Eight years ago, Olga Yurkova and her colleagues founded StopFake, a fact-checking organization based in Kyiv, Ukraine. Since then, they have confronted the Russian propaganda machine head on, giving readers a fact-based alternative to the lies of Vladimir Putin’s regime.
Even now, despite the brutal Russian attack on her country, Yurkova and her colleagues are continuing to fact-check Putin.
A journalist for 18 years, Yurkova was named to the Financial Times’ “New Europe 100” list in 2016 in recognition of her fight against propaganda. She was named a TED Fellow in 2018; more than a million people have watched her TED talk.
This is the story of her escape from Ukraine’s capital city in the first days of the war.
Feb. 24: ‘No emotions but anger and cold, fierce rage’
7:48 a.m.: A phone call from my sister wakes me up. I am annoyed. I don’t like calls — especially early calls. But what I hear makes me jump. My 12-year-old nephew, Vova, received a phone call from a friend who is studying at a cadet school in Tulchin, in central Ukraine.
At 6 a.m., the school was attacked by missiles. The cadets have been evacuated.
That phrase, “missile attack,” paralyzes me. Quickly, I go online: Russia has invaded Ukraine. Rocket strikes are reported in a number of cities, including the capital, Kyiv, where I live. Russian troops are advancing from the north, the east and the south.
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For the next hour, my mind refuses to accept this reality. I automatically scroll through messages on my phone, read Facebook, write to relatives. Neighbors write that the explosions have awakened them. Someone tells me to fill the bath and other containers with water in case service lines are cut.
I have no other emotions but anger and cold, fierce rage. Why did our neighbors enter our peaceful, calm, friendly country with their dirty soldier’s boots? Who decided they have the right to do so?
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10 a.m.: I cancel all my meetings, including one dedicated to an international project to improve Ukraine’s strategic communication. Another meeting was to be with an American professor about a scientific paper I am writing on propaganda.
She texts me: “Putin has truly lost his mind. And the propaganda is just ridiculous — do they really think anyone will believe that anymore?” We both know it is ridiculous, but a recent poll shows that 68% of Russians support Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
11 a.m.: I force myself to get out of bed. I do my exercises, wash my hair, cook an omelette. But I don’t drink my usual morning coffee — I don’t need it this morning. I fill the bathtub and call a friend who lives in Irpin, a suburb of Kyiv. In the last anxious days, we often talk like this — it helps to relieve the stress.
12 p.m.: While part of our team works to ensure the safety of the StopFake staff, I monitor disinformation and put articles on our website along with my colleagues. There are a lot of fake stories.
The main themes are surprisingly similar to those that spread in 2014, when StopFake was founded after Russia attacked eastern Ukraine: The Ukrainian army is very weak, the stories go, military units are surrendering, leaving their positions or going over to the side of Russian puppet pseudo-republics, the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic.
Russia’s propaganda media also report that various cities of Ukraine have come under the control of the invaders. Their “evidence?” Old or photoshopped photos with Russian flags on administrative buildings. One of the fake stories reports that the headquarters of the Joint Forces Operation of Ukraine has been destroyed.
All this disinformation obviously aims to demoralize the Ukrainian army and the people. Our fact checkers work non-stop.
A huge number of these fakes are spread anonymously on Telegram, an instant message app founded by two billionaire Russian brothers that has become very popular in Ukraine. It’s one of the main information weapons the Russians are using inside our country.
The Russian message is not spreading widely over television, which remains a main information source for 67% of Ukrainians. That’s because a year ago, the Ukrainian government blocked three TV channels distributing Russian narratives, which were linked to Ukrainian oligarch Viktor Medvedchuk. Vladimir Putin is the godfather of Medvedchuk’s daughter.
Just three weeks ago, the last major pro-Russian TV channel, Nash, owned by Yevgeny Murayev, also was blocked.
1 p.m.: A journalist from Bosnia writes, asking for a comment:
“Did you hear the siren? Are you scared?”
I respond: “I’m not scared, but disoriented and don’t know what to do. I didn’t hear the siren.”
I don’t want to talk about my fear. I don’t really feel any fear — not yet. But the journalists who contact me that day are interested in my fear.
2 p.m.: Foreign friends express their support and ask what they can do to help. I tell them how to contribute to the Ukrainian army. I barely have time to put heart emoji’s on all the messages that are flowing in. Everyone is asking if I’m safe. I don’t know, I reply. It seems that, for now, the Russians just want to scare us so that we agree to peace talks on Putin’s terms. We will not agree.
