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Zelenskyy's former spokesperson writes about working with the Ukrainian president

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

On a Saturday afternoon in May 2019, a young Ukrainian journalist named Iuliia Mendel got a phone call. The caller was a headhunter who wanted to know whether Mendel would be willing to work around the clock. And the job the headhunter had in mind - press secretary to the brand-new president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Well, a few days later, Mendel was summoned to Zelenskyy's office for a job interview.

IULIIA MENDEL: I told him if a man from a poor background from some Ukrainian provincial city can become the president of the country in a fully democratic way and that a girl from the same poor background can become his press secretary, then what is it if not a Ukrainian dream?

KELLY: Mendel spent the next two years as his spokesperson. She says even though she and Zelenskyy shared a vision for their country, it could be hard to break through in meetings with his advisers.

MENDEL: Imagine me, 32-year-old female, sitting at the table with all those men who were richer, were more powerful, were actually greedy to influence the president. And they didn't want, you know, to listen just to me. But President Zelenskyy always was giving me the voice, was asking what I think. He was listening to me, and in that way, he was making me equal.

KELLY: Mendel writes about her experience working with Zelenskyy in her new book "The Fight Of Our Lives." In it, she describes how, as war loomed at the start of this year, she hadn't bothered to find a bomb shelter near her apartment in Kyiv. She didn't think she'd need one. Like many Ukrainians, she thought a Russian invasion was unlikely.

MENDEL: It's even now very difficult to believe that it happened what had happened. I think if you were in Kyiv even two months later, you will understand that Kyiv was absolutely different. It was just a fortress with a lot of checkpoints, a very strict curfew, a lot of people with rifles, absolutely empty from ordinary citizens.

KELLY: But if you go back to those days right before the war...

MENDEL: Yeah.

KELLY: ...Part of why Ukrainians didn't believe there might be a war was because their leaders were telling them so. They were downplaying that possibility. Zelenskyy was telling the country, look; don't panic. Carry on with your lives. In hindsight, was that a mistake?

MENDEL: Yeah. Many people did not believe. You're right. Among them were a lot of politicians. As far as we know, Zelenskyy already said that he knew the information. So this is the issue. A lot of people who were telling about the plans of Russia to invade, they were saying to be prepared. And we were preparing without the public statements, without explaining that the war was coming. But on the other hand, what could we do, dig trenches when Russia was going to hit us from the sky? Like, we were doing what was possible to do.

KELLY: What stands out to you as someone who has been a journalist, who has briefed journalists, as a press secretary who knows how to craft a message? What has stood out to you about how both Zelenskyy and Vladimir Putin have messaged, have used the media - social media, traditional media - during these months of war?

MENDEL: Russia is fully isolated information. Russian media tells only the Kremlin message and propaganda and lies and manipulates. It even doesn't have any logic in the messages. Ukraine fully collaborates with international media and with American media, and we are very grateful for this because American media did an amazing job to help us spread the word and to stand for Ukraine to unite the world around this battle for democracy.

But if you ask me about Zelenskyy and Putin, they are really from different age, and they have different worldview. Putin is from old age. And what I mean when I say this, I don't mean age. I mean they have - they are outdated. He and his team, they have very outdated worldview.

KELLY: And you've met him, we should mention.

MENDEL: Yeah, we met. We met during the Normandy meeting in December 2019. And, you know, he surprised me for the reason that everybody considers that he's such a strong man because he developed this narrative. But in fact, when I saw him negotiating the peace, he was not strong at all. He was really a very weak negotiator for the reason that for the last 23 years, he has never negotiated anything. He just orders something and waits that people deliver the result.

KELLY: As you look at your country today - well, I should mention you're from southern Ukraine, from Kherson, which has been in the headlines. It was the first and the only big Ukrainian city that fell to Russia.

MENDEL: Right.

KELLY: It is still under Russian occupation. Ukraine is fighting hard to take it back. What do you hear from there? What do you know of conditions there now?

MENDEL: Well, there is one very important village there. It's a personally important to me village because the grandparents of - from both sides were living there and because I spent there my first years as a child. I read all the books in the local library. I ate a lot of cherries and apricots. I made there my first steps and had first friends. And it's fully destroyed these days, unfortunately. There is nothing there anymore.

My granny, who is 82 years old, was staying in the basement with wounded leg for weeks when Russians were destroying her house, shelling her garden. She was shrinking from all those heat. Thank God she's in Kyiv now. She was lucky to escape, and we had taken care about her.

But the situation is really very difficult. Some of the villages are fully destroyed. People are kidnapped. For instance, the former mayor of Kherson - Ukrainian mayor is kidnapped, and nothing is known about him for a month. People are tortured. There are a lot of awful stories from there. But I also know that people are praying that Ukrainian army comes there and are waiting every second to know that they are closer and closer.

KELLY: Well, I'm so sorry for this village that meant so much to you. I'm glad your granny is okay.

MENDEL: Thank you.

KELLY: It makes me think. It's been an awful year for Ukraine, of course, but I was thinking of you and preparing to interview you as I followed all the news this past weekend of this big Ukrainian advance in the northeast, this very successful assault against Russian troops. And it made me think of the very last words of your book, which are - and I will quote - "I have always believed in Ukraine, and I always will."

MENDEL: Ukraine is the value for millions of Ukrainians. And that's why we didn't have to leave Ukraine during the war. And that's why everybody tries to contribute to the victory. And we are probably the target for Russia. But at the same time, we are not victims. We are fighters. I know that many countries believe that - believed that Ukraine would collapse in days or hours. But we've shown the world that we stand there for independence, for the right to have choice, for the right to have democracy. So we just hope that the world would stand with us shoulder to shoulder until this terrible war is ended.

KELLY: We've been speaking with Iuliia Mendel. She was press secretary to President Zelenskyy from 2019 to 2021. Her memoir is "The Fight Of Our Lives: My Time With Zelenskyy, Ukraine's Battle For Democracy, And What It Means For The World." Iuliia Mendel, thank you.

MENDEL: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF KACEY MUSGRAVES SONG, "SLOW BURN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.