Olga Rudenko and the Kyiv Independent Gave the World a Window Into a Devastating War
Kyiv Independent staff knew there was war. In February, they spent hours reporting about an imminent invasion. Editor in chief Olga Rudenko and the other senior editors had consulted with the outlet’s two dozen or so staff members to make sure each had an evacuation plan and had withdrawn cash so they could keep operating if the banks closed. The passwords were handed to North American contacts and they gave instructions on how to maintain their website in the event that their internet is lost. And yet as Russian President Vladimir Putin declared a “special military operation” in the early hours of Feb. 24, none of them could quite believe what was happening. “We thought they would try to take more territory in eastern Ukraine,” says Rudenko. “Not that it would be a full-fledged war.”
In the days and weeks to come, the Kyiv Independent would become the world’s primary source for reliable English-language journalism on that war. Three days into its existence, the Kyiv Independent’s Twitter following grew from 30,000 followers to 1,000,000. It now boasts more than 2,000,000. In both its newfound influence and the widespread support it received—a crowdfunding campaign has raised nearly $2 million to keep the platform going—the transformation has been extraordinary. The Kyiv Independent had launched a mere 14 weeks before the invasion—after a scandal over journalistic independence at their previous employer inspired the editors to strike out on their own, and pulled Rudenko, who is now leading a team under exceptionally difficult circumstances, back from what was meant to be a break from journalism.
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“We are starting this ambitious project that is based on values we really, really believe in, which is independent journalism,” Rudenko, 33, says. “And we are doing it at the same time as our country is fighting this war for survival.”
The stakes are very high for someone who had never imagined being in charge. “If you saw me when I was 14 or 15, you’d never think this person would grow up to lead anything,” Rudenko says with the modesty I’ve come to expect over the course of our four conversations over the past two months. Rudenko is a self-confessed geek who loves Japanese anime and books. Rudenko was born in Dnipro in central Ukraine. After her father’s death when Olga was 4, her mother, an accountant, raised her alone and encouraged her to pursue a career in economics. But Rudenko, eager to “earn a living writing and meet interesting people,” chose to study journalism at university in Dnipro.
Following an internship in a paper local, she decided to move to Kyiv where she got a job with the Kyiv Times. Post, Ukraine’s only English-language newspaper at the time. Although the paper’s mainly international audience was relatively small, it had a reputation for doing serious journalism. “It was hardcore investigative journalism—those journalists weren’t scared of anything,” says Oleksiy Sorokin, who became a political reporter at the paper in 2018 and is now the Kyiv Independent’s political editor. “It was always going up against the establishment and those in power. The notion was that they’ve obviously done something bad, but we have to prove it.”
Rudenko didn’t know about that prestige when, in 2011, she got a job as a lifestyle reporter at the paper’s recently launched Ukrainian-language website. She knew nothing but that the newsroom was terrifying. She felt overwhelmed, struggling to understand English conversations. She chose to face her anxiety and run towards it, rather than fleeing. Even though she would have to write English, she agreed to cover an opinion poll. The next day, she brought her piece to the editor. “He opens the story in front of me and says, ‘It’s OK, I’m just going to change a few things.’” she recalls. “And then he—control A—deletes the whole story and starts writing a new one.”
As she got more comfortable, she began writing only in English. She also wrote about the Donbas conflict, which was supported by Russia, in 2014. She was elected national editor in 2016, and became deputy editor to the editor-in-chief by 2017.
With each promotion, Rudenko doubted herself—and, in fact, initially turned down the deputy job. “It was ‘Who, me?’” she says. “But when it was announced, the reaction from people was, ‘We thought you already were that.’ I realized how different my vision of myself was from how people see me.”
Rudenko in 2021 accepted a fellowship at the University of Chicago’s Stigler Center. At that time, she was at Kyiv Post for a decade—and those 10 years, coupled with rising tensions over editorial independence between the newspaper’s staff and its third owner, real estate developer Adnan Kivan, convinced her she needed to take some time to figure out her next steps. The plan was to spend the fall studying in the U.S., then return to Ukraine and simply relax for a while; she wasn’t sure she’d return to the Post.
