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Like a lot of other journalists in Ukraine, Romeo Kokriatski is working hard day in and day out to explain the slow trudge of war. Kokriatski is the managing editor of a website called the New Voice of Ukraine, and he lived in Kyiv until he fled the capital a few days ago. He actually grew up in Jackson Heights, Queens, spending summers in Ukraine with his grandma learning about the history of his homeland.
Kokriatski’s story tells you something important about this country and how it’s been able to hold off Russian forces so far. The military war is an evolution of an information war that’s been going on in Ukraine for eight years, and Kokriatski plays an important part in that war, sorting out facts from propaganda. On Thursday’s episode of What Next, I talked to him about the fight against Russian misinformation, how he got into journalism, and what it’s like in Kyiv these days. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Mary Harris: In 2014, Ukrainians took to the streets to oust Russian-backed President Viktor Yanukovych over corruption allegations. Vladimir Putin invaded Crimea and pushed forces into the Donbas region. You wanted to help the young Ukrainians who sparked what they called the Maidan Revolution.
Romeo Kokriatski: At the time I was working at a pizzeria in Brooklyn, and it was not what I wanted to do with my life. I mean, working in a pizzeria and drinking every night, that was fine for my early 20s. But I realized that I wanted to have an actual career. I wanted to do something meaningful. And after watching the Euromaidan revolution, I realized, well, I can probably help Ukraine somehow. … I managed to start out as a journalist.
I want to talk about how your industry has evolved over the course of you being there in Ukraine, because I’ve read that in 2014, Russia began putting propaganda and fake news out there, and information was a big part of how the case was built for that first invasion.
Everyone knows the term “fake news” now, but back in 2014, it was very rarely used and not that spread out. Prior to ’14, Russia Today, the Russian propaganda outlet they use in all the foreign countries, was even considered kind of a normal news source, sort of like Al Jazeera. Yeah, it’s run by maybe some unsavory people, but the journalists, they’re just reporting on what the mainstream media won’t tell you. That was the whole tagline. And then Crimea happened, and the Donbas conflict began. And suddenly RT, I wouldn’t say changed, I would say more like revealed itself. This was always going to be an engine of Russian disinformation in the world. It just didn’t have something concrete to grab onto.
This rise in disinformation ended up giving you a push into journalism. You got the opportunity to host a YouTube show targeting fake news, StopFake.
The propaganda that the Russians were pushing at that time was not very elegant propaganda. I’m only exaggerating a little when I say this—it was very much like “the Ukrainians are eating Russian babies.” It wasn’t quite that much, but it was just a tad underneath it. And to be honest, the propaganda they sell now—for example, “the Ukrainians are bombing their own schools to kill children that they can blame on Russia”—that propaganda is not far removed from just saying Ukrainians eat babies.
Eventually you ended up working at a place called UATV, right? What was that like?
UATV was a state-owned broadcaster established to broadcast Ukrainian news to an international audience.
So it was like the BBC for Ukraine?
Yeah, that was how it was sold. The reality, of course, was much different. In Ukraine, there is no strong tradition of a public broadcaster as opposed to a state-owned broadcaster. And Ukrainian journalism very much functioned either on the oligarch standard, where you would report on news that was favorable to whoever owned your publication and you would play down news that was disfavorable to whoever owns your publication or ignored it entirely—or the other hand, the Soviet method, where you would report strictly on the news the government put out and nothing else because nothing else mattered.
You’ve said you basically had a government minder at the station.
Yes. It wasn’t that way at first. That government minder came in a little later, and it was one of the reasons I left UATV.
She wasn’t called a minder. She was appointed as the manager of the English-language division. But in any case, at first I had a great editor. But a couple of months in, he’s like, “Well, they are going to appoint someone else to take my role, and I’ll just be a journalist like you guys.” And then this woman comes in. I always called her the commissar because, quite frankly, that’s what she was—she was there to make sure that we played up news that was favorable to the government and downplayed news that was disfavorable to the government.
Eventually I got to the point where I couldn’t really handle them telling us what to write or telling us which stories to cover and which not, which I felt was beyond the pale for management to do, to interfere in an editorial decision for journalists like that. And I told them basically that either I can report or you have to fire me. And ultimately, I ended up leaving UATV.
You’re not the only Ukrainian journalist to walk out of a newsroom and do something more independent. And you can kind of see it, I think, in the coverage we’ve seen emerge during this latest invasion. I’m wondering if you can compare how the Ukrainian media responded to what happened in 2014 and what’s happening now and how important you think that is to how the rest of the world understands what’s going on.
