KIEV — Nadezhda Savchenko, who was until a few days ago a famous Russian prisoner and is now a fledgling Ukrainian politician, has a soldier’s haircut trimmed into boyish bangs, and one might easily be reminded of some old movie about Joan of Arc, a young woman out to save her country when men have failed.
Indeed, the analogy between the Ukrainian pilot and the Medieval French peasant girl who became an armor-clad saint has become something of a cliché, and an image Savchenko is cultivating. But her vocabulary, her clothing, and her manners also bespeak her decade in Ukraine’s military.
During our exclusive interview, she kept both thumbs hooked into her front pockets—broad shoulders opened, chin pulled up, her strong posture calm and stable, and her blue eyes looking right mine as she said, “I am ready for a bloody fight. I am ready to die for Ukraine.”
Many Ukrainians, having spent the last two years watching television news about Savchenko on trial in Russia on improbable murder charges, or seeing images of hunger-striking Savchenko starving herself to near-death in jail, greeted the pilot’s freedom gained in a prisoner exchange with rapturous celebration.
Her fans believe that Savchenko—this heroic woman, this emerging star in the political firmament—is someone who finally offers hope for their troubled country. And she doesn’t seem reluctant to answer their call.
“Ukrainians, if you want me to be your president, I will become the president,” she declared upon her return from Russia.
Instead of sleeping in at home or lying in the sun on the sandy beach of the Dnipro River, 35-year-old Savchenko—elected a member of parliament while she was in prison—has been meeting with officials, making public statements, speaking at press conferences, and building up her team.
Coffee and cigarettes keep her going, she joked. Even in her pink shirt, tucked in at the front and hanging over her jeans at the back, Savchenko looked pale and tired. “I switched on all my inner reserves during the Crimea crisis and I still have not switched myself off since then,” she told The Daily Beast.
Less than a week has passed since Savchenko’s release from prison and the new Rada deputy already is shaming the entire Ukrainian parliament, calling the deputies to confess their sins: “You are all on the Titanic in this parliament, just so you know,” Savchenko declared from the Rada’s tribune.
“I am surrounded with business sharks and political sharks— look, I am little now, but after awhile, I will grow into a huge shark, too,” Savchenko told The Daily Beast impulsively. “I am not a politician, yet, I am feeling a terrible, constant pain for my country, for dying soldiers,” she said, speaking very quickly. “So psychologists want me to stop feeling pain, but if I do, I will become the same as all of them, the real politicians.”
From her childhood, Savchenko had many ambitions. As a teenager, she loved to read Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah, by Richard Bach (most famous for Jonathan Livingston Seagull), and she loved to perform on stage.
Nadiya, as she’s called, studied to be a designer, then a journalist, but her dreams of airplanes trumped all the rest. By her mid-20s, Savchenko was a qualified paratrooper. Her resumé included more than one hundred hours of piloting, dozens of parachute jumps and several months of service in Ukraine’s contingent as part of the coalition of the willing in the war in Iraq. In a 2011 documentary about her as the first woman pilot in Ukraine’s air force, Savchenko can be seen running with a heavy backpack right alongside her male counterparts.
The only two systems she knew well, Savchenko joked, were the army and prison.
“Of course she is not a politician, yet,” veteran television anchor Savik Shuster told The Daily Beast. “Starting with the Maidan revolution [in late 2013], her life was in turmoil: first she was fighting on the front, then she got kidnapped, she served time in prison, stood trial and currently she an MP voting against changes in the constitution.”
In all of this, there are elements of theater, which remains a passion. Savchenko said about her new life in the spotlight: “The stage is nothing new for me. I have never been shy before cameras or big crowds.”
So far, Savchenko has been anything but shy. She cursed deputies as “lazy school students,” journalists as “jackals” and “dogs,” and Russian President Vladimir Putin, as “a nit,” which in criminal slang meant a miserable prisoner.
Some of her statements about putting an end to the war in Donbass, the east of Ukraine. or uniting people in the east and the west, sounded unpopular, but she did not seem to care. “Today people throw flowers at me and tomorrow they might stone me as soon as they see me in the street; but I am not crazy, I understand everything,” Savchenko insisted in her interview with The Daily Beast.
And although she often repeated the statement, “I don’t want to blow up Ukraine,” some observers and politicians are concerned about Savchenko’s unpredictable character.
Last week she opposed President Petro Poroshenko’s judicial reform and changes to the constitution. Wearing a black vest over a black sweater, a popular outfit both among the military and Ukrainian nationalists, Savchenko invited the deputies to imagine that she had a grenade in her hand. “Today Ukraine is this grenade, the constitution is the ring and the trigger is our Donbass,” Savchenko explained to parliament members, demonstrating how by pulling the ring, the country’s constitution, the parliament risked to blow up Ukraine together with Donbass.
What was her strategy? In a refrain oddly reminiscent of Donald Trump in America, she told The Daily Beast, “If I tell you A, B and C of my plans, then my enemy will know my strategy; besides, I just promised that I would stop criticizing the politicians.”
Both in Ukraine and in the West experts have speculated about the best ways to use Savchenko’s energy. Some suggested she could lead an anti-Russian propaganda division. “I do not want to be anybody’s ‘anti,’ I want to be just for Ukraine and pro-Ukraine; and I am not an icon, I am not holy, I am not a panacea for all sorts of diseases,” she told The Daily Beast.
A great majority or Ukrainians say they admire this eccentric “Lady dynamite,” hoping she can make a significant difference in a largely unpopular government. On the Shuster Live television show last week, Savchenko got a 97 percent public approval.
But there is also a lot of criticism to be heard. Rada Deputy Vadim Rabinovich went so far as to accuse Savchenko of being a Kremlin agent with a secret agenda. “There is nothing we can do about the Savchenko factor, Putin sent her to us to provoke a revolution,” Rabinovich said.
Maybe, after all she’s been through she could use some makeup, go for a massage, or a manicure? Savchenko bridled at the idea when it came up on Ukrainian television. “Today I have the manicure done, tomorrow I’d begin to drive a Lexus and the day after tomorrow, I would sell Ukraine,” Savchenko declared.
That sort of attitude draws a marked contrast another famous Ukrainian lady, Savchenko’s party leader, Yulia Tymoshenko. Ukraine’s famous former prime minister crowned with a blond braid was known for elegant makeup and designer dresses. Under deposed President Victor Yanukovych, Tymoshenko spent nearly three years in prison, but even behind bars the former PM kept her appearance as perfect as in the parliament.
Looking at Savchenko’s pale face, it was obvious even to her aides and friends that the pilot needed some rest. “Her memory fails her, she definitely suffers from a deep post traumatic syndrome, but unfortunately, she is not taking a break,” Hramadske TV anchor Yekaterina Sergatskova told The Daily Beast.
Savchenko is not naïve. She realizes that many people look at her as an impulsive immature woman who behaves more as a revolutionary than as a member of the political establishment, and that suits her just fine. “My goal is to wake up people’s consciousness,” Savchenko told The Daily Beast. “If each politician does not understand now that it is time to stop stealing and lying, that they have to begin to change themselves, our country will not survive.”