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Life under Russian Occupation: A Conversation with Katerina Sergatskova

32:32September 28, 2022

For those living under the Russian occupation in Ukraine, life has turned into a daily struggle and search for food, water, and medicine. Izabella Tabarovsky talked with the Ukrainian war reporter and editor in chief of Zaborona Ekaterina Sergatskova about the skills needed to survive the occupation, Russian war crimes, and what Ukrainian journalists need the most to do their work. The conversation was recorded on September 20, 2022.

Show Notes

Episode Transcript

  • The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

    Izabella Tabarovsky: Hello and welcome. I'm Izabella Tabarovsky, and you are listening to The Russia File. Today my guest is Katerina Sergatskova, founder and editor in chief of the award-winning Zaborona Media, an independent Ukrainian online magazine. Katerina has reported extensively on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. She has been a contributor to the Kennan Institute's Focus Ukraine blog. Today we're talking about what life is like for Ukrainian citizens under the Russian occupation. We're also talking about Russia's war crimes and the future of journalism in Ukraine. Katya, welcome!

    Katerina Sergatskova: Hi, and thank you for your invitation.

    IT: I'd like to start with your personal story. I understand that you grew up in Crimea and moved to mainland Ukraine after Russia's invasion and annexation of Crimea. What was that like for you?

    KS: Now I realize that I saw the beginning of the occupation, and I lived under the occupation for some time. Because when the Russians arrived in Crimea, I was in Kyiv. I was reporting from the Maidan, and I decided to go to Crimea and to see what was happening with my own eyes. Then I witnessed the beginning of the occupation. I decided to report from Crimea, from different cities, how things were going, how the Russian soldiers came to the peninsula.

    I had a house in Crimea. I had actually lived there for a long time. I had friends and relatives there. So when I saw how the Russian troops entered Crimea, it was surreal, because when you walk on streets that you have known so well since childhood and you see them [filled] with Russian soldiers, with Russian flags, you just can't process it. You can't understand that this is happening in your own city, in your hometown. So that was pretty traumatic for everyone who used to live in Crimea and didn't want Russia to go there.

    IT: What city were you in?

    KS: I was in Simferopol. It is my hometown. I used to live in Simferopol. It is kind of the capital of Crimea, the central city of the peninsula. And I saw how their life was changing, day to day, because in the beginning I saw everyday protests, pro-Russian, pro-Ukrainian protests. I reported from different cities where something was happening at the moment. But very soon after the so-called referendum, the picture started to change because people started to live under the occupiers. Lots of things started to change very quickly. And the last time I was in Crimea was at the beginning of 2014, in January. I guess I took one of the last trains from Crimea to a Ukrainian city in Kherson region. I haven't been back since then.

    IT: When you left Crimea, did you think it would be for such a long time, for many years? Did you think it was just going to be temporary? What was your thinking then?

    KS: When the occupation started in Crimea, I realized it could go on for a long time, so I actually didn't think I would return very soon. And when the invasion started this year, I saw that, okay, this is an invasion. This is very big. But it is also an opportunity to free Crimea from the occupation.

    IT: So you left Crimea and you went to Kyiv, correct?

    KS: Yes.

    IT: How quickly did you begin to report from the war in the East?

    KS: When I was in Crimea, I realized I was now a war correspondent, because I'd been reporting from the military bases, and it was a kind of war reporting. So when the war in Donbas started, I immediately went there and started to report from Donbas. I reported from Donbas until 2015, then I had a child, so I was no longer able to go to the war zones. But then I went to Iraq. It was in 2017. So I continued to report from war zones.

    IT: And you started Zaborona when?

    KS: In 2017.

    IT: Why did you start it? And tell us what the name means.

    KS: “Zaborona” means taboo in Ukrainian. Or you could say prohibition. And our main manifesto is that prohibition is prohibited. It's a reference to French students’ revolution back in 1967. It was important for me and my husband to report on different taboo topics because Ukraine is the most free country in the post-Soviet world, but Ukrainian society still has lots of different taboos, we have so many topics that are not covered. So we decided to make some things more visible in Ukraine. We've been reporting on LGBTQ rights, on far-right groups, and on different minorities in Ukraine, which was and is really important for me and for my team because we know that a war creates different demons, even if it was started by the other side. We still have to think about democracy, about freedoms, and how to change our society for the better. So that's why we decided to start Zaborona.

