“You should walk across Ukraine”

The participants of Den’s Summer School of Journalism meet the traveler-journalist Mykola KHRIIENKO

Mykola came to the meeting with the students literally immediately after a journey. The interview took place on July 15, shortly after he had returned from the expedition across Canada called “Historical appeal of Ukrainian pioneers,” where he represented The Day. The participants of the expedition had covered 7,000 kilometers following the paths of Ukrainian immigrants. “Having covered the route from Halifax (a port where migrants came from Hamburg) in a matter of 23 days, I saw a totally different world of Ukrainians,” Mykola KHRIIENKO told the Summer School students, who were by far the first to learn the details of the expedition.

However, such action fits fully into Khriienko’s style. He calls his activity expeditionary journalism. The Day’s readers are already familiar with his unique project “Ukrainians beyond the Urals,” which Khriienko completed after covering 118,000 kilometers across the Russian Federation last year. It was quite fair of The Day to award him the title “Man of the Year 2010.” In the near future Mykola plans to find traces of our fellow countrymen in Middle Asia.

In this background the statements that the Ukrainian journalism of the 1990s is dead sound quite groundless. “Russian fellow journalists envy me, as living in Russia they have never explored it like I did,” Khriienko says. Apparently, the transformation of certain journalists from independently thinking personalities to microphone stands is not an overall trend, rather one’s personal choice.

How to find unique topics and heroes for one’s materials in the time of information globalization and remain interesting for readers? Where to start? Khriienko’s personal experience is a wonderful answer to these questions. He started from journalist curiosity and persistence and short walking trips across Ukraine. Khriienko considers that one ought to travel on foot across Ukrainian lands because of the high population density. In his opinion, namely in such a way you can come into cohesion with the land and its people.

The interview of students from Den’s Summer School of Journalism with Mykola KHRIIENKO started specifically with a talk about modern journalism.

M.Kh.: “A journalist is, above all, a citizen. He should always be in the opposition to the ruling power and inform the society about the activity of the powers that be. But this should not be a criticism for the sake of criticism. If a journalist does not stick to these rules, he can go to work in magazines like Natali or advertising departments. At the same time, it is not so simple to hold one’s own. I have been fired three times because of my views: from Silski visti, Holos Ukrainy, and Robitnycha Hazeta.

“In Russia, journalism is in much worse state than in Ukraine. The reason is not about incompetent journalists. It is something different. The walls in the hall of the Union of Journalists of Russia feature portraits of 311 Russian journalists who were assassinated by contract murderers. Those are people aged 26 to 50 for the most part, i.e., of the most productive age. Ukraine’s ‘iconostasis’ is quite numerous as well. Still, our society turned out to be more mature, and in our country journalists can write about what is really happening.

“I set out as a journalist from a regional newspaper, at the same time I was studying by correspondence at the Department of Journalism of Kyiv’s university. Having served in the army, I entered the first year as a full time student. I thought after finishing my studies I would go to work in the North. I underwent internship in Irkutsk, Magadan, and Krasnoyarsk oblasts, and in Turin. There I covered 217 kilometers on skis at the temperature of 51 degrees below zero. The last days of the trip were so cold that I nearly died on my way to the point of destination. I caught such grave pneumonia that it seemed there was crushed glass in my lungs. I was cured by a shaman. Though I have not gone to work in Russia, I have made 19 trips to various regions of it: the Kola Peninsula, Nemetia, Magadan oblast, the Polar Ural. I have worked for a calendar year in Chornobyl, having visited all the places of the disaster liquidation. The most difficult was the route to the exploded reactor. I dedicated to this topic my publication “The Depths of the Chornobyl Titanic” which I wrote for the newspaper Visnyk Chornobylia. It took me two seconds to see what had happened to the reactor. It was impossible to endure any longer, because you have to crawl on your belly to the reactor over the scorched concrete. I have also ascended twice the roof of the sarcophagus and the ventilation pipe. That was not an excursion. In that period the works on reinforcing the pipe were underway, and I was writing a report on how they were proceeding. In Chornobyl I met totally selfless and interesting people. I’ve already met those who built the sarcophagus over the fourth bloc. Some of them are already wheel-chaired, but all of them are sure: ‘Though it made me an invalid, I have managed to do what nobody in the world has ever done.’ In fact, you should value those people: were it not for their efficiency, all the Ukrainians would have been deported to Ural. I have also met the aircraft pilots, who threw down lead, dolomite, and sand on the reactor. Many of them at the least have become blind.

