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Millennial Letters

Why Isn’t Ukraine Front Page News?

Kharkiv University, like the city it serves, is caught between both sides of the war in Ukraine. Housed in a former Soviet military academy, the stolid campus encircles Kharkiv’s Freedom Square, formerly known as Dzerzhinsky Square, after the founder of the Bolshevik secret police. All that’s left of the city’s Lenin statue is one boot, in which some enterprising protester stuck a Ukrainian flag after toppling the rest of Lenin’s body this September. Next door, in the humanities building, undergraduates from all corners of the country study current events in the university’s small Media and Communications Department; one of their subjects is America’s news media, and how they cover the war in Ukraine. One frigid Tuesday morning, I had the unenviable task of explaining it to them.

The cruelties of the American news cycle are hard to comprehend, even in Washington, but they are impossible to understand when you are living in a conflict zone that broadcasters are tired of covering, and that the American public is tired of reading about. This week, Russian-backed separatists disregarded yet another cease-fire agreement and have set about taking control of yet another eastern Ukrainian town, Debaltseve. All signs point to an escalating conflict, and what happens now could determine whether the US and Europe will arm Ukrainian forces. This week, Ukraine should be front-page news. And yet… In a crowded classroom in Kharkiv, I displayed the front page of the New York Times on the projector, and explained what it means to be “above the fold” or “below” it. In the print edition, Ukraine had fallen off the front page, but it was mercifully “above the fold,” on the newspaper’s website. I explained the differences between Fox, CNN, and MSNBC, and we looked for news about Ukraine on each network’s website. Fox: below the fold, CNN: below the fold. MSNBC: nowhere on the homepage.

“Are there any Americans who support Russia?” one student asked me. “Did they know Ukraine existed a year ago?” “How do they think the separatists got there?” “Who are the people who cover Ukraine and Russia in the States?” others asked. I tried to explain that if there’s any consensus in Washington, it’s that Russia has invaded Ukraine, but that only recently has it become acceptable to say so. I pointed to Congress’s recent bill to send lethal aid to Ukraine, which passed the Senate unanimously. But it wasn’t enough. “Do Americans know about musarnaya lustration, or do they think it’s a joke?” one bespectacled young woman asked, referring to Ukraine’s tradition of throwing its corrupt politicians into trash cans. The answer, unfortunately, was the latter, for the few Americans who know about it at all.

Most students at Kharkiv University support Ukraine, and detest Russia’s invasion. But within their families, and among their neighbors, conflicts persist. There was one point last spring when it seemed like Kharkiv would become a separatist enclave just like Donetsk or Luhansk. This weekend, rebel leader Aleksandr Zakharchenko threatened that Kharkiv, located in northeastern Ukraine, is next on the separatists’ agenda. The city’s story is not over yet. “We feel more like Ukrainians than ever before,” one wide-eyed student, from the separatist-occupied town of Horlivka, told me. Her family came to visit her in Kharkiv, but returned to Horlivka because they didn’t have a place to stay. Now they can’t leave because separatists fire at every vehicle that attempts an exit. Another young woman, speaking in perfect English, told me about her classmate, from Luhansk, whose father recently called her to say, “I’m sorry, but now I’m a separatist.” He said he knew it might be hard for her to be the daughter of a separatist, but his brother had already joined the rebel Luhansk National Republic, and helped him get out of jail on the condition that he’d join their cause.

The students asked me for journalism advice, about whether anyone would care to hear their stories, and what skills they’d need to succeed in media. I told them to perfect their English, to be as loud as possible about the problems they face. “Do you have free speech in the US?” one young woman asked. Of course, I responded. I can write about things like this. 

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