On the Ground With a Ukrainian Journalist

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S1: Romeo Kokriatski doesn’t know quite how to answer the first question people ask him these days, even though it’s about as simple as they come. How are you?

S2: To be honest, I’ve been asked that question so many times. It’s gotten harder to keep track of what my mood is getting point.

S1: Romeo lives in Ukraine. He used to live in the capital, Kiev. He fled a few days back. Now he’s staying in the country in a house his grandfather built decades ago. It’s pretty quiet there, but it’s not completely out of the war zone.

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S2: Like, there were a couple of missile strikes against one of the local airports or against the local airport, I should say a few days ago, but that wasn’t the airport outside of the city. And to be honest, everyone was kind of expecting that airport to be hit anyway, so it wasn’t really surprising.

S1: You sound very chill about a missile strike.

S2: I mean, how else am I supposed to be? Oh my God, like my hair’s on fire. I’d be just like the enemy has cruise missiles. They’re clearly going to use them, like they’re going to hit the water. So it’s hard to it’s hard to be freaked out all the time.

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S1: Romeo works as the managing editor for a website called The New Voice of Ukraine. He also hosts the podcast. It’s called Ukraine without hype. His schedule is basically read news about the war assigned coverage of the war. Check in with friends about the war.

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S2: And then once my workday is over, barring some massive, massive advance, we’re changed like we had in the first week of the war. I try to just decompress and just like I don’t know. Watch Star Trek and play video games and just not think about, because if I had to do that even more, I would have just off myself right now.

S1: A few weeks ago before the invasion. You talked in another interview about having a kind of doomed optimism, which I thought was just such an interesting way to put it. Like how does that even work?

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S2: Doomed optimism was honestly, it really did encapsulate the pre-war feeling of everyone. You could you, I think, felt that things were about to change in your bones. But at the same time, everyone kept planning life, you know, setting. Like movie dates and setting work events and agreeing to new projects and buying apartments like life kept going on because the way my wife put it was I I’ll have enough time to panic when the invasion starts and beforehand, it doesn’t make sense to waste my precious non invasion time to panic.

S1: Do you still think of yourself as a doomed optimist?

S2: I don’t know if I’m doomed anymore. I definitely feel optimistic about our chances in the world, though I would qualify, that would be huge. We don’t know the cost of what that victory will look like. The question is not did this one geopolitical entity need another? The question is how many of my countrymen died during this, the city out of conflict?

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S1: Today on the show, a journalist’s view from Ukraine, where a push for democracy is tied to a push for a free press. A Mary Harris, you’re listening to what next? Stick around. Like a lot of other journalists, Romeo’s working hard day in and day out to try to explain the slow trudge of war. But that’s not the only reason I called him. I wanted to talk to Romeo because I feel like his story tells you something important about this country, how it’s been able to hold off Russian forces so far. You see the military war. It’s an evolution of an information war that’s been going on in Ukraine for eight years. And Romeo. He plays an important part in that war, sorting out facts from propaganda. But before we get into all, that helps to know where Romeo was coming from. He actually grew up in Jackson Heights Queens. Each summer, his mom would send him back to Ukraine. He’d spend months with his grandma the same way other kids would be shipped off to camp.

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S2: I did develop a, you know, I guess I would call kind of a love for my land in Ukraine, like my grandmother telling me the stories of my great grandfather who fought in World War Two and like just the stories of where I lived in Ukraine, what all these historical stuff was. It did give me a deep sense of history, I think. I think that was the main takeaway.

S1: So in 2014, when Ukrainians took to the streets to oust Russian backed President Viktor Yanukovych over corruption allegations, it felt personal to Romeo. It felt personal, too, when Vladimir Putin invaded Crimea and pushed forces into the Donbass region. Romeo wanted to help the young Ukrainians who sparked what they called the Maidan revolution.

