Eugene from Ukraine: An online diary of warPlay
"How to prepare your house for an active wartime?"
This was the title of a post on r/NoStupidQuestions about a month ago. The Reddit user, a 32-year old Ukrainian name Eugene, asked other users for advice in case Russia invaded. On Feb. 24, Eugene updated the post: "It happened. Nothing can prepare you to waking up at 5 a.m. from explosions, it was the single most scary experience of my life." This week, Ben and Amory hear from Eugene as he navigates life in Kyiv and struggles to assess the reality and unreality of information online.
This content was originally created for audio. The transcript has been edited from our original script for clarity. Heads up that some elements (i.e. music, sound effects, tone) are harder to translate to text.
Ben Brock Johnson: Amory, I don't know anything about war, really, but I know that I hate it. And so it's kind of been hard to pay attention to the news in some ways. And at the same time, it's important not to look away, right? Finding out how to do that thoughtfully, responsibly, empathetically is also hard. But I think a lot of the people who care about what is happening in Ukraine and care about anyone affected by war anywhere are trying. And I think that includes us.
Amory Sivertson: Yeah, for sure.
Ben: Which is a reason why I think we we all agreed to to talk about Ukraine this week.
Subscribe to the podcast
Ben: So I want to talk about some specific ways that the internet specifically is playing a role. How have you been consuming information about the war in Ukraine?
Amory: It's interesting that you said that you haven't necessarily been wanting to tune in to the news because it's hard and yet I feel like news these days you can't avoid it if you are on social media, news is fed to you. You don't have to actively intentionally consume news to to have it served up. So, you know, I listen to our local public radio station every morning, WBUR. But yeah, it's unavoidable. I'm on Twitter. It's there. I'm on Instagram. It's there because people are talking about it and thinking about it. And that's both a good thing and a hard thing.
Ben: So do you know about the "ghost of Kyiv"? Did you see the purported captured Russian soldiers who had been told they were headed into Ukraine to defend its people from a Nazi Ukrainian government? Did you, like, any of that ring a bell?
Amory: I have seen some of those memes, and I did see a video of someone telling Russian troops to go, f*** themselves.
Ben: OK, so we're going to talk through some of that stuff. But back to the sort of goal of being responsible, I think the thing that that I've been most focused on over the last, I don't know, 10 days or so and we've been kind of talking about was connecting with Eugene, who I believe to be a real person in Ukraine.
Eugene: Uh, this is Eugene. I’m from Kyiv. This is day five of the war. It’s Monday.
Ben: So I found Eugene because he posted in the "No Stupid Questions" subreddit and his post was titled "How to Prepare Your House for an Active Wartime?" And this post got a lot of interesting responses. You know, basically he was saying, I'm in Kiev and like, I, you know, I don't know how to prepare for this.
Amory: And this post was made when, how many, how far in advance of the actual invasion?
Ben: maybe 25 days ago. So almost a month ago now. OK. Sort of anticipating the invasion. And it got a lot of interesting responses from people who said that they had been in other areas of the world, that it had conflict. So Sarajevo, someone, you know, said Africa without specifying and had a bunch of advice about being in an active war zone. You know, people talked about how to duct tape windows and stay away from them. Also, how fuel becomes valuable and tradable. But I reached out to Eugene and asked if he would talk to us. And at first, his response was that he'd happily do an email interview or something like that, but would not record his voice for us, which in the world that we're living in sort of made it pretty hard to be sure he was who he said he was and where he was. You know, early on, I did trade photos with him via a burner email that he set up. Eugene sent me sort of like Reddit-AMA-style photos of himself holding up a paper with my name and the date written on it and also holding his Ukrainian passport. So let's take a look at some of the correspondence.
Amory: OK, so he says, "Hey, Ben." He thanks you for having an interest in this and wanting to shed light on the topic, he says, "But I can't do it on a podcast as in vocally. Sorry, but I just don't want to 'speak,' however, in any other form, I'll gladly help out."
Ben: So I got back to him and you know, you asked him more about his situation and what he was doing and what he was thinking about. And I also just sort of inquired why he didn't want to talk to us like vocally.
Amory: He says "It's not that I don't want to go on record or save my privacy. I'm not afraid to share my opinion, however minuscule it might be. I just don't want to speak literally in text. Sure, no problem. But I won't talk." Hmm.
Ben: Yeah, so, you know, it's just it's hard like again, like we're in this really weird moment. It's like amazing that you can talk to someone from thousands of miles away. Right? And also within a level of immediacy, like up to the minute going back and forth. And at the same time, not know who they are. So I asked him for an update.
