Q&A with Alisa Sopova, Harvard's First Ukrainian Nieman Fellow

Alisa Sopova‘Mordor’ and ‘Black Hole’: In Ukraine, these are the terms frequently used to describe the territories controlled by separatists in the east, Alisa Sopova says. While these metaphors paint a picture of a wasteland or void controlled by dark powers, their use also reveals a kind of ‘othering’ on the part of people outside of these zones. For many in Ukraine and abroad, the ongoing conflict – now in its third year – is something ‘over there,’ something strange, abstract, and at odds with regular life.

Sopova, a journalist from Donetsk and Harvard’s first Ukrainian Nieman Fellow, notes that even Kyiv’s residents don’t know what life is like in the separatist-controlled territories. Yet, 3.5 million people live there and try to carry on normal lives, despite regular shelling, uncertain government jurisdiction, and infrastructure interruptions.

At HURI’s Ukrainian Study Group on Thursday, March 30, Sopova will describe life in the self-proclaimed DPR and LPR. Not only does she still have friends and family in the region, the journalist worked in Donbas specifically to cover the war from both sides (before coming to the United States for a fellowship year). Like her colleague and friend Anastasia Taylor-Lind, who spoke at HURI last year, Sopova has critically examined the way war is reported and documented. She abandoned the increasingly prevalent tactics of a polarized information war and instead sought to adhere to classic, objective journalism, despite a deluge of polemics and misinformation.

We asked Sopova a few questions about journalism in Ukraine and her own experiences ahead of her talk. All are welcome to join us for her talk, “Separatist Wonderland: An Eyewitness Account of the Life in Occupied Donetsk,” at 12:15pm on March 30.

HURI: Why did you choose this topic for your presentation?

Sopova: Western countries acquire information from Kyiv and other “government controlled” parts of Ukraine and represent it pretty well. In the meantime, what is going on in the occupied territories is often unclear and mysterious, even for those in Kyiv. Being from Donetsk, I partly feel responsible to represent those 3.5 million people who got stuck in limbo in the middle of a frozen conflict, becoming hostages of someone’s political ambitions. I am not defending those who contributed to the occupation, but I want to show that the picture is more complex and diverse than it might seem superficially. I realize that I have a unique access to exclusive information from there which might be interesting and useful for those researching or just curious about the issue.

Alisa SopovaHURI: Can you give Americans an idea of freedom of the press in Ukraine, both before and after the conflict broke out?

Sopova: I wouldn’t say that the freedom of the press situation has changed dramatically because of the conflict (and, unfortunately, it obviously didn’t change after Maidan as many people expected it would in early 2014). The main trend is the same: there is no censorship or any other direct control, but since all the main media belong to oligarchs, they cover everything in the interests of their owners. Control over media is economical rather than political.

Before the war, when I worked as a chief of the news department at Donbass Media Holding in Donetsk, we would freely criticize local authorities, we sometimes openly mocked Yanukovich when covering his visits to the region, and nobody said a word to us. But we always had to refrain from criticism of Rinat Akhmetov and everyone else on whom we were economically dependent as advertisers, because if they stopped cooperating with us, we would incur financial losses, and, as one of the very few independent media in Ukraine at that moment, we were barely making ends meet. Of course, for the media actually belonging to financial groups, this dependency is even more obvious.

Now the dynamics remain pretty much the same. Around Maidan a few new media outlets appeared, like Hromadske TV, which position themselves as totally different, independent, progressive, and so on. Indeed, they often do pretty cool and progressive things, but when you try to look at their sources of financing, they are still absolutely non-transparent, and attempts to raise those questions are usually followed by scandals.

HURI: On a related note, last year, hackers published a list of journalists who were accredited by separatists, labeling them “terrorist collaborators.” What happened with this publication and why was it a big deal?

Sopova: The most immediate effect of the publication of the list was endangering the journalists who were included in it. Many of us (including myself) received threats and were harassed.

Looking at things in a wider perspective, the real big problem about this list was that by publishing it (along with the nasty introduction about the “terrorist accomplices”), the state basically sent a clear message that the coverage of the conflict should be strictly one-sided, and those who disobeyed would be considered traitors. This is against the basic rules of journalism ethics and against Ukraine’s official position that the separatist “republics” should be considered Ukrainian territory. If it is so, then what is the problem with Ukrainian journalists working on Ukrainian territory and writing about the Ukrainian citizens who live there? – Especially since the Ukrainian and Western journalists who entered L/DPR from Ukrainian side usually had a pretty pro-Ukrainian perspective of coverage and objectively had nothing to be blamed for.

