Conflicts of Interest

Building a democratic media in Ukraine

A volunteer retrieves documents that Yanukovich dumped into the lake when he fled Ukraine. Mezhyhirya, near Kyiv. 2014. Photograph by Mikhail Pochuyev/SIPA.

Read the diary of Anastacia Stanko, the Ukrainian journalist featured in this story, on her life in the months after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, here.

When Anastacia Stanko was born, the Soviet empire had only four years left to live. It would not be much missed in her native city of Ivano-Frankivsk. There, certain Ukrainian traditions had never stopped breathing where they lay buried. There was a banned scouts group and the long-suppressed Greek Catholic church. Pictures of Stanko in young adulthood showed her in national costume, against the Ukrainian nationalist colors red and black. Her family owned a small business that built hearths. There was a river where she liked to swim, and a sister just a year behind her, and a conservative school that drew from a wellspring of anti-Soviet, Ukrainian patriotism.

In 2004, when Stanko was a journalism student in Lviv, she took part in the Orange Revolution, protesting the installation of a pro-Russian ex-con named Viktor Yanukovich as president. She believed that behind her orange banner was the cause her grandmother had fought for as a nationalist partisan in the Second World War. The Orange Revolution succeeded, but its political leaders were weak. Power gravitated where it always had: toward money, which was concentrated in the hands of oligarchs, and toward Russia, which riddled Ukraine’s ship of state with holes. Yanukovich, who had made his first living stealing women’s hats, ran a divisive campaign in 2010 and won. His popular support came mainly from the country’s predominantly Russian-speaking east.

New protests, bigger and angrier, erupted ten years after the orange ones. Their epicenter was Maidan Nezalezhnosti, Kyiv’s vast central square. Now Stanko was a media pioneer, a co-founder of the country’s first independent television newsroom, known as Hromadske. She live-streamed the protests by day, edited at night, slept for maybe three hours at a stretch. She channeled the square’s wild energy, she stoked it, she became famous. People called her station the voice of Maidan. There were peaceful encampments, and there were riot police, and eventually there were street clashes, Molotov cocktails, burning buildings, gunshots, national shock and grief. Yanukovich fled. Stanko thought she would finally sleep.

Instead she went to war. Russia annexed Crimea and then made a play for a swath of eastern Ukraine. In the spring and summer of 2014, Stanko’s friends from her childhood scouts group joined volunteer battalions fighting Russians and separatists in the country’s industrial eastern region known as Donbas. She followed them with a camera. Her first reports had an eccentric quality. With her flak jacket and helmet she wore pink pants, a tank top, sandals. She shouted sometimes, mugged for the camera, and grinned like she could barely hold back some vaguely transgressive joke. She wasn’t a combat reporter, but she became one.

Ukrainians already understood themselves to be at war with Russia since 2014, and, in fact, the fighting had been continuous

On June 30, 2014, Stanko and her cameraman were taken prisoner by separatists behind the frontline in Luhansk. In captivity she had little choice but to listen to people very different from herself, who saw the country’s agony in a completely opposing light. She tried to understand what they saw. This act of imagination lit a spark of change in her. She began to think that the country needed open dialogue as much as it needed anything else. So much was never talked about, even from the bloody twentieth century, and so there was no shared understanding of history, only winners and losers. By January 2015, Stanko, when on camera, no longer appeared to be out on a lark with a group of heavily armed friends. Instead, she entered bomb shelters or crowds of angry civilians whose shattered homes were five degrees Celsius indoors, and who demanded food, water and security. She was the reporter following Ukrainian troops in retreat and repeatedly asking how many were dead. She went to mental hospitals and prisons in the conflict zone, documenting lives trapped or forgotten. Though she covered Russian abuses and manipulations in the conflict region, Stanko also covered those from her own side: ceasefire violations, prisoners held incommunicado, collateral damage. She presented the suffering of civilians and soldiers with an unflinching humanity devoid of romance or jingoism. She believed she was doing her job, which was to hold up a mirror to her inflamed country, in the hope that it could see itself whole.

• • •

Russia shocked much of the world by invading Ukraine in February 2022, but Ukrainians already understood themselves to be at war with Russia since 2014, and, in fact, the fighting had been continuous. From 2014 to 2022, dozens of soldiers and civilians died every month in Donbas, where forces dug into trenches battled across a volatile line of contact and civilians sought ever-elusive reprieve. Two agreements negotiated in Minsk were meant to pacify the conflict but did nothing of the kind, as Russia-backed separatists continually violated their terms. The existence on Ukrainian territory of regions outside the government’s control, with citizens Kyiv could neither support nor protect, was destabilizing by design.

