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Lesia Vasylenko: The war in Ukraine has turned mothers into fighters

Lesia Vasylenko: The war in Ukraine has turned mothers into fighters

Aged 15, Lesia Vasylenko had her future life all planned out. She would be a successful corporate lawyer working regular hours in private practice. She would be happily married and would have two children, a boy first, then a girl and they would always sit down together at the table for dinner. She was very clear that her picture-perfect family would always come first and equally sure that she would never be involved in politics.

Fast forward 20 years, and human rights lawyer Vasylenko is a high-profile Ukrainian MP who posts graphic accounts of the war in Ukraine to her 300,000-plus Twitter followers, meets regularly with world leaders to discuss the plight of her country, and is a clear and present target of President Vladimir Putin. 

Last week, following a series of Russian-backed illegal referendums in Ukraine, Vasylenko tweeted angrily: “Honestly sickening how one little delusional guy can with one speech change the nationality of millions. How does history keep breeding these psychos: Hitler, Stalin and now #Putin.”

Days later, she was on the stage at the UK Labour Party conference, followed by the Conservatives, and this weekend at the SNP, asking political leaders to support Ukraine and spreading the message about what is happening to her people.

Following the bloody invasion of her country by Russia earlier this year, she armed herself with an AK-47, learnt how to load and fire a semi-automatic handgun, and now lives alone in the family’s apartment in Kyiv, defending her country by using her political voice while her husband and three children have been dispatched to live in the safety of the south of England as refugees of war.

Vasylenko with seven-year-old Kylyna and 15-month-old Sophia

Vasylenko’s life couldn’t be more different to the one her teenage self had envisaged, and she laughs wryly at the irony of how it has all turned out.

“I actually had a boyfriend back when I was at university who wanted to be a politician and I was angry and said to him at the time that if he was ever to do that then we would break up. I just didn’t want anything to do with politics; I saw it as a dirty game that consumed people, and it never brought any benefits but lots of pain. 

“And yes, we did split up, but to be honest, that was for lots of other reasons,” she laughs. “The funny thing is, I bumped into him a couple of years ago and of course, now I’m the MP, and he’s heading up one of the major private corporations in Ukraine and so of course, the conversation was slightly awkward…”

Vasylenko’s early disdain for public life is rooted in how abandoned she felt as the only child of a high-profile Ukrainian diplomat, independence campaigner, and human rights activist. She says that her father, Volodymyr Vasylenko, the former Ukrainian ambassador to Benelux (Brussels, Belgium, Netherlands, and Luxembourg) and later to the UK, always put his work before his family and she recounts a childhood in which he was mainly absent.

The relationship between father and daughter was often strained – still is – and with her mother, a talented linguist, frequently acting as a mediator, Vasylenko clearly still struggles with many aspects of it.

I didn’t want my children to have what I grew up with, and the gaps that I had in my life, and that I still have, because of an absence of my father and a lack of attention I got because of the demands that he gave into

“I had the example of my workaholic father in front of my eyes all the time, and actually having him being absent from large chunks of my childhood, I vowed to myself that I would never go down that road. I made an early decision that I would not sacrifice myself for anything or anyone," she says.

"I didn’t want my children to have what I grew up with, and the gaps that I had in my life, and that I still have, because of an absence of my father and a lack of attention I got because of the demands that he gave into. Even when he was at home, his mind was elsewhere, and I had fights with my dad over stupid things but when his temper would just run out, much, much, quicker than a normal person’s would, and I would wish all the time that it wouldn’t be like that, and that, you know, he could have the time to sort of hear me out and even play.

"But with him, to this day, our relationship is basically on a certain level, that we talk about work – that is it. And this is where we get along the best. We can have long discussions, and meaningful discussions, about work, but in our personal relationship, there’s no talking about feelings or of the past or about day-to-day situations in life, because that sort of thing is irrelevant to him. Superficial. Everything is on a higher plane, for a greater good. 

