‘Even At The Beginning Of The War, On The Work Trip To Ukraine, I Realized This Would Last A Very, Very Long Time’
September 27, 2023
  • Lilia Yapparova

    Journalist, Meduza

  • Xenia Loutchenko


Lilia Yapparova talks about her reporting from Ukraine in the first months of the war, about the difficulties of being a journalist in exile, about whether journalism is compatible with activism and about the hazy future.
The original text in Russian was published in Colta. A shortened version is republished here with their permission.

A year and a half has passed since many journalists were forced to turn their lives upside down. Now everything is gradually, if not being normalized, then at least being routinized. What has changed most for you in the profession itself and in your sense of yourself in the profession over this last year and a half?

Probably my personal sense of being needed has changed. Now, the main subtext of our life is instability, anxiety, fear. And I wake up every morning, and I have no confidence that by the evening someone will need me professionally [...].

Before the latest Russian invasion of Ukraine, I always had the feeling that I was in the right place, and that there was a road forward, maybe not entirely visible, winding, but it was there. And now, despite the ostensible demand for expertise on Russia, there is a feeling that everything could just disappear in a moment […].

You were one of two Russian journalists who managed to visit Ukraine at the beginning of the war and wrote reports from there. As I understand it, it was only you and Yelena Kostyuchenko.

That is right.
Soldiers of Ukraine's 93rd Kholodnyi Yar Brigade leaving for battle. Poltava region, February 24, 2022. Source: Wiki Commons
How did that even happen?

I bought a ticket, and on February 24, 2022 at 10 am I was supposed to land in Kyiv. A week before, I had negotiated with my interlocutors, looked for people [for the reports], we wanted to do a report on how Kyiv was living in anticipation of war.

…that, of course, will not happen, but American intelligence is saying...

Exactly. All the Moscow colleagues condescendingly brushed aside this concern of the American intelligence services and our colleagues from foreign newsrooms, who were just waiting [for it] and preparing. I remember how my colleagues from The Wall Street Journal wrote to me: “Lilia, listen, can I go on vacation, can I go home for New Year? Or will the war start?”

And I was like: “listen, guys, there won’t be any war. Go and see your family, celebrate, everything is fine.” We planned a report about how Kyiv was living in anticipation of war, what Kyiv was talking about in anxious whispers over a cup of cappuccino.

And I was woken up at five or six in the morning on the 24th by the alarm clock. I did not wake up from calls from Kyiv or from the editorial office. And I realized that the skies would be closed and that I would not have to go to the airport; right now, I should talk over the phone with the people whom I had been expecting to interview live in Kyiv today.
“At six in the morning, I got through to one of my interlocutors, and she said: ‘well, we’re packing our bags. The children and I are going to the bomb shelter’.”
She was holding the phone in one hand and with the other putting something in the children’s backpacks and suitcase. And I heard her daughter ask: “mom, mom, what’s going on? Will everything be OK?”

It was not an interview at all. It was as if someone had put the phone in the apartment of this lady and her children, and at six in the morning for 10 minutes I just watched them get ready and run, as the first missiles had already hit Kyiv.

We immediately realized that it was impossible not to go there. The editors, of course, understood that they needed eyes on the ground. And we started looking for the last plane flying out of Russia to anywhere, as the European countries around Russia were closing all the routes, all the flights were cancelled. We would buy a ticket for tonight – it gets cancelled; we buy the next one for Friday – also cancelled... So, I took the last flight from St Petersburg to Finland.

Flying with me were British students and Russian businessmen whose families had long lived in Finland. And then, standing in this line, for the first time I felt that the Russian passport in my hands was burning a hole in my hand; it felt differently, heavier than usual.

But I slapped my hands and never again felt ashamed of having a Russian passport. And I never hid it – that would be absurd.

You cannot hide, hide from public condemnation, from the universal court of your peers. I am ready to bear responsibility, argue, stick up for, defend, admit, blame, correct mistakes. But I’m not ready to hide who I am: I’m Russian, a Russian woman of mixed Tatar blood, this is my identity, and I cannot escape it. I’m ready to answer questions, but I won’t be ashamed of the fact that my mom and dad are from Russia.

Then you went to Ukraine, and, to put it cynically, this was a professional success. There’s probably a feeling of satisfaction that the work was done to the highest possible level, and that’s great. How did professional drive combine with the tragedy that was being lived every second back then?

I reflected on all this only in January 2023, when I finally had a nervous breakdown […].

