Nadiya Savchenko is Ukraine’s first female military pilot and a Ukrainian member of parliament. But on her birthday this week, she was behind bars in a notorious Moscow jail: the Matrosskaya Tishina.
In the 11th month of her imprisonment, Savchenko wrote a four-page letter to The Daily Beast, joking that she was in a prison that was better even than a “three-star hotel,” but that in solitary confinement “there is nobody here I can ask about what other prisons are like.” Then she used a smiley face to illustrate the joke.
“Freedom is the most valuable thing that a person has. It is given to every human being by nature and God. But in the brutal human world… freedom is not given to you by default. You have to fight for it and fight for freeing your spot under the sun for a free life,” she wrote.
For her birthday on Monday she merely wanted her physical “FREEDOM! I want to see my sister and (to eat) cake.”
Savchenko’s imprisonment is more than just one more sad story in a conflict between Ukraine and Russia that has claimed thousands of lives. For activists opposed to ascendant Russian influence in Ukraine, Savchenko has become a rallying cry, a cause celebre, a hero. It’s an uncommon tale that has captivated the world’s attention, becoming a full-blown geopolitical scandal that has drawn the scrutiny of American lawmakers like Senator John McCain.
Even as her mood appears high, the charges before her are deadly serious: She is accused of assisting the direction of mortar fire in disputed eastern Ukraine, which led to the deaths of two Russian citizens and could have endangered five more.
She’s also accused of illegally crossing the Russian border—somewhat bewilderingly, the original Russian investigation accused her of pretending to be a refugee.
“I’m not afraid of dying. It does not make any sense to be afraid of the inevitable,” she told The Daily Beast at one sober point in her letter.
Savchenko was captured on June 17, 2014, in eastern Ukraine, and transferred to Russia on June 23, her lawyer, Mark Feygin, said. He said her trial is likely to start in August.
The Ukrainian pilot spent months engaged in a hunger strike, and even longer in solitary confinement. Her self-imposed famine was originally meant to be an act of protest, she wrote, but quickly became a game of bargaining with prison authorities.
Her doctors threatened not to allow her court if she did not desist, she claims.
“They bargained with me to end my hunger strike in exchange for every trip to court…
“The hunger strike was no longer an honest protest, but instead an object of barter,” she said.
She ended her latest strike on her birthday, May 11. Of her strike, Savchenko brags, “I could have continued even until death… this was not hard, and I was not afraid.”
The daily itinerary in jail “does not differ much from that in the army,” she writes, almost casually. “Wake up at 6 a.m., go to bed at 10 p.m.” She notes that there is a distinct lack of physical training in jail, however.
Savchenko is a combat vet who saw action in Iraq as a soldier in a motorized company, taking the gunner’s position on a armored personnel carrier. After she returned from Iraq, she applied to the Ukrainian air force academy—which had until then been open only to men—and was accepted, fulfilling a lifelong ambition.
She recalls her deployment to the Middle East with fondness, remembering a time when American minesweepers worked at the base she was stationed: “Once, I helped them untangle barbed wire on their special vehicle. Since then, we became friends and spent a lot of time together at BBQ.”
Perhaps that is part of why Savchenko’s plight has drawn the attention of some American lawmakers, such as Representative Adam Kinzinger and Senator McCain.
“We won’t rest until she’s free. Why the administration won’t weigh in more strongly on her behalf is just mind-boggling,” McCain told The Daily Beast. “We’ve made speeches, made statements, met with people who are her supporters. Everything I can.”
For the time being, the major effort of her lawyers has been to draw attention to her case.
“Taking into account that there is no independent court in Russia, the task of her defense team even before the main trial to publicly persuade everybody that Savchenko is innocent by maximum publicity of her case,” Feygin said. He has also represented the Russian punk rock group Pussy Riot and Greenpeace activists detained in Russia after their ship was seized by the Russian Navy.
Savchenko writes almost as if she is unaware that she is trapped behind bars: She’s at times defiant, lighthearted or philosophical—but there’s never a sense that she’s rotting behind bars, or that she’s been regularly held in her prison’s medical clinic because of health concerns.
“Even though one can put a person’s body in a cage, it is impossible to imprison one’s free thought, willpower and unbroken spirit!” she wrote.