MISSOULA - On the morning of Feb. 24, Iuliia Mendel and her husband awoke to the sounds of bombs rocketing toward Kyiv, Ukraine.
Although it felt unreal, Mendel wasn’t surprised.
“We understood that the war was there,” Mendel said. “Just 12 hours before this, we had a talk from a representative of the Ukrainian government who said that Russia was coming and that we had less than 24 hours.”
On Tuesday night, Mendel told many stories of the war that followed Russia’s bombing of Kyiv when she Zoomed in from Ukraine as part of the Mansfield Dialogue series of lectures at the University of Montana.
Much of what Mendel discussed is based on her time serving as press secretary to Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, which she detailed in her recent book, “The fight of our lives: My time with Zelenskyy, Ukraine’s battle for democracy, and what it means for the world.”
More than two years ago, Mendel landed the job as Zelenskyy’s press secretary through a Facebook competition. The unorthodox hiring method reflected Zelenskyy’s desire to be transparent and to avoid the cronyism that pervaded previous Ukrainian administrations, Mendel said.
When he asked her motivations, Mendel said she wanted to achieve the Ukrainian dream where everyone, regardless of background, could be what they wanted, much like the American dream. Zelenskyy liked that, having risen from a modest background to become president.
As press secretary, Mendel was in a good position to watch how the war affected the poor and the powerful alike.
Growing up, she spent time with her grandparents in the small town of Aleksandriya in Kherson, a southern province along the Black Sea that was one of the first regions to fall as Russian troops moved in. This spring, her 82-year-old grandmother was wounded and huddled for weeks in her basement listening to the missiles destroying the village around her. Kherson is part of the 15-20% of Ukraine still occupied by the Russians.
“Why I’m naming this village: because many people from there, they want me to share this name around the world. They are very proud of this place, and they want the world to know that it existed on the map of Ukraine,” Mendel said. “Russia fully destroyed this village.”
The pride of the Ukrainian people is key to their endurance, their hope and their success, Mendel said. They are proud of their country but they’re even more proud of their democracy. But it was their insistence on democracy that made them the enemy of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Mendel said.
Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union until the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. Ukraine chose to have a democratic form of government but has struggled off-and-on against oligarchs and authoritarianism in the ensuing three decades.
Ukraine had a tough path to democracy partly because it has Russia for a neighbor. Mendel said Russia never stopped trying to dominate Ukraine. Russia was constantly engaged in an information war, using fake news as a weapon of destabilization, much as it has with the U.S.
While Ukrainians are mostly united now, there’s a chance that politicians may split again once the war is over, because “Ukrainian politics has a lot of hot issues.” But that’s part of being a democracy, unlike a Russian autocracy that allows no dissent, Mendel said.
Meanwhile, Putin refuses to recognize Ukraine as a country. After annexing Crimea in 2014, Putin has repeatedly declared that Russians and Ukrainians “are one people.”
“With our head, we understood that there was the danger. But with our hearts, it’s absolutely unbelievable to think that someone will behave the way Putin behaves,” Mendel said. “He not only to invaded the country, he not only tried to kill our president, he not only tried to put a puppet regime there, he moved his tanks to Kiev. But he also repeats the whole horrors from the 20th century, from the World War II, from genocidal practices, and this is really a terrible experience.”
But while Putin was resolved to dismantle Ukraine, his troops were another story. Mendel said the Russian soldiers had no motivation to come to Ukraine. They arrived in poor condition with no fuel, food or uniforms. That means the Ukrainian army has an advantage.
“We are exhausted physically, but we are having high morale for the reason that we have what to fight for. For millions of Ukrainians, our country is the value,” Mendel said. “We are defending our homes, our families. We’re defending the value to choose, we’re defending the values of the free world. They are coming for nothing.”
The Russians may be desperate soldiers but they’re taking a toll on the Ukrainian people. Ukraine’s recent counter offensive drove the Russians from a large region along its eastern border. In several repatriated towns, Ukrainian soldiers have found mass graves filled with bodies bearing evidence of torture.
When asked what Ukraine needed to keep fighting, Mendel said more weapons and funds were needed. Western nations were slow to provide support, but now Ukraine has more modern weapons and the training to use them. She suggested that Russian resources be used to fund repairs after the war and to compensate Ukrainians for the loved ones they’ve lost.
“I’m often asked ‘When will it be enough?’ The answer is ‘It is enough when the war is over,’” Mendel said. “Russia is doing terrible things in my country. Killing thousands and thousands of people. If we want that democracy stands stronger than autocracy, then we need to finish this fight. And to finish it with the victory of democracy.”
Mendel said showing support for Ukraine doesn’t have to involve money. It could be as simple as flying the Ukrainian flag. Or people could go a little further and encourage their politicians to support Ukraine, Mendel said.
“There are multiple ways, among them are to tell the story, to support Ukraine, to have the memory, to make politicians do the right thing,” Mendel said. “I see around 400 of you listening to the story from across the ocean. I would ask you not to forget.”
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at email@example.com.