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Former Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch warns Putin will move west if he wins in Ukraine

Yovanovitch was relieved of her post following a smear campaign orchestrated by Trump lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. She also testified at Trump's first impeachment. Her new memoir is 'Lessons from the Edge.'


Other segments from the episode on March 15, 2022

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, Tuesday, March 15 2022: Interview with Marie Yovanovitch; Review of Virginia Hamilton's young adult novels.



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Marie Yovanovitch, was one of the star witnesses of Trump's first impeachment, the one that revolved around his dealings with Ukraine. As you may remember, she was the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who Trump fired after a smear campaign that Rudy Giuliani played a major role in. Trump saw her as disloyal. She was fired soon after she declined to pledge her loyalty to Trump. In Trump's infamous call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy - or, as Trump described it, his perfect phone call - Zelenskyy asked Trump for weapons to help fight the Russians who had invaded Crimea and the region in Ukraine known as the Donbas. Trump responded by requesting a favor to dig up dirt in Ukraine on Joe Biden and his son, Hunter. In that same call, Trump also described Ambassador Yovanovitch as bad news and said she was going to go through some things.

Yovanovitch was appointed ambassador to Ukraine by President Obama in May 2016, a couple of years after Russia invaded Crimea. She was recalled to Washington in April 2019, just a few days after Zelenskyy's election. She was terminated as ambassador the following month. She's now a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a non-resident fellow at Georgetown University. She's written a new memoir called "Lessons From The Edge."

Ambassador Yovanovitch, welcome to FRESH AIR. Thank you for being here. What are you hearing from friends and colleagues in Ukraine?

MARIE YOVANOVITCH: Well, I'm hearing all sorts of things, you know, their anger at Russia, their concerns for their children and the future. But most of all, what I'm hearing is their resolve, that they are going to fight this and that they are going to win. And they're also asking for U.S. assistance, international assistance to beat back the Russians.

GROSS: Do you have friends who are staying in Kyiv to take up arms against the Russians?

YOVANOVITCH: Yes, I do. Quite a number of the people that I knew and worked with previously have remained either in Kyiv or in other cities and towns in Ukraine because there is an active resistance. I mean, there's the military, the - but there's also the territorial defense forces. Others are driving ambulances. This is, you know, we talk about an all-of-government effort here in the United States. This is an all-of-country effort where everybody is putting their shoulder to the wheel to stop this invasion.

GROSS: Is it hard for you to imagine some of your friends and colleagues who are taking up arms being in that position as fighters?

YOVANOVITCH: It is. But I think that they view this, I think rightly so, as a campaign of extermination, exterminating Ukraine, exterminating the Ukrainian people. You've heard the things that Putin has said, that Ukraine is not a country, the Ukrainian people are not a separate people from the Russians. And he's doing his best to eradicate the Ukrainian people, the Ukrainian country, Ukrainian culture. It is - I used to say that Putin is a bully. Now I say he's a war criminal.

GROSS: What are your fears about the war spreading to Eastern European countries like Poland, you know, of Putin trying to invade Poland or other border countries?

YOVANOVITCH: Well, at this point, I'm more concerned about the battle in Ukraine. And I think that's where Putin is putting his energy right now. And it was an epic miscalculation on Putin's part. I think he miscalculated the resolve of the Ukrainian people and the ability of the Ukrainian military. I think he miscalculated how well his own military would do. And I think he certainly miscalculated the resolve of the West and that we would go to the assistance of Ukraine. So I think that's where his attention is right now.

But I think more broadly, if he is successful in Ukraine, I think he will continue to move forward, maybe not immediately, because he's bitten off an awful lot with with Ukraine, but eventually. I mean, that's what the history shows us, where he invaded Georgia in 2008 and got away with it. He invaded Ukraine in 2014 and got away with it. And now, 2022, he's invading Ukraine again. And we need to make sure he doesn't get away with it, because if he does, then I think there is the likelihood that at some point he will continue moving west. He's made very clear that he wants to reconstitute - whether you call it the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union. And that's, you know, an unsettling prospect.

GROSS: While you were ambassador, you thought that Putin didn't really want to, like, take over Ukraine. He wanted to just make sure that Ukraine didn't have the power of self-determination. He wanted to keep Ukraine under Russian influence. And now you're describing Putin as being on a campaign of extermination in Ukraine. What do you think was the turning point?

