Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s Russian-backed government collapsed in 2014 after Ukrainians protested against his decision not to sign a political association and free trade agreement with the European Union.
Sviatoslav Yurash had returned to Ukraine from studying international relations at the University of Calcutta, in India, to join what became known as the Euromaidan revolution. Then just 17 years old, Yurash became head of public relations for the activist group Euromaidan.
Now 26, he’s the youngest MP in Ukraine – a member of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s Servant of the People party, which he joined in 2019.
The MP is fast becoming an iconic figure of the war on social media with his trademark vyshyvanka (traditional Ukrainian embroidery) stitched collars adorning his neckline, juxtaposed with the reality of war – an AK-47 slung across his body.
He told Al Jazeera what motivated him to enter politics and what keeps him and the nation’s youth going during a war that is brutally ravaging Ukraine.
The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Al Jazeera: When did you first become politically aware – what was happening around you; what inspired you?
Yurash: While I was studying in India, the revolution was starting in my country in 2013 and it was something I couldn’t miss for the world. My country was going through a tremendous transformation, and I wasn’t going to let anything get in the way of being part of that. I came back for the revolution and that’s the start of when I became politically active.
My formal political career started in 2019. I wanted to understand what was happening around me. I joined Zelenskyy’s party as I believed he had something that other candidates didn’t. People loved the man; he had the clear possibility to reshape a brutal system, and that’s why in 2019 he swept [to victory in] the election even though he was coming from the opposition.
Al Jazeera: Entering politics at 23 is pretty young. What was the reaction from your peers?
Yurash: My peers were also experiencing the revolution. We were reshaping the country, so they thought the same way as I did. One of the key aspects of Zelenskyy’s campaign was trying to get more people who were involved with change in the country to join the efforts – there was an eagerness from Zelenskyy to get new people involved in the process, who could truly reshape the country and give it a new birth.
Al Jazeera: Your father, Andrii Yurash, is Ukraine’s ambassador to the Holy See. He must have played a role in your career choice.
Yurash: It’s a different story there. Before 2014, my father was very much a scholar, one of the most well-known scholars of religion in Ukraine. His life was about books and studies, and after the revolution he was invited to run the religious matters in the country – and from that point onwards he started his political career, during the time of [former President Petro] Poroshenko.
There was a story going around at the time: that my father is for Poroshenko, I’m for Zelenskyy and still we’re getting along, and that’s what democracy is all about. To me, having tolerance of opinions is something very important if you want to have a healthy society. And now in this difficult time, our country is getting together to overcome many differences from the past.
Al Jazeera: You’ve said that to start with, the war was about Ukraine’s defiance and choosing its own future – but now with the very real and very tragic loss of life, you’ve said it’s about justice. What does justice look like to you?
Yurash: Russia needs to leave our country alone and forgo all the land it’s occupying and trying to seize. If you look at the realities of Russia’s heinous crimes all over Ukraine right now, there’s plenty for it to answer for – not just to Ukraine, but to the world.
There’s a reason for the precedence such as the Nuremberg trials, other trials of war criminals – certainly something Ukraine desperately needs. A trial to try and punish all those for the gross destruction of our country.
Al Jazeera: You’ve also experienced your own personal losses – like the death of your dear friend, the journalist Oleksandra Kuvshynova. How do you pull yourself away from that personal loss and begin to understand the loss of the nation as a whole?
Yurash: It’s not just Oleksandra, by now there are many others I have lost in different ways and different capacities, but it’s something all Ukrainians have felt too.
You ask yourself what would Oleksandra want, would she want me to remain in misery or would she want me to change the country and do something for the better? I know what the answer is to that from all the years and years of conversations, and from her very active life trying to change whatever part of Ukraine she could.
Al Jazeera: Some people think the war started in February this year. How important is it to remember what lead to this, and Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and backing of separatists in Donbas?
Yurash: It’s fundamental because it clarifies everything. Russians want Ukraine to be part of the Russian state, and the Ukrainian voters never agreed. [Russia] is trying to destroy our statehood. The reality is that Russian policy has never changed towards Ukraine. They tried in history, but this is our generation’s battle.
Al Jazeera: In February this year, when the new phase of the war started, you and others took to social media to request help. What kind of help were you hoping for, and four months later, would you say you’ve received the right kind of help?
Yurash: We have received help from every international community. [The United States] has been fundamental and I cannot thank the British people enough for their help and taking in Ukrainians, offering their homes. We’ve also received help from New Zealand.
Sanctions have been a good step in the right direction – but there are many more places the Russians need to be moved out of, to show what the world thinks of Russia.
We’ve also had military help. We are fighting against the second-biggest army in the world. They have plentiful weapons. [But] we need much more weaponry; we’re in need of military help. The world could do much more. The West has an awesome might – we could stop this war at any moment.
Al Jazeera: How powerful has social media been as a tool in this war?
Yurash: We were helped greatly by mainstream media. We had most of the media in Kyiv already witnessing the unfolding of the war, so the world was watching through these media channels.
Social media had the ability to show some of the gruesome facts of the realities on the ground, and we as MPs also used social media to amplify the message and show what was going on.
Al Jazeera: How do you think this war is affecting younger Ukrainians?
Yurash: With the loss of lives, kinships are being destroyed for generations to come. Young people in Ukraine are having to make their choice to engage in the battle or do something for the battle. You go on Facebook and you see people dying in battle. We are tested by this war – and tested very dearly.
Al Jazeera: Kyiv is now said to be returning to business as usual, world leaders are visiting, and we’re seeing footage of bustling cafés, but the war is still raging elsewhere. How have Ukrainians changed?
Yurash: We’re by no means back to normal. Kyiv is getting there, but it’s by no means there yet.
In the east of the country, it’s hell. Thousands are dying every day. I’m trying to get repositioned to the east with my guys. It won’t be easy as my commander doesn’t really want a member of parliament in that situation, but I’m making persuasive arguments further up the chain of command to be allowed to go.
After Oleksandra was killed, I joined the territorial defence of Bucha, and mobilised in the 133rd battalion and I was engaged in fighting around Kyiv, while getting training with different comrades in arms who were far more experienced and survived through much worse.
In this war now, it’s a war of artillery. You’re in God’s hands as far as artillery is concerned.
Al Jazeera: Diplomatic negotiations between Ukraine and Russia have made little progress, with both sides saying they have reached an impasse. Can the conflict end through diplomacy?
Yurash: At the moment, it’s very clear for all the world what Russia is doing with territories it controls and occupies. We have the example here in the Kyiv region, from Bucha massacres, and all the world saw that as soon as Russia left.
Basically, they cannot carry on occupying our country because we don’t want to uncover any more mass graves. Too many have died already. They cannot die in vain by us spitting on their graves and giving up territories which they have fought for in parts of our country as negotiation pawns with Russian.
So negotiations with Russia can obviously happen, but they should be about three things: how soon Russia withdraws; how much it pays back for everything it destroyed; and for how long. Reparations are not one-day affairs. They take time.