Natalia Antonova (@NataliaAntonova) is having a rough time of it. For most of this year, the Ukrainian-born, US-raised, ethnically Russian journalist and playwright has expected the worst and then been granted it. Crimea. East Ukraine. MH17. While Western correspondents condemn Russian President Vladimir Putin with a sense of moral righteousness that simplifies as often as it enlightens, and Russian propagandists respond with conspiracy theories and facts unworthy of the name, Antonova has watched sadly, but never quietly, as the world she once knew collapsed before her. This is not a news story for her so much as it is a deeply personal one, as anyone who has read her Twitter feed since February will be able to attest.
“I think one must make a crowbar separation between personal writing, op-eds, and reporting the news,” Antonova told Crikey. “Mixing that up is like mixing vodka with whiskey. Nothing good can come of it.”
“But personal narratives obviously have their time and place,” she said. “One of the reasons I tell personal stories on Twitter is because I think people should have some context for what is happening in Ukraine right now. This trouble has been brewing for years. It did not happen overnight.”
“A lot of the stuff I talk about — such as my cousin’s death and the condition her body was in at the morgue — still weighs on me,” Antonova said. “It’s in the back of my mind. And when MH17 was shot down and the world saw what was happening to the bodies of the victims — the lack of dignity, the anguish of the families — I started breaking down over it. I was crying non-stop. I asked myself where all of this additional pain was coming from and I remembered. Some wounds you carry with you for the rest of your life.”
A good deal of Antonova’s recent work has attempted to record for posterity the tension between the everyday and looming catastrophe that she feels characterised Ukraine over the past decade.
When historians sit down to write about the Kiev that existed between the Orange Revolution and the fall of Yanukovych, they won’t write about the way things really were for us. They won’t write about parties that were so bad that they were actually good, the middle-aged couples dancing to a transvestite pop star at weddings with seven-course meals slathered with mayonnaise, the hideous funeral wreaths shuffling their plastic flower leaves like restless fingers in the wind, always the howling dogs, always the stars that did not give a damn, always someone else’s windows lit up at night in a way that made you sorry to be walking away down the street, and how silly and wrong we were back then, and how good we were at being wrong, and how passionate too, and how a clock was always striking midnight somewhere in the corner, under a pile of discarded clothes, and a lonely cricket was chirping, and someone at the edge of all space and time, a lantern was already burning to light the way into some impossible country, though we had our backs turned on it then.
“That particular paragraph is from an essay about an ex,” Antonova said. “A man who incidentally kept saying that things in Ukraine were going to get very bad. He turned out to be horribly right. And in writing about him, and about myself, and my family, I guess what I wanted to say is that this is happening to human beings. People who had lives before all of this craziness started. They loved each other, they had fun, they made mistakes, they had hopes for the future. People need to remember that.”
Antonova was born in Kiev, but raised in the American South. She returned to Ukraine in 2009, following a stint editing GlobalComment online magazine from Dubai and Amman, and covered the 2010 presidential election that brought Viktor Yanukovych to power. She was offered the position of deputy editor at The Moscow News, Russia’s oldest English-language newspaper, that same year and became acting editor-in-chief two years later. “They never removed the ‘acting’ from my title,” Antonova said, “I think because I was young and had a kid on my arm they were like, ‘What? She’s going to run this paper?’ But I did, and I’m proud of those years. We had a good team, I had great bosses, and I think a lot of our stories really humanised Russia.”
Since the liquidation of The Moscow News‘ parent agency, RIA Novosti, by presidential decree late last year, Antonova has freelanced and run social media for Russia Beyond the Headlines. “I left after RIA Novosti was liquidated and the controversial Dmitry Kiselyov, often referred to as Russia’s ‘propagandist-in-chief’, took over the new international news agency that was installed in its place,” she said.
“I didn’t want to work for someone who talks about reducing the United States to ‘radioactive ash’ on television or about how the hearts of dead gays should be ‘burned’, even if he swears that this is just his ‘persona’ talking.”
Such comments demonstrate Antonova’s readiness to criticise the Kremlin and its lackeys when they need criticising. But her unique trajectory through countries and cultures also gives her an eye for nuance that many correspondents and pundits lack and that others even actively disdain.
“I could write a dissertation on why Russia is viewed the way it’s viewed in the West,” Antonova said. “I think one of the key elements is that people say about Russia that which they can’t say about China. There’s a fair amount of displacement going on, especially at the top. Everyone wants to be friends with China, so Russia, which is already a boogeyman, must also stand in for the Chinese boogeyman. You see the difference in the contrast between how the 2008 Beijing Olympics were covered versus how the 2014 Sochi Olympics were covered.
