Illia Ponomarenko: Ukraine’s most-followed war journalist is a “dude” from Donbas

By Susan D’Agostino | April 28, 2022

Illia Ponomarenko, defense reporter for the Kyiv Independent. Illia Ponomarenko, defense reporter for the Kyiv Independent.

In November 2021, Illia Ponomarenko, a Ukrainian defense reporter, was fired from his job at the Kyiv Post—the country’s then-largest and oldest independent English-language newspaper. The owner, Adnan Kivan, had shut down the paper with little warning and no explanation, surprising even President Volodymyr Zelensky, according to a Radio Free Europe report. Several Kyiv Post reporters issued a statement that Kivan had sought to compromise their editorial independence and that their dismissal was an attempt to purge “inconvenient, fair, and honest journalists.” Those reporters, including Ponomarenko, decided to start their own newspaper, which they named the Kyiv Independent.

When word about the fledgling news startup got out around Kyiv, an information technology company helped the journalists build a website for free. Then, several lawyers offered pro bono services. Also, staff at a network of co-working spaces in Kyiv said, “Guys, you do a good job. Come to our office. You can work here for free,” Ponomarenko told the Bulletin. From its start, the Kyiv Independent has relied on small donations—the price of a weekly cup of coffee, for example—from subscribers and readers by way of Patreon and a GoFundMe campaign.

Just months later, Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a brutal war against Ukraine. World citizens searching for on-the-ground, English-language news of the invasion found the Kyiv Independent—a journalist-owned publication that, by its own account, serves “its readers and community, and nobody else” and one that “won’t be dependent on a rich owner or oligarch.”

Today, five months after he was fired, Ponomarenko is working around the clock for the Kyiv Independent “telling the world about this war as a service to humankind.” And indeed, the world is listening to this self-described “village guy from Donbas in a crusade for something better.” Today, 1.1 million people follow Ponomarenko on Twitter.

In this condensed and edited interview, I talk with Ponomarenko about the Ukrainian concept of “reasonable carelessness,” service journalism, and hope for Ukraine.

You’ve been reporting from the front lines since the late-February invasion. If you are willing, can you share some low and high moments?

The most emotional period was the first two or three days after the February 24 invasion. Russian troops were trying to break into the district of north of Kyiv. They were fighting in the streets of Kyiv. We saw Russian helicopters trying to land. That was a symbolic image of how close we were to downfall. Their mission was to seize this airfield and use it as the landing ground for more and more planes coming in. And the next step probably would have been another airborne force landing inside the city or south of the city to another airfield. It was such a doomsday sensation. The lives of millions of people were changing in a bad way. Everybody was fleeing, and the city was blocked by traffic jams. I was not ready to give up, but I was starting to understand that we had lost our lives. And since we [seemed to] have lost our capital city, we have to kiss goodbye many things that were taken for granted, like democracy, like our nation as we knew it. I was always rational with my friends, my neighbors, and my mom, telling them what they had to do to be safe. But inside myself, I was super emotional. Getting used to the thought that we had lost was the lowest point.

But this feeling changed within hours or days. We started seeing the Ukrainian military’s first minor victories. I left the city to bring my mom to a safe place in Western Ukraine. I wasn’t sleeping, but I followed every single bit of information available in the news. Bit by bit, we started seeing minor victories. I remember a picture of Ukrainian soldiers posing with the Ukrainian flag and smiling. They had just defeated the Russian airborne forces. The situation was not as dark as we supposed it to be. Ukraine was far more resilient and far more effective than we supposed it to be. And Russia was starting to fail—and very quickly. Even before I got back to Kyiv on the third fourth day, my spirit was higher—way higher. My relatives were sending messages asking my opinion about what was going on. I was totally surprised to say, “We are winning. We can win. It’s not the end. It’s not over. Nothing is over. The fight goes on.” That was the one of the highest moments, of the spirit of life, for me.

You and I were last in touch before the February 24 invasion, when you had explained the Ukrainian concept of “reasonable carelessness.” Has that endured during this part of the war?

Yes and no. On one hand, we have millions of people fleeing the country. People are obviously afraid. Those who cannot flee spend nights in subway stations that work as a bomb shelters. It has been between two extremes. People were either absolutely careless about this war, absolutely careless about security, and not super emotional about this whole thing. Or they were super, sometimes exceedingly cautious about their own security.