YOVANOVITCH: Well, that is a really good question, and I think there are probably a number of different explanations. I think that while Trump was president, Putin probably was feeling that he was getting what he needed from the American president, both in terms of Trump's disdain for Ukraine as well as Trump's disdain for NATO, frankly. A number of senior people around Trump have said that if Trump had won a second term, it's unlikely that the U.S. would have stayed in NATO. So, you know, I think Putin was getting what he wanted from Trump, and so no need to push in any other ways. When Biden was elected, clearly he knew that President Biden, who had been, you know, very active on the Ukraine account and supporting Ukraine when he was vice president, that he probably would not be as amenable to Russian influence in Ukraine. And so I think he looked for other means.

GROSS: It's so interesting. You know, during the impeachment, I think most Americans didn't really care about Ukraine. They didn't know much about Ukraine. They weren't closely following what was happening in Ukraine. And now it's like the center of the world, you know, center of the Western world. So are you amazed at how much that has changed, just perception of Ukraine's importance?

YOVANOVITCH: Yeah. Maybe you won't be surprised to hear me say this, but I think right now it is the center of the world. I agree with President Biden that this is a fight, you know, it's the battle of freedom versus tyranny. And so our - the kind of world we're going to be living in when this is all done is being determined now. That's why it's so important. And I think the American people are realizing this. And I think the American people are also just inspired by the bravery and the resilience and the resolve of the Ukrainian people. It is inspiring. And they are being led by a president who has masterful communication skills and has really met his moment. Zelenskyy is a hero, perhaps, you know, as improbable as it was that a comedian who became president, perhaps as improbable that that president becomes a really effective wartime hero. But the man has really met his moment.

GROSS: I'd like to take a look back at the impeachment era through the eyes of today and that infamous phone call between Trump and Zelenskyy, when Zelensky asked for more arms to fight against Russia in the area Russia had invaded, and Trump said, I'd like you to do us a favor, though. At that time, what did those weapons into Ukraine, now that most of us understand a little bit more of what's going on in Ukraine.

YOVANOVITCH: The Javelins, which are an anti-tank system, are a defensive system, and they are critical to Ukraine's defense should Russia bring in tanks, which, of course, it has. And so they were pretty important to Ukraine's defense. I mean, this is not a weapon that you use to invade another country as Russia - as Putin is alleging about Ukraine. This is to defend yourself against an enemy.

GROSS: Trump had held up military aid that Congress had already approved of. What was your reaction when you heard that?

YOVANOVITCH: Well, (laughter) this is an overused word when we talk about President Trump, but I was shocked. This is arguably against the law. This was not a discretionary decision. And he knew that it was in the national - in the security interests of Ukraine, one of our partner countries. And our official U.S. policy is to support Ukraine in its fight against Russia, and so it was undermining that policy as well, all to receive a personal and political favor from the Ukrainians.

GROSS: So a favor that Trump wanted from Zelenskyy was to find dirt on Vice President Biden, who was also Trump's opponent in the presidential race, and Biden's son, Hunter Biden. And this was based on a false claim that then-Vice President Biden had blocked the chief prosecutor, the equivalent of America's attorney general, from prosecuting a company in Ukraine that Biden's son, Hunter, had dealings with. Can you talk a little bit about what was actually going on with that prosecutor?

YOVANOVITCH: So this is before my time, but what was happening was that this prosecutor, a man by the name of Shokin, was not actively prosecuting corruption cases. He was letting them go. He was, you know, running his office the way it had been run before the Revolution of Dignity. And the Revolution of Dignity, just to remind, what that means is the revolution for the rule of law, to be treated the same whether you were the president or a pauper, whether you're an oligarch or just an ordinary person, to be dealt with legally, lawfully and with dignity.

And what the international community and reformers, both within the government and outside the government, could see is that the prosecutor general, Shokin, a very powerful man, was just going back to business as usual, and this was unacceptable. The international community provided and continues to provide a lot of assistance to Ukraine, but for the most part, at least during that period, it is conditioned assistance. In other words, we will provide assistance so long as you continue to reform because otherwise you're just throwing money down a rat hole. So we - one of the conditions at that time was that the prosecutor be removed. And this is something - this was not just a U.S. condition; this was the IMF. It was the entire international community. We all had the same set of conditions for the continued assistance to Ukraine.

GROSS: Another favor that Trump asked Zelenskyy for was to investigate the baseless claims that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that had interfered with the 2016 election, and the conspiracy theory was that Ukraine wanted Hillary Clinton to win, not Trump. Did anyone ever try to involve you in that? Did you know that that was a conspiracy theory while you were serving as ambassador?