Amory: And he writes back sometime last week, late last week. He says, "I've been trying to go out and buy some food and water. And as of now, it seems to be silent so you can type out what you want to know. And when I have time, I'll start writing. We do have higher priorities, but we're potentially under missile fire, so the general advice is to stay at home. So I'm mostly just nervously reading all the news I can find."
Ben: So I responded to him and I said, "OK, what's your name? How old are you? Where are you in Ukraine? Are you alone or are you with family?"
Amory: He writes back, "There was just an unofficial announcement of an airstrike. So we sit tight again. My name's Eugene. I'm 32, and right now I'm with my mom in her apartment. It's on the outer side of Kyiv, closer to Brovary, where there were missile strikes at 5 a.m. and then at 12 p.m. There's a military base or an airfield, something like that. I don't know."
Ben: So this is when we go back and forth about the proof of who we are. And in that process, I also asked him I tried to like, keep asking him questions about what was happening there at the same time because I just didn't know how long I was going to be able to talk to him. So every message I sent to him, I put in a question about what was going on with him.
So, for example, one day I asked him how he was feeling and he wrote back: "3.6 Roentgen: Not Great, Not Terrible." I didn't get that at the time, but I Googled it and it's actually a meme from the HBO show Chernobyl.
[What does the dosimeter say? 3.6 Roentgen but that’s as high as it–3.6. Not great not terrible.]
Ben: There's one scene in which they are measuring radiation levels and the reading is 3.6 Roentgens, which is something like 10 times the average radiation level in the U.S. I kind of took this almost as a tell because it feels like a Ukrainian or Eastern European meme like the dog in the fire saying "This is Fine."
Anyway, after that, I asked him, What are you most concerned about right now?
Amory: And he writes back, "Right now? that they're going to bomb Kiev. It was the scariest f***ing night of my life and they were shelling in 20 kilometers from here. It was loud and horrifying, and I'm scared sitting by the window, to be honest, just announced the curfew for 10 p.m. to 7 a.m., which means we have to stay inside. But what if they're actually going to bomb Kyiv and not just military targets? There's videos emerging of planes and helicopters just bombing. Not sure if that's the right word? Just bombing residential suburbs. And there's a lot of Infowars like it's really hard to know if the news are true or not. And there's a lot of rumors like one guy just said he knows a guy that knows a guy in the military. And the unofficial proposal from Putin is that we give up in eight hours or they start bombing the cities. It sounds crazy and like a scare tactic, but at this point, I don't know anymore, really. So today my biggest issue is should I stay home or go to the shelter?"
Ben: I asked him, like, what was important for people outside of Ukraine to understand about what is happening there?
Amory: And he writes, "The most important thing people don't know is that the 2014 invasion never ended." So he must be talking about the annexation of Crimea. "The war was slowly going on these eight years and every day, I s*** you not. There were casualties in the East. We just want them to f*** off and keep us alone. And they view themselves as some sort of big brother and a savior no one asked for. Somehow over the years – 2004 and 2014 – we didn't go the path of Belarus and managed to somewhat give him the finger. So I don't actually know why now, exactly. Sorry for the typing errors. I'm trying to do this as fast as I can."
Ben: So he and I go back and forth a lot more. He suggests that I download Telegram so that he can give me links to channels that are sharing pics and videos of the violence that's happening in Ukraine.
Amory: I don't know Telegram. Is this a new…?
Ben: It's a it's an encrypted messaging app. It's not new, but it's yeah. And you know, I didn't end up doing that, but I ended up finding a lot of the stuff that he was talking about, and he ends up posting some of it on Reddit as well. It's really disturbing. You know, people have seen some of these images of charred bodies from from missile strikes and stuff, both Russian soldiers and civilians in Ukraine. And, you know, again, this stuff is like, it's really tricky because there's a lot of it that's fake. I asked him what he does for work and he talks about. So he has a he actually has a calligraphy online business where he does calligraphy for people.
Ben: And then he finally sort of gave me an answer of like, why he wouldn't actually talk on a recording.
Amory: Yeah, "I just don't feel comfortable speaking in English. I write and read a lot so I can somewhat express my thoughts on paper. But I have roughly—" I'd say he is doing a great job at expressing his thoughts on paper, I’m very impressed. "I can, I write and read a lot so I can somewhat express my thoughts on paper. But I have roughly zero experience in actual speaking, so I can't talk any good. It's probably stupid at a time like this, but I feel like that would be too stressful."
Ben: So then I just asked him to like record sound from where he was and whether he was thinking about planning on fighting because as we know people were, you know, handing out weapons to civilians have been handing out weapons to civilians in order to join the Territorial Defense Force, I think it's called. And he says, you know, basically they don't need him. He doesn't plan to fight because he's never been in the army, so they don't need me. "Today, we wanted to donate blood, but in two hospitals we've been there were hundreds of people in lines to donate. So we went to the biggest open supermarket we could find and bought food and stuff for volunteers and TER defense." So territorial defense, that's the the civilian defense force that's sort of sprung up there. Okay. He also said our government insists we do not make any recordings of any kind for strategic purposes. So I won't do that. And I said, Oh, wow, I didn't realize the government asked people not to record even just audio. And then he has this answer.
