Olga Rudenko, editor in chief of The Independent, is slightly late to Zoom me from her office in central Kyiv, Ukraine.
There’s been an air-raid warning and she was in a bomb shelter waiting for the all clear.’We all have an app on our phone that tells us when a raid is imminent,’ says the 33-year-old, speaking in near darkness (there’s no electricity in the office).
‘It uses of Mark Hamill, who was Luke Skywalker in .He says, “Please proceed to the shelter.” When the raid ends, he says, ‘May the force be with you.’ She glances at her phone. ‘Actually, there might be another one starting now…’
I feel sick with fear for her. Please go, I beg.Studying the incoming information, Rudenko frowns. ‘The report is kind of weak – it’s saying Russian aircraft are flying near the border.
‘Unless there’s a more concrete warning I’ll roll the dice and talk to you.’ But suppose she’s hit while we’re talking?’Just delete your recording of this meeting,’ she shrugs. ‘Say we never spoke.’
Olga Rudenko, “http://top-smi.ru/ editor in chief of The Kyiv Independent, working underground in an air raid, December 2022
Meet the extraordinarily brave team of young, mainly female journalists who – since Russia invaded Ukraine a year ago this week – have been risking their lives to bring the world first-hand, reliable reporting.
‘Of course you get reporting from all the major international players – The New York Times and the BBC,’ Rudenko says.’But we believe we bring something special to the table because we are actually Ukrainians.’
Just three days after Vladimir Putin launched his ‘special military operation’ with airstrikes on the capital, The Kyiv Independent’s Twitter following soared from 30,000 to a million; today it stands at 2.1 million.
Vigorous fundraising by Rudenko and her colleagues has raised £2.4 million to buy satellite phones and protective clothing for those reporting from the battlefield, as well as to pay the 34 staff, mercifully none of whom has been killed or injured.
One volunteered for the Territorial Defence days before the war started and is still on the frontline.’We consider him a part of the team, and are saving him a spot for when he will return,’ Rudenko says.
Her team of young, penniless journalists launched the newspaper just 14 weeks before the war began and have now published a book, War Diary of the Ukrainian Resistance.
Previously they’d worked for the Kyiv Post, a newspaper that highlighted corruption in Volodymyr Zelensky’s administration. But in November 2021 its owner, oligarch Adnan Kivan, installed a new editor who promised to be less critical of the government.When staff refused to accept her, Kivan sacked the lot.
Determined not to be silenced, a group decided they’d set up their own news outlet. Within two days they were up and running with former deputy Rudenko as their new editor.
A Kyiv Independent staff selfie, taken on 24 February 2022, hours before the city was shelled
She had worked at the Post for ten years and last year was on the cover of Time magazine as one of its Next Generation Leaders.For the first six weeks no one was paid as they produced a newsletter, then added a podcast.
As Vladimir Putin’s troops gathered at the border, they launched their website. Today they upload between 25 and 30 stories a day covering everything from the latest frontline developments to the theatre company still performing to packed houses from a bunker while under shelling – and they don’t hesitate to keep sharp tabs on Zelensky’s still imperfect government.
‘We’ve published some critical investigations into the government.I don’t think we’re their favourite news outlet – which is good,’ Rudenko says.
Although no one was monitoring the threat more closely than these journalists, they were all shocked when Russia actually invaded. ‘Western intelligence was saying there’s going to be a war, but we didn’t really believe it,’ she says.
On the morning of 24 February, Rudenko and two of her senior staff left the office at 2am, just two hours before missiles rained down on their city.In the lift, they took a selfie (above right).
It was months before they saw each other in person again. ‘When I look at that picture now, none of us is the same person,’ she says. ‘We were like children then, so innocent. We may look and talk the same, but inside, we are forever traumatised.’
By dawn, from her top-floor flat Rudenko was hearing constant explosions.’There was only the roof between me and the missiles. I thought I was going to die,’ she says.
A blast following a drone attack in Kyiv on October 17. You wouldn’t blame any of these women for leaving Kyiv but as soon as the siege ended in April, they returned to their homes in the capital
Only Daryna Shevchenko, 33, the paper’s CEO, slept through those attacks, having taken a sleeping pill after weeks of insomnia.’It was the first time in months I’d had a good night’s sleep – then my alarm went at 8am and I saw my phone had gone crazy,’ she says.