Another big issue with this situation was that not only was it initiated by the state, it was eagerly supported by a significant portion of society, including many journalists. Basically, the journalist community was divided by this publication. Those who thought that the occupied territories should be covered were in minority, and the opponents were eagerly bullying us, together with the Ministry of Interior. This, from my point of view, reflects a very important (and disturbing) shift in the minds of journalists.

Overwhelmed by what was happening in 2014, by the flood of fake news from Russia, by the lack of ceremony with which Putin acting, Ukrainian journalists arrived at the conclusion that an information war was going on, and at the moment when “the Motherland is in danger” and so on, they should join this information war and fight on the Ukrainian side. This included one-sided coverage, demonization of the enemy (and, much worse, demonization of the civil population living under occupation, and even IDPs), emotionally charged vocabulary (“our valiant warriors and their terrorist mercenaries”), etc. Basically, Ukrainian journalists started imitating Russian propaganda, and did so voluntarily, long before any pressure from the state occurred. Soon it became the norm, and everyone who didn’t fit in, who was trying to do classical, objective journalism, was labeled a traitor.

For now, this trend is only becoming bigger and bigger, unfortunately. After all the classes on war and propaganda I’ve taken here at Harvard during my Nieman year, I know that it’s pretty natural for societies going through war to look for simple answers, for a black and white picture of reality, for good guys and bad guys. Still, I wish my colleagues were more mature and able to think critically.

Alisa Sopova HURI: What is the source and impact of fake news in Ukraine, particularly in the Donbass, and how does it compare with the “fake news” concern in the US over the past few months?

Sopova: The impact is huge. According to my observations, back in 2014 fake news (to be precise, the whole propaganda campaign based on fake news) was the main trigger that started military conflict. I was overwhelmed by its impact on people’s conscience long before it happened here in America. Before 2014, I thought that, as a professional journalist, I knew almost everything about how information is spread and how it influences the society. But what I saw at that point was beyond anything I could ever imagine.

I covered street riots in Donetsk when pro-Russian demonstrators came with knives and other “weapons” and attacked pro-Ukrainians, killing one person and wounding many more, and then I would come home, switch on the Russian news and see them reporting exactly the opposite, calling black white and vice versa. And people in Donetsk (because the majority of them, of course, weren’t present when things happened, especially the elderly people) would believe this. I cried of helplessness and injustice when I saw it.

In the same way, I saw people around me suddenly believing that Western Ukraine was completely populated by fascists who could not wait to come to Donetsk and commit some WWII-style massacre. Among them was my grandmother who went to a sanatorium in Truskavets just a year earlier and obviously didn’t see any fascists there. Somehow, they managed to totally block people’s capacity for logical and critical thinking.

At the same time, it was hard to explain this, even to the American journalists for whom I worked as a fixer at the moment. When I talked about a huge information campaign involving tons of fake news every day that was literally driving people crazy, it sounded to them like I believed in some weird conspiracy. Now it’s sometimes believed that Russia used the Donbass case to test this information technology, which later became famous worldwide. I don’t want to sound like conspiracy theorist again, but it’s a fact that what we experienced back in 2014, the Western world is experiencing now, and in a very light version.

Another factor we should not forget is that all of those propaganda techniques and fake news, however fake they are, are still based on fears and beliefs that actually exist in society. In Ukraine, a division between East and West identity already existed, and this division was actively exploited by a series of governments since at least 2004. I believe it was never strong enough to cause a civil war by itself, but Russia successfully used it as a backdrop to achieve its goals. Maybe if for the past decade Ukrainian authorities did more to unite and reconcile the nation and speculated less on this division in order to win elections, it wouldn’t be so easy for Putin to trigger the conflict.

I’d like to say the same about America. I think intellectuals and journalists here are too focused on Trump’s personality, and the foreign influence and informational technologies that brought him to power. I would suggest focusing instead on the question of why American society is so divided, what people who voted for Trump want, why they are so angry, and how we can find common language with them and resolve their problems. The healthier society is, the less it is vulnerable to fake news. This is the core priority, I believe.

Alisa Sopova HURI: As a journalist reporting on the war in eastern Ukraine, you witnessed violence and destruction not just in your own country, but in your hometown. How do you remain objective? And what made you decide to stay when the fighting intensified?

Sopova: I wouldn’t say I remain objective; rather, I became objective. Initially, I was completely on the Ukrainian side. In June 2014, I left Donetsk and moved to Kyiv, and for a while covered the conflict on the Ukrainian side of the front lines, and I wrote several stories which I am now ashamed of. In these stories, cowardly and stupid separatists were terrorizing people in Slavyansk until the glorious Ukrainian army saved them. At the same time, I was in touch with my family in Donetsk and I was eager to understand the processes happening at home, even though I didn’t like them.

