By Elaine Chao
President Zelenskyy has shown us that one person can make a huge difference in a country’s battle for survival
Back in 2015, I was among those captivated by a Ukrainian television series, “Servant of the People” (which is now back on Netflix). First aired from 2015 to 2018, its lead actor, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, played a teacher fed up with corruption in his country.
His fictional character’s populist rant, filmed by one of his students through an open window and viewed by millions on YouTube, ultimately led to a crowdsourced campaign for public office. Life subsequently imitated art, and in 2019, Zelenskyy was elected president of Ukraine in a landslide.
Who would have thought this actor turned real-life president would now inspire the civilized world with his courageous defense of his country?
The Soviet flag last flew over the Kremlin on Christmas Day, 1991. I was Peace Corps director during that seminal period in world history in which the Soviet Union collapsed. I sent the first Peace Corps volunteers into the former Soviet republics, including Ukraine. I subsequently visited Ukraine in 1993 and in 1996 to see this burgeoning democracy taking root. I visited Sevastopol, in Crimea before Putin’s 2014 invasion. Sevastopol is the largest city in Crimea and a major port on the Black Sea.
We knew that transition from a state-run central planning economy to a free enterprise system would not be easy and would require different survival skills. So, we recruited a different type of Peace Corps volunteer. Previously, most Peace Corps volunteers were recent college graduates and worked in nations with subsistence economies by helping to build ditches and improve agricultural methods, elementary education, and community hygiene.
To help the people of the former Soviet Union transition to free-market economies, we recruited a new type of volunteer – older, more experience, with MBA degrees or business backgrounds. There was a tremendous outpouring of eagerness to be part of this new Peace Corps initiative. In the months after we put the call out for volunteers during January 1992, the Peace Corps received thousands of inquiries from Americans wanting to sign up.
Ukraine was among the first of the former republics to ask for Peace Corps volunteers. I remember meeting the first Peace Corps volunteers headed to Ukraine on May 9, 1992. The first U. S. Ambassador to Ukraine was an Ukrainian American, Roman Popadiuk, the first Peace Corps Director in Ukraine was Jerry Dutkewych, another Ukrainian American. Ukraine eventually became the largest Peace Corps program in the world.
The Peace Corps’ entry into Ukraine was marked with hope and optimism. Ukraine had a population of 52 million people, many highly educated and skilled, and was uniquely positioned for economic and democratic success in the coming decades. Kiev was a beautiful city of large boulevards lined with trees, a city of promenades and greenery. To see this beautiful city today being bombed into rubble is heartbreaking.
Though they lived behind the Iron Curtain for nearly 70 years, the Ukrainian people aspired for their country to join the West and enjoy the benefits of freedom and opportunity. The admiration the Ukrainian people had for the United States, for our freedoms, our liberties, and our economic ingenuity was inspiring. Despite the many challenges and uncertainty that loomed on the horizon, the Ukrainian people were proud, determined, and energized to once again be independent and in control of their own country.
Despite overwhelming odds, Ukraine today is standing fast against Putin’s Russian forces. Civilians are taking up arms. People are risking and giving their lives to protect their homes, their freedom, and their sovereignty.
The rest of the world needs to do all we can to help Ukraine survive. Ukrainians’ fight for survival is a stark reminder that freedom and peace anywhere are not to be taken for granted.
President Zelenskyy has shown us that one person can make a huge difference. The Ronald Reagan Foundation, on whose board I serve, recently awarded its highest honor — The Ronald Reagan Freedom Award — to President Zelenskyy. The award is given to “those who have made monumental and lasting contributions to the cause of freedom worldwide.”
Ukraine’s freedom fighters need more of the world’s support. In our indelible memories of their courage and sacrifice, all of these Ukrainian men and women are making lasting contributions to the cause of freedom. Among the things I am sure of, when one day the Peace Corps is able to go back into Ukraine, there will be no shortage of volunteers.
Elaine Chao was the 24th U.S. Secretary of Labor and 18th U.S. Secretary of Transportation and the first Asian American woman to be appointed to a president’s Cabinet.