I Was in Russia When the Invasion Began. I Left for Ukraine
"Stop the Death Star, I want to get off on Alderaan."
KHARKIV – I was outside a Kyiv apartment block in Solomyansk district on my birthday attending to a minor hostage situation during the battle for the capital. It was nothing incredibly serious; a friend of my colleague had been unceremoniously evicted that morning. There had been no infraction. The landlord, outside the bounds of the contract, had suddenly demanded two months rent in advance. I suspect he was planning to imminently flee the city and wanted some cash to take with him.
When our friend said no, he was ordered to leave immediately. The landlord then called the police, and when the authorities failed to respond in a timely manner (they were presumably preoccupied with the knock-on effects of Russia attacking the city), he showed up at the apartment with a pistol. While there was little we could do – the hostage-taker, after all, had already called the cops on himself – it felt wrong to leave him. My colleague and I lingered outside the building, parting ways briefly as I tried to find a bathroom.
When I returned, my work partner – a 20-something American woman – was nowhere to be found. Instead, a car full of men in uniform pulled up beside me for a document check. It was not the first time that I had been stopped by local authorities on the street in wartime Kyiv.
This, however, felt more deliberate. Instead of normal territorial defense, they were officers from the national anti-corruption bureau. It was soon clear they were not interested in my potential involvement in any procurement scandals. They had been deputized under martial law to help bolster the city’s defenses. As I would later learn, someone had called the cops on us.
My passport, which incidentally had been issued at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv two years prior, was fairly new. It was mostly empty, having been underutilized during the pandemic. Unfortunately, the only things that stood out were three thick, full-page visas issued by the Russian Federation. Worse, my exit stamps indicated that I had left Moscow on the fifth day of the invasion and arrived in Ukraine five days later.
No one, apart from an elderly hotel receptionist, had seriously questioned them until that point. Although I had rehearsed an explanation for the border crossing (which took place a mere five days after leaving Russia) on the Polish border, the guard simply stamped the last page of my passport without flipping through its contents. I was less lucky this time. And, as it turns out, security officials are not amused when they learn that you traveled to their country from an invading nation shortly after a war of annihilation has begun.
Complicating matters further was the fact that my visa invitation had been issued by the rather inconveniently named “Financial University under the Government of the Russian Federation.” While it was more commonly known as FinU in informal speech, the entire title had been spelled out in my travel documents, next to the words “City of Moscow.” And, despite the fact that FinU had presumably lifted their endorsement once the program abruptly ended, it was apparently valid through December 2022. This was not a good passport to have in wartime Ukraine.
The anti-corruption cop asked me point blank why I had come to his country. I tried my best to explain that I had first travelled to Ukraine before I had ever stepped foot in Russia, and that I had been moved to return out of sheer emotion. I had even lived in Kyiv for almost a year. But while the officer carried on professionally, nothing I said assuaged his suspicion. Nor could I possibly convey to my interrogator the mental processes that led me from witnessing the start of the war from a mountaintop in Siberia to experiencing the Battle of Kyiv firsthand a couple weeks later.
It is still strange for me to recall the first days of the invasion. I was on holiday with my fellowship in the Altai Republic in southern Siberia, near the borders of China and Kazakhstan. Putin gave his speech announcing the “special military operation” right after we landed on a red-eye flight from Moscow, the first missiles striking Kyiv just as we arrived at a restaurant for breakfast at the Manzherok ski resort.
That first hour was the grimmest; initial reports suggested that Boryspil airport in Kyiv had been swiftly overrun by Russian paratroopers, with other rumormongers stating that an amphibious landing was underway in Odessa. Neither was true, of course, but it still seemed plausible that the Russian armed forces were essentially competent and would soon reconquer their old colonial subject.
After breakfast, we numbly followed our tour guide onto a sky lift and up Sinyukha Mountain, a majestically beautiful place that would have otherwise been enjoyable. Ignoring our guide’s speech, I began frantically texting my Ukrainian friends. One, who was safely overseas, sent me a screenshot from an exchange with a police officer friend, whom he had introduced me to when I had visited his family two years prior. Rockets were incoming in Berdyansk, their hometown on the Sea of Azov around 80 kilometers west of Mariupol. But my friend also suggested I try to enjoy my trip, adding that “it’s not nature’s fault to be part of retarded system.”
