Former Zelenskyy’s Spokesperson: We Have Shown Ourselves to Be an Unbreakable Nation
Interview by Mariia Grazhina Chaplin
Journalist and political advisor Iuliia Mendel emerged victorious over 4,000 candidates to be appointed in her former role as press secretary to Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy – an office she held for two years, until July 2021. Since leaving this post, Iuliia has authored two books: Each of Us is President was published in 2021 in Ukrainian and Russian; followed by The Fight of Our Lives: My Time with Zelenskyy, Ukraine’s Battle for Democracy, and What It Means for the World, published in English in the United States in 2022, specifically for a non-native Ukrainian readership, to critical acclaim.
Iuliia, what was the inspiration for your second book, and why is it written in English?
The idea to write a book in English wasn’t mine. It came from my American friends who were trying to help our country in the early days of the war. They suggested there should be a publication that introduces present-day Ukraine to the world.
Last July, after I left the Office of the President, I wrote Each of Us is President, which was published in Ukrainian and Russian. But that book had a very different purpose, so translating it into English or any other language would have been impossible because it would have required a lot of adapting.
When it comes to The Fight of Our Lives, its purpose is to present Ukraine as a global player. To shine a light on the people who are defending their desire to live in a democratic nation. These people have gone unnoticed for so long, and yet they share the values of the free world.
We worked on this book very fast – work was 24/7, except when I was being interviewed or writing articles. It wasn’t easy for me, and I barely slept at all, and I developed a painful condition as a result — carpal tunnel syndrome, which causes aches and numbness in the fingers and hand.
I worked all through March, and by April 15th of that year, I had already written the first draft.
We then made numerous revisions. When I say “we,” I mean the translator, the English-language editors, and myself. The whole team put a lot of effort into the text to close the gap between two different mentalities – Ukrainian and Western. We wanted the book to be as comprehensible as possible to the English-speaking reader.
The book features a lot of candid and intimate details about Volodymyr Zelenskyy — his adolescence, his family, and his years in comedy — and you don’t mince words. Did you show him the manuscript before submitting it for publication?
No, I never showed any of it to Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Let’s be realistic: President Zelenskyy is not going to be reading any books whilst his country is being invaded.
Secondly, I have never cleared any of my writing with the Office of the President, and I enjoy having free rein over my creative process.
Fight of Our Lives is available through Amazon.
The Fight of Our Lives is listed on the Amazon Best Sellers list under the Russian History category. Any idea why?
The book is actually a bestseller in several sections, including 21st-Century World History. As far as I understand, this placement is automatic. Perhaps it could be due to there not being enough books on Ukrainian history to prompt Amazon to create an individual section on this topic. Still, I do think it would be beneficial for Amazon to consider creating more sections – post-Soviet countries are sensitive about being associated with Russia.
Have you any details about the commercial success and readership demographics of The Fight of Our Lives?
I don’t, unfortunately. What I do know is that there’s already an audio version and a Kindle version, and it’s been translated into Polish and is being translated into French, Finnish, Czech, and Slovak. Other countries have also expressed an interest.
Are you able to disclose how much you got paid for the book, including any advance from the publisher?
I’m not allowed to disclose the total amount.
In a recent interview, you are quoted as stating that you have donated ₴150,000 (€4’050) of your royalties to charity – can you go into more detail?
We (Iuliia is married to Ukraine’s former Acting Minister of Economic Development, Pavlo Kukhta) have certainly donated more than ₴150,000 by now. I would say more than ₴400,000 (€10,800).
We have made monetary donations, and we have bought things directly. We support different causes: the army, humanitarian volunteers, and charity organizations. Sometimes I see a story about people who have lost everything and just send them some money.
But it’s about more than just money. We helped coordinate the humanitarian aid at the very beginning, working with the charity foundation “I Am Not Alone” in Lviv. My husband also spent time on the frontline in the spring – he is currently helping with the logistics as the Ukrainian economy is being destroyed day after day. We also made some investments in the country, which many names not less than mad as we want our country to be peaceful and prosper.
With the war now in its eighth month, can you give a view of how Ukraine is now viewed internationally versus how it was viewed prior to February 24th?
Ukraine has become a more important player in the international arena, asserting its agency by addressing the crucial issues facing the global security system. Ukraine has shown that it’s not just a question of surviving today – it’s about making those systems that have become largely inefficient work again by upgrading a lot of different aspects of our lives.
For example, the European Union has made itself very dependent on cheap natural gas from Russia, hence on cheap Russian energy. It was a reckless thing to do, which the EU acknowledges now. And so now EU policymakers are starting to correct their mistakes.