“During the recent years, I have worked for the newspaper Stolytsia. It was then that I performed a trip on foot across Ukraine: the route was entitled ‘Life and survival of people under current socioeconomic, radiation, and ecological conditions’ and comprised 10 stages. Having approached certain destination, I returned to the editors’ office with a material, published a four-page text, and again set out for a trip. Within the framework of the project entitled ‘Ukrainians in Ukraine’ I have visited all the four zones of alienation. When the project was over, I decided to take up the project ‘Ukrainians beyond the Urals.’

“My projects have been supported by the newspaper Silski visti, Ukrainian diaspora, frontier guards, and even Patriarch Volodymyr. My articles have been published in some of the Russian periodicals, like Ogonek and Sobesednik. Clearly, no editorial office alone could fund such a business trip.

“In the near future I intend to implement the project Ukrainians in the Middle East. The first chapter, Following in Taras Shevchenko’s Footsteps, will include the photos and articles about Orenburg and Orsk, where Shevchenko lived in exile for two years, Kazakhstan, where he served a sentence in the Novopetrovskoye fortification on the coast of the Caspian Sea. That is why a city was named after him. As soon as the ‘Shevchenko’ stage is over, I will go to Turkmenia, Tajikistan, and Kirghizia. The tour is supposed to take six to seven months. Therefore, if I am lucky to find funding this year, I will set out immediately, without hesitation. I should cover this route as long as I am strong enough, because I took a 39-kilo rucksack for my Russian trip.

“As for my recent expedition ‘The historical appeal of Ukrainian pioneers,’ where I took part on behalf of The Day (and owing to this newspaper), before the trip I thought that Canadian Ukrainians’ paths had been studied completely. But when we covered the way from Halifax, which took us 23 days, I discovered an absolutely new world of Ukrainians living in the steppe, steppe areas, prairies, woods, forest steppe, rocky mountains, sea coast. In total, 1.2 million of our fellow countrymen are currently residing in Canada. In third or fourth generations they have a good command of Ukrainian, sing folk songs, wear embroidered shirts, and love Ukraine. They are all sportsmen. Both younger and older people jog when it is hot outside, and officials ride bicycles. At the same time, I was unpleasantly impressed that despite the organizers covered the larger part of the travel costs, only two Ukrainian journalists have taken part in the project, I represented The Day, and Vakhtang Kipiani came from Istorychna Pravda. I think the reason is laziness rather than lack of interest.”

Olesia YAREMCHUK, Lviv National University: Ukrainians show themselves in various ways in other countries. What is your opinion in this concern?

M.Kh.: “It is prestigious to be a Ukrainian in Canada. A general governor, many MPs, Ontario’s prime minister, many ship captains, and businessmen are Ukrainians. In Russia, our fellow countrymen also occupying high posts: Magadan’s Mayor Volodymyr Pecheny from Chernivtsi, head of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky’s duma, head of Chukotka’s government etc. Ukrainians fail to build a strong state in Ukraine, whereas abroad they 100 percent realize their potential. I cannot explain this phenomenon. If one cuts out Ukraine’s contour and compares to any country on the world’s map, no Canada, America, or Russia can outmatch the beauty and power of our land. Our people are much more beautiful. However, abroad everyone is smiling, there is no aggressiveness, self-absorption, and living standards are immensely high, the laws are functioning. That is the difference.”

Tetiana BUBALO, Volyn National University: Don’t you think that the Ukrainian minds have stuck to the stereotype that it is easier to go abroad than build higher living standards at home?

M.Kh.: “The thing is that here people cannot feed themselves. That is why Donetsk miners go to Chukotka to chop coal, and Zakarpattia loggers cut Angara pine tree near Archangelsk. The reason is the inability to build an economy that would create jobs. We have a fatherland, yet no real state whatsoever. So, the state is unable to govern, which is especially clear from afar, when you are in Canada, for instance. And fatherland is about the places where you were born and grew up, where your parents were interred. And these people greatly regret that they have to leave it.”

