Anastasia Stanko: «My only one decision as a journalist was I should go to the front line»
This is Ukraine Calling, the English-language podcast from Hromadske Radio in Kyiv. And today`s guest is frontline reporter, journalist Anastasia Stanko.
Hello and welcome to Ukraine Calling, the English-language podcast from Hromadske Radio in Kyiv. I am Andriy Kulykov, and our interviewee is Anastasia «Nastya» Stanko, a famous frontline reporter, and once the Editor-in-Chief of one of the most reputable Ukrainian online media, hromadske.ua.
No organizational connection between hromadske.ua and Hromadske Radio but we started almost simultaneously back in 2013 and where our philosophy is concerned we are rather close.
When Russia unleashed the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Nastya went, within days, to the frontline. Mind you, some time before this, Ms Stanko resigned from her editorial position, mostly in order to concentrate on her family duties. In any case, people who resign from editorial positions rarely go back to field work. However, Nastya did this. What was the reason?
Andriy Kulykov: Anastasia «Nastya» Stanko, a famous Ukrainian journalist and a successful editor-in-chief of one of the most reputable Ukrainian media outlets. When the full-scale war broke out, you went almost immediately to the front line. Although before that, you resigned from your editorial position. And to my observations, it’s not very often that people who resigned from editorial positions go back to field work. What made you do so?
Anastasia Stanko: Not only from editorial position, but from journalism. Because I was too tired from everything, because you know, if you’re working on the independent media in Ukraine, especially when it was before war, it’s very hard to find money, to try to find money for this independent media, to do your job, to find people for all the salaries which are not very big in Ukrainian journalism, if it’s independent media in Ukraine. And at that time, I had half a year-old son, and I decided that it’s too much for me to be editor-in-chief, to be a young mother of such a small boy, and I should make a choice what I want to do. And that’s why I decided to be just a mother.
And why I decided to come back, because at that time at Hromadske.ua, where I was editor-in-chief, we didn’t have journalists who had this experience of front line, journalists who were front line correspondence. And I understood at that time that I should help in some way. And I think that many Ukrainians had this feeling when the full-scale invasion started: what I can do, what especially I can do, what I can do in the best way. And my only one decision was I should go to the front line, because front line can be everywhere, and I have some experience from 2014-15, and I can do this. And that’s all.
I came to Hromadske two days before the full-scale invasion. I understood at that time that it will happen, and said that you can call me, and I will stay in Kyiv, and I will do everything I can. And that’s all. It was only one decision. For me, I couldn’t think about something else. You know, it’s like the best what you can do in this situation. And that’s all.
You may also listen and read: 2022 helped Ukrainians to overcome the inferiority complex — Volodymyr Yermolenko
Kulykov: However, the first video report from Nastya Stanko that I saw during the Russian onslaught of 2022 was from Kyiv, not from the front line. But the conditions there were pretty much dangerous and undecided. The Russians were bombarding Kyiv with missiles. And I was broadcasting from my kitchen in one of the districts of Kyiv because we had to evacuate our offices in downtown Kyiv. And I wanted to go there, but I was still hesitant about whether I should. And then suddenly on the net, I see Nastya Stanko, who stands in Khreshchatyk Street – that’s the very heart of Kyiv – and she just tells us what she sees around. What prompted you to go there?
Stanko: For me, it was like normal, obvious journalist decision. On 24th of February, I took my son, my husband, my two cats to Ivano-Frankivsk, where my parents live, where I was born. And we were there in the evening. And the next day, 25th of February, we decided with my husband that we should go back, and I should work as a journalist. And my husband suggested to help me with everything. And it was our decision. We, our son, stayed in my parents’ house. And on 26th, because this report that you are talking about, it was made on 26th of February. On 26th of February, we came to the Hromadske office. Nobody was there. It’s in the centre of Kyiv. And we took our helmet and other stuff and carried it just on foot, because all these residential buildings, I mean, all these buildings in the centre, where the President’s office is, the parliament and other buildings were blocked. It took us more than one hour or something like this to reach Khreshchatyk. And it was a normal decision for me just to show what’s happened in reality, because many people in social media, on the internet, they even couldn’t understand what’s happened in the capital, because many fakes, many trolls, lots of disinformation, and people just couldn’t imagine what was happening.