It was during this period, in 2017, that I visited Kyiv and Kharkiv. Both were vibrant, meticulously tended cities: Kyiv, of pastel facades and gilded cupolas on steep and winding streets whose every berm was planted in flowers; Kharkiv, of cosmopolitan universities, vast squares and monuments to Soviet-era constructivism. The people I met in both cities were absorbed in the business of self-government after Maidan. The Ukraine they occupied felt at once far from the front and tethered to it, as Ukrainian civil society struggled to balance its embrace of democratic pluralism against the designs of an enemy determined to exploit any fissure.

When I met Stanko in 2017, many of the people who had loved her reporting from Maidan seemed to hate her reports from Donbas. On social media, some said she had Stockholm Syndrome. They said she was soft on Russia. They called her names. “Journalist-whore Stanko needs to be prosecuted and jailed for separatism,” read a typical Facebook post at the time. She got text messages identifying her address and telling her to be careful, because anything could happen. That she used the phrase “the Ukrainian army” instead of “our army” proved her a traitor, said some: A journalist—maybe—could aspire to be even-handed, though her critics doubted even this. But a patriot could not. She was exhausted by it.

As the chief editor of Hromadske East, her station’s program on the conflict zone, during those years Stanko sat at the intersection of her country’s two defining struggles. One was the war in Donbas where, even then, Ukraine fought a lopsided contest with Russia not only over territory but for the proverbial hearts and minds of a whipsawed population. The other was the effort of young people like Stanko to make good on the promise of the 2014 Maidan revolution: liberal reform and government transparency, both of which require a robust and critical free press.

Oligarchs owned the television networks, television was king and the whims, vanities and feuds of the station owners dictated newsroom priorities and marked off taboos.

Reform alone would have been a hefty agenda for a country with a chronic, deep-rooted corruption problem. But the war, even before last winter’s full-scale invasion, made things more complicated still. Portrayed by a relentless Russian media machine as an apocryphal nation under fascist control, Ukraine expended enormous energy simply in defining itself and trying to show its best face to a skeptical world. Some Ukrainian patriots saw a media that insisted on exposing the country’s warts and criticizing its government as counterproductive in that effort. Others believed that such a press was exactly what the country was fighting for.

Before Maidan, Ukraine had long had a lively and fractious media, without its ever being exactly free. Oligarchs owned the television networks, television was king and the whims, vanities and feuds of the station owners dictated newsroom priorities and marked off taboos. Back in 2012, Yanukovich had briefly replaced even this imperfect quorum with a heavy-handed unanimity in the Russian style. The 2014 Maidan revolution released that grip, but as with so much else in Ukraine, corruption remained the media’s besetting sin. Politicians paid for favorable content, and oligarchs kept reporters well fed while using newsrooms as instruments of personal influence.

The name “Hromadske” meant “public”: it was adopted by about a dozen disgruntled reporters from the oligarchic networks in 2013, when they set about establishing a nonprofit television station that was meant to serve the public interest and to prize professional standards above all. Stanko got in on the ground floor, having met Hromadske’s other co-founders in an anti-censorship campaign that linked independent-minded journalists during Yanukovich’s time.

With limited resources from foreign funders, Stanko and her colleagues expected to start airing weekly episodes online in November 2013. But the station’s launch date coincided with the start of demonstrations on Maidan, and Hromadske instead began live-streaming 24 hours a day, seven days a week, often from reporters’ iPhones, while also hosting discussions in its makeshift studio. The production values were poor, but the subject was urgent and the material uncensored. Ukrainians all over the world tuned in—at a given moment on November 24, 2013, the new station logged more than 760,000 simultaneous viewers—and Stanko, with her characteristic squint and rabbit-toothed smile, was one of its most recognizable correspondents.

Frontline near Occupied Balakliya Kharkiv region. 2022. Photograph by Marcin Suden.

For Stanko and her colleagues, Hromadske and Maidan were the stuff of dreams. They worked without looking over their shoulders for the first time in their professional lives, and they did it, seemingly, with everybody watching. The new station streamed on YouTube and trended on Twitter because these were the platforms available. But the content was old school, and the staff was made up of trained professionals in a country whose press corps skewed young.

Stanko later looked back on the four months of Maidan as though they were a continuous day, spent moving from street to studio to street again. Events unspooled at a furious pace. In central Kyiv, tires burned into dense black smoke while activists faced off with rows of helmeted, shielded riot police. When security forces threw activists from the top of a colonnade at the entrance to a sports stadium, Stanko was there, streaming. Two days after the worst violence against the protesters, President Yanukovich fled the country, and journalists invaded Mezhyhiria, his lavish, 350-acre estate outside of Kyiv, at whose gates reporters used to mass yearly in a ritual demand for entry. Now for the first time it lay exposed: the gilded house, the private zoo, the ostrich farm, the spa, the bowling alley, the restaurant, the salt cave, the food laboratory. As he fled, Yanukovich and his aides dumped hundreds of documents into the lake that edged the property. Volunteer divers retrieved them, teams of journalists laid them out on the helicopter pad to dry and restore. Stanko imagined she would have fodder to investigate Yanukovich’s abuses for years to come.