4 p.m.: Since I work from home, I try to walk a few kilometers every day. Today, I have planned a trip to the supermarket for food. I ran out of meat and had planned to buy it in the morning. I only remember this now. But when I get to the supermarket, there is no meat, only unappetizing chicken hearts and a little fish. I buy herring and a bunch of bananas.
5 p.m.: I plunge into work but am constantly distracted by both the incessant news and the incessant messages. One friend asks: Is it true that the Russians have seized Boryspil airport (in Kyiv)? I reply that I have not heard this. She forwards messages from an anonymous Telegram channel, and I have to explain to her that such channels are mainly run by Russia. I ask her to send me links to them for analysis.
It is incredibly hard to focus. All the time, there is information about the battles for the military airport in Gostomel near Kyiv. Our army has already beaten back several military landings of the enemy, but the Russians are sending in more and more troops.
I read about an alarming situation in Mykolaiv and Kherson, where Russian troops enter from the Crimea, and Chernigiv and Sumy, in the northern part of the country, where they entered from Belarus. In all these cities, fierce battles are going on. The Ukrainian army is holding its own and pushing back the invaders but the Russians capture the crippled Chernobyl nuclear power plant. This is an gigantic threat, of course, and not only for Ukraine.
8 p.m.: I write to Taisa, a friend in Irpin, who is sheltering in an underground parking garage with her cat, Patrick, a blue Scottish Straight. Gostomel is not far away, so she hears repeated explosions. At the shelter, she and others are advised to close their eyes and open their mouths when they hear an explosion. I ask if she wants to try to get to Vinnytsia tomorrow, where our parents live. She loves this plan. I discuss the idea with another colleague, Maryna, and we all agree to talk in the morning.
9 p.m.: Once again, I remember that I did not eat anything after breakfast. But I can’t take my mind off the news. It seems to me that if I do anything but watch, I will miss something important. So I watch the Ukrainian TV station Espreso over YouTube as I cook herring tartare. Working with my hands helps to make me feel more grounded and calmer.
Soon, the expert being interviewed is interrupted by a speech by President Joe Biden, who announces “unprecedented sanctions.” But the commenters on YouTube are disappointed by the president’s announcement. Sanctions might work but not immediately.
When the tartare is ready, it takes me a very long time to eat as the messages continue to pour in and I try to answer them.
Finally, the messages wane and people begin to go to sleep. Everyone, that is, except for those on the anonymous Telegram channels, where an alternative reality is being shaped.
Russian channels describe the “atrocities” of Ukraine’s non-existent Nazis. The channels that masquerade as Ukrainian “explain” that the Ukrainian military is surrendering en masse, Russia is winning, President Volodymyr Zelensky is allegedly calling for surrender, and so on.
None of it is true.
I screenshot the messages to document them. Perhaps one day, they will be useful as proof of the information aspect of Russia’s war crimes.
10:30 p.m.: A friend in the military calls and asks to leave Kyiv within seven hours. But since we are under a curfew, that’s impossible. Finally, for the first time, fear sets in.
11 p.m.: On chats and in social media, news spreads that at 3 a.m., the Russians will attack. But no one shoots at 3 a.m. It isn’t until 4 a.m. that the explosions begin as Kyiv is bombed and enemy saboteurs are detained not far from where I live.
Feb. 25: Panic at a train station
4 a.m.: I finally stop browsing Telegram channels. The disinformation can be sorted into one of several categories: messages that incite fear, such as calls to turn off electrical equipment because there will be power outages, or “news” that the Russians have already invaded some Ukrainian cities, which is not the case.
Then there are the pipe dream rumors such as the supposedly insider information that Russian troops will only bomb military targets, so there is nothing to fear. Or the wedge-driving rumors like the fake calls by Ukrainian soldiers to their comrades, imploring them not to die “for President Zelensky and his family.”
4:30 a.m.: A psychologist friend conducts a half-hour livestream on how to calm down. He advises breathing, grounding and determining what we can control and what we cannot. I finally start packing my “go bag.” Many of my friends did this months ago, when Russia began to station more troops on our borders.
I put documents, cash, some clothes, a laptop and chargers in the bag. I run the dishwasher and clean the apartment. I can’t find my passport for an hour. Because of the pandemic, I haven’t traveled abroad for a long time. But finally, I find it, hoping very much that I won’t need it.
