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Interview with Kateryna Yushchenko
Kateryna Yushchenko, President Victor Yushchenko’s wife, has given an exclusive interview to Welcome to Ukraine Magazine.
Please describe the environment in which you grew up, the place, the people, the values and traditions….
I grew up in Chicago, the child of Ukrainian immigrant parents. Like many other children of the diaspora, we spoke Ukrainian at home and attended the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, I visited Ukrainian Saturday school and studied Ukrainian national dance. My parents, both of whom lived through the forced confiscation of property and tragic Holodomor (Famine) of 1932–33, the Second World War and German slave labour, often talked about their memories of Ukraine. In fact, their past was such a part of my life that I sometimes even had dreams about the war and about being a prisoner in Germany. My parents’ friends were mostly other Ukrainian immigrants; I remember them sitting around the table and singing Ukrainian folk songs. Thus, my life was a blend of two worlds, American at school and Ukrainian at home.
My father worked as an electrician while my mother stayed home to raise me. I suppose you could say that we were relatively poor, but I did not really feel that growing up. I started working at the age of fifteen in order to save money for college.
My mother and father valued hard work, frugality, love of God and country and loyalty to ones’ family. They encouraged me to study and obtain a higher education. When many other parents urged their daughters to marry young, my father recommended that I should first finish university and get established in a profession.
I first visited Ukraine at the age of 13, then again at 17 I was enchanted by my large extended family, by the city of Kyiv, and by the Ukrainian people. It became my dream to live and work in Ukraine. It seemed an impossible dream back then. Who would have thought in the 1970s that Ukraine would become independent and that I would be able eventually to live, work, marry and have children here? I guess that once in a while, dreams do come true!
You have said that your main mission is to be a mother and raise your children. Tell us about your family today, each member of your family, about the Yushchenko home.
Since my only sibling, my sister Lydia, was 16 years old when I was born, I felt like an only child growing up. Because I was often lonely, I very much wanted a large family. And even though we now have five children and two grandchildren, I often still wish we had more!
Victor has two children from his first marriage. Lina is now 25, married, and has two children — Domenika, 5, and Vitya, 4 months. Andriy is 19, and studying at the university. Both my step children are intelligent, kind, attractive, and fun to be with. They are very close to their father, and he really enjoys spending time with them, though this is often limited. During the revolution, we all lived together in one house. It brought us closer together; I will always treasure that time.
We have three young children — Sophia is 6, Chrystyna is 4, and Tarasyk is 13 months old. Sophiyka and Tynka, as we call her, both attend a French language pre-school and so they are basically tri-lingual. They also attend classes in ballet, Ukrainian dance, and drawing. Sophiyka is starting first grade this year.
The younger children provide great moral support to their father. When he comes home at the end of a long day, there is nothing he wants more than for the children to climb all over him and tell him stories about their day. On the occasional weekends he has some time off, he insists on including them in his favourite activities: shopping at the antiques bazaar, planting trees and caring for his bees at our dacha, going to church, visiting with friends.
What problems do you face in raising your children, what role does religious education play? How do you resolve the dilemma between television and books?
We try to instill our values into our children. Both Victor and I are religious people, and always take our children to church with us. I encourage our girls to say a prayer every night, and to learn about God and the Bible. Victor teaches the children about Ukrainian traditions and folklore. I read to the children both in English and Ukrainian, and buy them videos in four languages — Ukrainian, Russian, English and French. Of course, I worry when they watch too much television, and I am worried by the poor quality of many of the programs and films currently on TV. But I hope that the influence of our family will be strong enough to overcome the negative effects of their environment.
Could you describe your feelings during the revolution, when you were on stage on the Maydan?
When I first got on stage before a crowd of at least half a million people, I was struck by the waves and waves of orange, the signs and flags and clothes, and the chanting, “Yushchenko!”, “We are many and we will not be overcome!” But after a couple of minutes, I was able to focus on the faces. They were so clear, so positive, so beautiful, so intelligent. From the stage I saw thousands of faces, young and old, filled with hope. It was overwhelming and I still get tears in my eyes when I remember them.
Kateryna and Victor Yushchenko with their children at the ceremony
I walked through the crowds every day of the revolution. It was exhilarating, uplifting. Everyone in the city contributed what they could. Tens of thousands offered their apartments to the protesters at night. Six hundred doctors volunteered their time and skills. Dozens of restaurants brought food daily. Taxi drivers spent hours driving demonstrators to resting places for free. People danced, sang, prayed, fell in love and got married on the (Maydan) square. When the protesters from the opposing side would march in, instead of aggression they were met with food, warm clothes, blankets, offers to debate. Without any official policemen assigned to keep order, not one provocation occurred, not one drop of blood was shed.