    IT: A war creates a lot of pressure on journalists a lot of times. Journalists get pulled into the information warfare and they want to be part of the defense of their country. How do you position yourself and Zaborona in that regard?

    KS: I really don't like this term information warfare. Because it means that journalists are just soldiers in the information war, which is not true. We are soldiers of truth. If you want to be a journalist, if you want to tell people what is really going on and try to make sense of it, you don't have to be a soldier in the information war because an information war is something very different from journalism. It's more about memes or maybe public opinion or something like that, which makes sense in its own way but is different from my profession. So I see the point of journalism as spreading information about how it is to live in a country at war and what people think about that. How do they cope with everything? How do they live under occupation, for example, or how do they survive certain things during a war? If we're talking about war. So yes, I think those are just two different professions, and it is important to me to save this profession in a time of war, also very important.

    IT: Absolutely. And I want to add that Zaborona has received the prestigious Free Media Award. So it's an award-winning publication.

    Let's talk about life under occupation. You have reported extensively from areas of combat. And you've seen with your own eyes how people live under an occupation and under these conditions. Tell us what you're seeing. What is life like for ordinary citizens under the Russian occupation?

    KS: Back in April, I was helping a friend’s family escape Mariupol. They lived in Mariupol. They are originally from Donetsk. And we didn't have any mobile connection to talk to them, to ask whether they were still alive and how they were doing. But in April they told us, “We were evacuated from Mariupol; now we are in Russia.” And we helped them escape from Russia to another country.

    Once they were in a safe place, I recorded an interview with them and it was.… You can read it in the books on World War II or see it in the films, because they describe how they were surviving in Mariupol. And they are smart people who had the skills to survive and could use their skills. So many people didn't have those skills and did not survive.

    One of the family members described for me how it was, for example, when the Russian occupiers came to their part of the town. It was pretty rare to have clean water in Mariupol. And he heard a woman who was screaming “Water! I need water! Please, somebody help me!” And he tried to understand where she was, in which apartment. He told me, “I didn't find her. I just heard the voice. But I didn't manage to find her.” And he started crying because he just realized that maybe she had died there because he didn't help her.

    So many people went through such horrible things. I guess this is what we should know about occupation, that some people survive and some people can't survive because they just can't. That's what we are seeing now in Kharkiv region, in the liberated areas. So many people died just because they couldn't manage to survive.

    IT: You write in one of your articles that occupation, first and foremost, is a humanitarian crisis, that everything is in short supply. Food. You just mentioned clean water. Obviously, people don't have jobs or money. There's no medical assistance. What would you say were the skills that helped your friends survive?

    KS: I can tell you that it is kind of communication skill. Probably this is the most important because this man managed to create a small community in the basement of his house, there were 20 or 25 people in there. He developed a friendship with a few guys in there and they just started to search for food everywhere they could find it, such as in stores, which were, of course, closed. But they managed to find water. They went to different places where he might find water. It was dangerous, but somebody had to do it. And they did so under shelling, under the threats of the occupiers who were looking for the men in the town. And he talked with military men, with Russians or people from Donetsk. He tried to figure out what was going on because they didn't have a mobile connection. They collected information from wherever and then they shared everything that they collected with the neighbors in the basement. That's how they survived.

    But if you don't have any friends…. Of course, we know that many people do not have friends or do not have relatives or are just alone. So you won't receive anything, you just have to find it on your own. And sometimes it is difficult to do so under occupation when there is constant shelling from different directions. So I guess communication is the king of survival.

    IT: And being able to form a community around you where you can share things and share tasks, that sounds like a really important skill and strategy. What about leaving an occupied area? You said he needed help getting out. What made it hard to get out?