“My mum’s role would always be a mediator or a facilitator in conversations with my father. And she would always come through and be like, ‘Oh, but don’t be upset with him. You know, he’s your dad, and he works so much. And, you know, Ukraine matters to him so much,’ and so on. And that’s true. You know, he never hid it from anyone that Ukraine was always number one; we were always number two on the list of priorities. And growing up with that, well, it’s not nice to know that you’re not number one, and that you have to be fighting for that attention all the time when you shouldn’t have to.

"And of course, it left a lot of pain, especially during my teenage years. And it did have a big impact on the relationship that I had with my parents. I left home as early as I could at 16 and basically, since then, I learned to make both my own money and my own way, be independent, and I’m not very good at negotiations or rather, compromise, because of that.” 

With eight-year-old Hryhoril, seven-year-old Kylyna and 15-month-old Sophia
The epiphany for Vasylenko came in early 2014. She was, she says, still living according to her carefully mapped out life plan. She was working for a corporate law firm, was married to an equally successful lawyer, and they had had their first child, a son. She was out walking him in his pram when she passed a group of student protestors who she followed and got caught up in the energy that was part of the Revolution of Dignity, quickly followed by the annexation of Crimea and the subsequent outbreak of the Russo-Ukrainian War. 

The events ignited something in Vasylenko. In between feeding her baby son, she would do voluntary work at the central military hospital where many wounded soldiers were being treated. She realised that so few of them were getting financial aid from the state even to pay for such life-saving operations as amputations, never mind compensation for their efforts in defending their country. Using her legal background, Vasylenko realised that they were being denied their rights and started working to secure financial aid for them and their families. 

“That was it,” she tells me. “Seeing and feeling that injustice, that was how my life plan changed course. The idea of public service really kicked in and I understood that it wasn’t something that came from the head, it came from the heart, and for me from then on, there was no escaping it.”

This political awakening was quickly followed, a few months later, by the Malaysian Airline Flight 17 – MH17 – being shot down over Ukraine in July 2014 by a Russian-made missile, killing 283 passengers including 80 children.

“Up to that point in time, just before MH17, I was thinking that as a family – because at that point it was just my husband and young son and I – that if things get bad, maybe we can, you know, move to another country, have our quiet, simple life, have normal jobs, but just live somewhere else. I was considering maybe the UK, but then when the plane was shot down with all these passengers, all these civilians killed, I realised that you could move anywhere you like, and then you can get on a civilian flight, and you’ll be just flying over Ukraine, or any part of the world where Russia’s operating its aggressive actions, and they’ll shoot down your plane, and you will never be safe, so there was no escape.

It was as if I was getting suffocated by something greater than me. And the bits of the puzzle started fitting together and I knew the only way to deal with it was to take some control

“That’s when the switch really went off in my head and it was extremely painful. I was crying so much for that MH17. But I was crying, you know, not just for the people, not just for the casualties, but for the inability to do anything. I felt powerless, that I had no control of the situation I was living in. And I really hated the feeling. I really, really, hated it. It was as if I was getting suffocated by something greater than me. And the bits of the puzzle started fitting together and I knew the only way to deal with it was to take some control.”

In 2015, having been joined by other lawyers working pro bono, she set up the Legal 100, which developed into an influential NGO, aiding servicemen and veterans, and which still exists today, offering a hotline for Ukrainians requiring legal advice. The Legal 100 pushed for the establishment of a separate government department for veterans and was involved in the appointment of ministers and key personnel.

In 2016, Vasylenko was named by the Kyiv Post as one of the top 30 leaders under-30. And she says it almost became a natural step to become more politically active. She was elected in 2019 for the liberal Holos party, which she likens to the Liberal Democrats here. Her focus before the war was on climate change and although she is officially part of the opposition in the Ukrainian parliament, following the invasion in February, all MPs are now fully behind President Zelensky. 

Vasylenko’s first-hand account of the conflict on Twitter is both hard-hitting and heart-breaking. Last week, she posted photographs of the burnt remains of 20 Ukrainian civilians, including 10 children, who had been targeted by the Russians as they fled the war. Previous posts spare nothing in their witness to the bloody brutality meted out by the Russian forces. And to the global leaders who she meets with regularly including the former prime minister, Boris Johnson, who have refused to back a no-fly zone over Ukraine, she has sent this stark message on social media: “DON’T YOU DARE look away from the consequences.”