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S2: 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, I was in my early 20s, so working in a pizzeria and like. I don’t know, drinking every night. That was fine for my early 20s, but I realized that I needed I wanted to have an actual career. I wanted to do something meaningful. And after watching the Maidan revolution, I realized, Well, I can probably help Ukraine somehow. I didn’t know how at the time.

S1: Yeah, I mean, not many people would say, Oh, there’s there’s a war going on. I should move there.

S2: Well, I mean, it’s my home country, right? And my grandmother is old and like retired and she can’t like she can take care of herself. But I don’t she can’t really take care of herself on war time, on a pension that may not be there tomorrow. So it’s like, OK, at the very least, I can like, move to Ukraine and I can find a job and like, help my grandmother lived through whatever happens. So I went there and everything was fine. I managed to start out as a journalist. And yet now here I am.

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S1: 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. When the Russian backed president was ousted and Russia was sort of building up to what eventually became war in the Donbass region. That the. First started fighting back with news like 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. Do you remember that at all?

S2: So like everyone knows the term fake news now, right? But back in 2014, this was while not a new concept, a novel one. I would say it was very rarely used and not that spread out prior to 14. Russia today. The Russian propaganda outlet they use and all the foreign countries was even considered like 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, right? That was the whole tagline. And then Crimea happened, and the Donbass conflict began and suddenly R.T.. I wouldn’t say changed. I would say more like. Revealed itself like this was always going to be an engine of of Russian disinformation in the world. It just didn’t have something concrete to grab onto

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S1: this rise in disinformation. It ended up giving Romeo a kind of push into journalism. He was at a meeting of Democrats abroad, and he got this opportunity to host a YouTube show targeting fake news.

S2: I was at this this mixer to meet people because this is my third or fourth month in Ukraine. I didn’t know anyone yet. I was mostly just trying to find a job or do whatever odd work I could to make some extra money for my grandmother. I know exactly what I was doing here. I made some comment, and one of the ladies there said, Oh, you know, I like how you put that. You’re really. I’m doing this anti disinformation YouTube series. Like, Do you want to be a guest host sometimes?

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S1: Whoa. Like, what an offer.

S2: I mean, it was for free. It wasn’t like it wasn’t like some massive YouTube channel, and it wasn’t like I was getting paid for it. It was once every two weeks show up, like on Sunday morning at a recording studio and read some lines. Welcome to stop fake, the place where we debunk fakes about Ukraine. I’m Robbie Kokriatski with stop fakes latest dissection of Russian alternate reality. This week’s disinformation menu brings you the following The propaganda that the Russians were pushing at that time was not very elegant propaganda. It was very much like. And I’m only exaggerating a little when I say this. Your listeners understand it was very much like the Ukrainians are eating Russian babies. Well, it wasn’t quite that much, but it was just a tad underneath it. And to be honest, the propaganda there they sell now. For example, the Ukrainians are bombing their own schools to kill children that they can blame on Russia. Like that propaganda is not far removed from just saying Ukrainians babies.

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S1: Eventually, you ended up working at a place called U80. Right?

S2: Yeah. Mm-Hmm.

S1: I’m kind of curious if you can explain what that was like.

S2: UTV was a state owned broadcaster established to broadcast Ukrainian news to an international audience, but it was state owned.

S1: So was the idea that it was like the BBC for Ukraine.

S2: 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 on the kind of 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 dis favorable 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. The only thing that matters is what the government that you’ve said.

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S1: You basically had a government minder at the station.

S2: Yes, it wasn’t that way. At first, I’ll say they that government minder came in a little later and it was one of the reasons I left. 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 and 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 this favorable 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 was beyond the pale for management to do to to interfere in an editorial decision for journalists like that. And I told them basically that they either I can report or you have to fire me. And ultimately, I ended up leaving UTB.

S1: 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.