And only after taking antidepressants did I feel the same as before Putin’s speech about the illegitimacy of the Ukrainian state on February 21, when my hands had started shaking. They were shaking the whole time until I got to Ukraine.

I was probably “lucky” again in the sense that many of my colleagues had to make extreme decisions: flying out of Moscow to Riga (Tbilisi, Bishkek) in 20 hours, having bought the last ticket for a lot of money, and they did not know what they would do there, they did not know what their husbands and children would do there, their dogs, their cats, but there was no other option, and they threw stuff as quickly as they could into boxes and suitcases. And people had time, maybe just on the plane, to cry, to reflect on what was happening to them.
“Meanwhile, on February 26 I was just leaving on a work trip with one small backpack, a laptop, three pairs of socks and three T-shirts.”
Aftermath of the March 4, 2022, battle in Hostomel, the first major battle of the current Russia-Ukraine conflict. Source: Wiki Commons
I lived out of that backpack until June. I still remember that amazing feeling when it got really hot in May and I finally decided to change my wardrobe. But I did not have a working bank card, only a small amount of hryvnias exchanged along the way or transferred to me by the editorial office through someone in Warsaw. I really wanted to stop wearing a sweater and down jacket. I went to an open-air clothing market in Kyiv, near Minskaya metro station. I bought sneakers, as I remember now, for UAH 400, a tracksuit for UAH 500 or UAH 700, a T-shirt for UAH 150.

And with what pleasure I threw away those clothes in which I had arrived from Moscow and traveled to all these bomb shelters and cities! It’s cold in the bomb shelters, people sleep there in hats, gloves, shoes; you cannot take off your clothes there, and no matter what you’ll most likely wake up sick, everyone gets sick there because there’s no normal ventilation. But when you sleep in clothes, they spoil. So, I got great pleasure from finally throwing everything away and coming back from my work trip to Riga, through several European countries, a completely “renewed” person.

So you were in Ukraine during the first, most terrible, three months of the war?

Yes. Returning to your question: how does the feeling of a job well done combine with the feeling that you are experiencing one of the biggest national and personal tragedies in your life?

When I just graduated from university and went to work for Dozhd, it was just the beginning of the war in 2014. I remember how my peers and I asked to go; were upset that we were not allowed to go; were concerned with, discussed among ourselves how great it would be to go. I always wanted to go to war. It was rather an infantile desire to feel like in a movie.

Last spring, I recorded a podcast with our wonderful Meduza podcaster Vlad Gorin, over the phone, and at the end I suddenly burst into tears and told Vlad: “you know, I would give everything in the world for that old dream of mine to never have come true in my life.”

I am still physically ashamed that I thought that war could be a “platform” for me as a journalist to prove myself. People are going to die there, and you are using it as an opportunity to be a voenkor?!

From Ukraine you went straight to Riga, where there were Riga residents for whom life had not changed at all. When I found myself in Europe in 2022, I had some kind of emotional... shock: they go to IKEA, paint garden gnomes... For you, this contrast should have been even more pronounced, [since] you had seen the war.

I was relieved that my work trip was over, I was very tired. But, of course, I was preoccupied with the burden that I brought with me – the burden of a life devoid of normality. I reacted to the sounds like anyone who has lived even a little under shelling. And I felt joy when I woke up at night from a noise, and it was not a plane or a siren, but just someone slamming the door.

I made friends with local guys – not emigrants, not journalists – my friends in Riga are into gardening. But so far my integration into Latvian society is minimal. It was as if I had come from a work trip to another work trip, to the editorial office...

Overall, I had no cognitive dissonance that people were painting garden gnomes.

How has journalistic and editorial work changed? Or because Meduza was in Riga from the very beginning, was there no need to reorganize editorial processes or change anything much?

Yes, it was an incredibly far-sighted decision in 2014 to establish the editorial office in Riga and launch all the main administrative processes from here. By the time everyone who worked at Meduza from Russia moved here from different cities, it was not just an emigrant community waiting for us – our colleagues were waiting for us who already knew everything here – where to find a family doctor, how to rent an apartment. Still, we had the same problems with documents and objective difficulties with obtaining bank cards and residence permits as everyone else.

But the Meduza community made it a lot easier, and I still don’t fully feel that I am in exile. Latvia is a wonderful country, I say this consciously, despite the problems that Dozhd has encountered here. So, I did not have a hard form of emigrant trauma.

