Daria Kaleniuk: The Ukrainian Activist Fighting For Her Country’s Sovereignty
In early March, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson went to Poland to meet Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki. He was there to offer his support as the country faced increasing humanitarian pressures from the war in Ukraine, but if he had hoped to come across as a statesman in his address, he was disappointed. And that was thanks to Daria Kaleniuk, a Ukrainian activist in the audience.
“As he was speaking, I was getting text messages from one of my people who was trying to evacuate with her two children from near Kyiv, while bombs were falling,” Kaleniuk says. “And there was Boris Johnson saying how the Ukrainian people were inspiring the world, and how he’s trying his best to help, and I just felt anger and betrayal.”
So when the time came for questions, she launched into a spontaneous speech that went viral, lighting up social media around the world. It was the kind of tongue-lashing few senior politicians will ever receive. Her voice thick with outrage, she demanded more weapons for the Ukrainian people and more sanctions against Russian oligarchs. “I just felt it was my obligation to tell him the truth about what Ukrainians are feeling,” she says.
After Kaleniuk’s year of studying law in the US in 2010-11, she could have stayed and built herself a comfortable career. Instead, she came home and, in 2013, she and her friend Vitaliy Shabunin founded the Anti-Corruption Action Center (AntAC) and dedicated themselves to exposing the unscrupulous activities of much of the government in Kyiv at the time. After mass protests forced the president to flee in 2014, many of her team’s ideas became law, gradually forcing Ukraine to become more democratic.
Still, opposing some of the wealthiest and most powerful people in the world was a tough road to choose. Shabunin’s house was burned down in 2020 and AntAC has been repeatedly sued. But that was nothing compared to what they’re up against now. Shabunin is fighting in Kyiv’s territorial defence, while Kaleniuk is in Warsaw campaigning for more weapons for Ukraine and a Nato-enforced no-fly zone to help fight off Vladimir Putin’s attack on their country.
“I am not an anti-corruption activist any more,” Kaleniuk says. “I am where I have to be at the moment, doing what I can.”
Oliver Bullough is a Welsh journalist who covers financial crime and the former Soviet Union. He is the author of Butler To The World: How Britain Became The Servant Of Tycoons, Tax Dodgers, Kleptocrats And Criminals