“She’s the country’s national firecracker. She is the scourge of corrupt politicians and the next time you see her she may be the president of Ukraine.” That’s the introduction Nadiya Savchenko was given by BBC broadcast journalist Kirsty Wark at the Women in the World London Forum on Thursday.
Savchenko is also known as “Lady Dynamite” in her country — and for good reason, which was on full display for the live studio audience at the forum. She is Ukraine’s first woman helicopter combat pilot and in 2014 she endured a harrowing ordeal when she was taken prisoner and held in one of Russia’s notorious jails on charges that she’d killed two Russian journalists. Her steely resolve and acts of defiance throughout the ordeal, during which she always maintained her innocence, made her a folk hero at home where she was elected to Parliament in absentia. While she was incarcerated, Savchenko staged several hunger strikes and famously gave a Russian court the finger during what was widely considered a sham of a trial. She was sentenced to 22 years in prison when the verdict came down in March, but two months later Russia released her in a high-profile prisoner swap with Ukraine.
That’s a point that Wark explored early in the conversation when she asked Savchenko why she thinks Russian President Vladimir Putin released her just two months after her sentencing. “Were you just too much trouble?” Wark wondered.
“Yes, he had no choice. There was so much pressure in the world. He knew he had to return me dead or alive and he knew it wasn’t in his best interests to return me dead,” Savchenko, who brought her no-nonsense speaking style to the Women in the World stage, said.
After Putin released her, the 35-year-old returned home to a hero’s welcome. Mobbed by news cameras and supporters, Savchenko delivered an impassioned and impromptu speech, declaring, “I am ready to once again give my life for Ukraine on the battlefield.” Prior to the interview with Wark, Savchenko hadn’t opened up very much about the treatment she received during her nearly two years in Russia.
Savchenko had routinely been depicted in news photos and video footage jailed inside her glass cell, and Wark asked her what the experience was like. “It looked and felt like a glass jar and you felt like an insect inside,” Savchenko recalled. “Once you started to resist, you felt like a human being.” Resistance, of course, became her hallmark.
“I started to resist as soon as I entered the cell and I never thought I would spend 22 years in the cell,” Savchenko, who was never given any training on how to handle being captured, told Wark and the audience. She said she waged a sort of psychological warfare with the guards in the prison where she was detained. “I showed them that I am a human being and I will not allow them to treat me as a thing or an animal. I never held my hands behind my back or faced the wall as I was told. Always looked them in the eye.”
One of the more difficult aspects of her detention was the suffering she knew it was causing her mother and sister. “My mother and sister were not allowed to see me for eight months. I knew from the start that they were behind me and publicizing my case,” she recalled. “Even the guards told me that.”
And she knew her acts of defiance would cause her mother additional pain. At one point, she staged an 80-day hunger strike. “I never lost consciousness,” Savchenko said. “The weaker I felt physically, the harder it became for my guard, morally … and that gave me strength.” Plus, she drew strength from thinking of her homeland. “I am part of the Ukraine and the Ukraine is part of me,” she declared. Savchenko said she felt bad hurting her family with the hunger strike, “but it was what I needed to do to get my freedom.”
While imprisoned, some of the guards gave her romance novels to read, but instead Savchenko took up origami to pass the time. “I made more than 1,000 origami figures and more than half of them were birds,” a symbol of freedom, she said. She also watched a fair amount of TV after guards gave her a television set. She had little choice of programming — a lot of Russian propaganda — but, in a twist of irony, she did get to watch celebrity chef Jamie Oliver’s show while in the throes of a hunger strike. She said watching Oliver’s show actually made her feel as though she’d eaten, and she tried to remember all of his recipes in the hopes that she’d one day be able to use them to prepare delicious meals for her mother.
Wark brought up the topic of her geopolitical foil, Russian strongman Vladimir Putin, noting that the words “Putin’s a prick” are emblazoned on the cover of her autobiography. “This is just words from a popular song,” Savchenko demurred. “I also wrote these words on the wall of my cell.” When asked how Putin should be dealt with, Savchenko responded dryly, “Just send him into retirement,” prompting a cascade of laughs and applause from the audience.
One of the most amazing things about Savchenko’s story is how her plight resonated with her countryfolk and they responded by electing her to Parliament while she was still locked up. “I didn’t know for a while and when I found out — I was still in prison — I didn’t take it very seriously because I wasn’t sure if I’d survive,” she said. “But now I take it very seriously.”
Savchenko’s lack of political experience has proved a challenge, despite her outsize celebrity in Ukraine, where she’s stopped almost daily by passersby asking to take a selfie with her. She’s trying to learn the nuances of the country’s political system and is said to sleep for just three hours a night, subsisting on a heavy diet of coffee, cigarettes and energy drinks. She’s also managed to roil some of the establishment politicians by plainly calling out corruption when she sees it, a point Wark questioned her about. “The main thing is that I am popular among the people of Ukraine,” Savchenko responded.
Wark also jokingly asked Savchenko about her famous flipping off of the Russian court and whether she gives the finger during sessions of Parliament. She said she hasn’t done so yet, adding, “I hope that I will be able to control myself and I hope that I will be able to find words.” Wark then got serious again and asked Savchenko whether she can be a strong leader, a question many in Ukraine have asked. “I think that I don’t have a choice,” Savchenko mused. “I think I can lead people and, if necessary, that’s what I will do.”
Watch the complete conversation with Savchenko in the video below. Her interview begins at the 54:46 mark.