I reached out to another Ukrainian friend whom I first met during our days living in Vietnam. The previous week, I had messaged her asking if she was still in Kyiv. She told me that she was getting ready to fly home from a holiday in Budapest, but that she was unsure if that would be a good idea. I told her that some sort of escalation was almost certain to happen, and while I hoped it would be limited to Donbas, it would be a good idea to visit her parents in western Ukraine for a little while.
My advice felt like an abundance of caution at the time. In the months leading up to the war, a full-scale invasion seemed to me like a real possibility with a small but significant chance of occurring. I found reassurance in the fact that state media was doing nothing to prime the population for war. Instead, they were smugly predicting that the whole world would soon see America discredited when no such invasion materialized. Their sentiment was sincere; no one had bothered to inform the propagandists what was to come.
When I contacted my friend on the morning of February 24, she confirmed that she was relatively safe in her hometown. At a loss for words, I told her I was sorry for all that was happening. She replied: “If be honest, I still can't believe.”
Around the same time, I posted my only tweet of the morning.
I spent the next few days wrestling with the question of what would sit better with my conscience: stay in Moscow, and do the best, most courageous reporting that I could from within Russia, or ditch my fellowship and head to Ukraine. It was a choice that I would not have to make; on the last day of our trip to Altai, the fellowship’s board suspended the program. When we arrived at the airport the following morning to return to Moscow, we received word that flights had been booked for us to Istanbul the following day. The news came as a relief. There would be no hard decisions; I would go to Ukraine. I immediately asked for an onward ticket from Istanbul to Warsaw.
I would tell none of that story to my interrogator from the anti-corruption bureau, for I had not yet had time to process any of it. The trip from Russia to Ukraine by way of Turkey and Poland had been a whirlwind that ended with me in a war zone. After a bit of back and forth, he suggested we speak to my American colleague. Unbeknownst to me, she was being interrogated around the corner by a couple of far friendlier officers. They soon arrived, and the mood noticeably improved.
My cop approached my colleague to clear up matters. He asked her why, in her opinion, I had left Russia and come to Ukraine.
“I think all good journalists have left Russia,” she said, referring to me.
“But he isn’t a journalist,” he replied.
It then occurred to me that amid his questioning, I had never actually explicitly said that I was press. With hardly any other foreigners in Kyiv, my profession usually did not need spelling out. But how could he have known? All he saw was a 33-year-old who, for unclear reasons, had until recently been studying at a state university in the enemy’s capital. How was I supposed to explain the Alfa Fellowship in that moment?*
It was at that point that I pulled out my business card issued by the fellowship, which had become almost completely obsolete a few weeks before. It listed my profession as “journalist” alongside the logo of the Alfa Fellowship, which shares the likeness of its namesake’s corporate brand. I quickly added that my Financial University-sponsored visa was something of a formality; while the fellows on the program had taken a nominal amount of classes there, the Alfa Group was our de-facto sponsor.
The anti-corruption cop seemed reassured, admitting that this all made much more sense. I was glad he thought so, because my now-terminated arrangement between Alfa, FinU and the Russian government had never entirely made sense to me. After exchanging numbers (he told me to call if I needed help) and shaking hands, I was free to go. Our friend’s hostage situation resolved itself at the same time, with the landlord losing steam.
A few days later, I received press credentials from the Ukrainian armed forces, making interactions with authorities far more straightforward. I have also gotten into the habit of showing them my passport with the ID page already opened, reducing the likelihood that they will flip through my visas. While my recent history in Russia is not a secret, it is a conversation that is best saved for after initial first impressions. Thus far, people have been understanding once they hear of my peculiar route back to Ukraine.
*From 2004-2022, the Alfa Fellowship was a year-long professional development program for youngish professionals from the U.S., U.K. and Germany seeking to gain work experience and language skills in Russia. By the time it was suspended in February 2022, the fellowship was already something of an artifact from a bygone era in post-Soviet Russia’s history.
It was administered by the U.S.-based nonprofit Cultural Vistas and funded by the Alfa Group, whose flagship bank is the largest private bank in Russia and among the largest operating in Ukraine. Its founder, the Ukrainian-born Russian multibillionaire Mikhail Fridman, is among the Yeltsin-era oligarchs of the 1990s who survived into the Putin era through their complacency. Fridman is currently living in London, where he has been recently sanctioned. Although he feebly hints at anti-war sympathies, he has thus far shown no inclination to publicly condemn the Kremlin.