Alla SADOVNYK, Lviv National University: In his time Ivan Bahriany wrote an article “Ukrainians near the Pacific Ocean.” There he first writes about those who were deported to Siberia. The way they were living there surprised him. That was real Ukraine, already destroyed back in that time, in the 1930s, here. Have you felt the same amazement as you visited those lands?

M.Kh.: “I have a collection of Bahriany’s works. I have read them, and I especially distinguish the documentary novel Tyhrolovy. In the 1930s, Siberian Ukrainians tried to establish a separate republic. I have photocopies of the articles, open archives publications on how Zeleny Klyn was destroyed, liquidated in the 1920s-1930s. Ukrainians could create an independent republic in Far East, but Lenin and Stalin destroyed that movement. On the contrary, in Canada everything is being done to give a man an opportunity to rise. And there is a terrible decay in Russia. The number of Slavic population is decreasing. The Far Eastern territories are becoming Chinese. The northern regions have been depopulated. The population in Norilsk and Vorkuta currently makes up 40 percent of the former population. Many cities have completely ceased their existence, they are like the Chornobyl Zone.”

Alla SADOVNYK: Have there been any moments that you do not want to mention in newspaper?

M.Kh.: “No. I have described all the problems existing in Russia, and I also determine clearly the problems that refer to Ukraine. If you leave out the core, why would you write at all? The tales about snowstorms and aurora are not enough. I highlight the state’s problems by showing the life of Ukrainians in Russia.”

Oleksandr KUPRIIENKO, Kyiv National University: When you meet a person beyond the Urals, for example, what enables you to feel his/her Ukrainian roots?

M.Kh.: “It is the language, above all. When I came to Kyivky (Primorie oblast, Lazov raion) at 6 a.m., I met a woman near a well. The well stood near the road, there were lots of flowers in the yard, the houses were made of wood, but bleached, which is an attribute of Ukrainians. I greeted her: ‘Good day!’ and she replied: ‘Good day!’ She noticed that I had a big rucksack with me, so she approached me: ‘Where are going from?’ ‘I’ve come from Nakhodka.’ ‘On foot?’ ‘No, I went by car to the turn.’ ‘Where are you from?’ ‘From Kyiv.’ ‘What a surprise! Our village is called Kyivka.’ I asked her a couple of questions: how long was she living there, when did she see Ukraine for the last time? She said, she had never seen it, as her ancestors migrated back in 1906. ‘How does it come that you speak so good Ukrainian?’ ‘What language should I be speaking, German or what?’ The first Ukrai-nian migrants and third generation descendants speak modern Ukrainian. And the Canadian Ukrainians speak the conserved language of the time, they emigrated.”

Viktoria SKUBA: Ukrainians in the world are important resource that can help lobby the Ukrainian interests. Our diaspora has such a wide geography that with its help we could create whole enclaves of advancing the Ukrainian culture. As soon as you had finished your project “Ukrainians beyond the Urals,” did the Ukrainian government pay any attention to the great Ukrainian diaspora in Russia? Have the cultural ties grown more intensified?

M.Kh.: “There is Ukrainian Worldwide Coordination Council in Kyiv. Mykhailo Horyn used to head it, now it is Dmytro Pavlychko. It is involved in coordination of the Ukrainians’ activity over the world. But the thing is that Ukraine has not allotted a penny, either in Yushchenko’s or Kuchma’s time, for schools [abroad. – Ed.], ABC books, or workbooks. With such an attitude of the government to Ukrainians beyond Urals and other regions, you can hardly expect any improving of the diaspora’s activity, because it does not receive any financial support. And the diaspora does render assistance to Ukrainians, including financial aid.”

Oleksii LAVRYNENKO, Kyiv National University: During the project “Ukrainians beyond Urals” you covered 537 kilometers on foot. Please, tell us, how did you manage to do this?