For Vasylenko, the personal consequences of the war have meant being separated from her three children – eight-year-old Hryhoril, seven-year-old Kylyna and 15-month-old Sophia – who fled Ukraine with their father, Oleksandr, in March following warnings that she was on Russian hit lists. They are now living in the south of England with a host family while Vasylenko lives alone in their former family home.

“My life is changed completely – 180 degrees, but it’s not just me, it’s every single Ukrainian. It doesn’t matter who you were, a politician, a businessman, a teacher, a doctor, whether you were rich, poor, live in Kyiv, or in Kharkiv, your life changed 180 degrees, because each one of us has a different baseline from which we come. And, you know, I’m much more privileged, and much luckier than those people who have had their homes destroyed, who have lost family members and loved ones. I have nothing to complain about. But I have to deal with things that cause distress to my life, to my family’s life, to my children’s lives. And I don’t know what the long-term consequences of all of this will be.” 

Vasylenko calls the children every day and speaks to them on Facetime, but she says every call leaves her more broken.

With seven-year-old Kylyna

“My youngest, who is now walking and starting to speak, tries to grab the phone from the other kids. And all she’s saying is ‘Mama, Mama, Mama, Mama…’ and she’s clearly aching to be closer and doesn’t understand why there’s this screen. And you know, that’s when I just break down into tears, because that’s impossible. There’s nothing you can do. There are thousands of miles which separate you, you are here doing what you have chosen to do, really, and again, I come back to the fact that it’s a choice and everything in this life is a choice. And I have made this one.

“Technically, I could stop, by using maternity leave or the exemption from military service and so on, those choices, they are all there, all options, and all legal. They’re all very much explainable and understandable. But I must be honest, I love what I do. And I see that I have benefitted my country in many ways. And it’s not because I’m amazing or the best or, you know, I’m so arrogant in terms of thinking of my abilities, it’s just because I did what others weren’t making the choice to do.

“To be honest, I don’t think that I would be a very good mother right now, in the traditional sense, because all my thoughts are constantly with Ukraine but there will come a time when I have to choose and that time could be very soon because my kids said to me, in the last phone call, that they had had enough of this – ‘we want to go home, why are you home, why are we not home?’. The maximum [amount of time] we’re going to take this, my son says, is until his birthday. His birthday is the 30th of October. He’s like, after that, ‘take me out of here’. He’s nearly hysterical. And you know, my daughter saying to me, ‘I want my toys. I want my room.’

"And I understand them. And I’m saying to them, ‘that you realise that if I bring you back here, for example, I’ll be still doing the travelling because it’s part of my work.’ And they say to me, ‘okay, we’re fine with that.’ And their schoolteacher, here in Ukraine, who has known them for all their lives, I spoke to her, and she said to me that they used to say these things all the time that their mom is a public figure, and she travels so much, and spends so little time with us. They never say this to me, they say it to their teachers and their nannies, but never to me, until this conversation we had last week.”

I ask Vasylenko if she is more frightened by the immediate threats of the war or the long-term effect that being absent from her children could have on them, given how her own relationship with her father was affected by his absence. She thinks for some time.

“I think the difference is that my father wouldn’t have believed he was doing anything wrong because he was doing what he did for a greater good. That put him on the moral high-ground, and it still does. I addressed this very question to him yesterday because I am now the one experiencing guilt about the choices I have made about being here while my children and husband are elsewhere. But he simply doesn’t understand it because he believes in something greater than self, so he has no time for my guilt, he thinks that it is self-indulgent.

“And yes, of course, I see the parallels now with my father and the danger of history repeating itself and because I’m a person who also believes a lot in karma and energy cycles, and all of that – which some people may find crazy – I would say that the situation in which I am in, it’s just trying to teach me something, and every day I wake up and I’m making a choice either to be with my country, or with my children. I also know that I need to find some balance soon for all our sakes. But you know, Ukraine took a deep intake of breath on the 24th of February this year and we are waiting to be able to exhale and breathe normally.” 

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