"Our neighbor is a lunatic," says Ukrainian journalist a year on
Last March, as the Russian war machine bore down on Kyiv, I spoke with Ukrainian journalist
Kristina Berdynskykh about what it was like to be in a city whose fate had suddenly, and violently, become uncertain.
Berdynskykh, who stayed in Ukraine to cover the war rather than leave as a refugee, told me at the time that “Kyiv will win.”
One year later, I went back to her to learn what she’s seen, why living in Ukraine is like a “lottery ticket,” and what she thinks about how the war will end.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity. You can watch a video version of it above.
Kristina, remind me where you were the last time we spoke.
The last time we spoke I was in the Kyiv metro, where I spent 17 nights last March with my mom and a relative of mine. At that time, I was really terrified, because I didn’t understand what was happening outside on the street. I didn’t understand the sounds. We’d hear some explosion and we wouldn’t know if it was a missile attack or an anti-aircraft battery. War was new to us, and we were scared.
But at a certain point, I said, “enough!” Enough fear, and I decided to go back to my apartment.
Now, a year later, we Ukrainians have gotten used to war, as horrible as that sounds. We can tell the difference between the noise of a missile or an anti-aircraft gun.
You’ve been covering the war for a year now, what are some of the stories that stick with you, or which have moved you the most?
At one point, we were in a village in the Kyiv region after the liberation of the area. The village of Termakhivka. I saw a yard and a home there that were completely destroyed, and there were two crosses -- two graves in the yard. The people of the village had been burying their dead in the yards — because the shelling made it impossible to bury people in the cemetery.
And I saw the two crosses for two women, sisters, who had lived there. They were born in the 1930s, one in 1936 I think and the other in 1938. Two old ladies who had lived in the village, grown old there, they were born before World War II. And they died there, in the modern world, in Europe, in the middle of civilization. And nothing remained of their home, nothing remained of them.
But you know, sadly, you start to get used to these images of war. It’s horrible. You arrive in a village or a city that’s been shelled and you more or less know what it looks like, the buildings with empty holes instead of apartments, the broken glass. And I see how readers and viewers too have in a way become numb to it because they too already know what a war looks like visually. It’s awful that the destruction continues like this, that beautiful people are dying – and yet I’m absolutely certain that Ukraine will win this war. Otherwise what justice is there in this world?
How has this affected you personally, as a Ukrainian, to cover a war like this?
Obviously, it’s especially hard as a Ukrainian journalist — emotionally it hits you very hard because it’s your country. Psychologically it’s hard. But on the other hand, as a journalist, I’ve had a feeling, which once struck me, that I’m somehow not doing enough. Not traveling around the country enough [to cover stories]. Why am I spending so much time in Kyiv? And it’s a feeling of guilt. But you can’t let yourself break psychologically.
And after a year of war, I’ve learned to be at peace with the idea that it’s not necessary to be a superhero and risk your life like those at the front do.
You have to try to live. You understand that you need to meet up with friends, you need to laugh, hug each other, have fun because life is short. This war has already robbed me of a year of my life, Putin has robbed me of time, and I don’t want to give him the satisfaction [of anything more].
You know, I’ve left Ukraine three times since the war started, but I’m much more comfortable psychologically in Ukraine, because here people understand you perfectly, you don’t have to explain anything to anyone. Everyone here understands what war is, what you struggle with every day, the obstacles and trauma you have to overcome.
You recently wrote a piece for the French newspaper Libération, where you wrote that to live in Ukraine today is a “lottery ticket and a source of pride” What did you mean by that?
Well, you can say all you like about how some regions of the country are safer than others because they aren’t being shelled regularly. You can look at the statistics of casualties and so on. But at the same time you understand that every day something horrific can happen to you, your loved ones, or your friends, because this is a war. Just yesterday, I took some Western journalists to a four-story building [in Kyiv] that was destroyed by an Iranian drone in October, killing a pregnant woman, her husband, and their cat. Or what happened in Dnipro [in January], where a missile hit a residential building, and lots of people died, many among them refugees from other parts of the country who thought it was safer there.
And by a “source of pride” I meant that over the past year I’ve seen and felt how people can act in the most horrible situations. I’ve met a huge number of volunteers, people who completely changed their lives, who never had anything to do with war and then went off to the front to defend the country.
A year ago, when we first spoke, you said “Kyiv will win.” Back then, with Russian tanks rumbling towards the city, that seemed very optimistic. But Ukraine, of course, showed the world differently. What do you think now, a year later?
I want to tell you just one thing: back then, I believed, but now I know that Ukraine will win.
And what does a Ukrainian victory look like to you?
For me, a Ukrainian victory is when no Russian troops are left anywhere on the territory of Ukraine. So long as a single Russian troop remains on territory that they’ve occupied – whether in 2014 or in 2022 – Ukraine will be at war. Only once they’ve disappeared from every corner of our country will we be able to relax.
And even then we will have to think differently about our security. We’ll have to get security guarantees from the rest of the world …
Because our neighbor is a lunatic.