Interview with Victor Yushchenko by Tetyana Kharchenko
Ukrayina Moloda, Kiev, Ukraine, in Ukrainian 21 Feb 04; p 5
BBC Monitoring Service,UK, in English, Feb 29, 2004
Popular Ukrainian opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko has described his
private life and formative years in a newspaper interview. Speaking in the
run-up to his 50th birthday [February 23], Yushchenko said he felt 20 years
younger. He also described his service in the Soviet army and said he
enjoyed physical exercise, skiing, mountaineering, reading and painting.
The following is the text of the interview Yushchenko gave to journalist
Tetyana Kharchenko, published in the Ukrainian pro-opposition newspaper
Ukrayina Moloda on 21 February; subheadings have been inserted editorially:
ArtUkraine.com Information Service (ARTUIS) Photo
(Click on images to enlarge them)
[Kharchenko] It was lunch time when we met [leader of the centre-right
opposition bloc Our Ukraine] Viktor Yushchenko. He joked he could not
remember how many meetings he had had that day. His schedule was extremely
tight and he had to find time for everything.
That is the way he works every day. Morning consultations, tens of important
meetings, a session in the Supreme Council [parliament] where he heads the
largest faction, Our Ukraine, negotiations with partners and opponents,
visits to the regions and business trips abroad. He has to live amid
continual attempts to discredit him, as the pro-government media come up
with dirt and misinformation against him every day.
"I am used to politics always intruding into my private life," Yushchenko
confesses. "But I have never thought I will learn how to accept this."
Yushchenko changes before our very eyes when he forgets about politics for a
while and talks about his service in the army, a genuine leather ball he got
as a gift when he turned 10, or the first money he made and then hid from
his mother in a potato garden.
Our today's conversation is, in principle, nonpolitical. Moreover, there is
a reason to talk about personal things: on Monday [23 February], Yushchenko
will turn 50.
Mr Yushchenko, in Soviet times you were considered to be very fortunate,
because your birthday coincided with Soviet Army Day [marked on 23
February], which is now called Motherland Defenders' Day. Does the
coincidence of these two holidays mean anything to you?
[Yushchenko] When I was a child, I was very proud I was born on 23 February.
I had a feeling as though I was not simply involved in a glorious function
of being a defender and soldier, but also as though I was marked in a
special way. When it was time to go to the army, I happened to serve on the
border with Turkey. This was very tough service, "full of deprivations", as
our army newspapers put it.
[Kharchenko] But the army is actually supposed to harden men [newspaper
ArtUkraine.com Information Service (ARTUIS) Photo
[Yushchenko] I was conscripted in autumn. After our moderate climate,
winters in the mountains of the Caucasus seemed harsh. In addition, I was
four-five years older than all other conscripts, had a diploma and a job. So
if for a lot of boys service was a test, regarded as a certain stage in
maturing, I already looked at this in a different way.
I can remember that initially I often asked experienced soldiers how long
the service was. They said: "Viktor, this is all very simple: you come in
the autumn, you are given a shovel. You keep shovelling snow until the
shovel is taken from you, and that's when you know you have served half a
In the Caucasus, blizzards rage every day from autumn to spring. We did not
even have water to wash our faces with, and had to melt snow to make tea.
Yet drill annoyed more than everyday inconveniences. When soldiers are
drilled senselessly, when you have to crawl with your overcoat on across
heaps of snow 10 times back and forth so that snow gets into your sleeves up
to armpits, you always begin to question the rationality of this kind of
[Kharchenko] So are you an advocate of a professional army?
[Yushchenko] I am convinced that a person should do everything
professionally. Military matters should not be dealt with by amateurs. Being
a soldier is too serious a profession, it requires good physical and
professional training, and special moral qualities. In their turn, soldiers
and officers should get deserved pay for their service.
[Kharchenko] Did your girlfriend see you off when you went to the army? Did
you receive letters from home?
