How The New Yorker’s Ukraine War Reporting Reaches Russians
Contributing writer Joshua Yaffa’s combat dispatches have found a second life in translation on Mediazona, an independent news outlet founded by members of Pussy Riot
The circuitous route that New Yorker contributing writer Joshua Yaffa’s reporting on the war in Ukraine took to appearing in Russian on the site Mediazona, one of the most respected independent Russian news outlets, founded by two members of Pussy Riot, started with a few posts on his locked personal Instagram account. “In the early days of the war — the first days after February 24 — I did consciously start posting Instagram stories in Russian,” he told The Fine Print. His dispatches about the human toll of Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine would reach the magazine’s millions of English-language readers. Still, he’d lived in Russia for a decade, and among his several hundred followers were Russian friends and colleagues, and it mattered to him that they be aware of what exactly their country had wrought across the border. “I don’t have a particularly honed or conscious Instagram presence, nor a very large one, but in the days after the invasion, I thought it was important to try to reach whatever Russian audience I had,” he said.
“On Instagram, they’re largely people that know me and I hope know that I’m a credible, serious professional who’s not going to make up bullshit. Perhaps with me delivering them some of the ugly, painful, tragic truths about the war, they might be a little more receptive to it than otherwise. Truth be told, most of the people in my social world and social media world are people who are already inclined to seek out independent media, to be critical of the government, and so on, but nonetheless, I thought maybe I could do something in some tiny way useful by writing in Russian and appealing to a Russian crowd through my Instagram,” Yaffa added. “I had this notion from the beginning that it would be important with this story like no other to reach a Russian audience.”
He got the chance to reach a larger Russophone audience when Ilia Krasilshchik, the former publisher of Meduza, a Latvian-based Russian news site whose motto, a play on the full name of the state propaganda outlet RT, is “The Real Russia. Today,” reached out about running translations of some of Yaffa’s New Yorker pieces on his Instagram account, which he’d turned into a channel for news about injustices inflicted by the Russian government. Then a mutual friend — “someone who is well-known in the Russian media world,” according to New Yorker deputy editor Deirdre Foley-Mendelssohn — reached out to Yaffa about translating some of the pieces for Mediazona. The translator has remained anonymous because he’s still in Russia. Mediazona has also been in touch with The Atlantic and Wired about getting their work on the conflict to Russian-speaking readers. And they’ve had their own work translated into English and German and are planning to launch a full English-language site soon.
“It works in both directions. We’re trying to both inform the Western public about what’s happening in Russia, about Ukraine, and inform the Western public of the Russian perspective about the way things work in Russia,” said Alexander Borodikhin, an editor at the site, “and we’re trying to inform the Russian public about what’s happening in Ukraine because the information about that conflict is one of the most important things you can think of at the moment.”
Mediazona has gathered some of its own reporting on the war, and its publisher Pyotr Verzilov was in Bucha on the day the bodies were exhumed. Still, they wanted to give their readers more accounts of how people in Ukraine have dealt with the onslaught. “With the war that’s been going on for months now, we’ve seen quite a few links to genuine reporting from the ground by Western journalists who are able to get access into the cities ravaged by the war,” said Borodikhin. “Not many journalists have been able to travel across Ukraine during the war, and particularly for many Ukrainian and some Russian journalists who are still operating there, there are challenges to their work.” Getting access and delivering objective accounts has been easier for Western correspondents, Borodikhin said. Mediazona turned to The New Yorkerand Yaffa not because the magazine’s name carries a huge cache in Russia but because Russian journalists are aware of it as a trustworthy source. “Joshua’s reporting is great,” Borodikhin said. “He is able to convey very important personal stories that both humanize the conflict and give a perspective of the people who are suffering right there on the ground.”
Yaffa put Mediazona in touch with Foley-Mendelssohn, who handles licensing and translation requests for The New Yorker. “We let people translate our pieces into all kinds of languages in all kinds of situations, it’s not unusual,” she said. She’d heard of Mediazona but wanted to get a couple of opinions from experts on whether to approve the translations, so she turned to staff writer Masha Gessen and editor David Remnick. With their advice in hand, she approved Mediazona’s request. “In this case, it felt like there was a particular moral obligation to really try to make the translations happen,” she said, “since we don’t ourselves operate on Telegram and we don’t internally have the resources or staffing to translate our pieces ourselves.”