Prior to ’14, there was basically no independent journalism. And when I say independent, it means something that’s not state-owned, something that’s not oligarch-owned, but an outlet that is either owned by journalists themselves or is owned by an entity that will not interfere editorially in the newsroom’s decisions. And that did not exist prior to ’14.
In Ukraine, when you read a story from oligarch-owned media, the first thing you have to always think is who’s benefiting from the writing of the story. And that’s how a lot of Ukrainians view media. They don’t view media as something that tells the news. They see media as a tool of influence that will help whoever owns the publication. So even the concept of independent news was not well understood by Ukrainians at large and to an extent is still not very understood by Ukrainians at large.
With Russian forces pushing deeper into Ukraine, the work you and your colleagues do fighting disinformation has become even more essential. But this war is also personal for you. Earlier this week, you returned to Kyiv to drop off some medical supplies for a friend serving in the territorial defense unit.
Basically everything in Kyiv is sold out. Every shop that I went to, the shelves are basically bare. And the pharmacies, same story. Gas stations, same story.
How does that work, like if you need a loaf of bread or a vegetable?
Bread is the one thing that you can find. There’s lots of bread.
Bread and buckwheat. Bread is very important for Ukrainians culturally.
It’s the breadbasket.
Yeah. My wife, for example, can’t eat a meal without having at least a slice of bread, even if we’re eating pasta, just because that’s how she was raised. You have bread at every meal, all the time. Your staple food is bread.
So people can get bread, but it sounds like not much else.
Yeah. The water’s still running, the power’s still running, internet’s still there, gas is still there. But obviously there’s not a lot of supplies coming in, except absolutely the essentials.
What surprised you about your visit? Was there anything that you didn’t expect?
It went as expected, but it was still surprising, how eerie it was. Kyiv has really bad traffic. It is absolutely awful, awful, awful traffic at all hours of the day. And then here we are, driving through the center of Kyiv at like 7 p.m., peak rush hour, and just empty. No people, no cars. Just cinder blocks and tank traps and barricades.
Are you surprised that Ukraine has held off Russian forces for this long?
It’s hard to say because in my heart, obviously, I wanted us to be able to hold off the Russians. But I’m less surprised by how well the Ukrainians have been doing than how poorly the Russians have been doing.
I’m struck by how jolly you sound, given everything that’s happening around you. I know that you’re not in Kyiv and you’re doing different work outside of the places that are getting hit badly. But whenever I read about what happens next in Ukraine, the analysis seems really dark. It’s, you know, “there’s no good way out, either Russia takes over the country but it’s been brutally attacked and who knows what’s left, maybe there’s nuclear war.” Do you disagree with that kind of analysis or just maybe push it aside?
To be honest, that analysis is very Westernized. If you read the Ukrainian news, obviously the picture is a bit rosier, but even when you read reports by military analysts and people like that, they’re still much more optimistic than their Western counterparts. And maybe they have a reason to be, maybe they don’t. I tend to trust them because I know a lot of the people personally, so if they tell me something, I will give it more veracity than something I’ll read in CNN, for example.
So I wouldn’t say I’m jolly. I’m laughing a lot, but that’s mostly just a defense mechanism, because again, there’s only so many pictures of dead children you can look at and know that this isn’t some faraway, disconnected conflict. No, this is my home, and these are people that I very well may have passed in the street or may have sat next to in a restaurant or may have shared tea in a train carriage before. The only real way to deal with that is to try and maintain some sense of equanimity and some sense of doomed optimism, I guess.
Is there any circumstance in which you see yourself leaving Ukraine?
Unless the Russians really are able to install a puppet government in Kyiv and direct confrontation is either no longer feasible or impractical—then I would. Because at that point, I feel I would be more useful to Ukraine outside the country than I would be within it. At the moment, I think I still can play an important role here, being here physically, and also, if I get drafted, I get drafted.
You’re clearly a journalist who sees yourself like your most potent weapon in this war is your pen. Do you ever see that changing, where you put down your pen and maybe pick up something else?
This was a question I asked myself right as the war started. There’s a time to be a journalist and there’s a time to be a soldier, and I can’t tell when that time will be. And how brave I’ll be when that choice comes up, and what I’ll choose to do. I honestly can’t answer. I don’t know when and I don’t know under what conditions. But I know that when I see that choice, I’ll see it clearly.