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Ukraine: Kateryna Yushchenko -- A Bridge To The West

  • Askold Krushelnycky

http://gdb.rferl.org/614EC7FB-77A3-4C92-8FD8-417C72545BB8_w203.jpg --> http://gdb.rferl.org/614EC7FB-77A3-4C92-8FD8-417C72545BB8_mw800_mh600.jpg Kateryna and Viktor Yushchenko, with one of their children at a late-November rally Ukraine looks set to turn its gaze westward under new President-elect Viktor Yushchenko. But few people appear more capable of bridging Ukraine's cultural and geographic divide than Yushchenko's wife, Kateryna. The daughter of a Ukrainian emigre family, she was brought up in the bustling city of Chicago in the heart of the American Midwest. Ukraine's future first lady recently sat down for an interview with RFE/RL in a Kyiv restaurant where staff had prepared free meals for some of the thousands of participants in the recent "Orange Revolution."

Kyiv, 14 January 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The past year has been a mix of nightmare and dream-come-true for Kateryna Yushchenko, the U.S.-born wife of the man set to become president of Ukraine.

Yushchenko watched as her husband Viktor was poisoned and disfigured -- allegedly by his political enemies. But in 2004, she also gave birth to her third child and saw Ukraine -- the country her emigre parents taught her to love -- toss out an unwanted regime.

Kateryna Chumachenko was born in 1961 in Chicago. Nazis had snatched her parents in Ukraine during World War II and sent them to Germany to work as slave laborers. Her father, an electrician, and her seamstress mother married in Germany and stayed until emigrating to America in 1956.

Like hundreds of thousands of other Ukrainians forced from their families and homes by the war and prevented from returning by the Cold War, Yushchenko's parents longed for Ukraine's independence and wanted their children to know about their native land.
"I had to blend two lives: American schools and American education and many American friends; and at the same time, at home, we spoke Ukrainian, we held to many Ukrainian traditions. I attended a Ukrainian Saturday school with Ukrainian language. I would go to Ukrainian churches. I attended Ukrainian dance classes."


"I was a child typical of one of the diaspora," Kateryna Yushchenko told RFE/RL. "I had to blend two lives: American schools and American education and many American friends; and at the same time, at home, we spoke Ukrainian, we held to many Ukrainian traditions. I attended a Ukrainian Saturday school with Ukrainian language. I would go to Ukrainian churches. I attended Ukrainian dance classes."

She went to school in the Chicago area and on to Georgetown University in Washington.

From 1982 to 1986, Yushchenko did lobbying for a Ukrainian diaspora organization in Washington and returned to college to earn a master's degree in business administration from the University of Chicago.

During former U.S. President Ronald Reagan's second term, she worked on Eastern European ethnic affairs in the White House as well as at the human rights office of the State Department.

Along the way, Yushchenko dreamed of going to Ukraine.

That finally happened in 1991, when she began to work for a U.S. aid group in Ukraine. And in 1993, she accompanied a group of Ukrainian bankers to America to learn about Western financial systems. A man named Viktor Yushchenko, at the time the head of the Ukrainian national bank, headed that delegation.

"Viktor says he always remembers that first conversation because he called me prickly as a porcupine," she recalled. "I did not know much about him at the time and I assumed that if he was a banker in the Soviet system that he must not be very free-market oriented, and so I decided I was going to teach him what free markets are all about. And after I realized he knew much more than I expected, and that he was indeed very free-market oriented and open-minded about western economies, very interested in learning about western economies."

They kept in contact, she said, but romance did not begin until years later. In 1998, they finally married and now have three children -- two girls, and a boy born last spring. She said they share interests including the theater, movies, museums, and a fascination with Ukraine's culture and history.

Political opponents have accused her of being an agent for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and influencing her husband. Yushchenko has dismissed the allegations as ridiculous and said her husband hates to talk about politics at home.

"I've understood that my role as the keeper of the family and the keeper of peace at home and a warm family environment is very important to him being a strong political leader, because he is the type of person who needs that home atmosphere, that peace at home, to keep strong at work," she said.

In September, Viktor Yushchenko nearly died after being poisoned with a chemical Austrian doctors identified as dioxin. The poisoning kept him in hospital for nearly a month and badly disfigured his face.

Yushchenko said her husband's recovery was helped by the hundreds of thousands of people who rallied to his support in the streets of Kyiv.

She also said that when what was supposed to have been the decisive round of elections on 21 November proved fraudulent, her husband never doubted Ukrainians would refuse to accept the result.

"He said, 'I am absolutely sure. I know that people have had enough and they're going to demand change and they're not going to stand for what happened.' And I wasn't sure if he was right. And then when hundreds of thousands of people came out, I realized he was right and he just smiled and said, 'I told you the people were ready,'" she said.

The protests turned into the "Orange Revolution." A repeat of the second round polls was held and Yushchenko defeated his rival, former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, on 26 December.

Yushchenko said she is hoping her sister and mother, who live in the United States, will attend her husband's inauguration. She also said she wants to encourage people from the diaspora to return to Ukraine and help develop the country with their skills and investment.

On 10 January, Viktor Yushchenko was officially declared the winner of the presidential runoff vote. But cannot be inaugurated until Yanukovych's appeals to the Supreme Court for the election result to be thrown out have been exhausted.

Yanukovych, whose previous appeals have been rejected, filed another appeal today.
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