However, a scandalous incident at the Kyiv newspaper slowed the process. Suffering under pressure from Ukrainian authorities, unhappy about the Post’s critical coverage, Kivan tried to appoint a more compliant editor, and when the staff refused to accept her, fired them all on Nov. 8. “It was one of the largest media scandals of the Zelensky era,” says Roman Horbyk, researcher in media and communications at Sodertorn University in Sweden. “It wasn’t the kind of thing we expected in Ukraine after 2014, and it left a bad aftertaste.”
Rudenko was present in Chicago that day, leaving senior editors Toma Itomina and Sorokin with the responsibility of handling the aftermath. They soon realized, as Sorokin puts it, “that we weren’t ready to let it go.” That night, Sorokin, Istomina, and head of investigations Anna Myroniuk called Rudenko and broke the news—and shared their decision to start something new. “Count me in,” Rudenko said.
They didn’t have a name for it yet, but on Nov. 15, the group sent out the first iteration of what would become the Kyiv Independent. Initially it was just a newsletter, but they soon added a podcast—and finally, after acquiring business partners and some grant funding, a news website. Istomina says that the decision to pick an editor-in-chief was easy. “We all knew it was going to be Olga; she had the most experience and the complete trust of the staff. She was humble and still presented the message that we needed to conduct a poll before she could vote. Everyone voted for her. It was almost as great as when Zelensky got 73% of the vote.”
The Russian threat was becoming more apparent. But as they raced to figure out funding and workflows, and even while they reported on the military buildup on Ukraine’s borders, the Kyiv Independent staff were motivated by something else. “There was just this strong sense of, We need to succeed, because if we don’t, then the bad guys win,” Rudenko says, referring to the wealthy oligarchs, some linked to Putin, who influenced what appeared in the Ukrainian press. “It felt like we were defending the essence of journalism.”
Since the invasionThe nature of this defense has evolved. The 24 or so reporters and editors on staff continue to turn out deeply reported stories—Rudenko ticks off several that made her proud, including one on the street cleaners and garbage collectors who continued to do their jobs even while Kyiv was being bombed, and another that followed a Ukrainian military unit as it collected the bodies of Russian soldiers. But high emotions and the relentless pace of events—to say nothing of wartime disinformation and propaganda—has made ensuring the accuracy of their reporting more challenging. “Separating the facts from opinion and emotion when your country is at war—that’s an extra difficult task.”
Rudenko discovered previously untapped resources in her own abilities, which surprised even herself. “If I need to do a presentation in front of 20 people, it freaks me out,” she says, laughing. “But an audience of 2 million on Twitter does not. Both the war, and running the team—when the challenge is so big and so important, it’s like something arises in you; a coping mechanism, or some inner force that you didn’t know you had.”
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That’s not to say she’s immune to the stress and trauma. A lifelong propensity for tears—great sobs she was helpless to control that would erupt whenever a kid in school was mean to her or a colleague had cross words—has suddenly dried up; with two exceptions she has not cried at all since the war started. She can’t recognize the subjects of an elevator selfie she took with Sorokin and Istomina as they were leaving the office on Feb. 24, just two hours prior to the invasion. “None of us are the same people,” she says. “We may look the same and talk to each other as usual and even joke around. But inside, we are now forever changed and traumatized by what happened two hours after that photo was taken.”
Trauma and responsibility. Reporting from a hot spot is always voluntary for the Kyiv Independent’s staff, and Rudenko sees part of her job as reining in reporters whose enthusiasm for covering the conflict might override their better sense. Even so, in a conflict that has already killed at least 18 journalists, she can’t escape the sense that she is putting her staff in danger. “For each of them, I’ve played a scenario in my head where I have to tell their family that something happened to them, that they were taken captive, went missing or worse,” she says. “I try to not let myself go too far into that, because these thoughts are swampy and they can distract me from the work that needs to be done.”
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In order to distract herself from these thoughts, she attempts to visualize the entire team back together. With the war ended, they are now focusing on the truth about corruption and injustice. For now, however, she and her team have a structure to deal with daily devastation. “Reporting on a war in your own country is both a blessing and a curse,” she says. “It’s a curse because you can’t turn off the news. It’s your job to be looking at the atrocities, at every photo of a dead person in Bucha, every civilian killed with their hands tied behind their back, every horrible photo of a mass grave—there’s no walking away.”
But the work also provides a way of dealing with the horror—and of making meaning out of it. “As a journalist,” she says, “you have the privilege of knowing that your job is actually helping. I’m not going to say it’s helping the country or helping the troops. But you’re helping the right thing to happen.”