5:30 a.m.: I go to bed, pushing a lounge chair into the corridor, where there are no windows. I feel confident that the load-bearing walls here will protect against a blast wave. By this time, a downed enemy missile falls on Poznyaky, a Kyiv neighborhood not far from Boryspil airport.
7 a.m.: I awake to a call from Maryna, who is going to the train station. I write to Taisa, but she can’t come because the bridge to Kyiv was blown up over night to stop the enemy. Eventually, she finds a neighbor who travels in the direction of Vinnytsya in a roundabout way. He takes her and Patrick, the cat.
11 a.m.: Maryna, shocked by the number of people at the station, decides to go by car with a family of displaced persons from occupied Donetsk; they leave the city in three cars with their cats and dogs.
11:30 a.m.: I can’t call a taxi for an hour, and most public transport is out of service. But the subway is still working so I decide to walk the 5 kilometers to the station. I have breakfast, water the flowers as much as I can, wash the dishes and take out the trash. I don’t bother to push the lounge chair back into the room.
12 p.m.: I leave the house with two bags, a backpack and a mat but it’s a hard walk so after a kilometer or so, I decide to flag down a car. I skip the ones that look too new. We have been warned that sabotage vehicles, which put marks on the roads to guide the Russian military, might look like that.
I stop a modest blue Opel with an elderly couple inside. The woman had to leave the hospital ahead of schedule. All the patients had spent that night in a shelter. “It’s good that there were doctors and everything you need nearby,” the woman says. “One old man had surgery right in the basement.”
From the window, we can see kilometer-long lines at ATMs and supermarkets.
They take me to the Beresteyska metro station, three stops from the railway station, but soldiers meet me and say that the subway is closed. The nearest operating station is Shulyavska, 2.5 kilometers away. I walk fast. On the way, I meet many of our soldiers and equipment. To me, this is a beautiful sight. They are so polite and well-coordinated. The more I see them, the calmer I feel.
There would be fierce fighting in this area the very next night.
1 p.m.: The subway has been serving as a bomb shelter. There are families with children and their cats and dogs. Despite the hardship, people seem calm. Many sit on unfolded blankets. As I pass them, I can feel tears welling up in my eyes but I don’t have the capacity to cry.
1:19 p.m.: I’m at the train station, packed with people. Free evacuation trains are announced, which had not been on the schedule. The first such train is to Lviv, in western Ukraine. I want to ask if it is going to Vinnytsya, my home town, but it is not possible to approach any of the train officials. The crowd is dense, and people are screaming, and pushing in close. There are many women, children and foreign students. There is such panic at the car closest to the entrance to the station that a policeman shoots his gun into the air to get the crowd’s attention. I leave without even trying to approach the car.
1:45 p.m.: A regular train, which I usually use to travel to Vinnytsya, appears on the electronic board. When I arrive, boarding is already in progress. We aren’t asked for tickets.
All the seats in the compartment are occupied. I ask someone to let me into one of the top berths; there are already six people sitting on the lower ones. A young couple joins me, and in the end 14 people travel in one small compartment. The hallway is also full of people and their belongings. An elderly woman crosses herself before departure.
One of the men tells people that our army is losing, and uses a tone that sounds familiar to me. Finally, I can’t stand it any longer and ask him where he is getting his information? The answer doesn’t surprise me — it comes from an anonymous Telegram channel. I explain that the goal of these channels is to sow panic. Another young man supports me, but my opponent is sure that he knows the truth.
Elderly people just sit silently and listen. I’m hoping to reassure them.
7 p.m.: I reach home in Vinnytsya and a happy reunion with my parents and family. Because of an air raid alert, the train was delayed but it still arrives only an hour late.
11:30 p.m.: Maryna finally arrives. What is typically a four-hour drive to Vinnytsya has taken 12. She stays at my place for the night and makes plans to leave for Slovakia tomorrow.
Feb. 26: Very little food and a fear of saboteurs
I go to sleep at 1 a.m. For the first time in three days, I sleep not two hours, but seven. It has seemed like one never-ending day.
But all day, I find it hard to do anything. Foreign journalists write to me, but because of the stress of all that has happened, I can’t remember English words and have a hard time replying. It’s impossible to focus.
This afternoon, my sister, Olena, and I go shopping. The butcher shops are closed, and there is nothing in the supermarket except croissants and the most expensive canned seafood. When we ask when the food will arrive, the clerk says Russian saboteurs are trying to seize trucks carrying goods from Kyiv.
