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 been inspired by the Ukrainian people: There are already enough stories of heroic resilience to last a lifetime. The Ukrainian novelist Andrey Kurkov even urged his fellow countrymen and women on social media to keep diaries during this challenging time as a future testament to what they lived through. Some of those testimonies are starting to reach a Western audience. Iuliia Mendel’s “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 being “written with the sound of Russian bombs and exploding shells in the background.” The Ukrainian president’s former press secretary recounts how her upbringing in Kherson eventually led her to one of the country’s most sought-after positions for journalists, what she witnessed during the beginning of Volodymyr Zelensky’s presidency and how Ukraine came together in the face of all-out was.

Most of the chapters are structured around the challenges faced by Zelensky during his time in office: “The Press vs. The President,” “The Negotiator,” “Oligarchs and Fake News” and so on. It would have been nice to read more about Mendel herself beyond her checklist of achievements: “Born a provincial girl, I earned a doctorate in Ukrainian literature, worked as a journalist, and then became President Zelenskyy’s press secretary from June 2019 to July 2021 before returning to journalism. I proudly earned my place in a prosperous, thriving, free, and transparent country.” Her retelling of her career arc — which brought her from Ukraine to Brussels to the States and back — would make for a compelling book on its own about a snappy young journalist dreaming big. Instead, much of the book recaps what occurred in Zelensky’s administration during her time as press secretary. She attributes this to her cultural upbringing: In Ukraine, it is seen as unbecoming to speak too much of oneself. However, the passages about her parents and her beloved Kherson, still under Russian occupation, are moving: “Kherson was where I learned my first words, it was the place where I stood up for the Ukrainian language. It was there that I was taught to work hard if I wanted to achieve something.”

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

Those familiar with recent Ukrainian political history might take issue with certain parts of the book. Mendel goes after former president Petro Poroshenko at every possible chance, calling him and his team “the same Soviet swindlers we had endured before.” Poroshenko won the presidential election in 2014 following the triumph of the Maidan Revolution, which led pro-Russian dictator Viktor Yanukovych to flee to Russia. Before that, Poroshenko was no stranger to Ukrainian politics, but he was also well-known for his business empire, most notably the Roshen confectionery company. Some of Mendel’s criticisms of Poroshenko are warranted: He is an oligarch and not without controversies. But she does not acknowledge the many accomplishments during her term in office that benefited Ukrainians, such as the expansion of the visa-free travel regime and the establishment of state institutions like the Ukrainian Book Institute and the Ukrainian Cultural Foundation. All of this helped significantly improve Ukraine’s cultural standing worldwide.

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 Donbas eight years ago, such a mind-set was necessary to unite the Ukrainian public. Even before the start of the current invasion, on Feb. 24, Russia’s intentions were clear: to wipe Ukraine off the map. Furthermore, when Mendel acknowledges that the nationalization of PrivatBank in 2016 was a significant achievement in the fight against 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 native language was Russian. Many Ukrainians — Mendel included, by her own admission — come from Russian-speaking families yet made the conscious decision to publicly use the Ukrainian language. As Mendel also correctly points out, this embrace of Ukrainian over Russian was accelerated after the invasion.

As for Poroshenko’s perceived gaffes after Zelensky became president, Mendel does not acknowledge that Zelensky has sometimes done the very same. There is either a justification for Zelensky’s doing so or no mention of it. For example, Mendel writes about how, in 2020, Poroshenko delivered the New Year’s Speech on Channel 5, which he owned at the time. It is a tradition for the Ukrainian president — and other leaders of the countries of the former Soviet Union — to do so. But Zelensky was president by then, and Poroshenko’s speech was criticized. . However, on New Year’s Eve in 2018, the TV channel 1+1, then owned by the oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, aired Zelensky’s New Year’s Speech rather than Poroshenko’s, in which Zelensky announced his presidential candidacy. Perhaps none of this will matter to English-language readers who came to know Zelensky through his wartime leadership, but it does sometimes put Mendel’s objectivity into question.

Zelensky was subject to much criticism by the Ukrainian public before the Russian invasion, and that criticism sometimes seemed excessive. As Mendel describes, the former comedian and actor was unlike any other president in Ukraine’s history. Unsurprisingly, the public was unsure what to make of him once he came to power. Although he won 73 percent of the vote in the presidential election, citizens were skeptical that he could bring change to a system that had been struggling to make significant progress since Ukraine achieved independence in 1991. As Mendel keenly observes: “It is difficult to build a state when you are starting not from scratch, but from something that has already been thoroughly worn out, ripped off, and smashed up. It is no easy task.”

The coronavirus pandemic and the Russian invasion forced Zelensky to mature quickly and become a true statesman. During that time, he also made progress in other domestic matters, such as the launch of the app Diia, nicknamed the “state in a smartphone,” which lets citizens access digital documents and government services. He also secured the release of many Ukrainian political prisoners of the Kremlin, including high-profile figures such as the filmmaker Oleh Sentsov and the military commander Vitalii Markiv. The fact that the Ukrainian public united around Zelensky after the invasion is a testament to his sincerity for his country and, in many respects, a redemption arc worthy of a film star.

The reader also gains some invaluable insight into meetings between Zelensky and other political leaders. During the “Normandy Four” summit of 2019, for example, Mendel describes witnessing President Vladimir Putin and the rest of the Russian delegation face to face: “His entire team seemed hopelessly outdated. And when I found the right words to describe how I saw him, I suddenly became calmer.” Pointing out all of Putin’s repetitions, stammers and pauses — which the TV voice-overs tend to gloss over — helps demystify the dictator whom the Western media has long portrayed as having the cunning and wit of a fearless Bond villain. Mendel’s description is far more fitting.

Ultimately, Mendel’s memoir is best read 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 endures and they will search out the many quality books from Ukraine scheduled to be released in the near future, including from authors currently serving in the Ukrainian military or working tirelessly as volunteers.

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

My Time with Zelenskyy, Ukraine’s Battle for Democracy, and What It Means for the World

Atria/One Signal. 208 pp. $27.99

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