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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.

Wednesday, 9/7/2016   03:02 PM

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.

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