“I think that deep down inside, many people rejoiced when Russia started acting up this year,” she said. “It’s like, ‘Yay! The Cold War is finally back on! And Russia’s weak, so we’ll totally kick their ass in no time!’ A lot of this is psychological. There is a certain sense of triumphalism.
“This one-sidedness makes my work and life that much harder, because it forces people to draw lines in the sand,” she said. “For me, it’s like having simmering tensions in your family finally graduate into a full-blown feud. You want to run and hide. I’ve dealt with abuse from everyone online: Russians, Ukrainians, Americans. In a way, I guess this means I’m doing something right, but I’m also a human being at the end of the day. I get emotional.”
It is for this reason that Antonova has stopped making predictions about Ukraine and what is likely to happen there in the coming months. “Every time I make a prediction, something horrible happens and completely throws me off course,” she said. “So I’m going to go ahead and keep my mouth shut with regard to the future. I think Putin’s plan was basic enough — reassert the Kremlin’s sphere of influence — but the law of unintended consequences may have completely taken over by now.
“I’ve fallen back on what I refer to as my ‘genetic Russian fatalism’,” she said. “Or, like Bob Dylan sang, ‘Nothing really matters much. It’s doom alone that counts.'”
If you’re interested in good coverage of events in Ukraine, there are lots of terrific journalists to follow. For the purposes of this column, I’m singling out Shaun Walker (@shaunwalker7) and Roland Oliphant (@RolandOliphant).
One of my favourite US tweeters is Bearded Stoner (@beardedstoner), because he keeps it real.
I also love Hayes Brown (@HayesBrown) over in DC. Reading his Twitter feed makes me hate the world a little less. Ditto for author Elif Batuman, who’s @BananaKarenina on Twitter.
On tweeting to stay sane …
Since the Ukraine crisis has started, I literally check Twitter first thing in the morning — before I’m properly awake, before the coffee has brewed — just to make sure that World War Three hasn’t broken out while I was asleep. The Twitter community is the first to know about everything. I think Twitter’s very useful for journalists, especially when it comes to staying in touch with your colleagues. And it’s a good tool for helping each other out when you’re doing any kind of quick research. My tweets are also very personal. I guess there’s a tragicomic element to them. In a weird way, Twitter helps me stay sane.
On Western and Russian coverage of events in Ukraine …
There are several friends of mine who report out of Ukraine for Western media outlets, and I trust these people 100%. At the same time, a lot of mainstream coverage in the West is obviously pretty pat. It comes down to, “Get rid of Putin and all will be well.” And when you go, “Guys, it’s more complicated than that,” people scream at you for being a Kremlin agent.
Mainstream Russian coverage is also terribly skewed. Actually, it’s even more skewed, when you consider how little diversity there is in the country’s media market. Aside from the struggling Dozhd TV, Russia does not have a single independent news channel. So people come away with this impression that the Americans are solely to blame for what’s happening in Ukraine. Them and their Ukrainian “Nazi” collaborators. Once again, you try to tell them, “Guys, it’s more complicated than that,” and they scream that you’re a Nazi sympathiser. That part is deeply offensive to me, because my Ukrainian great-grandfather fought against the Nazis with the Red Army and helped liberate Ukraine.
On her creative work and the importance of fiction…
I just wrote a play set in pre-conflict Ukraine, actually. One of the issues with East Ukraine is the prevalence of organised crime in that area. There are corpses in rivers there, weighed down by concrete blocks. So back when my friend Pasha Yurov was taken hostage in Slavyansk — he was freed after spending months in captivity and suffering beatings — I was trying to picture his captors and I was thinking about how some of them may have been involved in organised crime before. So many people earn their money that way over there. It’s practically its own industry.
I kept seeing the consequences of that in my head — the corpses in the rivers — and I thought, “What if I can make one of them come alive?” And then a plot built itself around that moment, when a corpse in the water starts to stir, because it has one more message to pass on. And what was borne out of that was more like a fairy tale about the banality of human love. Go figure. You don’t ever really know where a particular story might take you.
I think fiction is always necessary — in times of conflict, in times of peace — because both hearing and telling stories is an important part of being human. Times of conflict have a certain sense of urgency, though, of desperation. You’re confronted with how fragile everything is, including the people you love. When I write now, I feel as though I am racing time, racing death and decay.