A country marred by war, internal strife, and political quagmire, Ukraine recently welcomed home a hero to uplift its spirits – and perhaps become its next president. The knight in shining armor is a 35-year-old woman, Nadiya Savchenko, a helicopter pilot who was released from Russian custody on May 25 in a prisoner swap. She is back after two years in prison, and ready to shake things up.
When speaking to reporters following her first appearance in the Ukrainian parliament on Tuesday (May 31), she compared her country’s lawmakers to ”lazy schoolchildren who shirk their work.” She was there to be sworn in as a lawmaker herself, after being elected in absentia in 2014.
Savchenko, known to Ukrainians before her imprisonment as the only female soldier in the Ukrainian forces in Iraq and the first woman to be accepted into the country’s prestigious air force school, took leave from the military in 2014 to join volunteer battalions fighting with Russian-sponsored rebels in eastern Ukraine. She wascaptured in the vicinity of a mortar strike that killed two Russian journalists, and was accused by Russian authorities of their murder.
After a show trial, a Moscow court sentenced her to 22 years. In total, Savchenko spent 708 days in a Russian prison, where her defiance turned her into a national hero. She sang the Ukrainian national anthem during her trial, made anti-Putin statements, and obscene gestures toward the court. She underwent an 83-day hunger strike, which gave her the air of a martyr, and the nickname “Ukrainian Joan of Arc.” In what was portrayed as a humanitarian gesture in Russia, Putin pardoned Savchenko, and she was exchanged for two Russian servicemen.
The helicopter pilot arrived on Ukrainian soil last week in president Petro Poroshenko’s plane, welcomed with fanfare. She emerged barefoot, giving a poignant statement. “I want to apologize to all mothers whose children did not return from [the front], and I’m still alive,” she said. “I want to ask forgiveness for all mothers whose children sit in bondage, and I am free.”
She has pledged to make Ukrainians who fight against Russia her cause. During her first appearance in parliament, she gave an impassioned speech about her fellow combatants and prisoners held by Russian authorities. She called for bringing back all of the ”prisoners of the Kremlin,” and underlining that “no one is forgotten, nothing is forgotten.” She then took down a banner displaying her face off the speaker’s podium, which had been there for months, and replaced it with a poster featuring other Ukrainian prisoners held in Russia.
As she starts her political career, she has an almost saintly image going for her, and a status of an outsider who has the potential to disrupt Ukraine’s stifled establishment. For now, three years before the next presidential election, she’s careful about announcing any grand plans. “Let’s put it this way: Ukrainians, if you need me to be the president, okay, I will be president,” shesaid during her first press conference.“Honestly, I cannot say that I want this—I love to fly. But, if necessary, I will do everything and I will take this path and work hard.”