It felt odd to be interviewing people in a flak jacket, as if my life was worth more than theirs. I was jotting down notes as a group of men dressed in cheap track pants and light coats, their faces ruddy from the sun, told me how they had advanced on soldiers at the airfield in Kramatorsk, Ukraine, with nothing but improvised clubs. As they spoke, machine-gun fire rang out. I was the only one who ducked. Some nearby soldiers were just shooting into the air to scare back the crowd.
I had flown into Donetsk the day after pro-Russian protesters seized the regional administration building and declared a “Donetsk People’s Republic.” I was on assignment to cover the events for The Guardian. In some ways, it seemed like my life experiences had been leading up to this moment: childhood in small-town Wisconsin, where I yearned to get out and see the world; four years studying Russian in college; two years covering business at The Moscow Times; and a year as a freelance news reporter.
When 2014 came around, Russia was never off the radar: The takeover of Crimea followed the Sochi Olympics like a storm that reinvigorates a dying hurricane and takes it in a new direction. But Sochi had felt like a giant press junket, and I had worked on the Crimea story from the Moscow end.
Now I was here, in eastern Ukraine. The protests and violence were to be a kind of trial by fire. It was my first time on the ground, covering a conflict, even if that conflict was dwarfed by the geopolitical battle around it. For years I had worked to become a foreign correspondent, and this would be my first truly big story.
The reality didn’t resemble what I had read in books like Michael Herr’s Dispatches, or had seen in movies such as The Bang Bang Club, Under Fire, and Reds. This was not the Vietnam War or the Bolshevik Revolution, but rather a motley crew of angry teenagers, fringe activists, and Russian army vets, with no real political program beyond an ill-defined referendum on the region’s status. Instead, I caught glimpses of the immediate banality of historical events and experienced the difficulty of reporting them on the ground. I learned, once again, that real life has little of the glory of later retellings. It was just long hours of work, confused narratives, mental exhaustion, and voyeur’s guilt.
I arrived in Donetsk from Lviv, a city in western Ukraine of nearly 800,000 people. It is the heartland of the Ukrainian nationalists, whom the pro-Russian protesters claimed were bent on the destruction of Russian culture and language in Ukraine. Lviv is all Austro-Hungarian architecture and picturesque coffee trucks, while Donetsk is a gray Soviet city of coal miners and metalworkers, and three-fourths of the surrounding region’s residents speak Russian as their native language. The protesters at the administration building ripped up paving stones; stacked them in piles, for ammunition; and built concentric rings of barricades with tires, sandbags, and barbed wire.
Within a day, my clothes reeked from wood-fed barrel fires just like the ones that had warmed the Euromaidan protesters in Kiev last fall and winter, when they toppled Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, a Donetsk native. Now the Donetsk protesters said the result of what took place in Kiev was a CIA-sponsored “fascist junta” that was leading Ukraine into ethnic strife and economic ruin. Photoshopped pictures hanging in the occupied administration building depicted Barack Obama as a monkey; others, in a feat of gender-bending artistic inspiration, showed him with a Hitler mustache and the blond braids of pro–Western Ukrainian politician Yulia Tymoshenko.
The protesters’ complaints were based in reality—in neighboring Dnepropetrovsk, I saw ultranationalist leader Dmitry Yarosh announce the creation of an eight-hundred-man militia to join the fight against “drunk separatists and Russian tanks”—but had been blown out of proportion by the Russian state-controlled media that they watched on television outside the Donetsk barricades late at night. Friends of mine who worked at one Russian state channel told me their bosses had announced a “war mode” of anti-Kiev coverage. But the Ukrainian media was no better, describing the eastern Ukrainians as “terrorists” who had been bought by Russia. This information war of competing narratives meant that no body count, description of troop movements, or announcement of negotiations could be nailed down as entirely true.
A few friends and I were among the first on the scene of a shoot-out the day after a group of armed operatives dressed in green—known as “little green men” because of their mysterious origin—seized the police and security service buildings in the Donetsk-region town of Slavyansk. Cars were riddled with bullet holes, and there were traces of blood on the ground. A man who introduced himself as a city council member was waiting for us with cell-phone footage of the attack’s aftermath: a man in camouflage cursing and holding his abdomen; another, all in black, slumped against a car, blood streaming down his front.
The story this city-council member told us was ludicrous, all the more so because someone named “Seryozha” kept calling, and his wife, standing nearby, was constantly berating him for “not telling it right.” But what he told us was this: Four men in black drove up in a sedan with Poltava plates and opened fire on seven infantry vehicles filled with Ukrainian soldiers. “Why would they do such a thing?” we asked. He claimed it was all a “provocation” by unknown forces. But the man in black was more likely Ukrainian special forces, killed by pro-Russian rebels.
The Donetsk protesters’ hatred for the American-backed regime in Kiev and the pro-Ukrainian news channels extended to a general hostility toward the Western press. In Luhansk, a large city in easternmost Ukraine, close to the Russian border, I asked to interview one of the hulking masked men who was directing the militia that occupied the security service building. “You want to know our demands, talk to the people,” he said, dragging me before a few dozen eager protesters. Then he yelled out that I was an American journalist, which drew jeers from the crowd. The masked man identified himself as a member of Yanukovych’s shock troops, the Berkut riot police, who had fought against the Euromaidan protesters in Kiev. As proof, he lifted his shirt to show a scar down his belly.