Amory: He says, "The reason is that technically one might triangulate the blast place from the recording place and use it as an artillery adjustment. I won't argue that, but let me tell you, if you just try and record something outside, people might just beat you or at least will definitely call the police. It's no joke."
Ben: But then, after a few days … and as it became clear that the Russian army wasn’t going to be able to overtake Ukraine in one fell swoop, he wrote this:
Amory: "Their goal was to get Kyiv fast, and it's been two days and still nothing. Morale is off the scale and we know we're winning. More and more countries help us. It feels like they realized we can do this, so they finally have a motive to tell Russia to f*** off and stick it to them. It's actually getting better by the hour. Knock on wood."
Ben: So then a couple, this was one day ago. Um, he sent me a message that said:
Amory: "Check your mail, mate."
Eugene: I came out from home to try and get some food and supplies. I don’t know what…what I can record for you because there’s nothing happening today.
Ben: So, yeah, so he sent me a recording, and this is the bit of his voice that you heard at the top, he just sent me about a four minute recording of walking around outside in Kyiv.
Eugene: There’s no airstrikes as of now. Wait. It’s 12 p.m. almost 1 p.m. All the stores are closed or empty. The ones that are open there are hundreds of people waiting in lines.
Ben: Yes, so, you know, again, like I'm just sort of going back and forth with Eugene and we're talking about what is happening there, I'm trying to stay in touch with them. He is starting. He, you know, he's started to kind of coordinate from home, just try to connect people is some of the work he's doing now, it seems. He's he's like trying to help people who have supplies, get them to people who need supplies. Um, and I think it's in part of just like the fact that he is a Redditor who is extremely online. He's good at this stuff, I think. And so like that is the role that he's starting to play.
Eugene: I'm at the supermarket. There's not a lot of people because they well, they manage how, how much, how many people they do is how many people can go inside, so it's fairly low key inside. And so there is food, as they can see for now, but I'm going to stop talking for now. [SPEAKING RUSSIAN.] So, I speak when I can, but when I can't, I don't speak. So you'll have to listen to this. Sorry. My main goal for myself is to do some meat. It's not urgent, but I want to have sort of meat for myself. [ANNOUNCER.] The store is so big, I've lost my friend so I'm trying to find them now. But you know, it's fairly OK. I see some sausages. [ANNOUNCER.] Just was an airstrike siren so they told us we should hurry and leave probably the store. So, I’m running. [DOOR SOUNDS, RUNNING.]
Amory: Yeah, he says, "Defense units need new stuff every day. So we have new needs every day. So I get a lot of contacts and try to juggle them to the extent of my capabilities. Basically, I'm not an official volunteer or a member of the territorial defense, so I try to act as a conductor between them and the outside people because it's too many calls and messages. I'm making it sound like it's something big and important, but basically I just get contacts of people with needed stuff and then organize the pickup for them."
Ben: And so the last thing he sent me was about seven hours ago, and he says, "Tomorrow we're going to ride along the streets, but then it's all going to be in Russian, is that any good for you?" And he sent me more recordings this morning.
Eugene: Hello again, this is Eugene from Kyiv. It's like the sixth day of the war. I don't know what they're doing. As always, I'm sitting in a car, so I'm I'm going to go out now. I just have. The thing is, I just have like wet feet and it's cold. So I decided that I would sit here so I won't get cold. Not not the time to be ill. Yeah, I don't know what else to say. Kyiv is silent. It's been pretty fine here, but outside the small towns around Kyiv are just being bombed. It's it's really it's really sad because basically they're fighting for us. They're fighting so that so that the tanks can't come here in Kyiv. And I feel I feel responsible for that. And I feel that there are people who die for us and for me, and I can't even do anything about it. It just it just really, really, I don't know, really horrible all around. Oh, what else? I can't go go out now, far from from the car because people left me to basically to guard it so I can't record any sounds or any people. If I get to the store or somewhere close, I try to record the insides of the store so well, and that's about it, I guess, for now. Stay safe.
Ben: So I don't know, Amory, if you have thoughts, but I just it's been really interesting and. You know, also concerning to be in touch with someone who is in Kiev and learn what their life is like these past, you know, a couple of weeks.
