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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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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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