” she says. We are at her office, where a huge map of Ukraine dominates one wall. Her cap sits on the table between us.

While in prison, Savchenko was awarded the Hero of Ukraine medal by President Petro Poroshenko and was elected to parliament on the ticket of the former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna Party. Both Angela Merkel and Joe Biden, the US vice-president, lobbied for her release. After her return, she declared to the Ukrainian people that she would serve as their president if called upon.

“My Hero of Ukraine medal didn’t change me,” she tells me. “Change will only come when the war is finished.” She adds: “The real heroes are those fighting for Ukraine.”

Savchenko was a prominent figure in the “Euromaidan” demonstrations, which began in Kyiv in late 2013 and called for closer integration with the European Union. After pro-Russia unrest began on Ukraine’s eastern border, Savchenko went to fight with the volunteer Aidar Battalion.

She joined the army at the age of 16 and was the only woman in her country’s peacekeeping troops in Iraq. She says it was her love of “speed and light” that prompted her to push for the right to become a pilot in the male-dominated post-Soviet world.

As for the origins of her toughness, Savchenko points to her family. “My father was working class and a communist. My mother worked in a sewing factory and was definitely not a communist. Her family had suffered as kulaks during collectivisation. “I was brought up in Kyiv and went to the only Ukrainian-speaking school in the area. I was raised in the ‘patriotic style’ and enjoyed reading stories of our Cossack heritage and Ukrainian folklore,” she recalls.

Savchenko’s mother was born in 1938, one of nine children and four of whose siblings died in the Holodomor, Stalin’s forced famine from 1932-33. At least three million people died. The memory is embedded in the Ukrainian psyche and in Savchenko’s family. It made her a fighter – on the battlefield and in parliament. Yet she has little political experience, and it is too early to judge whether she will succeed in her presidential ambitions. The next election is likely to be in March 2019.

For now, Savchenko says that tackling political corruption is more pressing. “Before becoming a politician, I realised that everything was bad and I didn’t know why it was so. Now I can see why, but I still don’t see how to tackle this.” She promises to end corruption with legislation that will change the system.

“The problem is that nothing works,” she says. “If you have one thing not working, like if you have a wound, you can cure it. But if the whole human body does not function, then it is extremely difficult to fix it.”

Asked about her ambitions, Savchenko is reluctant to commit solely to politics. “I may return to being a pilot or even become a war correspondent.”

Whether she’s in the air, on a battlefield, or in the presidential palace, Savchenko will be fighting for her country. And as with Joan of Arc, some will worship her for it while others vilify her.

This article first appeared in the 17 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Trump world

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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