Ukrainian Superwomen is a new project that features women leaders from Ukraine who are positively contributing to the world around them.
Tetiana Rak: How was the first day of the war in Ukraine for you?
Olga Rudnieva: I was on a planned trip among people who didn’t believe in a full-scale war. That’s why I was absolutely sure that in three days I would get back to Kyiv. That’s why I left my home with empty luggage. I went to Madeira, Spain, to pick up my mom who was there for health reasons. Waking up on the 24th of February felt like one of the most tragic days in my life. The first thing I wanted was to go back to Ukraine to help on the ground. Thanks to my experience at the Olena Pinchuk Foundation, where we had done projects on training paramedics, I had some skills that could become necessary and was thinking about training medics. Unfortunately, getting back to Ukraine was not easy. Flights were canceled; it was tough to get tickets for other means of transport. Getting back to Ukraine turned out to be a very long journey, but I was persuaded that I could make it. My husband was against that since he is a politician and was concerned about my safety. However, I felt that despite being in a safe place, it was wrong for me. Madeira was peaceful with people celebrating life and the small things in it. Meanwhile, Ukraine was under shelling. My only desire was to get as close as possible to Ukraine. That’s how Poland became the place where the Help Ukraine center was organized. I never saw myself living there in spite of the fact that I was there for almost seven months. At that time, nobody believed that the war would last for such a long time. However, soon these expectations disappeared. March was one of the darkest periods. Lots of work and tears, survivor syndrome, and uncertainty in terms of the future of your country, beloved ones, and the daily safety of your team. Celebrating life or having joy felt wrong — restaurants being opened, people being happy, shops with full shelves — everything felt inappropriate and out of context. Internally, I was going through a big struggle, grief, and hate, yet I still think that my emotions weren’t even relatively close to the experience of people escaping from Bucha, Irpen, or Mariupol.
What were the most memorable moments during your stay in Poland with the volunteering center?
I believe that we formed an amazing team and built a unique culture. The core was always people and their support. The engagement and willingness to help were enormous. That includes both volunteers and those who were donating goods for humanitarian aid. The general atmosphere felt so supportive. One of the stories that will probably stay in my mind forever is the story of a 6-year-old boy who was sent to us from Ukraine alone. His father was murdered and his mom was in Greece. So we hoped that she would come up to Poland to pick him up. The coordinators put him on a bus heading to Vilnius. After that, another person picked him up and drove him to the next destination. I think he changed around 5 means of transport. After that, he spent the night in Lviv with some of the volunteers and then, alone again, arrived in Poland. It was heartbreaking to see a 6-year-old traveling alone across the whole of Europe. In the end, we found his mom, she picked him up and they left for Greece. I look back at it and think how unbelievably strong Ukrainians, even kids, are.
Spending all the time being surrounded by such stories is emotionally hard. What was bringing you the relief?
In the beginning, I was horrified by the amount of hatred I had. I think that’s understandable in terms of the amount of grief caused to innocent civilians, people who I love, my house, and my country. Later, I overcame it. I started to change the pain into doing things that were helpful and meaningful.
Recently you joined the war victims’ rehabilitation project named Superhumans Center, supported by Richard Branson, Singer Sting, and the most prominent medical specialists across the globe. Could you please share more details of its implementation?
Lots of people need rehabilitation these days. That includes face reconstruction. Unfortunately, the government often does not cover these services. Right now, the Ukrainian health care system is working to provide emergency services while such issues of getting prosthetics or body parts reconstruction are postponed until after war periods. We decided that we needed to build a center where people will have the first stage of psychological and medical support. If they need prosthetics or face reconstruction, they will get them. These services also include the post-rehabilitation period. Moreover, we will become the training center since we need to educate specialists for it. We don’t want to become the unique center in Ukraine. We aim to have high-level specialists all over Ukraine and to provide that kind of service across the whole country.
For me, this project is more than just providing people with rehabilitation services. It is about how we see the world and Ukraine five years from now, you know. We will see a lot of handicapped people on the streets without their limbs. That’s why we want to build a new image of Ukraine, to create the picture of superhumans, walking on the streets, being proud of their experience, and talking about their injuries without embarrassment; as a part of bringing freedom to Ukraine.
The reconstruction of the hospital started at the beginning of October. We are doing everything possible so that in the first half of 2023, we will have the first patients treated.
For many years, you worked as the director of the Olena Pinchuk foundation. What were the main projects that you worked on there?
When I started working for the foundation, the widespread issues were HIV and AIDS. It was not well-highlighted and pretty often people were dying not from HIV, but from general ignorance. They didn’t know where to get the medication and doctors didn’t know how to treat HIV. So at that time, access to medications, contraception, and sexual education were crucial.