On the streets, we hear air raid sirens all the time. We go to a bomb shelter. This one is in a shooting gallery in the basement of a local school. Lots of families live here now.
Feb. 27: ‘It’s all your authorities’ fault’
With our colleagues, we work hard to refute the fake Russian propaganda. New narratives are emerging — including this whopper: Ukrainians have staged a video of the devastation caused by the Russian attacks.
As if anyone would believe that we are bombing ourselves.
As if we are the ones who have practically wiped out the beautiful green enclaves of Irpin and Bucha near Kyiv.
My mother calls my aunt in Russia. She warns her to withdraw money from her accounts because it could be frozen by the sanctions. She tells her that we are being bombed.
My aunt replies: “Be patient, you will be released soon, it’s all your authorities’ fault.”
Outraged, my mom hangs up.
We watch from a window as a police car drives up. We learn that residents had noticed a stranger and mistook him for a saboteur. It turned out, though, that he had been renting an apartment here for two years.
Amid all the chaos and uncertainty in neighborhoods like ours, the Ukrainian army continues to fight selflessly and defend us.
Feb. 28: Mom never thought the Russians would do this
At breakfast, my mother says that she would like to make Molotov cocktails to help the Ukrainian army. It’s better than just being afraid and waiting, she says. Mom is Russian by nationality, has spoken Russian all her life and never thought, right to the last, that Russia would attack Ukraine. I’m crying as she speaks, in pain because of the injustice.
Later, I go to a grocer. Finally, meat and fish has shown up in the meat cases, and I manage to withdraw some money from an ATM. In the queue, the men are talking about going to the draft board tomorrow.
March 1: ‘It snowed, so we will have water’
My mother and I go to a school, now temporarily closed, which has been converted into a reception center for humanitarian aid. We learn that the wounded being brought to Vinnytsya from Mykolaiv need bed linens, mattresses and warm clothes.
Meanwhile, yet another fresh narrative is emerging in Russian propaganda: Ukrainian refugees misbehave abroad, they are writing. We saw the same stories circulating in 2014. Then, about 1 million people from the occupied territories moved to the government-controlled territory of Ukraine.
A friend, Natalya, writes to me from the city of Dymer, near Kyiv, which is surrounded by the invaders. She is a lecturer at the Institute of International Relations, where I also once lectured. There is no electricity, no water, no food in the city. I try to contact the volunteers, but they say there is no access to Dymer.
The next day, Natalya writes to let me know: “It snowed, so we will have water.”
A day later, I write to Natalya. She does not answer.
March 2: ‘The truth has become clear to the world’
Kharkiv is bombed. The city of 1.5 million is heavily damaged; a photo of the burning university was circulated around the world. A train of people who were evacuated, including many children, are transported to Vinnytsya.
Foreign journalists still write and call — from Belgium, Italy, Brazil, the United States. Every time, I need time to focus to answer them but focus remains very hard.
11:30 p.m.: To get my mind off the terrible news swirling around me, I look at some of my Facebook memories and am reminded that StopFake turns 8 today. We have been telling Ukraine and the world about the true face of Russia for eight years. Some people listened; some didn’t.
But now, the truth has become clear to the world.
Every minute in Ukraine, people are dying. Every day, Russian pilots are bombing civilians. Every hour, we become less safe in our own country.
At one time, Ukraine gave up nuclear weapons in exchange for security. Now we have no weapons and no guarantees. It is an illusion to think that only Ukraine is in danger. Unless swift and harsh punishment follows for breaking the rules, Russia will break them again and again. It has done so many times: in Chechnya, in Transnistria, in Georgia, in Crimea and the Donbas.
We are grateful to our international partners for military support and humanitarian assistance, but it’s not enough. Civilians continue to die in Ukraine. In several cities, the invaders are holding thousands of people hostage without food or water. Our army is fighting well, but from the first day we have asked NATO to close the sky above us from enemy air raids. If a missile hits a nuclear power plant, terrible consequences await all of Europe.
Unprecedented war crimes require an unprecedented response. We are waiting with hope. Russia’s war crimes must end here — and we must continue to resist.
Tomorrow, my mother and I will carry warm children’s clothes to the volunteer headquarters for refugees from Kharkiv. My home is here now. My duty is here, too. I’ll stay as long as it is possible but my bags are packed.
This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Ukrainian journalist Olga Yurkova recounts her escape from Kyiv