YOVANOVITCH: Yes, that was, you know, again, out there. What we now realize is, of course, that this is something that Putin said to any number of people, anybody who would listen, so these are Russian talking points and so really disturbing to hear it picked up here in the United States and then promulgated by President Trump and Rudy Giuliani.

GROSS: So when Giuliani was promulgating the conspiracy theory that it was Ukraine and not Russia that was interfering in the 2016 election, was that really helpful to Putin, do you think?

YOVANOVITCH: Sure. Those were his talking points. I mean, it got him off the hook.

GROSS: Do you think that was part of Giuliani's goal?

YOVANOVITCH: Maybe. Maybe. Probably because, as we know, the whole issue of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential elections in the U.S. is a very sensitive topic for President Trump.

GROSS: When you were ambassador, did you feel like you were watching Trump strengthen Putin?

YOVANOVITCH: So that's a complicated question because our official U.S. foreign policy was as strong as ever. It was basically the same policy as it had been under the Obama administration. And in one way, it was even strengthened because Trump did - in late 2017, he did authorize Javelins to Ukraine. It was pretty much a symbolic gesture, but it was an important gesture. And I think at that time, nobody - at least I certainly didn't believe that we were going to see Russian tanks again in - on Ukrainian land. So that was an important thing.

But then there was, you know, President Trump the man, who would do all sorts of things that kind of raised doubts in Ukraine as to whether our policy was still as firm as ever; in Russia, which was gleefully imagining or perhaps knowing that President Trump didn't really want to support Ukraine, but because there was such a strong bipartisan push to support Ukraine, it was hard for him not to. And then things like - I'm sure you remember the infamous press conference with President Putin in Helsinki in - I believe it was the summer of 2018, where Trump took the side of Putin over his own intelligence people with regard to Russian meddling during our elections. I mean, things like that definitely strengthen Putin and undermine our democracy and our processes, our institutions.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Marie Yovanovitch, the former ambassador to Ukraine. Her new memoir is called "Lessons From The Edge." We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded yesterday with Marie Yovanovitch, the former ambassador to Ukraine. She was appointed by President Obama in 2016, and she was removed from the position by President Trump in 2019, just days after Zelenskyy was elected president. She's written a new memoir called "Lessons From The Edge."

You were ambassador to Ukraine when Zelenskyy was elected, and you were recalled just days after that. How surprised were you that an actor who played a president in a sitcom actually won the election?

YOVANOVITCH: (Laughter) Yeah, it's kind of crazy, right? It's sort of life imitating art. But we at the embassy, we had a sense that he was going to win, you know, long previously because there was so much dissatisfaction with where the country was going, and the polls very clearly showed that Zelenskyy was leading, and leading by a huge margin. He won - in Ukraine, there are two rounds of presidential elections, one where a field of 40 compete, and then the second round is where two candidates compete. And he won in the second round by over 70%. I think it was 73%.

GROSS: Did you have any faith that he would have the experience needed to lead a country, a country that was kind of already at war with Russia?

YOVANOVITCH: Well, I didn't know. But, you know, it wasn't our decision, it was the decision of the Ukrainian people. And they made it pretty clear in conversations throughout the country that I had with them, you know, during the campaign and then in the overwhelming vote for Zelenskyy that they wanted this man as their president. So, you know, from a U.S. government perspective, this is democracy at work, right? And it was a free and fair election, no question about that. And our job was to work with him and try to continue to support the goals that the Ukrainian people had but that were also our official U.S. government policy.

GROSS: You got into trouble with the Trump administration for your work against Yuri Lutsenko, who was the general prosecutor, which is the equivalent of the U.S. attorney general. But that ended up getting you in trouble with the Trump administration. So what was the connection? You're fighting corruption in Ukraine; you're working against the equivalent of the attorney general who's known for his corruption. Why did that get you into trouble with the Trump administration?

YOVANOVITCH: Well, I think there are a couple of things. I think - and just to sort of be clear, I didn't feel I was working against Lutsenko. We were working with him, trying to get him to move forward on the issues that he came to office on. He said that he was going to reform the prosecutor general's office, and we were looking to him to do that. He also made several other promises, and in my time there, there was no progress on any of those fronts. And that was a concern to us and we would raise that with him, which was probably uncomfortable for him. So it wasn't like I was working against him; I was working for the result that American policy, Ukrainian policy, you know, wanted.

