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Harriman Magazine
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2024 Issue | Harriman Talks
Returning to Kyiv from Harriman: “The War Is Just a Given”
Masha Udensiva-Brenner speaks with Lily Bivings (MARS-REERS ’23)

Shortly before Lili Bivings (MARS-REERS ’23) moved back to Kyiv from New York last 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 continued 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 had grown so constant, she said, that she rarely discussed it with friends and colleagues: “At this point the war is just a given.”

Bivings, who was born and raised in the Washington, D.C. area, has no roots in Ukraine. She first went there as a Peace Corps volunteer in 2017. She fell in love with the country and, before moving back to the United States to start the MARS-REERS program at Harriman in the fall of 2021, vowed to return to Ukraine permanently as soon as she graduated.

While she was still at Columbia, the Harriman Institute hosted a conversation with Bivings and two of her Kyiv Independent colleagues: editor-in-chief Olga Rudenko and CEO Daryna Shevchenko. They 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, it was often framed through a Russian lens: that Russia had “lost” the territory, not that Ukraine had “liberated” it. How could Russia lose something that never belonged to it in the first place, the Kyiv Independent editors asked, arguing that such language reflected an imperialist, Russia-centric mentality.

“Just because people are going out and trying to live their lives does not mean they aren’t suffering.”

After her return to Kyiv in the summer, Bivings told Harriman Magazine that journalists there seemed less agitated about such language issues. “Now, when we see it, we just give it an eye roll,” she said. According to Bivings, the most heated conversations in the newsroom these days revolve around something else: the culture wars inside Ukraine itself. 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,’” said Bivings.

Bivings herself said she has chosen to stop speaking Russian—the first language she learned and spoke while living in Ukraine. But she is sympathetic to both sides on this issue. “For some people, it’s genuinely difficult to switch. Not everyone is good at languages,” she said.

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

“Just because people are going out and trying to live their lives does not mean they aren’t suffering,” Bivings said. “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, said 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.” ◆

Featured photo: ©