Each of my questions evoked angry retorts from the protesters, and after I asked if there were any Russians inside the occupied building, the commander ordered a masked teenage subordinate to kick me off the square. As he led me beyond the barricades, the young man threatened to “break my teeth” if I didn’t write the truth. He added that he would beat me up if I came back.
I was jittery with adrenaline after the encounter. None of the protesters yelling at me, I was sure, read English-language newspapers, or even watched English-language television. Who were they to crucify us for not telling the truth?
On the other hand, I knew they were right to a certain extent, given Western media’s tendency to vilify Russia and, by extension, the pro-Russian protesters. The ubiquitous use of the word separatist, for instance, ignored the fact that the majority of protesters said they wanted to remain part of Ukraine. Meanwhile, although statements made by the Ukrainian president and interior minister usually diverged wildly from what I was seeing on the ground, my editors seemed to treat them like the word of God.
I tried to present a balanced view, but the headlines and redacted ledes of my articles sometimes seemed overly simplified and made me wonder if I wasn’t just as bad as some of the hacks working in the field, if I wasn’t just an unwitting foot soldier in the information war. One day, I snapped at the editors of a radio station I was freelancing for when they repeatedly asked me to talk about an announced military blockade of Slavyansk, which I knew was not actually in place. What did they want me to do, make it up?
The protesters’ presumed enemies—America, the EU, the Kiev “fascists,” the western Ukrainians leeching off the east’s industry—are scapegoats. The real problems are poverty and a cycle of corrupt, unstable, incompetent governments. Ukraine is a place where multiple planes of existence and multiple eras of history are layered one over the other: Glass skyscrapers and international hotel brands pepper major cities, but a hundred kilometers away from them, people live in villages without indoor plumbing and drive horse-drawn carts.
Ukraine’s widespread poverty wasn’t so visible in downtown Donetsk, with its gleaming new Orthodox church and international hotels, but I had seen it during a hitchhiking trip through Ukraine in 2009. The countryside was a network of abandoned huts and decaying Soviet factories; one group of guys I fell in with even rappelled down the side of the larger ones for fun. People lived hand to mouth but with a fine sense of hospitality, and one man who gave me a ride put me up in the converted garage he lived in, which had no toilet.
Driving through the villages was like a trip back in time. It looked like the Soviets had grafted a network of cities, railroads, and manufacturing plants on top of an ageless agrarian society. People kept vegetable gardens, mowed the hay with scythes, and enjoyed showing off their cows and beehives. Old women sat on the side of the road, selling strawberries and fresh milk that contained a hint of that overripe country smell, a mixture of manure and hay and who knows what else. They came to mind immediately during my time in Slavyansk, when I saw a babushka move among a column of Ukrainian armor, loudly imploring the young soldiers to buy a liter of that day’s milk.
I wasn’t particularly well-dressed during my hitchhiking trip, but people still stared at me unabashedly. Once you got them talking, they were quick to laugh, quick to curse, quick to speak their minds. And that was before the samogon (moonshine vodka) and salo (smoked pig fat) came out. In both the cities and the villages, people were unfailingly generous with what they had and would invite you to their country house, to go fishing, to go shoot at bottles.
I felt a twinge of guilt speaking with the pro-Russian protesters, who looked far more working-class than the urbanites who tended to turn out to the pro-Ukrainian rallies. Miners in the Donetsk administration building, their eyelids rimmed with coal dust, told me they were worried about their jobs because orders from Russia had dropped off. They said they made 4,000 hryvnia ($350) a month. Everyone understood that I would go back to Moscow and ultimately return to the comfort of the United States, while they would keep slaving in dangerous aging mines as the local economy would continue to flag. By spending a few hours trying to understand their problems, was I raising awareness, or just being a hypocrite? I had gotten to know a few hungry-looking young guys occupying the Donetsk administration building, and I tried to ply them with food and an extra hundred-hryvnia bill whenever they helped me with ideas or contacts.
The guilt was exacerbated by the realities of conflict reporting. Toward the end of my stay, I covered the funeral of Vladimir Rybak, a city-council member in the eastern city of Horlivka who was abducted by masked men, tortured, and murdered after his attempt to replace a Donetsk Republic flag in city hall with a Ukrainian one. Cameras clicked as his crying wife stroked and kissed his face, the soft sobbing of relatives interrupted by a clatter as a nosy photographer tried to climb around building materials in the yard of his house.
Taken all together—the hostile locals, the swirling lies, the hack-job journalism, the distastefulness of making money on the poverty and pain of others—it sometimes made me question what I was doing in eastern Ukraine. Still more depressing was the fact that I expected life was only going to get worse for my story subjects: Either Putin would invade and they would become a still-economically depressed region of Russia, with fewer political rights than in Ukraine, or they would remain in Ukraine but suffer under the harsh conditions of the IMF loan and an ongoing geopolitical standoff.
There were glimmers of hope. My last full day in Ukraine, I was standing at a crossroads outside of rebel-held Slavyansk, having arrived from a new Ukrainian military checkpoint to the south, when I noticed an extended family working together in their sunlit garden. Although the mother, Natalya Bogdanova, had been born in Russia, she didn’t seem caught up in the propaganda that was splitting the country. “Many want to [join Russia], but mainly people are just tired of the weakness of our government,” she said. “There’s one revolution after another. We want a strong regime to come and start working.”
My big story wasn’t as gratifying or illuminating as I had wanted, or as full of purpose. But I figured that if I hadn’t come, some other, even more clueless reporter, or a Russophobe, or a parachute journalist would have taken my place. I had added a stroke to the giant painting of the conflict in eastern Ukraine. I hope my line had been true.