GROSS: Mmm hmm.

YOVANOVITCH: You know, it's funny because people ask me, so what happened, exactly? And I still don't know exactly to this day because it was happening all around me. Like, there was a swirl of stuff. And Ukrainian officials were warning me that Lutsenko was hooked up with Giuliani and they were going to get rid of me and everything else. And I would call back to Washington, and I would be assured that there was no problem, I was doing a fine job. And yet there was this swirl of rumors in Kyiv. So it was disconcerting, but as best as I can make it out, Giuliani was looking for dirt on Biden in Ukraine, and he somehow hooked up with Lutsenko. And I think Lutsenko made it, you know, part of the deal. I can help you with this, but you got to get rid of Ambassador Yovanovitch. And I think that when Giuliani was able to make that happen, then the Ukrainians were clear that Trump was in on this, too, that the Biden dirt quest was a Trump errand for Giuliani because Giuliani, of course, was not in the U.S. government. He would have had to influence the president.

GROSS: He was...


GROSS: ...He was the president's private lawyer, personal lawyer.

YOVANOVITCH: Yes. Yeah. He had no official role, but he had a hugely important role.

GROSS: OK. Let's take another break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Marie Yovanovitch, former ambassador to Ukraine and one of the star witnesses in President Trump's first impeachment. She's written a new memoir called "Lessons From The Edge." We'll be right back. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Marie Yovanovitch, one of the star witnesses of Trump's first impeachment, the one that revolved around his dealings with Ukraine. She was the ambassador to Ukraine from May 2016, when she was appointed by President Obama, and that was a couple of years after Russia invaded Crimea. She was recalled to Washington and then terminated in 2019, just a few days after Zelenskyy's election. She's now a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a nonresident at Georgetown University. She's written a new memoir called "Lessons From The Edge."

Before you were recalled as ambassador to Ukraine, you were asked to pledge your loyalty to Trump, not just to the Constitution but to Trump. How did you think about handling that? That was like a dynamite kind of thing. You know, you don't pledge your personal loyalty to an individual, but you were in a very kind of dangerous situation at that point. So what was your thought process like?

YOVANOVITCH: Well, it was (laughter) - that advice came as the result of me asking the State Department to stand up for me. And so what I was told was that they'd need to check with Pompeo on Monday. This was a Saturday, when everything was kind of hitting the fan. And in the meantime...

GROSS: And Pompeo was secretary of state then.


GROSS: So he was like your ultimate boss.

YOVANOVITCH: Right, right. And so they needed to check with Pompeo, but in the meantime, it would be great if I could, you know, sort of put out a statement about, you know, how much I liked (laughter) Trump, that I was loyal to Trump and, obviously, loyal to the Constitution as well. And so I, you know, thought about it. And, you know, it was - I think you can probably hear it in my voice. It was just like, what do I do with this? I'm an American citizen. We don't pledge loyalty to an individual. You know, we stopped that in 1776. You know, for us, it's the Constitution. And so in the end, what I - I did record two versions, but the one that we released to the Ukrainian public was mostly about Ukrainian elections that were that day - that day or a week - within a week. And I - and the importance of free and fair elections, that sort of thing. And I talked about the importance of the Constitution to Americans.

GROSS: What about the version that you didn't release? What was on that?

YOVANOVITCH: It was a little bit more forward-leaning. But, you know, I remember that...

GROSS: What do you mean by forward-leaning? (Laughter).

YOVANOVITCH: A little bit more forward-leaning in terms of talking about Trump, but it was...

GROSS: Talking about Trump positively or negatively?

YOVANOVITCH: Well, just that, you know, we all - you know, all diplomats fulfill the foreign policy of the president of the United States, that sort of thing. I have to say that episode was an extremely distasteful one for me. I really felt - I don't think that betrayed is too strong a word - by the department.

GROSS: It was soon after that that you were recalled, and your ambassadorship was terminated. Do you think there's a direct correlation?

YOVANOVITCH: Maybe, but I think that the long knives had been out for a long time, and it was more about the Lutsenko-Giuliani deal. And yeah, I'm not sure. But one of the interesting things about the Trump administration is that we keep on finding out more information about, you know, what happened with me, about, you know, the various other scandals and episodes. So who knows? Maybe we'll find out more.

