It was the most publicized prisoner swap of the two-year-long war in eastern Ukraine. This week, Russian President Vladimir Putin pardoned the Ukrainian prisoner Nadezhda Savchenko and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko pardoned Russian soldiers Evgeny Erofeev and Aleksandr Aleksandrov.
The receptions of the freed prisoners as they returned to Kiev and Moscow could not have been more different. While crowds of reporters and fans surrounded Savchenko upon her arrival, as if she were a rock star, the two Russian soldiers were received and hugged by their wives alone, right outside the aircraft.
Already a celebrity at home, Nadezhda Savchenko or simply Nadiya, as many called her, was brought back from Russia on the Ukrainian president’s airplane. As soon as the aircraft touched the ground, Poroshenko called Savchenko on the phone to congratulate her and invite the famous pilot for a meeting at the presidential offices.
Poroshenko turned Savchenko into the country’s symbol of winning the war against Russia-backed rebels who helped Moscow seize and annex the Crimean peninsula, then started the ongoing war in Donbas, as eastern Ukraine is called.
“We will bring back Donbas and bring back Crimea, just as we brought back Nadiya, “ Poroshenko declared on Wednesday.
Precisely why and how Savchenko became a prisoner in the first place has been a matter of debate. She said that on the on June 17, 2014, the first summer of the war, rebels hit two Ukrainian armored vehicles and a tank and she rushed to see if she could help any of the wounded. The next thing anyone knew, she turned up across the frontier in a Russian province. Russian prosecutors claimed that she crossed voluntarily and got arrested after illegally entering the country. They tried her and convicted her on trumped-up charges of complicity in the death of two Russian journalists.
Savchenko vehemently denied the charges, frequently protested from the defendant’s cage, and insisted that she was “ambushed,” captured by separatist fighters and then transported across the border against her will.
On Wednesday, Ukraine received Savchenko as a national hero, and she acted like one, turning around in a big crowd of journalists, so every video camera could see her. Savchenko yelled loudly in her powerful, throaty voice, demanding the noisy reporters quiet down and listen.
“I want you to feel this right now—I spent almost two years in a single cell!,” she shouted into the microphone, growing emotional. “I am free now, but I want to ask for forgiveness from all the mothers whose children did not come back from the ATO [Ukraine’s anti-terrorist operation] while I am still alive, and all mothers whose children are still in prison, while I am free.”
In November 2014, months after she was jailed in Russia, Ukrainians elected Savchenko a member of their parliament, the Rada, and politics seems to come easy to her. This week, from her first day of freedom, Savchenko sounded as if she was ready make important decisions.
All her life, Savchenko has been a little different. Even before Lieutenant Savchenko, an air force officers, volunteered to fight in Ukraine’s ground forces, she was known by her compatriots as a female soldier serving with peacekeeping troops in Iraq and the first female student at Air Force University in Krarkiv, where she studied until 2009.
In March, when the Russian court found Savchenko guilty in the killing of two Russian journalists; many in Russia saw her as heartless murderer. But during the many long months of her trial, Ukrainians put images with Savchenko’s face on flags, banners and billboards, demonstrated for her freedom, turned her into a martyred icon of patriotism.
Savchenko went on an 83-day hunger strike during the trial, growing feverish, gaunt and weak. Ukrainians saw images of the pilot’s pale, boney face and journalists started calling her Ukraine’s Joan of Arc.
But on Wednesday she looked strong and sounded like Ukraine’s future leader. Right in the airport in front of all the video cameras Savchenko vowed to do everything possible to bring all Ukrainian prisoners home. “I am ready to give my life for Ukraine on the battlefield,” Savchenko declared. She also added, in a thinly veiled reference to resentment of the government among serving soldiers that it is easier to make heroes of them when they are dead than when they’re alive.
Meanwhile in Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitriy Peskov referred to Yerofeyev and Alexandrov, who is alleged to be a former member of the GRU, or Russian military intelligence, as merely “Russian citizens,” and said that President Putin did not have any planned meetings with these pardoned prisoners.
The two Russian fighters captured on the battlefield in Donbas in May 2015 were accused by Ukraine of terrorist acts, and they “were not active servicemen in the Russian armed forces at the moment of their capture on May 17,” the Russian Defense Ministry insisted last year.
In fact, not many in Russia knew their story at all. Luhansk rebels claimed that the two fighters served in their “militia” and even published photos of their rebel-issued military IDs. President Putin clearly has no intention of turning the two swapped prisoners into national heroes, after publicly stating in his last year’s annual televised call-in show: “There are no Russian troops in Ukraine.” The trial of Russian soldiers was a long and controversial process in Ukraine, Alexandrov’s defense lawyer was murdered earlier this spring.
No statements were made by Alexandrov and Yerofeyev upon their arrival in Moscow. And while Ukraine expected charismatic Savchenko to shine, and perhaps create more scandals in political circles, experts believe that the two Russian soldiers’ voices will never be heard, just as nobody ever heard from swapped Russian spies in the past. Their voices just vanished.