To avoid the pitfalls of retranslating quotes originally delivered in Russian or Ukrainian, Yaffa shared his notes, transcripts, and audio over Dropbox with the translator. “To the extent possible, I tried to provide original source material in Russian so that they could just use the original quotes,” he said. However, there were some instances where the translator had to give in to the game of telephone. “I don’t think we lost ultimate accuracy,” Yaffa said. “I don’t think the stories themselves changed in any significant way. The quotes are maybe a bit different here and there, but we never got away from the actual underlying facticity of the story.”
The editors at Mediazona also made minor changes to account for their different audience, for instance, removing the literal meaning of the town name Shchastia (happiness). “You can’t be literal with translation. It’s always about finding the right way to convey the original meaning,” said Borodikhin. “For the Western audience, obviously, some Ukrainian details have to be explained much further than they have to be explained for the Russian audience. So we tried to edit those small things out without obviously altering the meaning in any sense.”
Reading the translations that resulted, Yaffa pondered how much of what makes The New Yorker’s voice distinctive survived. “It’s interesting to me to wonder — and I don’t have an answer for this — how much The New Yorker-slash-American narrative journalism style translates,” he said. “I read Russian, but because I’m so familiar with how it reads in the original, it’s hard for me to truly judge cold what it’s like in Russian.”
Yaffa’s work is different, in a lot of ways, from most Russian journalism. It’s part of a tradition that he notes stretches back “to mid-century and beyond.” Even the work he loves most from Russian journalists grows out of a radically divergent approach. “A friend and colleague Elena Kostyuchenko, from Novaya Gazeta, did a series of pieces at the beginning of the war which were just heartbreaking — gorgeous while being totally devastating and heart-rending,” he said. Kostyuchenko’s pieces were censored on Novaya Gazeta’s Russian site but can be found in English published by n+1. “She writes in a really interesting style, a moving style, very emotive, very impressionistic, very quote and voice-driven,” Yaffa said. “It’s really immersive and tactile in a way that I don’t necessarily write.”
Style wasn’t exactly top of mind when he was reporting and writing these pieces. “Especially as we were learning about atrocities and war crimes in the Kyiv area, and around Kyiv, Chernihiv, Sumy, in the wake of the Russian withdrawal, I felt like the role really was documentation, about getting down on the page what people in those areas had lived through and suffered through,” he said. “Without turning into too much of a self-referential cliche, this idea of bearing witness and being there to document these atrocities, that really felt like such an urgent and centrally important job, kind of the only job worth doing as a journalist, at least in that particular window of time.”
That approach seems to be having its intended effect. “These pieces are definitely reaching a different audience than I feel like a lot of my other work in The New Yorker has,” Yaffa said. When Krasilshchik posted the first of the translations on Instagram, Yaffa started looking at the comments. About 80 to 90 percent of them, he noticed, expressed horror at the stories and gratitude that they’d been published, while 10 to 20 percent saw it as propaganda. “The first day I made the perhaps masochistic decision of entering into the fray and trying to talk to some of these commentators. I wanted if nothing else for them to know that pieces like that are actually written by a real-life human being, that they don’t come out of — I don’t know what such commenters are exactly imagining — some kind of State Department-funded propaganda factory, but rather a real human being went to a specific place and talked to real people and what I heard and saw then went into this piece. I just wanted to demystify the process, with the naive idea that that would somehow prove convincing,” he said. “It wasn’t.”
“I don’t know what I really learned from that experience — perhaps the futility of arguing with people in Instagram comments,” he added. “But it was an indication that there was and is an interest in the conversation around this kind of reporting among Russian speaking audiences who are interested in the war, and for the most part, the people who seem to be reading my stuff, whether it’s these Instagram posts or on Mediazona, are horrified by it.”
Borodikhin has his own theory as to why these stories are having a particular impact on Russian readers. “It might hit differently, because for the Western audience, those people are not necessarily representing people from their own circle. Ukraine is not considered that close to America,” he said. “They’re still some kind of Other. For Russians, it’s always been a neighbor, a brotherly nation, as they say in official propaganda. That’s why it might be a different feeling for a Russian reading those reports, because he understands that it’s about those neighbors whom we have so much shared history with, and the pain that is inflicted upon them is being done by our own troops.”