GROSS: You were told you were being recalled by John Sullivan, who was then the deputy secretary of state, and he said that you were being recalled before Trump could fire you by tweet, like he did with Rex Tillerson, the former secretary of state. So in that sense, you were told you were being spared that kind of public humiliation. Did you buy that?

YOVANOVITCH: Not really. I felt it was more about protecting Pompeo, who was then the secretary of state, more about protecting President Trump because the whole episode around me was so unusual and so wrong, frankly, because the president of the United States can recall any ambassador for any reason or no reason. There was no need to smear me. But for some reason, they took that path. And it was wrong, and it sent a terrible signal to everybody in the State Department and more broadly. So I think that they were just trying to, you know, massage it as well as they could.

GROSS: You write in your memoir that during this meeting with John Sullivan, who told you that you were being removed - and he wanted you to leave before Trump could tweet it - that you cried hot, angry tears, not the elegant tears you see in movies, you wrote. Was that embarrassing for you? I know women are so embarrassed when they cry in a professional situation like that, but, you know, that was a pretty upsetting moment.

YOVANOVITCH: You know, I'm sure I was mildly embarrassed. But, you know, there were so many other emotions going on - you know, anger, disbelief, worry about what this would mean for our Ukraine policy, for our diplomacy, our standing. There were so many other emotions going on that embarrassment was, you know, down at the bottom of the heap. But the reason I wrote that passage is that, you know, as you said, women feel that it somehow is unprofessional to cry. And I'm not saying that it's, you know, the best reaction. But, you know, when men shout, that's kind of accepted as a strongman expressing his views. When women cry, which is often the same emotion just expressed in a different way, that's unprofessional. And I wrote that passage because I wanted women to know that it's OK - that, you know, sometimes you have to just own your emotions and keep on going with it.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Marie Yovanovitch. She was the ambassador to Ukraine from 2016 to 2019, appointed by Obama, removed by Trump. And she was a star witness in the first impeachment of Trump. Her new memoir is called "Lessons From The Edge." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Marie Yovanovitch, the former ambassador to Ukraine who was removed by President Trump after a smear campaign against her, orchestrated in part by Rudy Giuliani. She was a star witness in Trump's first impeachment inquiry, and now she's the author of a new memoir called "Lessons From The Edge."

You were subpoenaed to testify, and you had to decide whether you were going to do that or not. The State Department did not want you to testify.


GROSS: What was your thought process like?

YOVANOVITCH: Well, it was - it, for me - I think for some, it was very clear that they were going to testify and that they had to testify. For me, it was very difficult because, you know, I've served in the Foreign Service. I worked at the State Department for 33 years. And, you know, I'm a rules (laughter) follower. And it really felt like kind of the final break with the State Department. The State Department hadn't been loyal to me, but I - you know, I still felt loyalty to the State Department.

But in the end, as I was thinking about this, it just felt - and I knew that my greater obligation was to the Constitution. What Congress was asking me to do by testifying was a legal request. And it was wrong of the Trump administration to try to bar us from testifying particularly considering that Secretary Pompeo, when he was a congressman, was quite vigilant about getting Obama administration officials, including Hillary Clinton, to testify. I found it, well, disappointing.

GROSS: What did the State Department do to try to prevent you from testifying or talk you out of it?

YOVANOVITCH: Well, first, they sent letters to Nancy Pelosi as the speaker of the House and to the three committee chairs saying that no one in the Trump administration would be testifying - or words to that effect. I can't remember exactly what it said. And so, you know, seeing that, I knew that it was just a question of time before they would come to me directly. And in fact, later on, they did send a letter to my lawyer.

GROSS: You had told a few people about what you'd experienced as ambassador and about the smear campaign. You were afraid people would think you were crazy. Play that out for us. What - tell us more about what you were afraid of if you had told...


GROSS: ...People earlier?

YOVANOVITCH: Well, it was - I mean, Rudy Giuliani, the hero of 9/11 wanting to smear me because I was somehow, you know, involved in stymieing his quest for dirt on former Vice President Biden, I mean - doesn't it sound crazy to you?

GROSS: Well, so much crazy was happening then.

YOVANOVITCH: (Laughter).

GROSS: It sounds kind of like - what was happening? And what was happening was crazy. But that isn't to say I wouldn't have believed you.


GROSS: It was part of a whole cycle of crazy.

YOVANOVITCH: Yeah, it's true. It's true. But when you're in it, maybe it feels a little bit different.