M.Kh.: “The trip took me 23 days. It happened so that I had to cross the river, with bridges destroyed. Bears approached my tent as close as 1.5 meters. Going to sleep, I wrote a note: ‘Dear gentlemen, I am a traveler, a journalist from Kyiv. Please don’t bother me. Come at 7 a.m. through 8:30 p.m. Hope for your decency.’ I signed it, wrote down the date, pinned it on the backside of the tent, locked the tent, and went to sleep. I visited abandoned Stalin’s camps. The kitchens and barracks seemed to come from the world of the dead. The soldiers’ names are carved on the watchtower; I saw high metal pins where one used to hang metal barrows. They are standing there like fir-trees. There is much female hair. Once on a moonlit night I saw dry yellow hair. When I approached Kolyma, the frost reached 41 degrees. This is a sort of shock when you go alone all way long. You get scared as you hear a metal sound. You should clearly understand in such trips: you ought to cover this way. If anyone attacks you, you must defend yourself. If you go and hope for luck, this is a losing variant.”

Oleksii LAVRYNENKO: What did you eat?

M.Kh.: “Dry shortbreads helped me a great deal. In the most recent period I gathered berries until they fell off. I ate chocolate. And a bit of salo. Salo with chocolate is cool, for sure. But you become fed up with it.”

Yulia YARUCHYK, National University of Ostroh Academy: Do you know examples of similar projects in Ukrainian or foreign journalism?

M.Kh.: “I cannot speak for all the countries. But this kind of projects has been done neither in Russia, nor in Ukraine. There are few people who could go so far under minus temperatures and in snowstorms, according to sports and tourism indices. I have traveled at the temperatures from 41 degrees below zero to 41 degrees above zero. Snowstorms wind speed made up to 35 meters per second. My weight is 85 kilograms, so I could keep on my legs. Once I was pulling a young woman with me, who weighed some 55 kilograms, the wind was blowing her off. In the army I took up sambo [wrestling. – Ed.], completed the qualifying standard for the candidate for master of sport, then, after judo was made an Olympic kind of sports, I was trained by Yaroslav Voloshchuk. Back in that time I understood that my work of a journalist would be followed with big physical load. I started to ski, to go on walking trips, and quit smoking and drinking alcohol. A smoker can say good bye to his dreams of traveling.”

Oleksii LAVRYNENKO: Have you ever come up with an idea to write a book about your travels?

M.Kh.: “We have a very good magazine, Neopalyma Kupyna, unfortunately it has a small pressrun. It carried the coverage of the first and second stages of the project ‘Ukrainians beyond Urals.’ The Day published materials and photos from all stages of the trip. When I write a text, the main rule is to write about what you have seen, heard, and experienced. If there is no personal experience, this will be a publication of an observer. It is really important to convey your own feelings. Even if you are scared, explain the reason of your fear. This is a hard road. The travel may end at any moment.”

Lina TYMOSHCHUK, National University of Ostroh Academy: Have you ever come up with an idea to pass all your groundwork, films, dictaphone recordings, and notes to some funds?

M.Kh.: “Everything has been published in thick magazines. However, I want to publish a book which will contain all the publications from all three stages and photos, and also to publish a photo album and organize a photo exhibit dedicated to the three stages. Surely, those are no monographs or scientific research works, but those are well thought-out texts. I cannot imagine how I am going to live without traveling, for sooner or later I will have to put an end to it. Now I go kayak-paddling to prolong the process. I have met with photographers from Canada, Russia, China, and Japan. They were all surprised, especially Russians, because a gray-haired man can cover such distances. When journalists look at the map, they envy me, because they live in Russia, and I, a Ukrainian, have covered such a way. You don’t need much to travel. You don’t have to go far. You can boat along the river for 120 kilometers. This can be, for example, an environmental research trip in Prykarpattia. My first trip was on skis: seven kilometers forth, and eight kilometers back. We were fifth graders at the time.”

Ihor SAMOKYSH: Do you stay in touch with the heroes of your publications?

M.Kh.: “I do. I consider the project unaccomplished until I send the materials to all people who have helped me. I receive many letters and phone calls, especially on New Year. I retain very close connections with those people. Even if they break off with time, I still remember all their surnames. I treat people the way I would like them to treat me.

“Now the goal number one for me is the Ukrainians in Middle Asia. Ukrainians have very scarce knowledge about this land. They know that Taras Shevchenko used to live there, in Orenburg, in Kazakhstan. But nobody has ever gone with an expedition there and done a systemic photo shooting. I am doing everything from scratch, leaving out all the stereotypes.”