I did not know maybe some Russian soldiers were already somewhere in Kyiv or what. And for me, it was the main thing to show how it looks like, the main street in the country, because Khreshchatyk is the main street in the capital and that’s why we can say that in the country. But you know, my report was like, everything is OK. You even can receive some cash from ATMs and nothing bad is happening. But after I finished my reporting, we heard the shelling, and then we tried to hide somewhere in the Metro, but the Metro was closed, Khreshchatyk Station, and Maidan Nezalezhnosti Station, and then we tried to find some entrance to another Metro station, Zoloti Vorota, and everything was closed and it was so scary, and we saw police cars, many police cars speeding somewhere, and we thought, «Oh my God, what’s happening». And yes, the situation changed all the time, and it wasn’t the front line but in that couple of first days you even couldn’t understand sometimes where is the front line because everything was changing all the time.
Kulykov: I will soon ask you about your first tour of duty to the front line but before this, on the first day of the Russian full-scale invasion I got a call from Indian colleagues who asked me, «What are you going to do now that the city of Kyiv is in enemy’s hands?» That was the idea in many parts of the world at that time. Since you speak English and since you are rather well-known in some journalistic circles abroad, have you talked to foreign colleagues at the very start of the invasion and what they were asking?
Stanko: Of course, but you know, it was such a difficult time and I think I did everything. You know, I talked with foreign correspondents, and maybe I received, I don’t know, five or six requests a day, like «write an article, give us opinion, can you make some interviews with Fox» and I did this. It’s like 4 a.m., 3 a.m. I remember this like, «What’s happened, what do you think about everything?» And yes, I did this. What I was telling them, that we need help. I think it’s a little bit strange you know when you as a journalist try always in your career to be objective, to be honest, just do your job, but for me at that time was the most important like we need help, financial help–
Kulykov: But this was honest. Nastya, this was honest.
Stanko: Yes of course, of course it was honest, but I mean it was not, maybe it was not so professional as a journalist. But it was, yeah it was honest. You’re absolutely right. And I ask for help for amunition also because at that time you were scared and understood that we will not win, we will not survive without this help.
Kulykov: As Nastya Stanko mentioned she had, and I would add, a vast and deep experience of working on the frontline gained even before the full-scale Russian invasion in the years when we, at least some people in Ukraine, avoided to call the war, «the war», but she knew well what it was. However, how different was your first tour of duty to the frontline during this phase of the war from what you witnessed back in 2014-15?
Stanko: You know, the difference is that war now is everywhere. Maybe it’s, I don’t know, you can hear it’s like very solemn or something like this, but it’s true. The war is everywhere. And you can’t hide anywhere from this war.
I mean, when in 2014, for example, or 2015, I was going to the frontline near Avdiyivka, I understood that, okay, it’s a dangerous place now. But we will be here for two or three hours, and after this we will go back for five kilometres, and we will be in safe place. You know, now it’s absolutely not like this. If you are in some, I don’t know, positions of Ukrainian army 20 kilometres from the frontline on some, I don’t know, point of battle or something like this, you are in danger, absolutely. And you are everywhere in danger. And that’s why you feel so tired all the time, because, you know, you don’t have this feeling of safety anywhere. And that’s why it’s very tiring. It’s very stressful. This is the first thing. Another thing that you see all the time is death. For example, you are asking me about my first frontline trip. It was to Kharkiv. And I remembered also that that time I asked some soldiers, can I go from Kyiv to Kharkiv just by the same road as we are always taking. lt’s Kharkiv roadway, you know, because I said maybe there are Russian soldiers somewhere, maybe somewhere destroyed bridges. And you know, you can’t even imagine, if the road is more or less safe for you. And this changed everything. And we even decided, we were down this trip for a couple of days, but we decided not even to stay in Kharkiv for the night because it was too, too dangerous, because shelling was everywhere in all the districts of Kharkiv. And it was March. It was so cold, I remember, and we didn’t see people on the streets. And for me, the scariest moment when I’m walking somewhere is always if you can’t see people on the streets. If you can’t see people on the streets, it means that something wrong has happened here, and it’s not the good place to be, to stay.
