Iryna Reshevska sits in her home in Washington, D.C., surrounded by screens – her laptop, her television, her phone – each with a different piece of coverage of the Russian invasion of her home country, Ukraine.
“I asked my daughter weeks ago to come to the U.S.,” she says, eyes moving between displays as we talk. “But she said ‘No, this is my country. I’m not going to leave.’ She told me to stop panicking, but if you know history and have even a grain of analytical ability, you see certain triggers.” These triggers told Reshevska that an invasion was coming.
Reshevska has always been a student of history, fascinated by the ways in which a society can be shaped by good governance – and undone by corruption. In 2007, while studying for her Master’s in the U.S., she heard Russian President Vladimir Putin famously declare that “whoever does not regret the collapse of the USSR has no heart. Whoever wants to restore it to its former form has no head.”
“That was my first – what would you call it – epiphany, or revelation, that this war is where we’d eventually lead.”
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US-led military alliance known as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) expanded to include several former Soviet Republics like Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania. Some argue that Putin has worked for the past two decades to reestablish the borders of the former Soviet Union.
“Some think of Ukraine as a new state, but look back at Russia,” Reshevska suggests. “From one perspective, it’s also 30 years old.”
Democracy in Action
Reshevska credits her husband, whose brother was once a prominent Georgian dissident, with opening her eyes to the potential that freedom of speech and the democratic process could unlock. During her time as an exchange student in the U.S., she became involved with a local homeless shelter and advocacy group.
“It was mutually enriching,” she describes. “They showed me what democracy in action really is, with rallies and town halls. I realised that policy is good when the governance is good – it’s just an instrument.”
Iryna joined Palladium (then Futures Group)’s health policy project in Ukraine in the early 2000s and continued until 2017 to support programs that focused on strengthening health systems, and using better leadership, management, and governance to improve health outcomes.
“Ukraine was making fantastic progress,” says Ingrida Kerusauskaite, Palladium anti-corruption expert. “Past leaders left a terrible legacy of corruption, but Ukraine has been working closely with the European Union, collaborating to root out corruption and lift their institutions to a very high level.”
Kerusauskaite sees some of the support Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is gaining as evidence of the trust the Ukrainian people have in their leaders.
“Ukraine has such a vibrant civil society,” she explains. “The current leadership demonstrated by President Zelenskyy and the unity of the Ukrainian people shows how far the country has come. It’s truly inspiring.”
An Existential War
At the time of writing, Reshevska’s daughter is in Kyiv, along with her sister and nephew, his wife, and their 3-month-old. Her mother, brother, and other extended family are in Odessa – a coastal town and the largest port in the former USSR, which for decades has been a top vacation destination within the region. “My mom always said that living in Odessa means you’ll never see the sea, because you’ll always be receiving guests from all over the Soviet Union. It has always been a melting pot,” she recalls.
Her family waits as the invasion continues and negotiations at the Ukraine-Belarus border conclude. For her part, Reshevska has filled her time attending demonstrations in Washington, interacting with the Ukrainian diaspora, and collecting resources to help the people of Ukraine.
Today, she will travel to Moldova – a personal decision to be closer to the country and her family should they manage to cross the border.
“This is an existential war for Ukraine,” Reshevska says. “This isn’t about dividing the gains of economic wealth – it’s about the essence of the country and the right to self-determination.”