Behind the lines

Social media, indie Ukranian/Russian news sites offer deeper perspectives on life during wartime

Question-on-the-street video still from 1420 YouTube channel.

Even before Russian forces invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, the mainstream media set its 24/7 news cycle on covering the conflict. However, that cycle often focuses on only the biggest news stories shuffled on repeat, and sometimes lacks perspective from ordinary citizens experiencing the horrors of war.

Excellent coverage of the war has emerged from independent journalists with boots on the ground, both in embattled Ukraine and inside Russia. The latter country grows increasingly cut off from the world community each day as sanctions take hold, opposition to war and Putin’s narratives are oppressed, and communication channels are shut down or threatened. Social media users have also stepped up, with culture and travel bloggers unwittingly making the jump to citizen war correspondents and voices of the opposition.

The following are a few sites we feel offer some interesting perspectives on the war.

News:

No single news source is closer to the action than the Kyiv Independent, which continues to offer some of the most timely and visceral coverage of the war raging inside its homeland. The “Independent” tag in the news outlet’s title is earned. It was founded just last year by staff from the Kyiv Post after that paper was bought by an oligarch, and it’s partially employee-owned and funded by endowments and crowdfunding.

As the Independent share’s Ukraine’s struggle with the world, Latvian-based English and Russian news organization Meduza is largely focused at getting real news inside of Russian and chronicling opposition to the war within that country. A photo essay covering protests in several Russian cities on a single day (March 6) stands as a powerful reminder that not all Russians support the invasion or are unwilling to stand up for their beliefs.

Social media:

YouTube channel 1420 has a simple premise—a young man wanders Moscow asking dozens of people the same question in classic man-on-the-street fashion. Before two weeks ago, these questions ranged from serious (“Do people trust the Sputnik vaccine?”) to silly (“Are you ready for the zombie apocalypse?”) The site has become all business now, with new videos posted almost daily gauging people’s thoughts on the invasion, both before it began and as it persists. The answers are varied and telling, emphasizing the power of propaganda (pro-Putin stances), peace (most don’t want war) and fear (some say how dangerous it is to speak out, or they simply flee the camera).

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty offers both original reporting and aggregate material on their YouTube channel ranging from hard news to reactions from Russian citizens shown pictures of the invasion to feature pieces about Ukranians finding solace in song.

Bald and Bankrupt is a long-running YouTube channel broadcasting the exploits of a Russian-speaking Englishman named Ben (aka “Bald”) as he travels the world, his main interest being countries that were part of the former Soviet Union. One of Bald’s sometimes travel companions is an American named Johnny, who operates a similar travel-oriented YouTube site called Johnny FD. Last summer, Johnny bought an apartment in Kyiv. The day before the invasion, Bald traveled from Poland along Ukraine’s border areas to join Johnny in the capital city, speaking to locals along the way and discussing their doubts that war would come the day before fighting began. Johnny and Bald gave live Instagram updates from Kyiv’s city square as the bomb’s began to fall and the Russian army encroached, finally fleeing Kyiv on Feb. 25. Both posted videos of their departure filled with the kind of imagery that’s come to represent Kyiv in the last two weeks—people and pets camped out in subway stations and crowded shoulder-to-shoulder on a train platform—but from the ground level. There are glimpses of humanity at its best throughout, such as Bald’s footage of a Ukranian train conductor jumping off the train at the last minute to help a number of unticketed passengers board. Johnny remains in Budapest, and recently posted a video of an anti-war protest outside that city’s Russian embassy.

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