Kulykov: Now, many people who are watching Ukrainian television or other channels say that there’s a considerably bigger proportion of women reporters during this phase of the war. How do you explain this? I mean, frontline reporters, not just any reporters.
Stanko: I will add: not only women reporters but young women reporters. Reporters who are mostly the age of 25, something like this. For me, it’s very young women reporters. I always see these young women. For example, at Hromadske, I can say, we have three frontline teams and all of these teams are young women journalists. Two of them are 25 and 27, I am 36, and all of us are women. We don’t have men. We had one man, he was mobilised last year, I think in spring or in summer and from that time we don’t have male frontline correspondents anymore on the frontline. And I see the same situation in the other media. For example Radio Liberty, they had abrilliant correspondent on the frontline, correspondent Levko Stek.
Now he is also mobilised to the army and he is first of all an officer of borderguards and that’s why mostly we have the situation where men went to the frontline, went to the army mostly as soldiers, sometimes they volunteer, sometimes they were mobilised. I say for me it’s a very big loss for the frontline reporting is the deaths, the killing of two good correspondents. Maks Levin, he was working as a reporter, he was killed as a reporter, and Sasha Makhov who went to the army as a volunteer and was killed as a soldier. For me, it’s very bad not only as a human being, but it’s a big loss for Ukraine as well, because they were brilliant war correspondents.
You may also read or listen on Hromadske Radio: «Everything I see now is inspiration» — Melinda Simmons
Kulykov: Yes, many, many, many colleagues have died. We are talking just a couple of days after I have received the news of the death of Oleksandr Bondarenko who used to work for the BBC Ukrainian Service, and another colleague was killed yesterday. In connection to this, do you think that obviously not on the frontline when they are in combat fatigues but when the Russian aggressors occupy some villages and towns there are reports they are targeting our colleagues in those places. Have you in your tours of duty encountered such situations and what can you say about this?
Stanko: I am sure one hundred percent that we are a target and we always talk about this with my team. Should we wear a helmet with this «press» word on it? Because we absolutely are a target. And you should think about your safety and also you should think how to mark yourself as a journalist. And, yes, we do not wear something military, of course, but we always wear a blue helmet and to help recognize us as a journalist, but, about “press” word? I don’t know. Now I don’t know if it’s a good idea to wear because for example this situation with a Ukrainian fixer and an Italian journalist which has happened a couple days ago when the Ukrainian fixer was killed on the Antonivka Bridge in Kherson. It’s absolutely understood that they were a target and if it was a sniper, for example, he absolutely saw that they had this press word on their helmets, on their jackets. And he did this. He or she, I don’t know. Yes he did this. Killed this Ukrainian fixer. And Ukrainian soldiers always told us, don’t wear this because you are target. And also they say if we will see someone on that side in this press helmet we also may think that they are not journalists but Russian propagandists and we don’t know what we should do with them. On that side, I don’t think that journalists are mostly working there, but from our side I think that yeah we are- we are a target, absolutely.
Kulykov: Well this statement especially about Ukrainians, I mean specifically about Ukrainian soldiers’ attitude toward Russian propagandists may be a subject to censorship but of course I won’t cut it out from our conversation for several reasons. First, I know that Nastya Stanko is absolutely honest in this. Second, you have to get the full picture, dear listeners, and third, I witnessed something like this during Maidan, back in 2013-2014 when also some of our colleagues who wore this press insignia were specifically targeted by the Yanukovych stooges.
Stanko: Yes, yes.
Kulykov: And of course Nastya who was one of the most prominent streamers from Maidan knows this very well. Another question: as I have mentioned censorship, do you encounter cases of censorship in your frontline reporting now?
