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InFocus: Lesia Vasylenko in Conversation

When Ukraine was invaded by Russia this February, Ukrainian MP Lesia Vasylenko had to trim her fingernails, a long set she had spent years growing after an irksome nail-biting habit — not for cosmetic purposes, but to be able to operate an AK-47 assault rifle.

Small adjustments like these, Ms Vasylenko says, are part of the “new norm” of life in Ukraine since the beginning of the war.

On 7 October, the University of St Andrews welcomed Ms Vasylenko to town. In an interview with The Saint, Ms Vasylenko described the “new normal” in Ukraine since the invasion, her career, and her views on the political ramifications of the war.

Ms Vasylenko has multiple roles in the political world. She set up Legal Hundred in 2014, a non-governmental organisation that offers advice to servicemen and veterans. She is also a member of the Inter-Parliamentary Union where she serves as president of its Bureau of Women Parliamentarians, as well as being co-chair of interparliamentary relations group to the UK.

Ms Vasylenko, on top of her vital roles in the political world, is also a mother to three children, the youngest only a 16-month-old. “Like every single Ukrainian I was affected. Every single Ukrainian in these past eight months has a story to be told that could be written into a saga or made into a Netflix movie that people would soon be watching, and it would be getting top ratings. My own story is, apart from being a member of parliament, I am also a mother. I have three children and on 1 March this year I had to send them away and out of Ukraine for their own physical and mental safety.”

She continued, “In a way I did this so I could also do my job to the full extent, and I am very much privileged that I was able to do that. Having said that, I have been living apart from them for these past eight months. For half of my youngest daughter’s life, she hasn’t seen her mother, she hasn’t lived with her mother under the same roof. It is a kind of sacrifice which is done by Ukrainian families all over.

“Every single Ukrainian mother with her children that you see here, welcomed in the UK, is away from her support network and her husband because she is keeping her child alive. It is a debate we have in Ukraine sometimes.

“I have a friend who has chosen to stay in Ukraine with her husband and her son. She is saying, in full awareness, ‘I am staying here because I don’t want to have to explain to my son in two, three- or five-years’ time, whenever this war is over, why there are so many people missing limbs walking around in the street’.

“It is a fair point; this is her choice. I belong to the other group of mothers. I don’t want to be a mother living with a child missing a limb.”

Conversations like these are the kind they are having “over breakfast or lunch.”

She describes Kyiv as currently a “city of freedom” yet still a place where meals are spent contemplating the likelihood of a nuclear attack.

Coverage on Ukraine no longer makes it above the fold and Ukranians themselves have become numb to the sounds of air raid sirens, “I am not going to let it disturb my life. We had to learn to live with the war, that’s the scariest part. There’s a lot of discussion now that Ukraine is fading from the media sphere, that there is less talk about it. I cannot blame anyone in the West for this. We Ukrainians, we have gotten used to it.”

Despite this, Ms Vasylenko is dejected by this newfound anesthetisation, “I don’t think any single person in the world should be used to living with the sounds of war in the background”.

Ms Vasylenko finds her political drive in the “utter injustice” of the war in Ukraine, especially since its escalation on 24 February and described the way she has “maximised” her work in politics “for the benefit of Ukraine”.

Despite her immense political prowess, the University College London law graduate started her career in corporate law. She never expected to work in the public sector, however, on a visit to a hospital in June 2014 during the War of Donbas, she knew she wanted to change directions, founding Legal Hundred.

“I have always been active in the international scene, and I guess the injustice or the intolerance gene is built in me. Essentially that is the reason why I left the corporate law sector: to set up a non-profit organisation which is Legal Hundred.”

Legal Hundred aids in providing veterans and their families with benefits that they are eligible for from the Ukrainian state but that are not provided “either because of flaws in the system or because the system is simply unable to deliver.” Her work was commended by the Kyiv Post’s top 30 under-30 leadership awards in 2016.

In 2019, Ms Vasylenko joined the Holos Party, a liberal and pro-European party and ran for public office. She has held the position of the People’s Deputy of Ukraine since then.

Accordingly, she came to Scotland to participate in the Scottish National Party Conference which took place over the weekend from 8 to 10 October.

While in St Andrews, Ms Vasylenko participated in a round table session with students and staff from the School of International Relations and took part in a public event with the Head of the School of International Relations and Professor of Strategic Studies, Phillips O’Brien.

“We all live in our own bubbles. My bubble is the international media bubble, the bubble of other politicians from other countries and different international backgrounds. To be able to talk to the students here is like a reality check. I can ask myself whether what I hear in my interviews and interactions matches what people feel on the ground. To be honest, it is sometimes not exactly the case.

“Sometimes, one can look at governments from other countries thinking that they are doing the maximum, doing more than they can afford to be doing. However, people on the ground say that the government can be doing more. This is the cue I take to then go away and be asking for more, because I know that the people feel that more could be done.”

Given that Ms Vasylenko was in Scotland, The Saint asked how well she felt Britain had responded to the conflict.

Ms Vasylenko commented: “On a geo-political level, but in all sectors really, we call Britain our strategic partner, and Britain has always been regarded by Ukraine in this way. On international platforms this is now especially true. Britain was one of the first countries to react and so far Britain has been doing a lot within the capacity of military aid, humanitarian aid, financial aid, but also as an ambassador of Ukraine”.

The Homes for Ukraine scheme is currently active in the UK, welcoming over 100,000 Ukranians. More than 18,000 of these displaced Ukrainians are being housed in Scotland, almost 20 per cent of the UK total.

Ms Vasylenko credits the efforts of British people to encourage this, whether that be in protests or on social media. “The response could not be complete without saying thank you to the British people who also reacted within the first hours of this escalation. The people prompted the government to do more.”

On her own use of social media, Ms Vasylenko bemusedly says, “Twitter is a huge mystery to me; it is a fluke that I got so many followers.” Only creating an account after gentle coaxing from her political party, she began with a few tweets that got “one or two likes, one of them from one of my staffers.”

Her 2022 New Year’s resolution was to be more active on Twitter in order to have more reach on the international sector. “I started writing and gave myself a rule of thumb: ‘do two twitter posts’. It was in January and February of this year that it really picked up.”

Picked up, indeed — Ms Vasylenko now has over 320,000 followers on Twitter and uses her account to provide updates on the conflict.

Turning back to our small sea-side town, The Saint asked how her experience in St Andrews had been, “I am more than honoured to be here and to have the opportunity to speak with some of the students and staff. I think the input that academia has to play in conflict settlement and the way that wars turn out – hopefully in the victory for democracy – is huge. I am here to say ‘thank you’ in a way, but also to see if I can contribute to these academic thinking processes”.

She also met with Ukrainian students studying at the University of St Andrews.

When asked how this meeting had gone, Ms Vasylenko said: “I’m so happy to see so many young Ukrainian faces here in safety with the opportunity to continue with their studies. I actually wish there was some way to put all of Ukraine’s youth and Ukraine’s future into a safety bubble for the time being, like St Andrews is. It was one of the nicest meetings I have had in the past eight months.”

Image: Alexandra Godfrey

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