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.

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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 appears in the 17 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Trump world