Stanko: It’s a hard question and of course I understand that some things can be very vulnerable for soldiers, I mean but I mean some reason which I can understand and I can explain why we should cut something. When, for example, we are still near some building and this building can be very recognizable, to Russians for example and we understand that we should cut out this frame or we should cut some part of the frame off the video. I understand this absolutely, I never say that it’s not normal that you ask us to cut something. But if we are talking about some, I don’t know, opinion from soldiers about their commanders’ preparedness, something like this, I don’t agree with this. I think that the soldiers, people who are fighting for our country, fighting for us, for our lives, they have- they should have this opportunity, this possibility to talk, to talk loudly what they are thinking about everything. About everything which belongs to them, which is important for them, for example about their commanders. For example about how they are training, good or not good enough, you know? Why I think it’s important to say? Because Ukraine is not Russia of course and we are fighting not to be as Russia. And that’s why freedom of speech, freedom to say not maybe good words sometimes. It’s also an opportunity to change these bad things, to change, to solve some problems and that’s why journalists- that’s why we need journalists on the frontline, I think, because journalists can listen, can show these problems to the world, can show these problems to the Minister of Defence, for example, to the Office of the President and to others, because maybe if soldiers, or I don’t know, some colonels, or whatever, can’t say it to their commanders, maybe then some problem exists. And they are talking to journalists because it’s maybe the last person who they can tell and it can change something, through the media and that’s why I think that it’s important to show the problems and to try to know the problems- not to hide the problems.
Kulykov: And since we have mentioned commanders, have you met some real top brass of the Ukrainian army or people on the level of the Presidential Office, and do you think that it is essential for you or other people who work on the frontline to communicate and to interview such people?
Stanko: Of course I saw some people from the Presidential administration who are responsible for connection with frontline journalists and also for information politics, let’s say like this, but I was not interviewing them from 21st of February. I didn’t ask them about this interview because as I already mentioned and you mentioned it, I work mostly as a frontline correspondent only and I didn’t see this high level of people on the frontline, or near the frontline, that’s all you know. But before this, for example in 2016, I was interviewing Mykhailo Zabrodsky on the frontline, he was commander of Airborne forces, a General, and we made interview with him there. And now, he was member of parliament from Poroshenko’s party and now he decided to resign from this position and now he is helping Zaluzhny somehow in the General Staff office.
Kulykov: Zaluzhnyi being the Ukrainian commander in chief. Because not everyone who is listening to this conversation, especially people abroad, know all the names in the Ukrainian hierarchy. Nastya, you see a lot of blood, you go through many dangers and what makes you believe that we will win and your work is not in vain?
Stanko: This is a very hard question because something like believe, it’s not about journalism, I think, because you should always think about facts, not about believing but yeah, we should believe. I think that this is something far from you believe or not. And that’s all you know. And what makes me feel that we will win? I think that it’s, mostly, the people who I interview and who I see on the frontline. Some of them are not even soldiers but for example policemen you know who try to help people to recreate and live their lives everyday, to do this and sometimes it’s like, you know, you shouldn’t do this and it’s so dangerous to do this but they still- but they still do this and for me it’s something so amazing… I see this with my own eyes but I can’t believe that I see this, you know? And that’s why I believe that we will win because so many people do something for this.
Kulykov: To my mind you not only see it with your own eyes, you’re making a weighty contribution to the final result. And I admit your point about probably not as much believing but knowing the facts, knowing the circumstances, and displaying them to the audience in the way that may also instil this knowledge in many, many Ukrainians, who see your reports, who listen to what you say and who are mostly, mostly, because we cannot rule out some doubts, who are mostly sure that what they get from Anastasya «Nastya» Stanko is true and as close to the frontline as can humanly possibly be. Thank you very much for this interview. Take care, because many many people in this country and abroad need you.
This podcast is produced within the project «EU Emergency Support 4 Civil Society», implemented by ISAR Ednannia with the financial support of the European Union. Its contents are the sole responsibility of Hromadske radio and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.