Ukrainian Army volunteer Fedir Shandor became an international sensation when a video of him teaching sociology students on a laptop in frontline trenches went viral. Now he’s heading for a different hostile environment.
(Bloomberg) — Ukrainian Army volunteer Fedir Shandor became an international sensation when a video of him teaching sociology students on a laptop in frontline trenches went viral. Now he’s heading for a different hostile environment.
Kyiv has named Shandor to become its ambassador to Hungary, a neighboring European Union and NATO country that has unusually sought to strip support for Ukraine and amplify Kremlin talking points as it fights off Russia’s invasion.
He’s partially ethnic-Hungarian and lives in a western region where many Ukrainians have Hungarian heritage and speak the language. President Volodymyr Zelenskiy is betting those roots may help break through Hungarians’ suspicion of Ukraine that has been bolstered by pro-Russian messaging by Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government.
“I never thought my career would take such a turn,” Shandor, who has no prior diplomatic experience, said in an interview from his native city of Uzhhorod, near the Slovak and Hungarian border where he was on break from the fighting. “But it’s very close to education, only you educate people about your country abroad.”
It will be a challenge. Orban has maintained close ties to the Kremlin and has sought to end western support for its eastern neighbor, refusing arms shipments, threatening to block EU financial aid and calling for an end to economic sanctions against Russia. He has also accused Kyiv of curbing the rights of the Hungarian minority in Ukraine.
Shandor’s background — his father is Hungarian but he grew up in a Ukrainian-language home after his parents’ divorce — may now serve to help weaken Orban’s Ukraine narrative, which is centered on a call for an immediate cease-fire to protect the ethnic Hungarians living in western Ukraine.
“As soon as we kick out the enemy and defeat the Russians, for sure the Hungarian formula will work,” Shandor said.
Shandor said he was approached by Zelenskiy’s team after he appeared in a short clip with two other soldiers holding the Hungarian and Ukrainian flags after they liberated the occupied town of Ambarne in the northeastern Kharkiv region.
The video went viral on the anniversary of Hungary’s failed 1956 uprising against Soviet rule, a stark and increasingly inconvenient historical parallel for Orban, who rose to political prominence in the late 1980s as a student leader calling on Soviet troops to leave Hungary.
Orban has since pivoted toward Russia and this week said that the West should make a “deal” with Russian President Vladimir Putin that should let Moscow retain possession of Crimea and deny Ukraine NATO membership.
“We took the video of ourselves and passed it on to the Hungarian people to show that we are in this together until we defeat our common enemy,” Shandor said.
Shandor volunteered to join the infantry the same day Russia invaded in February last year. As a father of two boys and two girls, he waived an exemption granted to men with three or more children.
Since then, he’s mostly been holed up in dugouts and trenches. Some of his comrades died in action, and Shandor took over his unit when his predecessor was killed. He’s continued to teach courses online while dodging Russian shells and bullets.
For a man hardened by fighting, the bearded Shandor maintains a sunny disposition. But he now chooses his words cautiously, careful not to make any diplomatic gaffes. He’s also brushing up on Hungarian, which he admits is basic. One of his plans is to open a Ukrainian cultural center in Budapest.
But he must first take up his post. His credentials were approved after months of unexplained delays. And already one ruling party politician in Budapest has questioned Shandor’s Hungarian identity.
“You represent interests of your country, so you have to be responsible for your words,” Shandor said. “And your interest is that they know about your country, cooperate with it, and live in peace.”
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