Editing Among the Kamikaze Drones

The Village Ukraine editor Yaroslav Druziuk reflects on the irreality of pivoting a website that once chronicled Kyiv’s new bars and restaurants amidst Russia’s aerial siege of the city

Air raid sirens sounded across Kyiv as Yaroslav Druziuk, the editor-in-chief of the Kyiv city website The Village Ukraine, spoke with The Fine Print. “It’s the third time in this hour,” Druziuk said, “so it’s not a problem.” When we last spoke with Druziuk in March, he had just told his girlfriend that her father had died. “It all seems surreal still, three weeks into the war,” he said at the time. Like other media-savvy Ukrainians, he was bracing for the moment when international news organizations would lose interest in the Russian invasion of his home country. What he wasn’t prepared for was the period of normality that would take hold of his own city after Russia’s initial attempt to capture the Ukrainian capital was repulsed, and the fighting largely raged on hundreds of kilometers away — or the ethical quandaries it would present for journalists like himself.

Since Druziuk was promoted to the top job at The Village Ukraine — his predecessor Andrii Bashtovyi joined the army in July — he has tried to balance the editorial mix between the site’s bread-and-butter content and work that emphasizes the country’s desperate situation. “The Village Ukraine still has this image that we’re the hipsters’ media. We’re the ones that cover the new restaurants and the creative community and Ukrainian brands of clothes,” he said. “It’s like Time Out when your country is at war.” Recently he spoke with Bashtovyi about the challenges. “We had this conversation about whether it’s okay for me, or The Village Ukraine reader, to enjoy an evening in a bar when there’s fighting on the front lines,” Druziuk recalled. “He actually said, ‘Basically that’s what we’re fighting for: for you guys to have normal life.’ I can’t support that notion 100 percent, because I think there should still be some adjustment and some realization that the war is still here, but people should mental-health-wise get a break, even if for a week, or a day or two.”

But now the reprieve is over, and the outrage and sense of irreality have returned to full force. The previous week before we spoke, Russia had launched a massive rocket attack on Ukrainian cities targeting civilian infrastructure. Earlier that day, loitering munition attacks in Kyiv triggered renewed waves of panic. “Where does this fucking shit stop?” he said. “Iranian kamikaze drones — it sounds made up, but it’s reality, and there are casualties. There was this brutal story about a young couple murdered by these fucking drones, and the woman that was killed was actually six months pregnant. You just read the stuff and there’s a lot of derealization going on. You just don’t know what’s real and what’s not.”

Nevertheless, against the backdrop of redoubled horror, Druziuk has had to focus on the business of running a news site. One management dilemma is whether to let staff continue to work remotely vs. calling them back to their office in the Podil neighborhood of Kyiv. “I just can’t make my team go back to office mode — business as usual, it’s not like that,” he said. “So it’s mostly remote work, but we’re trying to get together on Thursdays when I have this big team meeting.” They stick to Zoom for their regular daily meetings. “For the past couple of weeks,” he said, “the first question on the call is, ‘Are you guys safe? Are you okay?’”

But the challenges brought on by the war go beyond keeping his staff safe. Before the war, The Village Ukraine’s business was premised on selling native ads — for every editorial staffer they had about two people on the business team. “We had more than 1,000 native ad pieces in our portfolio. We worked with all the biggest brands like Pepsi and Vodafone and Philip Morris — all those big guys,” Druziuk said. “After February 24, there’s no ad market here in Ukraine. We do have some signs of revival. There are the first requests to do commercial stuff here from big pharma. But the whole ad market is basically non-existent now.”

Most of the 30 people who worked on the business side lost their jobs, with just five staying on to work on the grant applications and fundraising. “At this point, I can safely say that we have resources to work up to the end of December,” Druziuk said, “then we’ll really have to get some assistance from the funds and also hope that the ad market and the native ads ecosystem will revive at least on some percent.”

When the war started, Druziuk wrote freelance pieces for New York and Insider. “It was an opportunity to tell Ukraine’s story by first-hand account,” he said, a chance to show “that there’s more to Ukraine than war.” Since taking over as editor-in-chief, though, he’s had too much on his plate to take on outside projects. On October 5, for instance, The Village Ukraine launched an English-language version, with translations of interviews with the makers of the Saint Javelin meme T-shirts and the Ukrainian Eurovision winners Kalush Orchestra. The English language site is an attempt to honor that impulse behind his international freelancing. It’s also an attempt to attract donors from outside Ukraine, whose finances aren’t strapped by the exigencies of life in a warzone. “We really emphasize that we really need help and there’s only so much you can get from the Ukrainian community,” Druziuk said, “but we know that there’s a lot of people, both sympathetic to the Ukrainian cause, and also the Ukrainians that live abroad, that can share some articles with their friends, and provide some context to them.”

Both The New York Times and The Washington Post opened bureaus in Kyiv this year, and there are more journalists in Ukraine than at any time Druziuk can remember. “There are a couple of bars that are frequented by these foreign correspondents,” he said. “I noticed that they really go into one or two restaurants and not really into the whole scene. I have this experience of covering Kyiv’s new cafes and restaurants for like five years now, so I like to give them some tips on where you should go to or what you should avoid.”

With all these stories coming out of Ukraine and with news organizations big and small investing in reporting on life in the country, why does it feel like the war’s largely been displaced in the international news landscape? And with everything else going on, why shouldn’t it be? “This Ukraine fatigue [is] not only setting in but in full swing,” Druziuk said. “I’d just remind The Fine Print readers that what we are fighting for here is not only the future of Ukraine but the future of modern functioning democracies in this fight against autocracy. The future of the democratic world is at stake here in Ukraine, so maybe don’t take your eye off it.”

Even before the waves of air attacks hit Kyiv, the war remained on Druziuk’s mind. “I have a lot of friends and acquaintances who are now posting Instagram photos from the actual frontlines. It actually makes you, for a second, doubt whether what you’re doing here in Kyiv is of any importance,” he said. Druziuk said while he’s not prime draft material, there’s still a chance he’ll be called up. “The draft department has all my information, so if I’m needed I’ll have to join the military. There’s no excuse not to,” he said. “We realize that this war is a long one, and we’re in it for the long haul, so basically, there’s this realization that most of the men in Ukraine will participate in the war in whatever capacity is needed at some point. So it’s just a matter of time.” Does The Village Ukraine have contingency plans for if he gets called up? Though there are others who could lead the publication, he said, “I was the contingency.”