Nadiia Savchenko wears the hopes of her nation lightly, like a sweater knotted loosely around her shoulders. As we sit in the lobby of a central London hotel, the woman who's been touted as Ukraine's future president appears at ease. I've never met anyone so utterly sure of themselves, and yet blisteringly without bravado: It's a beguiling combination.
If Nadiia Savchenko had been a man, it's probable she wouldn't be sitting opposite me, explaining why she should be the next president of Ukraine. As a young soldier, Savchenko wanted to fly fighter jets, but wasn't allowed to on account of her gender: She was made to pilot military helicopters instead. Years later, it's clear the decision still rankles.
"Even in China, women can be fighter pilots," she explains through her translator, a wry smile flickering across downturned lips. A male Savchenko might have been content with her beloved supersonic planes and be a general by now (accounts of her military prowess vary, but most accept she was a competent and ambitious soldier.) But history had different plans for the 35 year old.
On a freezing November night in 2013, thousands of students began protesting in Ukraine's Independence Square. They called for EU integration; civil liberties, and an end to President Viktor Yanukovych's corruption. Some allege that the Euromaidan protests were co-opted by far-right and nationalist groups. It marked the first of many nights of civil unrest, setting into a motion a train of events that led ultimately to the 2014 Ukranian revolution; Russia's annexation of Crimea; and the war in the Donbass region of Ukraine.
As she joined the Euromaidan protests, then 32-year-old Savchenko had little idea she'd shortly become a pawn in a geopolitical game between Ukraine and Russia. All she knew was that the protests were scary—actually terrifying, she admits freely—than any of her experiences in war. "There were unarmed people facing troops with truncheons and weapons, we never knew when the clashes would come. But fighting for our future was an amazing feeling."
After Yanukovych fled to Russia, Savchenko left her unit and volunteered to fight pro-Russian separatists in Donbass. In June 2014 she was captured by a pro-Russian militia and turned over to Russia. Despite the outcry of the international community, Savchenko spent two years in a Russian jail, being held on what many viewed as trumped-up charges.
The experience almost killed her: An 83-day hunger strike to protest her treatment was called off only after doctors warned her that she was near death. While demonstrating her endurance, the strike also proved useless. In March, Russian authorities finally convicted Savchenko of charges relating to the deaths of two journalists killed by artillery fire. Despite calls for a retrial from human rights groups such as Amnesty International, she was sentenced to 22 years in jail.
Savchenko's middle finger—the right one, to be precise—took on national significance at her sentencing. After nearly a week without food and water, shedelivered an impassioned speech to a Russian courtroom, described President Putin as a "wanker," and gave the judge the finger. It was a gesture that crystallized Savchenko's defiance, and goes some way to explain why Ukrainians regard her as their Joan of Arc—albeit with a bit more profanity.
Nadiia Savchenko giving the finger in Russian court. Screencap via YouTube
Elected to the Ukranian parliament while still a prisoner, many view Savchenko as a national hero back home—a female military pioneer who single-handedly upheld Ukraine's global reputation and refused to capitulate to Russian aggression. Her detractors argue Savchenko's military skills are overrated and raise concerns about her nationalist, possible far-right sympathies. (Savchenko describes herself as center right when I ask about her political affiliations). Since her release earlier this year in a prisoner swap, Savchenko has climbed the ranks of Yulia Tymoshenko's Fatherland Party, though rumors abound there is no love lost between arguably the two most famous Ukrainian women in the world.
In person, Savchenko speaks like a soldier: Thoughtfully, directly, and without undue elaboration. When I ask her a question I sense she's heard before, she laughs slightly before answering. She seems happiest when discussing unexpected topics, like Poland's abortion laws (she's pro-choice) or what she thinks of Donald Trump ("a populist who's earned money by not always honest means").
After our interview, Savchenko confesses something unexpected—she's a huge fan of British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver. In an unexpected gesture of generosity, her guards gave her a TV in prison. Oliver's TV shows sustained her in prison during her hunger strike ("I would watch him cook, and feel full.") She asks if I know any way she could meet Jamie Oliver in London, and I promise to get hold of his details through a colleague. For a minute, Savchenko doesn't look like a hardened military veteran with the expectations of a nation on her shoulders—she looks like an excited kid.
