An independent Ukraine, with its achievements and flaws, is worth the fight

A Ukrainian family takes pictures with destroyed Russian military equipment in Kyiv on Aug. 23 ahead of Ukrainian Independence Day. (Wojciech Grzedzinski for The Washington Post)
A Ukrainian family takes pictures with destroyed Russian military equipment in Kyiv on Aug. 23 ahead of Ukrainian Independence Day. (Wojciech Grzedzinski for The Washington Post)

It was Aug. 24, 1991, a nice warm day in Kherson, in southern Ukraine, and my parents, grandparents and aunt were all glued to the black and white TV. It was the last days of summer in our quaint Soviet village, and we were just 10 days from my 5th birthday — but confusingly for me that was not the topic of conversation.

That day Ukraine became an independent nation. I remember heated discussions. Most Ukrainian families were waiting for independence, but many were afraid. They all knew what they were losing, but they didn’t know what they were gaining. The future was murky.

It’s been 31 years now and we Ukrainians have traveled a very chaotic and difficult path to become the largest free and democratic country of the post-Soviet era. There have been messy elections, corruption scandals, mass demonstrations.

But we face our biggest test today.

Kherson no longer exists as I remember it: It is currently under Russian occupation.

When my then-fiance joined the frontlines in the south, I joked: “Do you want to meet your mother-in-law that badly?” He said he wanted to give me my hometown back as a wedding gift. When he returned, he told me every house in my neighborhood had been destroyed.

My uncle hid with some locals in the basement of a kindergarten. After a direct hit by a Russian shell on the building, he finally left the village. My 82-year-old diabetic grandmother spent weeks under shelling and was one of the lucky to escape. She is in Kyiv now, where she used an elevator for the first time in her life.

Many people from Kherson believe it will soon be returned to Ukraine and rebuilt. My granny can’t talk about anything else.

She has lived through the country’s growing pains, and remains hopeful. Young independent Ukraine experienced many economic crises, with inflation hitting 10,000 percent in 1993, shortages of goods, blackouts and disruptions to the water supply for several hours a day. Nevertheless, Ukraine also saw its first peaceful transfer of political power, issued a national currency, the hryvnia, adopted a constitution, and began to establish relations with the world.

In those uncertain 1990s, my parents poured all their earnings into my education. I remember the long evenings when we walked (to save money) to my English teacher’s place. The lessons cost a fortune for us — $5 an hour. When they couldn’t afford to pay, I studied on credit or for barter. Once my mother brought the teacher some knitting thread. My mom’s dream was for me to learn English and marry a foreigner.

But English opened many doors in the new and independent Ukraine and allowed me to build a career as a journalist.

When President Volodymyr Zelenskyy came to power in 2019, he opened up the application process for the job of press secretary — the first time such a high-level position was filled with a transparent competition. I was selected among 4,000 applicants and spent more than two years as his press secretary. I dealt with a wide array of global leaders, some as impressive as Angela Merkel, a woman who had been in power for 16 years, or as tricky as Donald Trump, whose actions gave me a hard time as press secretary.

There’s no doubt the social changes that Ukraine promoted to become a healthy and vibrant democracy have led to my career. Qualifications and hard work meant nothing in Soviet times: The only social ladders were political connections and blind loyalty. I shudder at the thought of an alternate timeline where I could be forced to become a Kremlin propagandist or part of persecuted opposition.

It has been 31 years and we still have a long way to go — but our resistance to Russia’s brutal invasion has shown the world how much we value our independence and democratic achievements.

I remember some details about that Aug. 24, 1991, but not others. I remember the TV, eating cherries in the garden, a trip to the local library. That part of the past is murky.

But I can see the future clearly: Russia wants to set us back and destroy what we have built. It will not succeed.

Iuliia Mendel is a journalist and former press secretary for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Deja una respuesta

Tu dirección de correo electrónico no será publicada. Los campos obligatorios están marcados con *