Right after Ilovaysk, when it became clear that Donetsk wasn’t going to be liberated soon (which we were all expecting to happen over the summer), I decided to accept The New York Times’ offer to go back to Donetsk to cover the situation on the other side. I think what made me really change and broaden my perception then was communication with some of the rebel fighters and volunteers on DPR side whom I had to meet for work. I discovered that many of those people were actually my neighbors and fellow countrymen, people I knew and understood, who were brainwashed into what they were doing. They sincerely believed they were protecting me, their children, and their homes from the pure evil which Ukrainian forces represented in their minds. What they were doing was destructive in the end, but they were moved by noble motives and were eager to sacrifice themselves to protect and save others. In fact, their logic was absolutely the same as on the other side.

The more time I spent on the both sides of the conflict, the more similarities I saw. In fact, there were the same kinds of people on the both sides, just moved against each other by different interpretations of the same ideas of protecting your community from some violent, evil invasion. I think it’s the basic logic of any war that 90 percent of the people who are actually doing stuff sincerely believe in what they are doing. And it’s the remaining 10 percent, mostly politicians and PR specialists, who never take guns in their own hands, who can be blamed for the violence. It’s impossible to not see it if you work as a journalists on both sides; this is why I am advocating so passionately for this approach.

HURI: As the first Ukrainian Nieman Fellow, what drew you to the program? What are your impressions of journalism (and life) in the US?

Sopova: I was always, since I was a child, very much interested in America, as this other world on the opposite side of the planet where basically everything is very similar to us, but all the small details are so different. It was my big dream to come here, to see and travel, but being a Ukrainian citizen, I struggled to get a visa and was refused three times. So, when my friend and colleague, 2016 Nieman fellow Anastasia Taylor-Lind, whom I met in Ukraine during the conflict, suggested I apply, I decided to try. I didn’t have much confidence I’d get it, but decided that if I consider it my dream to come to America, I should not neglect any opportunity. Surprisingly, it worked. So, initially I didn’t even think about it much as an opportunity for an international professional exchange, in terms of what I can tell my colleagues here and what I can study. These opportunities I appreciated later, when I had arrived and started participating in Nieman activities.

Of course, I have tons of impressions about life and my studies here, but if I start describing them now I’m afraid it will take forever. As for journalism, I would say I expected more. As a Ukrainian, I used to look up to America, as the homeland of democracy, expecting journalism here to be ideal and an example to follow. With such an attitude it’s easy to get disappointed. Additionally, I was surprised to find out that The New York Times could have a much more progressive layout design; that there could be much more independent, young, ambitious media projects, instead of everyone reading the same newspapers and watching the same TV channels for decades; that all the media is divided into liberal and conservative (where are the neutral ones?).

I was highly curious to observe the presidential elections and their unexpected results. Here, with my above experiences, I suddenly felt in some aspects even more prepared for such a situation, while many of my American colleagues are still struggling to understand how to live and work under new circumstances. As I mentioned before, I believe they should focus less on Trump’s personality and the media’s conflict with him, and more on the people who voted for him and the processes that made society so divided.

Alisa SopovaHURI: The West has many misconceptions about both Ukraine and the current war. What are some of the biggest misconceptions, in your opinion?

Sopova: I think the biggest misconception is that the war is actually finished or it doesn’t matter anymore.

Public opinion of things happening far away is formed by media, but the level of coverage doesn’t usually reflect the actual dynamics. There is nothing thrilling happening in Ukraine right now, no passenger liners shot down, no cities being conquered with huge casualties, so international media lost interest in Ukraine.

The reaction of people who meet me and discover that I am from Ukraine is usually like, “Ah, Ukraine. What’s going on there, by the way? Is there still conflict? I haven’t heard about it for a while.” My family in Donetsk still hears shelling every day, there are still people dying every day, there are some very disturbing processes happening (like growing political repressions in DPR, for example), but it’s not an issue of media interest anymore, it’s out of fashion. Similarly, several months ago everyone was going crazy about Aleppo, but who cares about it now? I am more than sure there are still many important and dramatic things happening there.

This is why I am happy to have this opportunity to talk at HURI, and in general I see it as my mission to look for new, engaging ways of telling the world that the war in Ukraine is still happening and something should be done about it.

HURI: What do you think people back home in Donetsk would want us to know?

Sopova: I think they would want the world to know that they are not all without exception separatists; that they are deserted and abandoned by their own country; that nobody ever asked them for real (fake referendums don’t count) what they want and where they want to live; that they are an object of constant speculations by both sides, while neither side wants to take responsibility for them; that they live in an absolutely weird reality and still manage to survive and enjoy life. Something like this.

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