[Yushchenko] She did. And then this was something sacred to me. Those
feelings kept me warm. When you are in the army and get a letter from back
home, this makes you very happy. Our frontier post was some 100 km from the
closest settlement, [the Armenian town of] Leninakan, and Belarusian postman
Tolya delivered mail once a week. That was quite an event, and we waited for
Tolya as if he were the most important man.
[Kharchenko] What about your girlfriend? Did she welcome you back from the
[Yushchenko] My friends wrote to me they had seen her with another man. They
told me to think hard and do something. I read this, but how could I get the
attention of my beloved back when I was in the Caucasus? Time cured old
memories, but back then it was not easy to bear this out. Not long ago, a
week ago or so, I finished reading [19th century Ukrainian poet Taras]
In it, Shevchenko described a moment when he was told about his discharge
[from compulsory military service]. He so much looked forward to that moment
that he even knew which kind of wind should blow to make a sailing vessel go
in the direction of his garrison. These pages evoked memories of my own
demobilization. I still remember how eagerly we waited for this minute.
FIRST MONEY EARNED BY YUSHCHENKO
[Kharchenko] You mentioned that you had been conscripted to the army from
your work. What was your first pay?
[Yushchenko] I had made my first money much earlier. Once I signed a
contract with my grandmother Katrya, may she rest in peace. She gave me a
task to graze three goats and said she would sell one of them in the autumn
and give me money for it. I remember that I not only had to graze our
neighbours' cows but also had to take care of those goats the whole summer.
Grandmother Katrya did a fair thing, sold a goat and gave me all the money,
as much as 28 roubles! That was my first serious financial project.
At first I put that money in a cardboard box from vitamin pills and hid it
at home inside the oven. Then every two-three hours I took the box out and
re-counted the money. In a while, I realized the oven was not a safe place,
mother could find the money and spend it on things other than those I dreamt
of. Therefore, I took those roubles out and hid them in a potato garden.
Later I began to look for the money and could not find it. I kept searching
for it the next day. In a word, I was not able to find the money. In
September, when mother was digging the potatoes out, she came up to me and
said: "I found your buried treasure yesterday. I spent it on a school
uniform for you. That will be your present, Viktor." But how could that be a
[Kharchenko] What did you want to buy with that money?
[Yushchenko] I did not know myself. At first, I had to enjoy the money I had
made myself. Then, I would probably buy a bicycle [newspaper ellipsis]
[Kharchenko] In a few days you will be 50. Can you feel the burden of such a venerable age? Are you sorry that you will not have to bury money in potato
gardens any more?
[Yushchenko] To be honest, I do not feel I am 50. Obviously, this date just
says that my parents made the right decision to give life to such a child
(laughing). Well, seriously, I feel as though I were about 30. Because I
remain the same as I was when I was 30: I live an interesting life, I have
not become indifferent to my soul and people, and I keep myself in a good
[Kharchenko] But there are such things which you could afford to do 20 years
ago and which you would never do when you are 50 [newspaper ellipsis]
[Yushchenko] Yes, I have become more tolerant. If 20 years ago I had been
told I would learn not to react to the dirt currently thrown at me by pocket
progovernment newspapers and TV channels, I would not have believed. But
today I realize that showing emotions is not always the right decision. To
assert one's position one should be correct to the other's position. One
should stand up for his own rightness by arguments and virtues.
[Kharchenko] What kind of present are you expecting from your family?
[Yushchenko] You cannot even imagine the various feelings and ideas raging
in my family over this! I informed my home intelligence that it would not be
a bad idea to get me a mini-tractor to work on at the dacha. Physical work
on the land is the best rest activity for me.
[Kharchenko] Could you remember the best present you have got from your
elder brother Petro?
[Yushchenko] Surprising as it is, I might not remember what he presented to
me last year or the year before last year, but I remember well a football
which I got from my him when I was 10. In the whole village nobody probably
had a ball like mine. Even the school had only three balls, and one had to
sign up to get a ball.
