Iuliia Mendel’s new book, “The Fight of our Lives: My Time With Zelenskyy, Ukraine’s Battle for Democracy, and What it Means to the World” details her work as press secretary for President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Mendel will discuss the book on Thursday, Sept. 15, at 7:30 p.m. at the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta with Bill Nigut, host of GPB’s Political Rewind. Tickets are available here.
Mendel attended Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv, where she earned PhD in Ukrainian modern literature in 2012. Before she was press secretary, she worked as a journalist at home and abroad. She was chosen for the position in 2019 out of roughly 4,000 candidates.
“He was like a rock star,” she said about Zelenskyy. “Everybody wanted to work with him.”
Reporter Newspapers caught up with Mendel ahead of her appearance at MJCCA.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Reporter Newspapers: Can you share a little bit about where you grew up and your experiences?
Iuliia Mendel: I was actually brought up in the Kherson region, which is now under Russian occupation. It’s in the South. It’s the only region that borders Crimea, which Russia annexed back in 2014, and it’s the only region that has two seasides. So we were often going to the beach when I was a small kid. My parents are doctors, both of them. We had grandparents in the countryside, and my parents lived in Kherson, which is the major city for the region. So before I entered university, I was living there with them.
RN: What led you to journalism?
IM: When I was a little kid, my first years I spent with my grandparents in the countryside. There is not much to do in the countryside, but they watched the news every night. My grandmother, who was very close to me, said that the anchors on TV are the smartest people in the world. She created a small desire to be [like] the smartest people in the world, which actually grew up to be this big dream to be a journalist.
RN: Can you talk about the process and transition to becoming press secretary?
IM: It was very, very difficult. It was not … only the president who selected me. They hired an HR team, so there were several steps, and the last was the conversation with the president.
There were about eight people. They pretended to be sharks who were attacking me as press secretary, and I needed to respond to all the questions – a lot of questions, very stressful. But I think that Volodymyr Zelenskyy made the point to select me when I answered his question, what was my motivation to work for him?
I said, “You know, if a man from a poor background, from some very provincial town in Ukraine can become the president of the country in a fully transparent and democratic way – which happened, actually – and if me, a girl from also a very poor background can win this competition and become your first secretary, what is this if not a Ukrainian dream, where everyone can become what they want?” I think then, he saw that we shared one vision for the country, and he hired me.
RN: What are some of the things you had to handle during your tenure as press secretary?
IM: It’s the toughest, most difficult job that I’ve done, but it’s also the most exciting one. There were a lot of challenges. We had a lot of pressure from Russia. Russia has been pressuring Ukraine for all its independence. There was a lot of disinformation … President Zelenskyy was always saying that disinformation is already a weapon that is working … that we needed to be more concerned about it.
I was dealing with huge waves of disinformation, fakes, all the time. I was one of the first targets for attack … [People were] attacking me for how I looked, for how I behaved, for how I spoke. They were saying that I would have affairs with the president – you know, anything that somebody can come up with. Russian TV spread it so hugely that it was all over post-Soviet space. I even got calls from Kyrgyzstan and Belarus. It was a very terrible thing to go through.
But it wasn’t only about this, it was about other challenges. We had this Trump scandal, when President Zeklensky was in power for like, three months, I think. It was a very difficult thing to deal with.
On the other hand, I was traveling with the president all over the world. I was meeting the world leaders. I [shook hands] with [Former German Chancellor] Angela Merkel, who for me personally is a big example of how to lead a country for 16 years.
I was in negotiations with Donald Trump, and I talk about this in my book. I was happy to meet with [French] President [Emmanuel] Macron, to see how it works in Turkey, in different countries around the world.
I guess the reason why I was more challenged in the very beginning is that when President Zelenskyy came to power, during his electoral campaign he hardly provided any interviews. The team of men who brought him to power thought it wasn’t necessary to provide interviews and to comment on things …That was a disaster, because journalism is the way to make democracy.
Zelenskyy understood how it was important to be transparent. I was the one who was there to hold his first interviews, to foreign media especially, and we had dozens of them. I’m very proud because so many of those powerful and influential men, they thought that being a much younger girl of 32 years old, that my voice didn’t matter that much, that it was weaker than theirs.
RN: When did you decide you wanted to write a book?
IM: That’s probably a desire [I’ve had] for all my life. Being a kid, I thought it was so cool to write a book. I was always thinking about it, and always something was wrong – like there wasn’t enough of the story. When I became the press secretary, all of a sudden the story was right there, because that was a story of national and international scale. That’s where the story was turning into history. I was watching it from the position where I was, and I could take notes.
I decided to start writing at the end of 2020. It went so fast that I did it in three or four months. It was out in Ukrainian and Russian first. But this book, it was updated and it was adapted for international audiences. I avoided a lot of domestic policies and politics that would not be interesting or clear for international audiences. I wrote about the Ukrainian army and Ukrainians who are fighting the war … and how Russia was trying to penetrate every sphere of Ukrainian life … and how all this penetration and meddling led to this terrible war in 2022.
Me and my husband, we made a principle decision not to leave the county when the war started. We got a lot of offers to go, but we decided it was so important personally to stay there and do whatever it costs to be with your land, to be with your people, and give the feeling that you’re contributing to the fight.
RN: What do you hope that international audiences take away from this book about the conflict between Russia and Ukraine?
IM: This is my personal story that actually shows the story of my country and its very difficult path to democracy. I want Western audiences and Americans to see that we share, in many ways, the same values. Ukrainians are still looking to the United States and the ideal democracy.
I also want to show that my people, they are not victims. In many ways, people try to victimize us. But we are heroes. Maybe we are the objects of an attack, but we stand against a huge power. We’re like David against Goliath, and we want to win. We’re very grateful for everything that the American people have done for us, because we understand that even being strong people, devoted people, we still need the support to fight this Goliath. If we didn’t have these reliable partners around us, it would be much, much more difficult.