KYIV, Ukraine -- From her second-story walk-up office in Kyiv's old Perchersk neighborhood, Daria Kaleniuk has been fighting the fire-breathing dragons of Ukrainian corruption -- oligarchs and politicians and judges on the take.
Little did she know she would also be going up against the most powerful man on Earth, Donald Trump.
Kaleniuk is one of an entire new generation of Ukrainians who grew up in a freshly independent former Soviet republic that struggled to break free of Russia and to build institutions of basic governance. These young reformers speak English, aspire to Western values, reject their country's Soviet past, have turned away from Moscow -- and now fear that the U.S. has turned away from them.
Their work to battle graft and demand change belies the Ukraine that President Trump portrays.
According to testimony before the House impeachment inquiry by Kurt Volker, the former U.S. special representative to Ukraine, Trump once said of Ukrainians, "They are all corrupt, they are all terrible people." Trump has also suggested, despite voluminous evidence to the contrary, that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
There's no question that Ukraine has a serious corruption problem. Transparency International, which ranks countries according to their level of perceived corruption, lists Ukraine as 130th out of 180 nations, with No. 1 being the cleanest. That makes it among the most corrupt countries in Europe, barely ahead of Russia.
Yet activists, academics and politicians here insist the real Ukraine is making significant progress in fighting corruption. And these Ukrainians are angry that Trump has dragged them into U.S. politics by asking their new president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter.
"We are desperately trying to change the country ... from a very corrupt kleptocracy to a democracy," Kaleniuk said on a recent chilly, gray morning in her office. "This is Ukraine's moment, the moment to help. And instead, we got a knife in the back."
As part of the movement undertaken by a robust post-communist civil society, and often working with U.S. development grants, Kaleniuk's Anti-Corruption Action Center and other grass-roots organizations have helped create a new anti-corruption court in Kyiv, replace several dishonest prosecutors and expose illicit campaign contributions, money-laundering schemes and political backroom deals.
They were instrumental in the Maidan Revolution of 2014, a popular revolt that led to the ouster of an unpopular, pro-Russia president and ushered in Western-leaning governments, including that of Zelenskiy, a TV comedian who won a landslide victory earlier this year.