So when Petro brought me my own ball, I even took it to bed with me when I
went to sleep. The ball had a nice smell of new leather. But it was not
filled with air. As it turned out, pumping it required a special nipple
pump. I asked all neighbours, searching for that pump, but nobody had it.
Yet I was boundlessly happy with that present, it was something that I
remember for the rest of my life.
[Kharchenko] How are you going to celebrate your anniversary?
[Yushchenko] Our family was not in the habit of attracting too much
attention to a child's birthday. Now I can take my daughters to a circus on
their birthdays, organize games, and the little ones get all excited about
this day two weeks before it and two weeks after the fun. It was not like
this back then. My father-in-law's family even told me a story that until he
came of age, nobody had remembered his birthday.
Only when it came to getting papers ready for his passport and it was
necessary to put a date of his birthday, his mother came to a village
council and said, "Mykhaylo was probably born on the 17th, because our cow
had borne a calf on 15 June, and we wrote this date on a roof beam. Mykhaylo
was born two-three days after the calf." That is the way things were in
Even now I do not really approve of loud celebrations; it is more
comfortable and calmer without them. In addition, the 50th anniversary is my
day, and I have the right to spend it the way I like, in a family circle.
[Kharchenko] Are you an early riser or a late riser? Do you manage to wake
up early and do exercises?
[Yushchenko] Basically, like all those who grew up in the countryside I am
more of an early riser and like to wake up early. Every day, I get up at six
or half past six in the morning. But now I am not your typical early riser
because I come home late because of my packed schedule. I come home and
wake the girls up to talk to me at least for a little while. My wife does
approve of these midnight games, but she understands how important this
communication is to us. Otherwise, I would not see the kids at all because
of my work.
[Kharchenko] Despite your being so busy, do you still practice your hobby,
[Yushchenko] Honestly speaking, I have not held a brush in my hand for a
long time, but this Christmas I got a chance. My family and me went to the
mountains for a few days. Fluffy snowflakes kept falling to the ground like
in a fairy tale: roofs and spruce trees turned into heaps of snow. This was
a true idyll which reminded me of an atmosphere of my childhood. I felt like
painting, and I painted two Ukrainian winter landscapes in oils.
[Kharchenko] What do you do with your paintings later? Do you give them to
your friends, sell or keep them?
[Yushchenko] A Christmas landscape was ordered by my wife. Now it adorns our
drawing room where another seven or eight of my paintings hang. I give most
paintings away as a present. I gave my last-but-one painting to an auction
held by the Friends of Children charity which is taking care of orphanages.
Some of my friends have kept asking me to give them a painting for a few
years. Every year I promise that as soon as I get three-four free days I
will certainly paint it. But I am short of time.
[Kharchenko] It is known that you like to treat guests with dishes cooked by
yourself. What is your speciality now?
[Yushchenko] It is special green salad: I buy leek, parsley, dill, lettuce -
everything I can get hold of. Then I chop them finely and experiment with
various spices and oils. It is delicious, original and healthy.
[Kharchenko] What are your favourite sports?
[Yushchenko] Four years ago I tried downhill skiing, and since then I have
grown to love this sport. Today, I think I am a good skier and already ski
on so-called "black" [i.e. difficult] slopes. On the eve of my birthday, I
made a present to myself: my friends and I went to the Carpathians and spent
some six hours skiing! Generally, I am fond of mountains. When I was a
student, I spent some time working as an instructor in mountain tourism and
guided groups in the Carpathians. I try to go there at least once a year.
[Kharchenko] You mentioned Shevchenko's diary. Do you read any Ukrainian
[Yushchenko] Unfortunately, I am catastrophically short of time for reading
belles-lettres. Among contemporary Ukrainian writers, I am trying to follow
works by Yuriy Andrukhovych. I have recently bought his novel called "12
Rings". Before that I had read a well-published collection of poetry by
Volodymyr Tsybulko, "The Book of Warnings". As regards my literary tastes, I
like classical literature, memoirs, historical literature, especially if it
is about Ukraine's history.
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