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Harriman Magazine
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2024 Issue | Harriman Talks
In Liberated Izyum, “The Wounds Are Definitely Raw”
Masha Udensiva-Brenner speaks with Joshua Yaffa

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 later developments.

Udensiva-Brenner: When you spoke at the Harriman Institute, you discussed your [New Yorker] article about Russian collaborators in Izyum [in eastern Ukraine]. 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, water and heating, and some of the buildings damaged by shelling have been patched up. A lot of those who scattered during and immediately after the Russian occupation have come back, but of course many 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 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 raw.

“There used to be an unwritten rule that foreign journalists were largely left alone; clearly that’s not the case anymore.”

Udensiva-Brenner: 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?

Yaffa: 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 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.

Udensiva-Brenner: 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; also, 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?

Yaffa: 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—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. ◆

Featured photo (at the top): Joshua Yaffa: Photograph by Max Avdeev