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S2: 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 and in the newsrooms decisions. And that did not exist prior to 14 in Ukraine. When you read a story from our own 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 them. They don’t view media as something that tells the news. They see media as a tool of influence that will help whoever you know, whoever owns the publication. So even the concept of independent news was not it was not well understood by Ukrainians at large and to an extent is still not very understood by Ukrainians.

S1: How Romeo is reporting on the war now after the break. With Russian forces pushing deeper into Ukraine, the work Romeo and his colleagues do has become even more essential. He knows all too well the way disinformation has been weaponized to achieve Russian aims in the past, but this war is also personal for him. Earlier this week, he returned to Kiev to drop off some medical supplies for a friend serving in the Territorial Defense Unit.

S2: Basically, everything in Kiev is sold out. Every shop that I went to, the shelves are basically bare and the pharmacies. Same story gas station things story.

S1: How does that work? Like if you need, I don’t know, a loaf of bread or a

S2: vegetable bread is the one thing that you can’t find, huh? Lots of bread. Why is that bread and sugar, which is buckwheat? Well, bread is very important for Ukrainians culturally.

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S1: Ukraine is the breadbasket of. Yes.

S2: Yeah. Like my wife, for example, you 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 and every meal, all the time. That’s like your staple food is bread

S1: so people can get bread. But it sounds like not much else.

S2: Yeah, the water still running, the power still running internet. Still, Mary gas is still there, but obviously there’s not a lot of supplies coming in, except absolutely the essentials. Hmm.

S1: What surprised you about your visit? Was there anything that you didn’t expect?

S2: It went as expected, but it was still surprising. I think I’ve read somewhere how eerie was. Kiev has really bad traffic. It is like absolutely like awful, awful, awful traffic at all hours of the day. And then here we are, driving through the centre of Kiev at like seven p.m. peak rush hour and just empty. No people. No cars. Just cinder blocks and tank traps and barricades. Hmm.

S1: Are you surprised that Ukraine has held off Russian forces for this long?

S2: It’s hard to say because like in my heart, obviously I wanted to be able to hold off the Russians. But I’ll say this I’m less surprised by how well the Ukrainians have been doing than how poorly the Russians have been doing.

S1: I’m struck by how jolly you sound, given everything that’s happening around you. I know that you’re not in Kiev and you’re. You know, you’re doing different kind of 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 a side?

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S2: To be honest, that analysis is very westernised. If you read the Ukrainian news, obviously the picture is a bit rosier, but even when you read reports by like 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 people personally, so if they tell me something, I will give it more veracity than something I’ll read and CNN, for example. So it’s I wouldn’t say I’m jolly, to be honest. I know I’m laughing a lot, but but that’s mostly just a defense mechanism because again, there’s only so many pictures of of dead children you could 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 lake may have shared tea in a train carriage before. The only real way to deal with that is to try and try and maintain some, some sense of equanimity and some sense of doomed optimism. I guess.

S1: Is there any circumstance in which you see yourself leaving Ukraine?

S2: Unless the Russians really are able to install a puppet government in Kiev 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 can play an important role here. Being here physically and also if I get drafted, I get drafted.

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S1: I mean, you’re clearly a journalist who sees yourself right now like you’re 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?

S2: This is the question I ask 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 cannot I can’t tell when that time 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.

S1: Romeo, thanks so much for getting on the line with me. I appreciate

S2: it. Yeah, thanks for having me.

S1: Romeo Kokriatski is the managing editor of New Voice of Ukraine. He’s also the co-host of the podcast Ukraine Without Hype. Go check it out. All right. That’s the show. What next is produced by Carmel Delshad, Elaina Schwartz Mary Wilson and Danielle Hewitt. We are getting a little help from Anna Rubin Nova and Laura Spencer. We are led by Alicia Montgomery. One more thing before we go. Romeo wanted to make this clear he did not come up with the phrase doomed optimism. His friend Natalia did that.

S2: So, Natalia, if you’re listening, I’m really sorry. But the phrase is really good.

S1: I’m Mary Harris. We will be back in this feed on Monday.