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Harriman Talks: Three Questions for Joshua Yaffa (CJS ’07/SIPA ’08)
October 16, 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 our web and print feature, Harriman Talks, Harriman Magazine follows up with some of those speakers about ideas or experiences discussed at the institute.

In March 2023, Joshua Yaffa (CJS ’07/SIPA ’08), a contributing writer for the New Yorker, appeared at the Harriman Institute for a conversation with Keith Gessen (Columbia Journalism School) about his reporting in Ukraine after Russia’s full-scale invasion. Masha Udensiva-Brenner reached out to him in September to follow up on some later developments in Ukraine and Russia.

MUB: When you spoke at the Harriman Institute last March, you discussed your article [The Hunt for Russian Collaborators in Ukraine, The New Yorker, January 30, 2023] about Russian collaborators in Izyum. What updates can you give us on Izyum and the story of Russian collaboration in Ukraine?

Joshua Yaffa: It’s now been a year since Izyum was liberated. I stopped by the city very briefly during another reporting trip at the beginning of the summer. A lot of basic services have long returned: the electricity is back on, same with water and heating, and some – but by no means all – of the buildings damaged by shelling have been patched up. A lot of those people who scattered during and immediately after the Russian occupation have come back, but of course many (thousands I’m sure) settled semi-permanently elsewhere in Ukraine and across Europe; I even know of a family from Izyum in the U.S.

From what I can tell, for those in Izyum, it’s hard to move on from the memories and aftermath of occupation, especially seeing as the larger war continues. This summer, there was a renewed Russian push to take Kupyansk, not so far away. Men from Izyum are drafted into the Ukrainian Army and sent to the front. And prosecutions of those accused of collaboration a year ago are still working their way through the Ukrainian courts, meaning debates among neighbors and colleagues remain open and unsettled. All that’s to say, the wounds are definitely more raw than healed.

MUB: The Izyum article tackles a theme you often gravitate toward in your reporting: the
compromises people have to make in order to survive, the “gray area” between right and
wrong. What are some other gray areas you encountered while reporting in Ukraine?

JY: You’re right that I’m interested in complicated moral territory – the “gray areas” you mention – as among my primary journalistic subjects. The thing is, though, they’re everywhere, especially in an environment as fraught, complicated, and intense as a warzone.  From my experience in Ukraine, people often have rather clear attitudes about the big, macro questions–say, belief in victory–but can have very murky and oftentimes contradictory beliefs about how that should be achieved. Or how to relate to day-to-day questions that come up during the war. For example, about conditions in the armed forces, the military draft, navigating the wartime economy, how to treat suspected collaborators (the subject of my article you mention). Life takes on a high-stakes, very pressurized form during war, and that makes even ordinary decisions and dilemmas feel especially weighty and consequential. And therefore difficult.

MUB: You have reported extensively on both Ukraine and Russia, but you built your career as a Russia specialist and spent more than a decade living in Moscow. How has your relationship with Russia impacted your reporting in Ukraine? Is it an obstacle with some Ukrainians and some stories in Ukraine?

JY: My experience in Russia doesn’t come up so often in Ukraine, though I do mention it as a reason why I speak Russian (and alas, not-so-great Ukrainian). That tends to interest people, but very rarely does it make anyone upset or suspicious. I can only speak for myself, but I’ve been surprised how little the language issue – or even my time in Russia – is a topic of all that much concern or even attention in Ukraine. More important, I think, is that I’m there: on the ground, in people’s homes, asking questions and ready to listen. It may sound like a cliche, but that really does seem to be more relevant for setting the tone in my interactions with Ukrainians.

MUB: Not long after you spoke at the Institute your friend, the U.S. journalist Evan Gershkovich, was detained in Russia on false charges of espionage; recently we learned that Russian journalist-in-exile (and former Harriman Paul Klebnikov Fellow) Elena Kostyuchenko was poisoned in Munich last October. How have these events impacted your own reporting and safety considerations?

JY: I’m lucky and proud to consider both Evan and Elena colleagues and friends. Evan’s imprisonment is a shock and an outrage and absolutely a signal event for all of us foreign correspondents who have or continue to cover Russia. You can’t not readjust your priorities and update your sense of risk after one of your closest colleagues is arrested by the FSB and taken to Lefortovo.

Besides my feelings for Evan and his predicament–we’re in semi-regular touch through letters in and out of jail–I naturally am aware that all of us are more at risk than we might have otherwise thought. There used to be an unwritten rule that foreign journalists were largely left alone; clearly that’s not the case anymore. You could say something similar about Elena, who appears to have been poisoned in Germany. She wrote a moving essay for Meduza about her ordeal, and she writes how she thought she was safe in Europe, but apparently wasn’t, at least not fully. That’s another assumption or unwritten rule we might have to question. We know this intellectually, but maybe it’s still hard to absorb fully how much we are dealing with a different Russia than the one we knew from a year and a half ago.