    KS: Let's start with the situation. Because, for example, if you ended up in Kherson, somehow you met the invasion in Kherson, which was occupied very quickly, on the second day of the invasion. And say you have patriotic pro-Ukrainian tattoos on your skin. And you are also, for example, an activist in some Ukrainian organization that is banned in Russia, or maybe not even banned but the occupiers know that this is the kind of organization that is very pro-Ukrainian, very patriotic. So you have not so many options to escape the city. And we know lots of examples where people like that ended up in filtration camps or in Russian prisons, and many of them are still there or they were killed.

    IT: Why? Because on the way out, they're being checked, right?

    KS: Yes.Sometimes they try to escape and they go through the checkpoints and sometimes the Russian police or FSB come to their home and just arrest them. And sometimes, for example in Kherson, Russian officials have lists of activists and military men who are not allowed to escape prosecution.

    And you never know. Even people who were just journalists, local journalists in Kherson, they never knew they could end up in a situation like that. The Russians went to them, they arrested them, tortured them. And you can imagine what kind of horrible things they can do with you if you're a journalist. Because to be a journalist in Ukraine today is pretty dangerous because the Russians do not want to have witnesses to their atrocities, so they prefer to eliminate journalists if they have an opportunity.

    IT: So people in the occupied territories actually have to hide. There are people who have to be in hiding. Is that what you are [talking about]?

    KS: Yes. Some hide, some use, let's say, corruption to escape. So it is possible. And, speaking about Mariupol, you could escape to the Ukrainian side through the humanitarian corridors. It was pretty rare, but they had some opportunities to leave for the Ukrainian side. And they had the option to escape to Russia. After that you just have to move from Taganrog to Moscow, from Moscow to St. Petersburg, then to Estonia or Latvia or Georgia; you have some options to escape. So many preferred this option. But still they had filtration camps even there. So if you had a patriotic tattoo or a track record of taking pro-Ukrainian positions, it was very, very dangerous.

    IT: What is a filtration camp? I've read about those in your reporting. What are they like? Who gets into them? Where are they?

    KS: Men from eighteen to sixty, people who can be enlisted in the army, they all have to go through filtration camps. And for men, it's always harder to go through checkpoints, for example, just because they are men. If you’re a woman with children, it is much easier to escape. But if you are in the military, of course, it is a different situation. So yes, thousands of men went through these filtration camps and hundreds ended up in prisons. Or we don't know where they are, still.

    IT: They disappear.

    KS: Yes.

    IT: So they put people in filtration camps, they put men in filtration camps, and then what? They check their backgrounds? How long do people stay in them? What is the system?

    KS: It's hard to say what the system is because journalists have never been there. We know about filtration camps only from our sources, from people who went through these camps. So I guess even international organizations like the Red Cross have never visited the filtration camps. Russia does not allow them. So we only can repeat what our sources have told us. And they check your social media. If you deleted it from your computer or your mobile phone, they search for it on Google, on Facebook, on Vkontakte, on different social media sites. If they don't find anything, then they can question you about your political position. What do you think about Russia? What do you think about different things? And then if they think that you're not dangerous, they may allow you to go.

    Many people in Ukraine do not know what to expect when they leave their hometown. So sometimes it creates troubles for them, if they have some patriotic posts on Facebook or something like that. And I know that people with patriotic tattoos even try to eliminate the tattoos from their skin. My colleagues from Zaborona even interviewed some tattoo masters who did it during the occupation.

    IT: And this happens to civilians. Do prisoners of war also get put into filtration camps, or is that a whole separate category?

    KS: If they take you as a military man on the battlefield, of course, it's different. They have some filtration camps, but it's different. It's just for military. You never know what will happen there

    IT: You've had some really hair-raising reports about prisoners of war as well, about their treatment, that there are severe beatings and torture and people being tied up with barbed wire. It's just horrible. And it's such a total flaunting of the Geneva Conventions. Why, do you think, do they not care that these constitute war crimes?