This reasonable carelessness, as I called it just days before the war, saved us in many ways. It was the illustration of how stable, cohesive, and strong Ukrainian society was in facing this. In many ways, the Russian blitzkriegs rely on having the population demoralized and afraid. Despite the immense missile attacks and lots of cities razed to the ground, Ukrainian society is not demoralized and is stable, ready to fight, ready to support the military, and not willing to give up.

So, Ukrainians’ “reasonable carelessness” is tied to their stability?

It’s a very, very important factor in this war. For instance, Ukrainian society resembles a dude in the war who is not super emotional about what’s happened. He just knows what to do. He understands everything that’s going on in this war. He understands the battlefield. So, he can afford some sort of recklessness because he’s in full control. He is very reassured of himself. That’s Ukrainian society. I would rather see that than general panic, looting, and a doomsday sensation. The government managed to keep the whole nation under control because the whole nation was ready for this. Russia has failed to demoralize and destabilize our society.

How do you feel about Russia, its citizens, and its leader, Vladimir Putin?

Just one word: The Russian government is the enemy. The sworn enemy. It is something that denies us our way of life. This enemy must be defeated. It’s as simple as that.

But when it comes to the Russian people, it’s a bit complicated. Many of us in Ukraine know people in Russia on personal level. We have relatives in Russia. Lots of Ukrainians project their hatred on regular Russians, and they do so for a reason because many regular Russians support what they see on the TV screens when it comes to this war.

But I try not to make this personal. For instance, I have friendly, personal connections with lots of people from Russia who visited Kyiv from time to time before the war. Now they follow me on Twitter and Instagram. They absolutely do not support this war. They decry it. What’s the use in spewing my hatred against them? Instead, I project my strength and my power on serving Ukraine and the Ukrainian people and helping it defeat the sworn enemy—the Russian government and national system.

Your Twitter following has increased dramatically since the war began. Do you carry with you the many who are rooting for you? Do you fear for your safety? How has your fame enhanced or complicated your life?

Oh, my Twitter, following! Stop the jokes from my friends and colleagues!

No, I’m not concerned about my security. Nobody cares about me in this regard. I’m not that valuable. A Russian missile could strike me. When the battle was still active in and near the city, I was living with a buddy in a house a few kilometers away from the actual combat line. We didn’t care much. As a journalist, I have to think about something more national rather than my personal security.

But my Twitter following kills my brain. It drives me insane because I got well over a million followers literally within days. We’re talking about the darkest days of this war—the first days. I started tweeting a lot about what was happening—not only the news, but also my own personal thoughts and opinions, what I saw in front of my eyes.

Before the war, I celebrated 10,000 followers on Twitter. That was a big holiday to me because I was never super popular on social media. But things have changed. One morning, I woke up after a couple hours of sleep and saw I had 100,000 followers. Next morning, I see it’s 500,000. A couple of days after this, 1,000,000. Oh my god! What was happening?

I never intentionally worked for this. I just ended up being the most-followed Ukrainian journalist. Within several days, I went from zero to hero. I ended up being somewhat interesting to a lot of people—not only in terms of news coverage but also my opinions and experience in this world. I did not consider this purely news Twitter. I also attach a lot of things that happen in my life and in the context of war. For some reason, these things that I write ended up being interesting to people.

I’m very grateful to these [followers], so I’m trying to not let them down. I try to stay truthful and honest. And keep it personal. People have more than enough information from media outlets, including my own media outlet, Kyiv Independent. They are doing a great job. If you want to be informed 24/7 on every single thing, subscribe to our social media. You’ll hear everything you need to know. But on Twitter, I put a more personal view of just a random dude living in the middle of this war, the scale of which has not been seen since World War II.

But the effect on my life has been big. One of the challenges that Ukrainian journalists face in this war is the emotion. This is not my first war. Depending on how you count, it’s my third or fourth war. It’s very hard to cope with personal emotions and stay professional in journalism. For instance, my hometown, Volonovakha, was destroyed to the ground. It ceases to exist as a human settlement.

It’s very hard to stay rational and not write silly things on Twitter. I need to think twice about what I write now since I have a lot of people writing to me, including government officials in Ukraine and beyond Ukraine. My friends often send me messages saying, for instance, “Hey, look, The Guardian is quoting you!” That happens every single day, sometimes every single hour. I’m not a dude with 3,000 followers on Twitter. [I’m] a media on my own right now, whether [I] like it or not. Now that I am in this situation, I need to think twice about every single word because it could be interpreted by not good people. I do not even have much time for this!