But within the week, Russian gunmen appeared in Crimea, where pro-Russian rebels seized control of the capital. Stanko was in the Hromadske studio the night it became evident that Russia was taking the peninsula away. A colleague hid her backpack to keep her from rushing to the scene. She would be conspicuous in Crimea. She spoke Ukrainian as her primary language, was not comfortable speaking Russian, and worked for a media organization strongly associated with the revolution that was Moscow’s pretext for rescuing Russian-speaking citizens from the fascist junta that it alleged had just seized power in Kyiv.

To be on the safe side, on reaching the first administrative checkpoint on the Crimean peninsula, Stanko tore her Hromadske press card into pieces and ate it. But no harm came to her in Crimea. She thought the atmosphere was surreal, and that local people believed in fairy tales invented by the Russian media—like that Right Sector, a far right Ukrainian nationalist group that was active on Maidan, had stationed anti-aircraft mounts and chemical weapons in the Crimean mountains, or that if they voted in a referendum to join Russia, the Kremlin would give them all free apartments like in Soviet times. Then she crossed back to the mainland, and saw Ukrainian soldiers digging trenches, and understood that whatever else was artifice, her country was at war.

• • •

Ukraine was an early laboratory for Russian manipulation of a sort that became familiar to Americans only later. Among the narratives Moscow had promoted to help Yanukovich come to power in the first place was one of stark division between residents of eastern and western Ukraine. Russian propaganda would have you believe that Western Ukrainians were crypto-fascists who looked down on the Russian-speaking Crimeans and Eastern Ukrainians. By its lights, Eastern Ukrainians, especially in industrial Donbas, were unrefined, inferior—or, if you were an Eastern Ukrainian, the hard-working salt of the earth. Russia pushed the line that Maidan, when it came, was a CIA-sponsored coup d’etat that installed a Nazi government in Kyiv. Yet it was also a decadent street party held by people who didn’t like to work. Moscow’s spinmasters accused Ukraine of being a failed (but fascist) state with an abusive army pummeling the Russian-speakers whom Westerners despised. That Kyiv was itself a largely Russian-speaking city seemed merely an inconvenience to the purveyors of these tangled stories, as confusion, not coherence, was the object.

Before 2014, Russian television had near total penetration of the Ukrainian market. No language barrier existed, and even Ukrainian channels borrowed footage from their Russian counterparts. The media market was porous. After 2014, it could not afford to be: Russia was an enemy at war for Ukraine’s autonomy and its territory, using its much larger, richer, top-down media to pummel its neighbor with information offensives designed to tear its society apart and cause its democratic government to fail. In the first years after Maidan, the Ukrainian government under then-President Petro Poroshenko took action, blocking Russian television signals and banning Russian social media companies from Ukrainian space. At the time of my visit, these measures were controversial. Were they the minimum required for the country’s self-defense? Or were they akin to censorship?

Viktoria Syumar, a member of parliament with a background in journalism, made the case for the measures to me in stark terms. The Russian media, as she described it then, was not competing in any marketplace of ideas. Rather, it was a coordinated instrument of coercion indistinguishable from the Kremlin. To simply leave the Ukrainian populace to sort real journalism from malevolent libels would not suffice. “We have some people who lived in the Soviet Union,” she said. “They believe that everything they can watch on TV is true. We don’t have in our educational system criticism, we don’t have media literacy, we don’t have any political education.” Fixing this was certainly a priority. But in the meantime, Russia could not be permitted to manipulate Ukrainians at will.

As a democracy, Ukraine did not have a top-down propaganda machine, and the media it did have, in its diversity and absence of state control, could not be weaponized. But hybrid war presented journalists with unavoidable moral questions. Were Ukrainian reporters obligated to consider the possible misuses of the information they produced? Was it their job to promote an opposing narrative to the Russian one? Did it even make a difference? “I guess if you have an opponent with a huge machine worth $4 billion per year and directed by a whole system of state authorities, media experts [in Ukraine] will not be able to do anything,” Syumar said. “It’s like an insect punching an elephant.”