    KS: I witnessed this issue back in 2014. Russian proxies in Donetsk and Luhansk took hundreds of prisoners of war, claiming they were Nazis and should be killed. So it is not a new thing for Russia. They just use it now more broadly than in 2014. I remember that they killed some Ukrainian fighters from volunteer battalions near Donetsk just because they wanted to show that they had power and could do whatever they wanted and would not be prosecuted for that in any international court. And that was kind of true because they have never been prosecuted under international law. It created this situation that we have now after eight years. I would really love to hear an explanation from the UN and other international organizations that have to protect humanity from things like that.

    I think this injustice in the war since 2014 created this whole invasion because they have never been prosecuted and Ukraine has never seen real justice for the country. I understand that it could be complicated. But Russian officials like Putin understand how international organizations really work, and they use it as a kind of a weapon because they know they will not be prosecuted.

    IT: When the Russian army retreated from the occupied territories around Kyiv, from Irpin and Bucha, we saw remnants of horrible crimes, mass graves. What are we seeing from the latest retreats in the East? What do you anticipate will be found there?

    KS: We have already seen a mass grave in Izyum, Kharkiv region. It is very close to Donbas. There are more than 400 people in this mass grave, all unidentified. And we know that in Mariupol there are maybe 20,000 people in mass graves. This is what we can conclude from the satellite images and investigations. It's a huge number. And it's not even military personnel, it is just civilians who died from the shelling. And the longer the occupation continues, the more victims of the war we will see after liberation. It is horrible. But I know for sure that people who escaped Mariupol really want to go back and find their loved ones, even if they know they are not alive. It is very important to return and to bury them properly. So I think the things that we will see after liberation will be much worse than what we saw in Bucha and in Irpin.

    IT: You interviewed the mayor of Mykolaiv and he talked about…life under occupation, about how they were basically daily under shelling and on a daily basis they had to be repairing infrastructure, water supply lines, electrical infrastructure, the sewage system, fuel supply system, pipelines, cables.

    And I think he uses the words that “it's like a Groundhog Day,” that every day you're repairing and repairing and repairing. And it has to be just exhausting. You have to have some sense of hope and optimism in order to keep doing that. So how do people do that?

    KS: In Mykolaiv, 80 percent of people lost their jobs after the invasion. So yes, for many of them to do something is actually to live normally. It's kind of a new normal that you just go and volunteer, you go and do things that you've never done before. But it somehow helps you to not go crazy because of everything. It is actually very helpful to have something like that. And if you have to repair houses every day, that's actually fine. I mean, it is something to live for every day.

    IT: That's a good point. It keeps you busy, right?

    KS: Yes. And you know that you are helping people every day, and it keeps you thinking that you're not useless in this war. You try to help. And I guess that's why people there are pretty optimistic because they know that they have a place, to help others. And it's really important.

    IT: That's a really good perspective.

    I want to ask you about a topic that I think is painful in such situations, and that's collaboration. How much collaboration are you seeing in the occupied areas? I'm also wondering what will happen as the Russian army retreats, what happens to the collaborators? Do they leave with the army? Do they stay? I can imagine that it creates a rift in the community.

    KS: It is complicated, of course. The officials will have to decide how to prosecute people who collaborated at an official level, as mayors or some people’s administrators. Of course, they should be prosecuted as collaborators. Because they had power, they had resources, they had access to information, official information, and to some lists of citizens or whatever. On the other hand, we have people who for example just helped Russian soldiers find activists, find military personnel, or locations that could be connected with military bases. These are two different stories.

    And when you see the first one, when you observe who collaborated on the official level, you can see that they all are from the Partiya Regionov, the Party of the Regions. It is a former political party that was headed by the fourth president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, who fled to Russia in 2014. [Its membership consisted of] politicians who took the pro-Russia side in politics in Ukraine. And they actually collaborated with Russia. They used their power, their authority to impose the occupation. And many security servicemen, prosecutors, and policemen joined the Russian forces in their efforts to invade Ukraine.