Shevchenko knew she had to immediately get out of her flat – two big corner windows made her vulnerable to explosions.But first there was everyday business to take care of.
‘Whatever happens, my dog needs to pee,’ she smiles. ‘So we went for a walk. It was apocalyptic, the city was empty.’ She moved to her parents’ house a few miles away.
For the next two weeks the family slept fully dressed in a corridor, as the lack of windows offered the best protection from blasts.
‘At first everything we used to do seemed irrelevant, I couldn’t see the point in washing even – but after a bit my mum said, ‘You really should take a shower,’ Shevchenko laughs.One morning from her parents’ window she watched a Russian tank crush a car.
All the while, she and her colleagues were uploading their reports as troops encircled Kyiv. Just after Shevchenko moved on to stay with friends in west Ukraine, a missile destroyed flats one block from her parents’ home.
‘I was screaming at them to please leave, but they refused.’ A year on, they remain there.
Meanwhile, chief investigative reporter Anna Myroniuk, 28, also found it impossible to get her 52-year-old mother to leave her home in the affluent Kyiv suburb of Bucha, where she’d settled after being forced from her home town Donetsk, eastern Ukraine when the Russians invaded in 2014.
In April it emerged as one of the most horrific scenes of Russian atrocities, with civilian men, women and children subject to torture, rape and mass executions – their bodies piled in mass graves.
‘When the Russians were heading to get to Bucha, I was begging Mum to get out.Eventually, I convinced her to go but it was too late. I was on my way to pick her up in a car when Russian troops occupied the town and she was trapped,’ recalls Myroniuk.
For the next couple of months, her mother and her neighbours slept in the freezing basement of their block of flats.’There was no electricity, they were running out of food and water.’
One day the Russians fired at her apartment block, hitting just beside her mother’s window – ‘luckily she was in the basement’. Another day, troops forced their way into the building, looking for spies.
‘This was terrifying.They made everybody show them their apartments and check their documents and confiscated their mobile SIMs, but my mother gave them the wrong one so she could stay in touch with me.’
After a ‘humanitarian’ corridor was negotiated in March (though Russians still killed civilians using it) she was able to get out.
You wouldn’t blame any of these women for leaving Kyiv but as soon as the siege ended in April, they returned to their homes in the capital, where life goes on, though often without electricity or running water (‘You get used to that; you know which friend will have running water or a generator, and you go to them if you have to,’ Shevchenko says.)
The Mariupol drama theatre in south eastern Ukraine, after an airstrike ripped through it on March 16
Shops, cafés and theatres stay open and people do their best to carry on as normal.
‘Everyone feels the same – if you don’t have kids you want to be doing everything you can to help your country,’ says the youngest member of their team, 21-year-old Anastasiia Lapatina, who started working for the Post during Covid when she was sent home from university in Canada.
Now she’s back in Vancouver for her final year of studies but every holiday she returns to Ukraine to report from the frontline.During term time she broadcasts podcasts about the conflict.
‘Being in Canada sucks,’ she says to me from her student dorm, where I could see a teddy lying on her bed. ‘Once this semester finishes, I’m going to Ukraine and I’ll never leave again. I’d always wanted to be a war reporter but I thought I’d be doing it from somewhere like the Middle East.’
For her colleagues in Kyiv, the hardest part is not knowing how or when this war may end.’Will it ever be safe to have a child?’ asks Shevchenko. ‘That part of the future has been taken away from me and I can’t get used to it. But I have made peace with dying. I’ve made arrangements for my dog if it happens. I’ve had a good run.’
After talking to each woman, I’m choking back tears.They’re all calm, and very funny, but the stress of the past year is etched into their faces. ‘For the first six months I was not able to cry at all,’ Rudenko says.
‘Some people choose not to look at the news. However, I have no choice but to read that story, click on that link of the civilian murdered with their hands behind their back.It’s exhausting.’
She has the daunting responsibility of deciding who goes to the frontline. ‘The staff are very brave, they always want to do the risky thing. Sometimes I have to be the adult in the room and say, ‘No, it’s too dangerous.’
The image of calling somebody’s family to tell them something happened to them is never off my mind.’ Her phone is beeping again. She glances at it.’I have to go, there’s another air-raid warning. This time it might be serious.’ The screen goes black.