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Harriman Talks: Lili Bivings (MARS-REERS ’23)
October 2, 2023

Each academic year we host hundreds of interdisciplinary events with regional experts and members of the Harriman community discussing a range of issues on Eurasia, and Eastern Europe. In a new web and print feature, Harriman Talks, Harriman Magazine follows up with some of those speakers about ideas or experiences discussed at the Institute.

In the second installment, editor Masha Udensiva-Brenner catches up with Lili Bivings (MARS-REERS ’23), who participated in a panel, Journalism During Wartime: A Conversation with the Kyiv Independent, last September. Bivings was a contributing editor at the Independent while studying at the Institute, and moved back to Kyiv after graduation to become the publication’s business editor.

Shortly before Lili Bivings (MARS-REERS’ 23) moved back to Kyiv from New York in August, a friend asked whether she was feeling nervous. Bivings was returning to become business editor of the Kyiv Independent, the top English-language news outlet in Ukraine.

Yes, she was nervous, Bivings told her friend. “What if I’m not the right person for the task?”

Her friend was puzzled. The question wasn’t about the job; it was about the war, about Russia’s full-scale invasion that continues to rain down missiles on Ukraine, including Kyiv. Wasn’t Bivings nervous about the war?

That’s when it dawned on Bivings how much her paradigm had shifted in the year and a half since the Russian invasion. The threat of destruction has grown so constant, she says, that she rarely discusses it with friends and colleagues: “At this point the war is just a given.”

Bivings first went to Ukraine as a Peace Corps volunteer in 2017. She fell in love with the country and, before moving back to the U.S. to start the MARS-REERS program in the fall of 2021, vowed to return to Ukraine as soon as she graduated. “I’ve proclaimed this to everyone I’ve ever met,” she says. “And this is not the moment to turn away from the place and people I love.”

When Russia launched its invasion in February 2022, Bivings continued her Columbia studies but also worked remotely as a contributing editor for the Kyiv Independent. In the weeks just after her return to Kyiv this August, Russia launched two attacks on the city. Both times Bivings says she felt her apartment shaking from the explosions – frightening, on a physical level, though mentally, she says she doesn’t worry about them much. Kyiv has Ukraine’s best missile defense system, and most of the missiles headed toward the capital are intercepted. In a sense, says Bivings, she feels safer in Kyiv than she’d felt in the United States, where the threat of mass shootings haunted her. “I know the defenses are operating, things will be okay,” she says.

While she was still at Columbia, the Harriman Institute hosted an event with Bivings and two of her Kyiv Independent colleagues—editor-in-chief Olga Rudenko and CEO Daryna Shevchenko. The panelists described their disappointment with the language U.S. media often used in writing about the war. For example, when Ukrainian forces retook territory from Russia, many U.S. media outlets framed the Ukrainian successes through a Russian lens: Russia had “lost” the territory – not Ukraine had “liberated” it.  How could Russia lose something that never belonged to it in the first place, the Kyiv Independent editors asked. It was an example of an imperialist, Russia-centric mentality that continued to prevail in the West, they argued

Bivings says the issue of language that appears to perpetuate Russian imperialism caused much agitation among Ukrainian journalists last year. “Now, when we see it, we just give it an eye roll,” she says. The most heated conversations in the newsroom these days revolve around something else: the culture wars inside Ukraine itself, according to Bivings. For instance, much of the Kyiv Independent’s staff has decided to stop speaking Russian in public. But some staffers have refused to give up the language: “They say, ‘The Russian language doesn’t belong to Russia,’” says Bivings.

Bivings herself has chosen to stop speaking Russian—the first language she learned and spoke while living in Ukraine. But she is sympathetic to both sides in this issue. “For some people, it’s genuinely difficult to switch. Not everyone is good at languages,” she says. “And people have a very close relationship to the words they use to express themselves.”

Another issue upsetting to Ukrainians in this second year of war, says Bivings, is Western media portrayals of Ukrainians living normally —“out at bars and restaurants, sitting on terraces.” That, she says, has led some to conclude that Ukraine no longer needs western financial support.

“Just because people are going out and trying to live their lives does not mean that they aren’t suffering,” Bivings says. “You can be sitting in a cafe having a craft cocktail and, within hours, huddling by your door because of really loud explosions.” The semblance of normal life is necessary, says Bivings, and not just for Ukrainians’ mental health. “It’s important to go out and buy things, to spend money. That’s how the economy sustains itself.”