‘We Are Prepared for This Ukrainian War Fatigue… The Hope Is You Guys Will Continue to Cover These Stories’
Soon after the Russian invasion began, New York magazine scrambled to assemble an ambitious cover package featuring Ukrainians under 30 living through the first weeks after the world they’d known fell apart
Before the editors of New York nailed down their concept for the March 14-27 cover story, they started collecting reporting. Russia had invaded Ukraine, and though it was half a world away from their titular focus, they knew they’d have to address it. “We decided, just in an inchoate way, to start gathering stories, and assembled a team of reporters,” editor-in-chief David Haskell told The Fine Print. “We ultimately had five people in Ukraine and five people in the States.” Intelligencer news director Justin Miller started by reaching out to freelancers in Ukraine. “Even at the point where it wasn’t quite clear what we were going to do, I wanted to at least create the capacity for us to do on the ground reporting,” he said. The shape of the final story was murky then, but they knew the temporal constraints they were working within. “We had the opportunity of a new print magazine coming up two weeks after we started this conversation,” Haskell said, “so it seemed plausible to us to be able to create a story of two weeks of war.”
On the Monday after the war started, February 28, Miller heard an echo of a Wilfred Owen poem reverberating through the zeitgeist. “The thought popped into my head that all wars are fought by young people. The soldiers are young, and it’s predominantly old men making these decisions,” he said. “As a little bit more time went on, it dawned on me, and then on us, that they happen to be as young as the independent country that was under siege. Ukraine has existed for a long time, but it’s only been independent in this iteration of nationhood since 1991. So the idea to focus on youth synched up with what’s at stake, which is whether Ukraine will exist as an independent country or not.” So alongside features editors Joy Shan and Nick Summers, who worked with the five New York staffers reporting the story from the U.S., Miller started directing his reporters on the ground to find young people who could tell the story of the first two weeks of the war.
“The stipulation was that our contributors be under 30 and civilians, as opposed to already in the military from the get-go,” Haskell said. “We scrambled and got as many people as possible, as quickly as possible, on deadline.” The final story includes the voices of a pilates instructor, an actor, a DJ and director, an entertainment journalist, a comedian, a museum worker, plenty of students, and more. Each of them is part of the extensive byline. “My original idea for a cover before we had any material was just 30 Ukrainian names as byline,” said Haskell. “That didn’t work from a mechanical point of view, but it was still spiritually very important that theirs were the bylines: These were their stories. We could do the work to help them get their story out, but it was really handing the magazine over to them.”
Like the subjects in the feature, one of the reporters who produced it was also a Ukrainian under 30. Yaroslav Druziuk, a 26-year-old writer and deputy editor-in-chief of the Kyiv-based news site The Village Ukraine, had an assignment from Megh Wright at Vulture about the Ukrainian standup comedy community. He jumped at the opportunity when she asked him to contribute to this package. In part, he said he’s been working long hours because it’s the best way he knows to contribute to the defense of his country. “I’m not fit for the draft, for military service, due to health reasons,” he told The Fine Print, “so I try and put in night shifts at The Village Ukraine, doing bigger pieces for the website, and also try to reach out to any big global publication that can make the world feel informed about how the war is going on here in our country.” But it’s been difficult. “It’s tough shit man,” he said. “Today, I had to tell my girlfriend that her dad died. I was the one to break the news to her, just a couple of hours ago. It all seems surreal still, three weeks into the war.”
As the editors got going on the package, the timeline they had put together a year ago about the first week of the COVID lockdown in New York City emerged as a salient reference point. Haskell said it was a “pretty astonishing and eerie thing to reread the timeline of the week that was told in a very blunt, flat, but focusing on specifics and details, way. That reminded us of the power and the value of momentum and very simple chronology.” He added, “The real time processing of a life changing news environment is incredibly disorienting. All of us just went through something that they could never have imagined going through and feel closer to that disorientation than we might otherwise.”
In Ukraine, the reporters were told to look for people they could have ongoing conversations with as the invasion progressed. “What we were interested in were people who had the fortune of being able to be in constant touch with us,” Haskell said. “When you get to experience someone’s story over much of the two-week period, I think it’s really especially moving and that was quite a challenge. Sometimes we lost touch with people or there were just periods of time when they were unable to get back to us.” Even finding people who had time for an initial interview was a challenge under the circumstances. “Hard to find people to vox pop in a city at war,” contributing reporter Oz Katerji texted The Fine Print, “just stood around places hoping people would pass by, took a full day of that to find 5 people under 30 that spoke English.”
Miller was also concerned about the safety of his reporters. “Especially as the fighting got deeper and there was less of a notion of a conventional front line, where you could be ahead of the Russians and you’re relatively safe,” he said, “I was just counseling to them repeatedly that I would much rather get zero words from you, and pay you, and you be safe, than the opposite.”
A week into their production cycle, the editors still weren’t sure if all the reporting they’d gathered would come together into a single cohesive piece. “The big question that didn’t really answer itself until the second week was whether all of this reporting that we were creating — we were getting 10,000-word Google Docs from many of our sources and contributors — whether it could be spliced,” Haskell said, “and you could do what we ultimately ended up doing of interweaving them and telling the story day by day, or whether that would get too chaotic, in which case, we would have to come up with a different organizing principle.” But as the elements came together, they started to feel more confident. “What really helped take this story to the next level was the photography by some of the subjects documenting their own journey really well — sometimes it was moving hundreds of miles west and sometimes it was being holed up in a bunker, a makeshift bunker,” Miller said. “That was just really powerful to me. To see that after your eyes are crossed in reams and reams of interviews just gave me those moments of like, ‘Wow, this is really going to be something.’”
The most powerful moment in Haskell’s reading experience of the story came last Monday night. “I was just on my phone reading a Google Doc on a subway and had to click the phone off and just sit there for a second,” he said. “It was incredibly moving.” The moment he stopped at, as he remembers it, involved a contributor named Danyil Zadorozhnyi who had fostered a pet rat named Gray. “The rat is totally shameless now. He has this weird habit of kissing you. Before, he’d kiss you on the lips, but now he tries to pry open your lips with his little hands and put his tongue in your mouth,” Zadorozhnyi says in the story. “He squeaks, but he doesn’t bite.”
Druziuk was impressed by how the final package turned out, but he’s hoping that this won’t be the final word international readers take in about the ongoing tragedy in his country. “Here in Ukraine we are prepared for this Ukrainian war fatigue that eventually comes when global media are covering wars and conflicts,” he said. “The hope is you guys will continue to cover these stories, because it’s really important in the face of Russia’s aggression and the ongoing struggle here in Ukraine.