Oksana Markarova became Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States just a year ago. Her job, an already challenging one amid rising concern about Russian aggression, soon took on monumental proportions. Russia invaded Ukraine – and Ambassador Markarova was charged with managing one of her country’s most crucial relationships.
But to hear her talk about her role in this pivotal moment is not to hear about its weight. “It is no longer work,” she told a group of Monitor writers and editors Saturday at the annual Gridiron Club dinner in Washington, where she was the Monitor’s guest. It is “everything” – a mission, and one in which she and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, with whom she talks frequently, inspire each other. “He cheers us up,” she said, referring to embassy staff.
Ambassador Markarova (pronounced Mar-KAR-ova) has felt the war’s pressures on all fronts. In Washington, she is ubiquitous, meeting officials, doing interviews, rallying support. Her four daughters are in the U.S.; one is a new mother. The ambassador’s husband is in Ukraine, as are her in-laws. On a day when grim reports emerged about the destruction left by retreating Russian forces north of Kyiv, she told us her in-laws’ house had been destroyed.
The annual Gridiron dinner, hosted by journalists, brings together hundreds of prominent politicians, diplomats, and business leaders for good-natured political humor and skits. Ambassador Markarova gracefully navigated the many people eager to talk with her, be it about the war or her striking (Ukrainian) turquoise necklace. She received a standing ovation as the dinner began, and held her hand over her heart in appreciation. At a time of strain in many democracies, she heard Gridiron’s president remind the assembly of their shared belief in “the transcendental promise of this country,” and his exhortation to journalists to “keep telling the story of democracy.”
We hoped she felt a touch of the inspiration President Zelenskyy has offered his country. Amid deep global uncertainty, the importance of foundational values was front and center. So too was the club’s mission of good fellowship – and humor. So we were delighted that as she left, Ambassador Markarova told my colleague Linda Feldmann that she loved the evening: “It was the first time I’ve laughed” since the invasion.