In fact, this is exactly what makes the United States and the European Union so strong: they don’t deal in delusions. If mistakes have been made, they are corrected. The West has made its main message clear: it will not give in to Russia’s blackmail just to ease some of the financial burdens in the coming winter. Our partners have taken a strategic approach to this matter. They are trying to stop the terror – because it’s not just Ukraine that’s being terrorized, but the entire world.
We have shown ourselves to be a courageous, unbreakable nation. As my friend from The New York Times said, now every citizen in the world wants to be a little bit Ukrainian.
What other lessons has Ukraine taught the world in the last eight months?
It has essentially flipped many people’s understanding of the world around them. They have realized that Ukraine is the only large territory of freedom in the entire post-Soviet region. Ukraine has shown the world that freedom is worth dying for; it has made people regret their ignorance of Ukraine. We are a young democracy, but the values we stand for are so important that we aren’t afraid to die for them. Ukraine is the beginning, the heart, the energy source. Ukraine is like birth; through all the pain, tragedy, and suffering, something new and healthy is born. And this new thing will be beautiful.
Name the top three most influential people in Ukraine today in terms of international recognition.
Firstly – President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Secondly – General Valerii Zaluzhnyi, Ukraine’s Commander-in-Chief.
We also have some influential journalists, such as Daria Kaleniuk, a Ukrainian civil society activist who is the executive director of the Anti-Corruption Action Center and is meeting with the head of the State Department and the President of the European Commission – she is a devoted fighter against corruption.
In your book, you mention tweeting a lot in the early days of the invasion. What were you tweeting about?
I still tweet a lot. Back then, I must have posted hundreds of tweets, and it was like an endless outpouring. I was tweeting about current developments – I believed it was my responsibility to do so because it’s my job to find the right words.
There was a lot of fake news I had to counter. Some were even spread by Telegram channels associated with the Office of the President. I remember being in Lviv and people writing to me about “Russian tanks in Lviv”! So I would just report what I was seeing, and that was my way of contributing to the truth. It was easier for me to verify the information because I’ve got access to people who possess it. I knew who was who and who could be trusted.
How has your audience responded to your tweets?
At the beginning of the full-scale invasion, I had 10,000 followers; now, I have nine times as many. My audience is very, very active. And I think it’s one of the easiest ways of contributing: by becoming this “warrior of the light” and countering Russian propaganda.
The way social media are designed, they tend to prioritize negative stuff. It’s all algorithm-based. But what I see on Twitter is that people are drawn to positivity. People are so starved for truth and sunlight that when I tweet good news, it gets more retweets than bad news.
I tweeted that Germany had delivered the first air defense system to Ukraine – and people were so jubilant that there were almost 50,000 likes and 6,000 retweets. They want to hear about positive things changing the systems. And this changes our view of social media.
Who is your audience on social media?
People from foreign countries, numerous journalists, politicians, and diplomats. Ordinary people, too. Once I met a hotel manager who said he read my posts and greeted me with “Glory to Ukraine!” and I almost teared up.
How much of your daily time is devoted to social media?
A lot (laughs). It’s a lot these days, but it was much less before the war. Hours. Depends on the situation.
Who do you think is the biggest influencer on social media and why?
I’m afraid I don’t have an answer to that. Kim Kardashian, with her 300 million followers, and the President of the United States, are both influencers. But what’s important is their message. I think Kim uses social media to promote the values she believes in, but it all serves a commercial purpose. It’s not bad. It’s just the way things work nowadays.
At the same time, the President of the United States commands attention and sets the agenda in the political realm. And that’s very important.
Elon Musk, with his 109 million followers, is also an influencer. So is President Zelenskyy, although he has far fewer followers than Musk. However, Zelenskyy’s followers are important people themselves, and they take note of his every word and decision.
If all the Influencers in Russia joined forces, do you think they could change the course of this war?
Sadly, I don’t think the Russians who oppose the ruling regime are influencers. They are important, they are recognized, but I don’t think they have any influence over Russian society.
The opposition in Russia, while united, has no way to exert public influence since everything has been cut off: no social media, no TV, and no freedom of speech. Imagine what a personal tragedy it is for every opposition member who has devoted their life to fight against autocracy.
This means Russia will need a serious reckoning with itself and a lot of hard work to regain acceptance in the world. That’s going to be a huge challenge for any new Russian leader in the future. Look how long it took Germany to accept the truth about Hitler and to recover – ten or fifteen years. And Russia has not reached the stage where it would even begin thinking about it.