Such was the dilemma that faced Ukrainian war correspondents like Stanko during what turned out to be the conflict’s low ebb. The model for public television in Ukraine was originally the BBC: journalism that was not in the pocket of an oligarch or a president, that was not for sale or for use or for Russia, would adopt the standards of the British broadcaster, reporting both sides, evincing neutrality, staring down unpleasant truths, showing no favor. But what sounded high-minded in principle in 2013 rubbed even some liberal-minded Ukrainians wrong when they felt their country under existential threat. By 2017, “BBC standards” had become a term not of aspiration but of abuse. “BBC standards,” spoken with implicit scare quotes, was reporting on your own war as though it were happening to someone else, it was prizing balance over country and neutrality over one’s own side. “BBC standards,” as a former colleague of Stanko’s put it to me, meant taking a vegetarian position in the face of aggression in war.

A country that on Maidan seemed very certain it wanted a free press sometimes appeared to have buyers’ remorse in the years that immediately followed. Tatyana Lebedeva, the head of a commission that successfully transformed Ukraine’s formerly state-owned broadcaster into a large public one, told me in 2017 that Ukrainian journalists were too negative: they should temper their investigative work with more positive stories about the government. “These might be success stories, stories of some heroes, something motivational,” Lebedeva said. “This sort of information is crucial for people, especially in times of war, as without it they can fall into depression.”

Nataliya Ligachova, who ran Ukraine’s media watchdog, an NGO called Detektor Media, agreed: “There should be a very delicate balance between criticizing and presenting positive information about the transformation going on inside the country, sometimes supporting the authorities, especially in foreign policy and concerning the response to external aggression.” According to Ligachova, Ukrainian journalists had to weigh their professional duties against their civic ones. Stanko’s station, Hromadske, she said, “sometimes even cross the line on that, in the sense that sometimes under the guise of impartiality they introduce criticism.”

Grey Zone between the frontlines, near Kharkiv. 2022. Photograph by one of the colonels

The notion of patriotism as precluding criticism, and of the press as responsible for bucking up the national mood and refraining from undermining the authorities, seemed less prevalent among the younger Ukrainian media professionals, who were reared in post-Soviet times. Ukraine had one of the region’s most vibrant investigative press corps, and particularly after Maidan, journalists saw ferreting out official corruption as a patriotic duty to their country’s better future. That future would be starkly differentiated from Russia’s, not least in Ukraine’s embrace of a spirit of critical pluralism. To this extent, a noisy, fractious, even oppositional press corps would be no mosquito, but something far more potent in confronting the Russian elephant.

“What was completely unacceptable for Mr. Putin and his crowd was Ukraine’s success on a different road to the future,” Evgeny Kisilev, a well-known Russian opposition journalist living in Kyiv, told me. “Ukraine’s success as a country which develops along the lines of a multi-political, multicultural, pro-Western model and road of development would be a very significant blow to Vladimir Putin’s political practices. And it could have been a vivid example to the Russian population and Russian citizens, that you don’t necessarily need to wage a new cold war against the West to be a successful nation. You don’t necessarily need to limit democratic rights and freedoms to be a successful nation.”

Many liberal Ukrainians of Stanko’s generation argued that Ukraine could defeat Russia’s propaganda campaign not by manipulating the flow of information, but by making a better truth prevail. If the standard of living in Ukraine was higher than that in Russia, if the press was freer, if civil liberties were respected, if the tireless efforts of civil society succeeded in checking the government’s staggering levels of graft, then no one would need convincing that Maidan was, as its supporters called it, a “Revolution of Dignity,” and that the Russian media peddled malicious lies.

In February 2022, Russia took to shelling Ukraine’s lovingly tended cities and massacring civilians in a campaign it all but announced as genocide. In doing so, it ceded the information war to Ukraine, but in a manner that would afford the country’s courageous press corps little comfort. One of the investigative reporters I’d met in Kyiv led a tank unit into battle in Donbas. Others posted from bomb shelters and from cities aflame. Stanko considered joining the Territorial Defense, but in the end continued doing what she had always done: She accompanied soldiers into battle, captured unguarded moments of courage and grief, documented the lives of civilians under siege and exhumed the villages that Russia laid waste. Under the pitiless light of Russian artillery, the earlier debates about the role of the media in Ukraine might seem an irrelevance or a luxury. And yet for me, they still resonate as the expression of something essential about Ukraine’s struggle and what it is fighting to defend.


Laura Secor

Laura Secor is a journalist whose work has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, Atlantic Monthly, New Republic and other publications. She is the author, most recently, of Children of Paradise: The Struggle for the Soul of Iran.

Discover the Ukraine that was—and the one that will be. Stranger’s Guide: Ukraine is among the most challenging and powerful volumes we’ve ever put out, featuring Ukrainian writers and photographers, many of whom are still in their country, others living abroad ...

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