“We Will Do Everything We Can To Stand For Our Democracy”: President Zelenskyy's Former Press Secretary, Iuliia Mendel, on Ukraine’s Fight of a Lifetime
When Ukrainian journalist Iuliia Mendel was hired to work for President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, she had no idea what was to come. As a young, female journalist thrust into a high-profile job on the international stage, Mendel was met with many challenges. But she had no idea she was in for a front row seat to history.
In her new book, The Fight of Our Lives: My Time with Zelenskyy, Ukraine’s Battle for Democracy, and What It Means for the World, Mendel shares details about what it was like to work closely with President Zelenskyy as his spokesperson and press secretary. From the terrifying details of being on the ground in Ukraine during Russia’s invasion and how she fielded press inquiries after the infamous phone calls between Zelenskyy and Donald Trump, Mendel doesn’t hold back. The result? A poignant perspective of a country at war and a president who continues to fight to make Ukraine a vibrant, prosperous democracy.
A Conversation with Iulila Mendel
Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, most Americans didn’t know much about your country. What do you want readers to learn about your country?
I want that the world to know that Ukraine is not just a victim, not an object of pity in the international arena, but a modern European country that fights for democracy—and will win. Ukraine is a country where people value freedom so much that they are ready to sacrifice their lives for it.
I also want us to be a nation that fully embraces the values of the Western world, knowing what a high price we have paid to choose them. In writing this book, I wanted to put Ukraine in the global context and to explain my country as a millennial brought up in independent Ukraine.
Tell us your story: How did you get your job as Press Secretary to President Zelenskyy, a role you had from 2019-2021?
Volodymyr Zelenskyy was the first President of Ukraine to introduce transparent competition for the job of press-secretary to the President, and for many other positions as well. In this way, he brought into politics many people who likely would not have had such a chance otherwise. A lot of people don’t believe that I won the job transparently. But it is true: I was selected from around four thousand applicants for the position through a multilevel competition.
I had many fights inside the administration to establish a transparent relationship with the media that at first were mostly ignored by our government. I travelled with Zelenskyy in my role as press secretary to and faced challenges both in the sphere of domestic politics and in international affairs: Russian influence, attempts to achieve peace in Donbas, Zelenskyy’s attitude towards the scandal around the infamous call with Donald Trump, and how Ukraine survived so much during this turbulent time.
Zelenskyy has been a steadfast leader during one of the most complicated and perilous moments in the history of modern Ukraine. In the book I explain how a post-Soviet comedian turned into a great leader, acclaimed around the world for his courage and for his steely determination to defend the Ukrainian people’s fight for democracy.
Prior to Zelenskyy’s election, there were several corrupt administrations. What do you think was the turning point towards a more democratic Ukraine?
Ukrainians first demonstrated their desire to align their country with Western Europe during the Revolution of Dignity in 2014. Thousands flocked to the major Kyiv square, Maidan, to demonstrate against their government’s corruption and its pro-Russian stance. Over 100 protesters were massacred by the forces of then-president Viktor Yanukovych, the most corrupt leader in Ukrainian history. (His house was later turned into the Museum of corruption.) Ultimately, this massive protest ended with Yanukovych ousted and forced to flee to Russia.
But it is one thing to proclaim that Ukraine wants to become European, and another to actually achieve that goal. It was not possible to accomplish that without European-style politicians. Unfortunately, there were still a lot of post-Soviet crooks in previous governments who forgot that politics had to serve people and who tried to benefit themselves by cynically stealing from the Ukrainian people. There was also the system of Ukrainian oligarchy that exercised an outsize influence on our politics and the potent Russian influence that Ukraine has begun to successfully diminish through various reforms since 2014.
Russia is still using any means possible to take over Ukraine. Today we see the most brutal attempt to undermine our government—a monstrous and violent war. I am sure that there are still some bad actors or those who stand for vested interests in the Ukrainian government. But I know that Ukraine has done enormous homework to root out corruption and to fight Russian disinformation, transforming the country from a post-Soviet state into a strong, transparent, democratic government. Ukraine is gradually becoming a part of Europe and it has a bright future.
The U.S. media continues to cover the war in Ukraine on a daily basis, but it’s not the same as experiencing life there on the ground. Tell us what it was like to flee your home in Kyiv to the safer city of Lviv in the western part of Ukraine?
The Russian war in Ukraine is a war against democracy and the Western world order established after World War II. It shows a brutal disregard for human values. My family is in occupied territory. They did not want to leave, saying that this is a Ukrainian territory and Ukrainian land cannot exist without Ukrainians. Then, they could not leave as Russians were shelling and killing the civilians who tried to escape.
Living under the Russian occupation is an existence between life and death. During the shelling, my mother, a pediatrician, was sitting in a bomb shelter with the children she was treating. One day there was a tank near her window and she wrote to me, “I don’t know what to expect.” My aunt’s student was killed by shrapnel that flew into her house, and my aunt herself showed me the bullet holes in her house and the gate. There is not enough food, no protection, and a lot of injustice.
The scariest thing for us in Western Ukraine are the sirens we hear every day. It's impossible to get used to them. It means that soon missiles may come to us. It means even more ordinary citizens may die.
We survived the Russian invasion on adrenaline. Many fled, we moved to a western town so we wouldn't be surrounded by Russians. The roads around Kyiv are still destroyed, houses are shelled, there are still burnt-out tanks. These are all reminders of the inhuman horrors the world saw after Bucha and all the Kyiv region was liberated. About rapes, tortures, murders of innocents.
My fiancé, along with most Ukrainian men, served at the frontline. Waiting for him to return every day I experienced depression, devastation, loneliness, and fear. Because I knew that even if he came back alive, it did not guarantee that tomorrow everything would be fine. I checked every five minutes to see if he read my last message. I felt anxious whenever he hadn’t written or called for a long time. Letting a loved one go to war is one of the hardest things anyone will ever have to face. I am so proud of him, but the pain of possible loss lives in my heart.
Ukrainians agreed to go to war because we believe in our country and because freedom is one of our greatest values. We stand against the Russian invasion not just for our lands, but for home, for family, for each person’s right to choose. We believe in our army and our volunteers because we believe that light must overcome darkness.
I'm not sure that every president of Ukraine could have had the courage to remain and fight with his people the way Volodymyr Zelenskyy did. As it was, he barely survived being assassinated. He managed to rally the Ukrainians and the entire civilized world like never before. This is a fight for our existence. We have no choice but to fight and win.
I'm sure the American people, any people who believe in their country, would do the same.
How do you see the war coming to an end?
We all hope for peace. And Ukraine is well aware that we could not manage to hold off and defeat one of the largest armies in the world without Western support, and especially without the strong leadership of the U.S.. To win, Ukraine needs a united world.
It is difficult to play the role of fortuneteller, but Ukrainian leadership wants to win back Ukraine’s sovereign territory as recognized by the international community. This includes Crimea and the part of Donbas that had been occupied by Russia before 2022. Now we are at the stage when we have proved to the world that Ukraine matters and Ukraine will fight. We are facing the world’s most unpredictable geopolitical monster. But we are determined to defeat Russia and recover what is ours.
We will do everything we can to stand for our freedom and for democracy.
Iuliia Mendel is a Ukrainian journalist, who served as press secretary and spokesperson for Volodymyr Zelenskyy, President of Ukraine, from 2019 until 2021. Mendel has more than fourteen years of journalism experience on TV and in print media and her writing has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, VICE, Politico Europe, and many more. Her Twitter is @IuliiaMendel.