They say that the relationship between editors has changed. Whereas before there was competition and professional jealousy, now it has been smoothed over and everyone feels like a single team. As if it really became one big editorial office. In your opinion, has the professional community rethought itself or not?

I believe that competition, of course, still exists, and all the old grievances and ambitions have safely flowed here. But, indeed, the temperature has been taken down a lot. Everyone has thought together about the future. There is a willingness to exchange contacts; unite; make joint statements; organize big processes for the future, human rights or human rights-related work – in this sense, everything has become much easier. And, of course, the basis for this is general anxiety.
“For example, no one knows where to find future employees, where to get young staff.”
Russian military columns, Kyiv region, March 6, 2022. Source: Wiki Commons
People are always leaving; and there is no market without an influx of personnel. It’s frightening to work when it is only you and there is no safety net below with people ready to learn from you.

There is a distinct feeling among many colleagues in different places: if Russian emigrant journalism does not produce any political results – which some grant givers say directly – then the money will run out.

Plus, the situation is stressful. We exist only in the present; we have neither a past nor a future. Maybe there won’t be any grant money, maybe there won’t be any more personnel...

Currently, a painful discussion is that of our previous unshakable ideas and standards that said journalism and activism were different fields. You do either one or the other, because we are about objectivity, about informing. This entire norm is currently being revisited. Can you feel it?

Yes, these standards are being revisited. I see how super professional people, whom I would never expect to be involved in activism, are beginning to lean in that direction. There are editors who see as one of their main tasks not how much material is collected or how many minds it will reach, but whether by publishing this text they will be able to deprive Russia of the opportunity to obtain chips for its missiles.

There are editors who run a media with one hand and a human rights project that openly offers legal advice, funding for refugees, etc. with the other.

But this is a feature of the times. I don’t think that we will forever reconsider the way we work. When there is such anger, grief, shame, responsibility, it is impossible for these enormous geomagnetic fields not to affect everyone. But in 5, 10, 15, 20 years they will subside, and journalistic principles will remain the same as they were a century before.

[…] For me, after February 24, there is no “oh my God, how can you be a journalist while being an activist, or vice versa” – these are all questions from 2021.

Do you still have colleagues, friends in Russia, also journalists? Do you sense this infamous gap between those who left Russia and those who stayed?

Colleagues remained, but all my friends left. I sometimes meet heroes who are now working from Russia, who continue to do journalism there; for obvious reasons, I will not name names […] considering how many journalists, lawyers, human rights activists have been beaten, imprisoned, arrested...

I can imagine this stress... It can probably be dealt with, but that’s not the problem. The problem is that at some point it will inevitably end in real detention, arrest or being beaten.

You started writing in English, is this some kind of career strategy? Is the idea that you can then go work for English-language publications? Or is it just training and reaching a different audience?

Meduza in English has The Beet newsletter about Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia (it a wonderful play on words, a newsbeat with the spelling and logo of a beet). And when I went to Karabakh, the editors decided that the same thing should be written up in English.

Meduza has relaunched crowdfunding to bring its work to an international audience, and we are developing an English-language editorial office; we want to be read throughout the world and be respected. We want the old American lady who has been reading The Washington Post for the last 50 years to open our stories and not be surprised by anything. And I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t succeed.

Editors, managers, naturally, everyone now wants to create English versions so that they can be read.

When you are unable to go back to your homeland, all the ties with your sources gradually weaken. A couple of my sources simply died in the war. Others suddenly lose the enthusiasm to communicate with a journalist who used to live in Moscow, with whom they could have coffee, but now calls them from the NATO bloc.

Maintaining contacts becomes very, very hard.
“But it is very hard for me to imagine not writing in Russian, that I am not a Russian journalist. I simply would not be interested in writing about anything else besides than Russia.”
For me, as a journalist, this is the best job in the world. And it’s a terrible dream that you may never go back to Russia, a nightmare from which you wake up sweating every morning, but it doesn’t end.

I love my country very much and I want it to first stop everything, then fix everything, then atone for everything, and then the people who were tortured and humiliated for decades can live normally.

Perhaps, at the same time realizing that, let’s be honest, there is no real basis for this?

Even at the beginning of the war, on the work trip to Ukraine, I realized that this would last a very, very long time. Not only the war, but the current government in Russia too. The people may change, but most likely everything will end one way or another in a compromise agreed with all Western partners that will freeze the war, perhaps for the next eight years, and then it will be unfrozen again. These are my ideas about the future.
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