Amory: I feel like I don't know if you've heard it in my voice, but I'm I'm like teetering on the edge of just meltdown reading these. Maybe meltdown is the wrong word, but. There was there was a tweet that I saw earlier this week by, I believe this is a medical professional. Yeah. Palliative care physician Naheed Dosani. And the tweet is, “Wanna know the only difference between you and a refugee? Luck.” So, I think that's the place that I've been in this whole week.
Ben: Yeah, me too. Well, we'll stay in touch with Eugene and and obviously wish him luck.
Ben: Amory, along with us talking to Eugene, we also talked to people on our subreddit about what they wanted to hear about and learn about when it came to Ukraine. And I should say, like a few people said, we don't want to hear, that's not what we come to you for, we don't want to hear about Ukraine. But we also had a lot of people talk about just the role the internet and Reddit and other social media sites are playing in this conflict. Um, and so I wanted to talk through a couple of those things with you. And the first is the "Ghost of Kiev." Do you know what this is?
Amory: I do not, no.
Ben: So one of the interesting things that has happened, you know, just in the last week or so is that there's just been a huge I would say, I would argue, a huge public relations win for Ukraine, just like everybody on the internet, seems to be rooting for Ukraine. That has been spurred on by a meme is and, you know, viral video clips. And one of the viral video clips was supposedly footage of a Ukrainian fighter pilot who would eventually be nicknamed the Ghost of Kiev, who was rumored to have shot down several Russian aircraft
Amory: Rumored, but no footage to verify?
Ben: Well, this is what's interesting. There was footage. There was footage supposedly showing a Ukrainian MiG 29 fighter pilot shooting down Russian warplanes, supposedly six Russian warplanes.
[Sound of planes.]
But interestingly, this footage. Is actually a simulation that was created in a video game called Digital Combat Simulator.
[Sound of planes and missile fire.]
Ben: Oh, yeah. The footage looks very real, so I'm looking at PolitiFact, if you know that site, the sort of fact checking site. And it is rating. Um, well, it's certainly rating the video as false, and it sort of defines this as a rumor and also says it is unclear if such a pilot exists.
Amory: So the video is definitely fake, but they think it may be a simulation of a real event.
Ben: That is the suggestion. I mean, and Ukrainian government officials were retweeting this video. You know, people all over the place where retweeting this video. But it's just an interesting way in which you know it becomes harder and harder for us to tell what's real and what's fake on the internet and when there's an armed conflict happening, even that piece of it is, is, you know, it's trickier and trickier.
Amory: This is making me glad that the majority of the news coverage that I've consumed is from the radio, from audio, people who are on the ground and are talking to people as they're going through these things because. I don't know. I wouldn't know. I wouldn't know real from fake, I bet.
Ben: Pretty tricky, right?
Ben: You know, one of the videos that really struck a chord in me was this video of what purports to be Russian soldiers who have been captured by the Ukrainians calling their mothers and their relatives in Russia.
To let them know that they are in Ukraine and let them know that they were part of an invasion, not a peacekeeping mission, not an exercise.
This has been, of course, an issue, because Russia, you know, in the media, in Russia is heavily restricted, and what people are hearing is happening in Russia is very different from how people get information outside of Russia. And that includes military families and that just, you know, really struck me.
Amory: Yeah. And why let them know? I mean. Maybe, maybe it would not be a surprise to the family members that this is an invasion and not a peacekeeping mission. But but there's yeah, there's something to me about that that is just like, if this doesn't end well, let the record show what this was.
Ben: I want to say quickly that Eugene’s diary from Kyiv, which we’ll link to on our subreddit and at WBUR.org, is really worth reading. One of the important things to try to do during conflicts like this is hear from original direct sources about what they’re going through. Less talking heads with hot takes, more real people. And that includes both people like Eugene and also Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who himself has become a real viral symbol of the resistance against the Russian invasion.
Ben: So I think we should just close with some sound of the Ukrainian president speaking. To the European Union from inside Ukraine, he joined by video link and was met with a standing ovation. And he talked about what was happening there, and you had a translator who you'll hear and you'll hear the translator get emotional as he is translating what the president of Ukraine, who has really become a symbol for standing up against the Russian invasion, has to say about what's happening there.
[Interpreter for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy: We are fighting just for our land and for our freedom despite the fact that all the cities of our country are now blocked. Nobody is going to enter and intervene with our freedom and our country, believe you me. Every square of today, no matter what it’s called is going to be called as today, “Freedom Square” in every city in our country. Nobody is going to break us. We are strong. We are Ukrainians.]
Amory: Endless Thread is a production of WBUR, in Boston.
Ben: This episode was produced by Dean Russell and me, Ben Brock Johnson. Sound Design by Paul Vaitkus. There are links to more information, relief efforts, and Eugene's Reddit diary on our website, wbur.org/endlessthread.
Amory: Thanks for listening.