Once I went up to a crowd of young people and, thinking they may need food, medicine or blankets, I asked them, “do you need anything?” “Yes, of course we need something,” they shouted. “What?” I asked. “FREEDOM!”
These people put their lives on the line for freedom, for a different life. Now it is up to my husband’s government to make the hopes of these heroic people a reality.
What will be your initiatives as first lady?
I take my new role as wife of the President of Ukraine very seriously and have many goals and plans. I believe that God has given me a unique chance to do good things for the people of Ukraine, whom I love and who deserve much more than they have received from their leadership for decades, even centuries.
First, I will try to fulfil what hundreds of people have asked me to over the past months — in letters, on the street, at the demonstrations — to provide my husband with the moral support and strong family environment that he needs to accomplish the many difficult tasks he has before him.
Second, I know that an important part of my new job is to represent my husband and Ukraine both within the country and internationally.
Third, through my foundation, Ukraine 3000, I will pursue humanitarian, cultural and historical projects that are important to me and my husband.
A foremost priority is health care for children. Though Ukrainian doctors are, on the whole, well-educated, they are forced to address serious medical problems without adequate equipment, medicines and facilities. This is particularly the case outside the capital. I plan to visit children’s hospitals in each Oblast, assess their needs, and find hospitals in Europe, the US, Canada, and Israel to partner with them. I have already received positive responses from doctors in Switzerland, France and the U.S. We will initiate our children’s health care project this month by renovating the children’s leukaemia ward at the Kyiv Hospital for Mothers and Children.
In our hospital to hospital program, we will also tackle adult medical issues such as cancer, heart disease, tuberculosis, and HIV/AIDS.
Another priority involves the numerous other social issues that plague Ukraine. We plan to initiate a transparent grant-making program that will support local, non-governmental efforts to address important problems such as homeless, orphaned and exploited children, trafficking of women, and integrating the disabled into society.
Furthermore, Ukraine is very rich in culture and the arts, but these areas have been greatly deprived of funding over the past years. Through our grant-making program, we will support museums, theatre, music, folklore, film-making, book publishing, and archaeology.
Finally, my husband and I are committed to supporting educational and research programs that will open up many previously closed topics in Ukraine’s fascinating and tragic history. For example, we plan to coordinate the gathering of eyewitness testimonies of survivors of the Holodomor of 1932–33, as well as create relevant monuments, a museum, conferences and books. I am also interested in the promoting greater knowledge of the dissidents of the 1960–80s and the fate of the victims of Chornobyl.
Our educational projects will focus on the important societal issues of tolerance, remembrance, ethics and community responsibility.
Kateryna Yushchenko and Sandra Saakashvili, the wife of President of Georgia,
Please tell us about your official trips abroad. How did it feel to be back in the US?
Since my husband became President, I have travelled with him on five official trips — the commemoration of Aushchwitz, the Davos Conference in Switzerland, the U.S., the funeral of the Pope at the Vatican, and Poland.
Each of these trips was made remarkable, first and foremost, by the tremendous good will we felt toward Ukraine and the Ukrainian people. The entire world was touched by the courage of the Ukrainian nation, which fought for its freedom on the Maydan. We felt this not only from official representatives, but from the citizens of these countries that we happened to meet on the street. A year ago, many of these people did not know Ukraine existed. Now they cheered not only the Ukrainian president, but the entire nation. I felt very proud to be from Ukraine.
I was moved by the commemoration of the closing of the Aushchwitz concentration camp, especially because my husband’s father had been a prisoner there. The leaders of more than thirty nations — royalty, presidents, prime ministers — attended this event. It was particularly touching to see the survivors. I cannot imagine their feelings, sixty years later, at being in this place of horror, on a freezing winter day, with representatives of the entire world mourning with them. My husband met with many rabbis and representatives of Jewish organizations who welcomed the changes in Ukraine and expressed their hopes for a better future for the Jewish people of Ukraine. A highlight of this event for me was meeting Eli Wiesel, whom I had admired for many years.
