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She helped fight for Ukraine's democracy. She hopes it survives

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

And I'm Mary Louise Kelly in Kyiv, Ukraine, where the question of whether Russian troops will cross the border and start a war remains an open one. It's another threat to this country's fragile democracy movement that took off here in Kyiv on Independence Square, Maidan. The square is a five-minute walk from a local pizza parlor, Veterano Pizza - veterano, veterans.

HANNA HOPKO: On the walls, you could see pictures of different veterans, flags with signatures.

KELLY: It was November 2013 when Ukrainians first filled Independence Square for the Euromaidan Revolution, a revolution that eventually toppled President Viktor Yanukovych. And it's here at this pizza place, run by veterans of the ongoing conflict with Russia on Ukraine's eastern border, that I met Hanna Hopko. She was one of the lead organizers of Euromaidan.

HOPKO: I remember that it was a part of national spirit. It's like the passion of the whole nation. This is why it was something like when people - you see unfamiliar faces, but it seems like they belong to your family.

KELLY: She says it was a unifying moment for Ukrainians, but it came at a steep price.

HOPKO: During all this period, we had very painful moments, like kidnapping one of our activists. But people like me could be killed.

KELLY: Yeah. And people were killed.

HOPKO: And people were. Like...

KELLY: More than 100 people were killed protesting.

Fast-forward to now. Ukrainians are planning for what if. What if Russian troops cross the border? What if bombs fall on this city? Despite the threat, Hopko believes the democracy she fought for is strong.

HOPKO: Within 30 years of Ukraine's renewed independence period, this is the most longest period of our statehood within more than 1,000 years of history. So actually, Ukraine proved that we are democracy in action. So we have dynamic and vibrant civil society.

KELLY: Yeah.

HOPKO: We have free and fair elections. In Ukraine, it's hard to predict who will become the next president in Ukraine compared to Russia, when Putin is forever.

KELLY: Yeah. So let's talk about you. You helped lead the protests and then ran for Parliament in 2015. You served five years.

HOPKO: Five years, yes.

KELLY: And decided not to run for reelection. Why?

HOPKO: Because five years working in the parliament as the head of the Foreign Affairs Committee - not being a mom because actually, my daughter missed me many, many years.

KELLY: How old is your daughter?

HOPKO: This March she will turn 11.

KELLY: So she was very young when all this started.

HOPKO: Yeah. Yeah. So this is why. So five years - and my daughter always say, mom, you are (non-English language spoken). Ukraine is on the first place in your life, and you always ask God about making Ukraine successful and defend Ukraine. And then on the second place, just we are with my father. So - and when she was, like, 4 years old, she asked me, like, mum, if Putin dies, you finally will stay home and be with me. So this was her dream.

And now last year, in December, she wrote a letter to Santa Nikolai saying, like, please help us weaken the war. And I was really surprised, asking daughter, why you write weaken the war but not win? - because I understood within these eight years that it's not easy, even with such a long period, to win the war overnight. So victory will not come soon. So now I'm more realistically analyzing the reality.

KELLY: I guess apply that to this moment. As I speak to you in January 2022 and there is much talk of war, of Russia attacking your country again, do you think your daughter's right? It's not a question of war or no war. It's a question of, let's make it less bad than it could be.

HOPKO: Actually, we discussed with my daughter, and we had a very serious conversation last week because she had very good marks at her school, and she asked us to buy a guinea pig. Yes. And we were ready in December to buy guinea pig, but then I say, look, OK, Sophia. Let's after winter vacation turn back to this conversation.

But now, when many Ukrainians, including our friends, thinking and already evacuated their kids to western Ukraine, so - and we are like, daughter, we should wait with buying this guinea pig because we will need also to evacuate your friend with you to western Ukraine because after...

KELLY: And you don't want to have to evacuate a rodent to western Ukraine.

HOPKO: And - but yesterday I was, like, also very tired. And I said - and daughter said, OK. I was like, daughter, maybe we should buy. And also, in case of evacuation, you could take your friend with you because I understand the daughter cannot wait another months because this is, like, life. For last eight years of your life, she is living in very, like, challenging conditions, so she deserves to have guinea pig. And actually, so we are discussing that probably during this weekend.

KELLY: Oh, my goodness.

HOPKO: We will manage to buy.

KELLY: (Laughter) I don't mean to laugh, but I am picturing you having to evacuate with a guinea pig.

(LAUGHTER)

HOPKO: So this is like a family story.

KELLY: Wow - so one more thing to worry about...

HOPKO: Yeah.

KELLY: ...If it all goes terribly wrong. Oh, dear. Oh, and you're crying.

HOPKO: No, it's because it's...

KELLY: I guess it leaves me wondering. You spoke of how difficult it was in 2014 to fight to win this victory. But you talked about - you were hopeful then. You feel hopeful now. Does Ukraine today feel like a country - does it feel closer or farther from being a country where you are proud to live here, the kind of place you want it to be, the kind of country you want to raise your family in - closer or further than eight years ago in 2014?

HOPKO: Actually, I had several different proposals to leave Ukraine and to become an ambassador of Ukraine working in different countries. But I think my place is here, and I truly believe that Ukraine's global mission is to help nations to become free which are suffering now from authoritarian regimes.

KELLY: Yeah. It sounds like that's a yes, like you are hopeful that your daughter and her children and the many great-great-great-great-grandchildren of the guinea pigs will live in a...

HOPKO: (Laughter).

KELLY: ...Ukraine that is better. That is hopeful.

HOPKO: Thanks a lot to United States for being a true leader and helping us. And, of course, we do hope that we will have more defense and little weapon. And there will be no excuses or delays because we are ready to protect ourselves. So but we just need more military support.

KELLY: Thank you for speaking with us, for sharing your story.

HOPKO: Thank you.

KELLY: Hanna Hopko, former member of parliament here in Ukraine and one of the original leaders of the Euromaidan protests.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHITE LIES SONG, "GETTING EVEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.