Earlier, you said that nobody cared about you. I assure you that many people, myself included, wake up every day and check that you’re still tweeting and that your spirit is still out there.

Oh, I know! Western journalists send message to my friends asking if they know me personally. A couple of days ago, I posted a picture of my girlfriend on Instagram. People saw that she is my girlfriend, and she got tons of messages asking, “Are you really dating this guy? Whoa!”

Oh my god, people. Stop it. Just stop it.

I don’t have any serious plans with my Twitter. I just see my mission as a journalist serving the community in Ukraine and beyond. I’m tweeting to tell the story of what’s happening. A lot of friends and some colleagues ask, “Why don’t you get monetized on Twitter?” But I decided not to do this. What I do on Twitter is purely nonprofit. This is my service to community. I’m not even asking for donations. I don’t want to monetize human grief. I’m telling the world about this war as a service to humankind.

Someone recently suggested that war journalists fight wars with pens. Does this resonate with your journalism?

In this present situation, it’s very hard to be a Ukrainian journalist and consider this as simply a job to earn a living. A huge community of journalists in Ukraine decided to stay and perceive this work as a service, not as a job. An absolute majority of journalists in Ukraine are working almost 24/7, regardless of the money they get. For instance, in the first 100 hours after the war started on February 24, most of us [got by on] a total of three, four, or five hours of sleep. We had work to do.

I’m not sure about war journalists fighting a war with a pen. We’re not propaganda or mouthpieces, but we expose problems and war crimes by the enemy. Also, we expose corruption in the military because we want our military to be stronger. We are journalists at war, but we’re not turning into propaganda pieces.

In one of your tweets that received more than 173,000 likes, you wrote of your plans to quit war journalism. What are your hopes for your future?  

Having a war in your country—not a random war but one of the largest conflicts in modern history—takes a toll on your emotional situation.

I sent that tweet because I saw a picture of a four-year-old boy named Sasha who got lost in the earliest days of the Russian invasion. His mom had posted his picture on Instagram looking for him. He was a beautiful young boy pictured with his cat.

I saw his picture again in the news. This little boy was found dead. He was trying to flee on a boat in the Dnipro River and probably a Russian air attack, unless I’m wrong, destroyed the boat. Everybody drowned, including this young boy. They found his body in the river. Seeing this little boy’s eyes, seeing the beautiful child … I decided that I’ve had enough of this.

I will go on with my service as a journalist to my community until the very end of the war. After that, I will have to switch for something that does not remind me of war. Maybe I’ll concentrate on science journalism or something not directly connected to human misery or political or security strategy. I will need a good stop in terms of seeing dead bodies, killed civilians, destruction, burnt tanks and vehicles, and this smell of death that I see in the fields almost every day. I’ve had enough of this. I will need to switch to something more peaceful. Maybe stories about space. Why not? Space exploration for inspiration. I think I have deserved this.

I hope to see your byline in an astronomy magazine one day. I’m sorry for everything you’ve witnessed.

I’m a lucky guy—loved and alive. So, I’m not complaining.

I understand. On what I hope will be a brighter note, how are you faring in terms of hope? Do you think Ukraine is going to win the war?

We are going to be victorious, and we will be safe as an independent nation. Basically, we have won. We have remained an independent nation. The [real] questions are: What will be the outcome? How much of our territory will Russia claim? Will we be capable of defeating Russia in combat and disabling and denying its ability to go on fighting a war of this scale? Can we go back to the status quo on February 23? Can we take Donetsk and Luhansk and drive the defeated Russian military off Ukrainian territory completely, maybe even including Crimea?

Those questions [remain]. But given all the circumstances that we’ve faced in two months of war, I believe we have a positive answer to the question, “Will Ukraine survive as a nation?” Yes. And that’s a huge first victory.

Author’s note: Thank you to Sarah Starkey for preparing the audio clips included with this article.


As the Russian invasion of Ukraine shows, nuclear threats are real, present, and dangerous

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Kathleen O’Brien
Kathleen O’Brien
7 months ago

Thank you for featuring Illia. His voice captured so many of us from the first day of the war on Twitter. I know this must me overwhelming for him but with humility and humanity and his boyish Ukrainian humor he has done a great service for his country. As a grandmother I feel emotional about him as a young man being so professional and brave. He is an example of his amazing country.