One of the projects you launched was the educational YouTube show Dialogue Hub. How efficient was it in terms of combating the social stigma around the topics of sex or HIV?
We changed the way people were talking about sex and discussed it with their partners. Back then, these topics were taboo. We didn’t have any single blogger who was talking about sex openly. We organized lectures and invited speakers famous in the media to share their experiences. After organizing live broadcasts, we monitored the number of viewers — the engagement was tremendous.
In 2014, with the breakout of the war in Eastern Ukraine, you started the medical program for training paramedics. How did it go?
That project was hard to implement — at the frontline people lose lives daily. However, we didn’t only train more than 5k medical workers but also changed the standards of providing services at the front.
Sometimes we were getting calls from Russian soldiers, saying: “I just killed your doctor and I’m calling from their number.” That’s heartbreaking. It was emotionally hard to move on after that. However, in 2017, we opened Veteran Hub where we were reintegrating military people back into society. The project was a success, but with the full-scale invasion, 60% of our staff, workers, and clients went back to the front lines, including those who were severely injured in 2014.
I know that you also successfully implemented some gender equality programs. Could you tell our readers more about them?
We made a breakthrough in legislation, pushing the Ukrainian Parliament to vote for a law amendment that allows women to serve in the military. We also succeeded in changing the list of occupations that were forbidden for women and made amendments that allow men to stay at home with kids. In times of war, many women became breadwinners. Many of them joined the army. All the work that was done allows women to choose their social roles these days, stepping far beyond the traditional roles of mother and housekeeper.
You have rich experience in building projects and fundraising money for them. What would be your recommendations for women who are at the beginning of their way?
You have to clearly understand the purpose and the potential impact of your project. When you approach someone, you have to understand how the donor will benefit from that, why they would be interested to support your project, and how it will contribute to their work. Creativity is crucial — most evidently, you will have to compete with many other initiatives. Remember about the right timing. The project should cover ongoing issues. Be ready to provide the potential donor with numbers, and be clear on the project goal.
Olga, you lived abroad for a long time. Has this experience changed your perception of the home concept? Today, many people became refugees and though it’s a forced measure to leave the country, I think that advice on how to perceive what home is and how to find a spiritual image of home would help them.
Before the war, I believed that it doesn’t matter where you live; that you can be a citizen of the world; and that home is where you are. It doesn’t matter which language you speak as long as people understand you. Later, when the war broke out, for the first time in my life, I couldn’t return to my home. After that, I realized that home is something different, you know, and that’s when you just really feel how precious it is. That language matters, that cultural code matters. It feels like a part of the DNA. I returned home for the first time in May, being sure that by that time they would destroy it. The physical feeling of being at home felt precious — the scents, my favorite cup, the sound of a coffee machine. For a while, I was absorbing the joy of being at home. I realized how important it is to have a place to return to and to call it home.
In your mind, how will the experience of living abroad change the mindset of Ukrainians?
I think that it broadens your understanding of what is possible. It will impact the development of kids — even learning new languages creates new neural connections. Before the war, some people had never left their small towns. Now they live across the globe, experiencing a new life. They can compare the standards of life in Ukraine with life abroad. My biggest dream is that the majority of people will return to Ukraine. I would love to see as many people as possible returning home, developing the country, cultivating the feeling of home, and cherishing what they have.
Through our way, we gain lots of experience. Could you name some that shaped your personality the most?
I’m very sensitive to stories. I see them everywhere and that’s the way how I perceive the world. Many years ago, making a conscious decision to move back to Ukraine from Switzerland and later from New York changed me as a person. Later, the war and everything that happened after the 24th of February 2022 changed me forever. I can describe myself as one person before February 24th and an absolutely different person after. All things that I struggled with before, stopped being a problem for me.
With a changed mindset, what is your current attitude to life in one or two sentences?
I try not to postpone things for tomorrow. Tomorrow might never happen. Another thing I think we all have to keep in mind is that life gave us an amazing chance to be heroes, to challenge ourselves, and to change the history of the country, in our own way. I think that’s precious. So I remind myself every day: you always can find some time to become a hero today.
If you could give one piece of advice based on your experience, doesn’t matter to women in Ukraine or women globally, what would you tell them?
Find your superpower and act on it. I know that each of us has one. Sometimes we don’t know which one. In times of stress and crisis, it’s very important not to lose ourselves, and to feel efficient and helpful. The only way to do so is to learn new skills. That’s how new opportunities and perspectives will come to you. Take care of yourself. Self-care is a survival kit, and you need to stay in the game for a long time.
Interview by Tetiana Rak
Edited by: Joanna Socha, Phyllis Budka