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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.