    So most of the collaborators were from the pro-Russia parties, and they were allowed to participate in elections back in 2019, for example. They were not prosecuted. And then they switched countries. They decided to work for evil and to sell out their own country. Some of them betrayed their country for just a small promotion. Like one guy who was deputy prosecutor in a small region and was told by the Russians he would be promoted to prosecutor, just one step more. It's absolutely incredible. I cannot imagine. But yes, we had hundreds and hundreds of people like that.

    IT: That must be one of the reasons why Russia thought it would be so easy to take over Ukraine. They must have taken that and projected it onto the rest of the country. But obviously they were completely wrong.

    KS: Of course. And I know that they tried to collaborate with some people in the other regions, but they decided not to do that because they realized what kind of trouble it would be. On the other hand, I guess Russian “[political] technologists” really did not realize that Ukrainians would not be collaborating with them en masse. The retreat from Kyiv region shows they didn't realize they would fail.

    IT: Well, if the reports that we're reading are right, the morale among Ukrainians is very high because people are fighting for their country, and it's much higher than among the occupying forces. Would you say that’s true? What's your sense of that?

    KS: I think that Ukrainians are fighting not only for Ukraine, they are fighting for Europe and for democracy. They are actually also fighting for Russia, and for Belarus, and for Moldova, and Georgia, and other countries in the post-Soviet world that never managed to fight for democracy. So I guess this is something that makes us strong. It makes us hopeful that this will end, and the end will be on the bright side of this horrible thing. Because we don't have any option. In Ukraine we say don't have any other option but to win the war because if we fail, then half the planet will fail. It would be a disaster. It is already a disaster, but it would be much worse.

    IT: You are a founder and editor in chief of Zaborona, and you are also a founder of the 2402 Foundation. Tell us about that foundation. What is it?

    KS: We created this foundation maybe on the second day of the invasion, with my husband, because we tried to help our colleagues, journalists from Ukraine who had just met the invasion absolutely naked. I mean, without helmets, without bulletproof vests, without anything that can protect you while reporting from a war zone. And we realized that we had experience. We've been reporting from war zones since 2014. And we've seen a lot and we know for sure what is right and what is wrong and what you should do to protect yourself when you are in a hostile environment. And we just started looking for vests and helmets, and we began fundraising.

    So many people from across the globe supported the foundation. It was pretty inspiring because when you are a journalist, you're used to being badass. People don’t always find you comfortable because sometimes you tell not very comfortable truths about events. But then we realized how many people really want to know what is going on, even if it's some horrible things, even if it's uncomfortable. They need to see that. And to report from a war zone you really need protection. So we bought about 300 bulletproof vests and helmets for Ukrainian journalists, and we'll continue to do so because we have lots of requests for protection.

    We have training sessions for journalists. And there are always about fifty people in the room who really want to know everything about reporting from a war zone because they never knew that they would become war correspondents in their own country, even though we had the war in Donbas. They never thought they would be reporting from a war. And now they have to. This is something that also inspires me to continue my journalist work, when you see that people really want to report and there are so many people who really want to read coverage of the war. So you just continue doing this thing to help.

    IT: We will include links to some of the articles that we discussed today in our show notes, and there will be a link to the foundation’s website. If people want to contribute to your foundation, to support you, where should they go?

    KS: They should go to It has an English version and a Ukrainian version, and even Spanish and some other language versions. I really would be grateful for support. Sometimes it is not even about the financial support, but when you see those small donations from different countries, you imagine that people there really care about Ukraine, and it's very exciting.

    IT: Absolutely. We will include that link as well. By the way, why is it called 2402 foundation? What is the meaning of that number?

    KS: We thought it would be obvious. 24/02 is a reminder that the full-scale invasion of Ukraine started on the 24th of February. I understand that it is not so obvious for people from outside Ukraine, but we thought it would be great to create a reminder that this was a very important point in history.

    IT: Yes, absolutely. Katya, I want to thank you so very much for being with us today. I want to thank you for your reporting. We're very grateful for it.

    KS: Thank you. Thank you very much.

    IT: For the Kennan Institute, I am Izabella Tabarovsky. Thank you for listening, and we look forward to having you with us on our next episode of The Russia File.

Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more