At Davos, my husband met with many business leaders interested in investing in the new Ukrainian economy. I had no official responsibilities at this conference, but felt fortunate to be able to meet such luminaries as Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, Richard Gere and Lionel Ritchie! Again, I was touched by their interest in Ukraine, and their willingness to become involved in its evolution.
Of course, the U.S. trip was very special to me personally. In some ways, it felt like the culmination of all that had occurred in the months, maybe even years before.
I believe that the U.S. trip will bring many benefits to Ukraine. First, my husband addressed various business groups and urged them to invest in the Ukrainian economy. We strongly believe that not only will their companies profit from entering the Ukrainian market, but Ukraine will gain millions of new, well-paying jobs. Second, the reception the Ukrainian President and his delegation received from the White House and the U.S. Congress promises great opportunities for cooperation. Many government officials and members of congress who a year ago had great suspicions toward Ukraine now want to help it to thrive. Third, I was gratified by the tremendous interest I observed from many American foundations and organizations, as well as from the U.S. Department of Health and the National Institutes of Health, to help Ukraine resolve its many social problems. Finally, but maybe particularly moving for me, was the reception we received from the Ukrainian diaspora in the U.S. Thousands attended events in Chicago, Washington, D.C. and Boston. I saw in their faces the same hope I had seen in the faces of the people on the Maydan. My husband and I very much want to see the diaspora become involved in building a new and prosperous Ukrainian nation.
Kateryna Yushchenko and Jolanta Kwasniewska on a visit to an integrated
The Vatican ceremony was obviously a very moving event which brought together Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox, Jews and Muslims from around the globe. I had the chance to meet many world leaders, albeit for only a few moments. I especially remember meeting Cheri Blair, whom I have always admired. All of Rome was filled with sadness and melancholy on the day of the funeral. Pope John Paul II prayed for Ukraine during our revolution, and I think there is no doubt that he will soon be considered a true saint by the entire world.
My last official trip was to Poland. President Kwasniewski and the Polish people were very supportive during Ukraine’s revolution; the Polish president’s role in the resolution of the crisis was crucial. The highlight of this trip for me was meeting Jolanta Kwasniewska, who has been the First Lady of Poland for ten years. During this time she has renovated hundreds of hospitals, helped many schools and children’s organizations, and been involved in such important issues as HIV-AIDS. Together we visited an integrated school for disabled children and met women active in resolving Poland’s social issues. In addition, my husband and I visited with the strong Ukrainian diaspora in Poland, many of whom had travelled to Ukraine during the autumn Orange Revolution.
What types of art and culture do you prefer?
One of the wonderful aspects of Ukraine is its very rich cultural life. Victor and I try to attend theatre, concerts and films as often as we can. We also have many friends who are artists — actors, singers, painters, sculptors — and we occasionally attend their performances and exhibits. Victor is a collector of many, many things, particularly items related to Ukrainian folklore and village culture. We also try to buy good Ukrainian art; Victor prefers artists of the late 19th, early 20th century, and I like contemporary art, that is, the second half of the 20th century and today. I love to read, and always try to find at least 15 minutes per day to indulge in this hobby.
What would you advise people visiting Ukraine to see?
Ukraine is a beautiful country with thousands of years of history, tradition and culture. I believe that tourism opportunities will grow tremendously over the next few years as the infrastructure for tourism improves. One of the first initiatives of the new government has been to eliminate visas for tourists, business people and students.
Kyiv, our capital, is a city of golden domes and hundreds of parks. We have many cathedrals that are hundreds of years old, museums, a wonderful opera, ballet, philharmonic. Crimea is stunning — it has Black Sea resorts, Tsarist palaces, Tatar palaces, Greek ruins, mountains, forests, wineries, desert, and parks. The Carpathian Mountains are very scenic, with a strong folk culture, skiing, hiking and delicious cuisine. We also have many old castles we will restore, fascinating archaeological sites that are only now being explored, beautiful natural areas that will offer opportunities for eco-tourism.
We invite the world to visit Ukraine, see its beauty and meet its wonderful, courageous, freedom-loving people!
Victor Yushchenko with his children and colleagues on Maydan Nezalezhnosti
Laura Bush, Kateryna Yushchenko, President George W. Bush,
Kateryna Yushchenko and Jolanta Kwasniewska, the guard
Kateryna Yushchenko on a visit to the memorial to M. Verbytsky,
Sandra Saakashvili, the wife of President of Georgia,
Victor Yushchenko and his daughter Sophia painting a pysanka,
Kateryna and Victor Yushchenko with their children in the field