GROSS: Right. So this is dramatic. People may remember this. As you were testifying at the impeachment inquiry, Representative Adam Schiff told you that Trump was tweeting while you were testifying. And what Trump tweeted was, everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad. She started off in Somalia. How did that go?

I'm trying to imagine what it was like. You're testifying in front of cameras. This is being seen probably, like, around the world. And as you're talking, Trump is trying to undermine you and smear you through this tweet, and you're finding out about it in real time in front of the cameras.

YOVANOVITCH: Yeah. I mean, (laughter) it was more of the crazy. So yeah, I mean, it was, on the one hand, unbelievable and on the other hand, completely believable because it's Trump. You know, I mean, again, I just tried to deal with it and not to express my emotions. Although when I looked at the footage that night because, of course, that was the moment that was replayed on TV and online, you know, I wasn't wearing a poker face. I was - I had, you know, all of the emotions of, you know, surprise, anger and even a little bit of contempt. I mean, I actually rolled my eyes. I was really surprised (laughter) that I hadn't controlled myself better.

GROSS: I didn't know, and maybe I should have. I'm not sure if you'd made this public before that during this period when you're preparing to be questioned during the impeachment, and then - I think during that time as well when you were actually getting questions and giving testimony, your mother had been very sick. First, she was in the emergency room then diagnosed with congestive heart failure. Then she had a stroke. Then it was time for hospice. And then she died. So as you're going through this turbulence in your professional life, that's bleeding into your private life as well. Your mother is dying.

YOVANOVITCH: It was terrible. It - that period, the fall of 2019, was the worst period of my life.

GROSS: And you know, you were close to your mother. When you got the ambassadorship and had to move to Ukraine, you wanted to be close to her. You wanted to help take care of her, so you took her with you.

YOVANOVITCH: I did. Yeah. It was the first time - you know, ever since childhood, it was the first time that I had lived with my mom. But you know, she was getting older, and I knew that I couldn't manage her care from Ukraine. And so she came with me. She was always up for an adventure. She was, you know, the life of the party always. And people loved her in Ukraine just as they did everywhere else she's ever lived. And so, you know, when we came back to the U.S. - such a stressful time.

And you know, fast forward to September, first the call transcript is released. Then the next day, the whistleblower complaint is made public. And then the next day, I took her into the hospital, and she never returned home.

GROSS: Do you connect the stress of that period with her - you know, with the congestive heart failure and the stroke?

YOVANOVITCH: No question, no question. You know, she was under a great deal of stress and there was nothing she could do to protect her child. I don't care how old a mother is; a mother always wants to protect her child.

GROSS: That must have just made you even more angry.

YOVANOVITCH: Yeah, it was, like I said, the worst time in my life.

GROSS: Your parents were both immigrants. Your father was born in Siberia, your mother in Germany. Did they flee during or after World War II?

YOVANOVITCH: After World War II. So my mom actually grew up a stateless person in Nazi Germany and then, you know, sort of slowly made her way west with her family, first to England, then Canada, then the United States. My father actually grew up in what was then Yugoslavia, and he was briefly a prisoner of war of the Nazis and then basically lived in Paris after he escaped as, you know, a person without papers - again, not a good status to have. He lived there for the remainder of the war and then eventually made his way to Canada. And that's where my parents met, and that's where I was born. And then when I was 3, we came to the U.S. And my parents, like I think most immigrants, probably all immigrants, were so grateful to the United States for providing us sanctuary, for allowing them to worship freely, to exercise all their rights because they had lived in countries where that wasn't the case. And I think freedom is always sweeter, if even on the opposite.

GROSS: Did they raise you to think that you can never take safety for granted, that there could always be war around the corner?

YOVANOVITCH: Not so much war but insecurity, that you need to hope for the best, but you need to plan for the worst. You always need to have a fallback. And for my parents, one of those fallbacks was education. They were both teachers. They brought up not only me and my brother but, you know, generations of students who remember them fondly and the huge influence they had on their lives. And education for my family was the ticket to, you know, good jobs and to relative prosperity. And so education, hugely important.

GROSS: Ambassador Yovanovitch, thank you so much for talking with us.


GROSS: Marie Yovanovitch has a new memoir called "Lessons From The Edge." After we take a short break, Maureen Corrigan will review a new collection of five young adult novels by the late Virginia Hamilton, the most award-winning YA author in American literary history. She was the first African American author to win a Newbery Medal. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF PETE YORN SONG, "ON YOUR SIDE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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