Book Review of The Fight of Our Lives: My Time with Zelenskyy, Ukraine’s Battle for Democracy, and What It Means for the World by Iuliia Mendel

Since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the world has taken inspiration from the Ukrainian people: there are already enough stories of heroic resilience to last a lifetime. Ukrainian novelist Andrey Kurkov even urged his compatriots on social media to keep a diary during this difficult time as a future testimony of what they have been through. Some of these testimonials are beginning to reach a Western audience. Julia Mendel”The fight of our lives: My time with Zelenskyy, Ukraine’s battle for democracy and what it means for the world‘ is advertised on the back cover as ‘written with the sound of Russian bombs and shells exploding in the background.’ The former press secretary to the President of Ukraine recounts how her upbringing in Kherson eventually led her to the one of the country’s most sought-after positions for journalists, what she witnessed at the start of Volodymyr Zelensky’s presidency and how Ukraine rallied in the face of all war.

Most of the chapters are structured around the challenges Zelensky faced during his tenure: “The Press vs. the President”, “The Negotiator”, “The Oligarchs and Fake News”, etc. It would have been nice to know more about Mendel herself beyond her checklist of accomplishments: “Born a provincial girl, I earned a doctorate in Ukrainian literature, worked as a journalist, then became an attaché of President Zelenskyy from June 2019 to July 2021 before returning to journalism. I have proudly earned my place in a prosperous, flourishing, free and transparent country. Her account of her career – which took her from Ukraine to Brussels, to the United States and back – would make for a compelling book on its own about an eye-catching young journalist dreaming big. Instead, much of the book recaps what happened in Zelensky’s administration while she was a publicist. She attributes this to her cultural upbringing: in Ukraine it is considered inappropriate to talk too much about yourself. However, the passages about his parents and his beloved Kherson, still under Russian occupation, are moving: “Kherson, this is where I learned my first words, this is the place where I defended the language Ukrainian. That’s where I was taught to work hard if I wanted to accomplish something.

Her reflections on her relationship with the Ukrainian language at a time when Ukraine’s cultural ties with Russia have been virtually severed are also extremely important for the cultural discourse in the country: Of her generation, she writes: “We are determined to restore our lost Ukrainian heritage while building a vibrant contemporary identity. We have lots of ideas about where we are headed, what we value from the past, and who we will be in the decades to come.

Those familiar with recent Ukrainian political history might disagree with parts of the book. Mendel goes after former President Petro Poroshenko at every possible opportunity, calling him and his team “the same Soviet crooks we had endured before.” Poroshenko won the presidential election in 2014 after the triumph of the Maidan revolution, which led the pro-Russian dictator Viktor Yanukovych run away in Russia. Before that, Poroshenko was no stranger to Ukrainian politics, but he was also well known for his business empire, including the Roshen confectionary company. Some of Mendel’s criticisms of Poroshenko are justified: he is an oligarch and not without controversy. But she fails to recognize the many achievements of her tenure that have benefited Ukrainians, such as expanding the visa-free travel regime and establishing state institutions like the Ukrainian Book Institute and the Ukrainian Cultural Foundation. All this has helped to significantly improve the cultural position of Ukraine in the world.

While Poroshenko’s slogan “Army, language, faith!” was indeed conservative, there is an argument to be made that after the annexation of Crimea and the invasion of Donbass eight years ago, such a state of mind was necessary to unite the Ukrainian public. Even before the start of the current invasion on February 24, Russia’s intentions were clear: to wipe Ukraine off the map. In addition, when Mendel acknowledges that the nationalization of PrivatBank in 2016 was an important achievement in the fight against the oligarchy, there is not a single mention of Poroshenko, only “the Ukrainian political leadership”.

It also borders on the absurd to write that “Poroshenko’s love for the Ukrainian language was as hypocritical as his patriotism” because his family’s mother tongue was Russian. Many Ukrainians – including Mendel, by his own admission – come from Russian-speaking families but have made a conscious decision to use the Ukrainian language publicly. As Mendel also correctly points out, this embrace of Ukrainian on Russian accelerated after the invasion.

As for Poroshenko’s perceived blunders after Zelensky became president, Mendel fails to acknowledge that Zelensky sometimes did the same. There is either justification for doing so from Zelensky or no mention of it. For example, Mendel tells how in 2020 Poroshenko gave the New Year’s speech on Channel 5, which he owned at the time. It is a tradition for the President of Ukraine – and other leaders of the countries of the former Soviet Union – to do so. But Zelensky was president then, and Poroshenko’s speech was criticized. . However, on New Year’s Eve in 2018, the 1+1 television channel, then owned by oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, aired Zelensky’s New Year’s speech rather than Poroshenko’s, in which Zelensky announced his candidacy for the presidency. Perhaps none of this will matter to English-speaking readers who knew Zelensky through his wartime leadership, but it sometimes calls Mendel’s objectivity into question.

Zelensky was the subject of much criticism from the Ukrainian public before the Russian invasion, and this criticism sometimes seemed excessive. As Mendel describes it, the former comedian and actor was unlike any other president in Ukraine’s history. Unsurprisingly, the public did not know what to think of him once in power. Despite winning 73% of the vote in the presidential election, citizens were skeptical of his ability to bring about change to a system that has struggled to make significant progress since Ukraine’s independence in 1991 As Mendel keenly observes, “It’s hard to build a state where you’re not starting from scratch, but from something that’s already been completely worn out, torn out, and broken. It is not an easy task.

The coronavirus pandemic and the Russian invasion forced Zelensky to mature quickly and become a true statesman. Meanwhile, he has also made progress in other home affairs, such as the launch of the Diia app, dubbed ‘the state in a smartphone’, which allows citizens to access digital documents and government services. . He also secured the release of many Ukrainian political prisoners from the Kremlin, including high-profile figures such as filmmaker Oleh Sentsov and military commander Vitalii Markiv. That Ukrainian audiences united around Zelensky after the invasion speaks to his sincerity for his country and, in many ways, a movie-star-worthy redemption arc.

The reader also gets invaluable insight into meetings between Zelensky and other political leaders. During the 2019 “Normandy Four” summit, for example, Mendel describes seeing President Vladimir Putin and the rest of the Russian delegation face to face: “His whole team seemed hopelessly overwhelmed. And when I found the right words to describe how I saw him, I suddenly became calmer.Highlighting all of Putin’s repetitions, stammerings and pauses – which TV voiceovers tend to mask – helps demystify the dictator that the Western media has long portrayed as having the cunning and wit of a fearless Bond villain Mendel’s description is far more apt.

Ultimately, Mendel’s memoirs read better as a subjective account of the Zelensky administration rather than an authoritative history. Hopefully the main takeaway for readers is that their interest in Ukraine continues and they will seek out the many quality Ukrainian books slated for publication in the near future, including those by authors currently serving in the Ukrainian army or who work tirelessly as volunteers.

Kate Tsurkan is a writer, editor and translator. In 2017, she co-founded Apofenia, an online literary magazine that primarily publishes translated literature. She lives in Ukraine.

My time with Zelenskyy, Ukraine’s battle for democracy and what it means for the world

Atria/a signal. 208 pages. $27.99

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Lance B. Holton