Below is the transcript of our conversation ahead of Savchenko's appearance at the Women in the World London Forum in October 2016. It has been edited for flow and clarity.
BROADLY: How did your experiences of being in prison in Russia change you?
Nadiia Savchenko: I don't think I changed that much. I just went through another hurdle in my life and realised I am capable of dealing with it. I'm the same person, but now I'm even stronger than I thought I was. It's harder when you lose faith in yourself, but that didn't happen to me in prison. I believed I was right.
How was it being an individual caught up in a geopolitical conflict?
I felt like an insect. That's how you feel when you're in a cell, constantly monitored: You feel like an insect in a jar. I never felt my own greatness, but I always felt that I had to live my life in such a way that something positive would happen to my country.
How did you stay strong psychologically when in prison?
It was very important to resist, because I knew the more I resisted, the worse my enemies felt. So resistance was an important part of that experience.
Was there a point during your hunger strike when you thought you couldn't go on?
No, there were times I thought I might die, but there was never a point when I thought I couldn't do it anymore.
You wanted to be a fighter pilot but was made to be a helicopter pilot because of your gender. Has being a woman held you back in some respects and profited you in others?
Being a woman in the army didn't help me in any way. I often heard things like, "If you were a man, you'd have been a general." Being a woman was difficult, especially with my personality. A woman could not fly supersonic planes: No-one knew why, but that was the rule. Even in China, women can be fighter pilots. It was complete chauvinism.
Are you a feminist?
I feel I was a feminist before I joined the army, and after I became a chauvinist! [Laughs.] In the army I often encountered women who used their femininity to get away with things; who didn't do their jobs properly; who biased men against women in the army. But I also didn't like many of the men. So I stood on my own.
How did you pass the time in prison?
I learned origami when I was in prison. I'd rip the paper and make shapes—from that moment on, I lived in my imagination. I made over 1,000 figures. My favorite was [Italian folk hero] Cipollino, who starts an uprising against a regime. I liked the idea of him being a revolutionary who wanted to change the world for the better.
Your relationship with your sister is very close. Was that a big support in prison?
Knowing how my sister suffered when I was in prison made it psychologically very difficult for me—I know how I'd have felt if she was in prison. If I'd been on my own in there, maybe I'd have died. But I knew my death would have caused so much suffering to my sister, so I pulled myself out of it.
Where does your strength come from?
I'm not afraid of anything. Some say not having fear is stupidity; I don't believe that. You can be nervous or anxious about things, but you can always overcome it. I try to understand my fears and then overcome them.
What's the most ridiculous rumour you've ever heard about yourself?
I never take things personally. In Russia they said I was the hand of Moscow, a Putin associate. It's so ridiculous it's not worth paying attention to.
What's the most dangerous thing you've ever done?
I did many stupid things in my life. Only afterwards did I realize how stupid they were. When I was younger, I jumped off bridges; I climbed things not knowing how I'd get down. War is dangerous, but it's a job, so you don't think about it. You just do what you need to do.
Would you like to be the next Ukrainian president?
If the people of Ukraine ask me to be a president, I will become one. I am a soldier, and I obey orders. People need someone who will lead and take responsibility, and I understand that I may make mistakes. Politics is new to me, but I will continue, hoping to bring something new to the people of Ukraine. If I make mistakes and people burn me at the stake, I won't blame them. It's probably likely they'll burn me, because people first get very charmed by somebody, then very disappointed in them.
Do you ever wish you were still in the army, flying planes?
Sometimes, in politics, I feel like I'm waiting to take a holiday from a job I don't like very much. I do feel like the world is watching me, but I want to remain myself and be accepted as the person who I am.
What would you say to young people who want to be like you but lack confidence?
Self belief is something you can be born with, or you can develop. You try, figure out what went wrong, make corrections, try again. You have to constantly prove to yourself that you're worthy of your self-belief. At the same time you can't let other people infringe on your self-belief. You should protect yourself, because the world can be cruel. There will always be people who'd like to put you down.
My sister told me once, "People need heroes. Don't put yourself down." So if people praise me, I accept it, but I don't feel vain. It's not my goal to inspire people, I just do what I need to do. If people takes that as inspiring, that's a good thing.
By Sirin Kale, Broadly