How NPR’s Ukraine bureau chief seeks out ‘intimate looks into people’s lives’

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Joanna Kakissis

It doesn’t always seem to Joanna Kakissis like she’s living in a war zone. 

NPR’s Ukraine bureau chief describes Kyiv, where she’s based, as “absolutely gorgeous, full of beautiful parks and beautiful sidewalks and beautiful buildings.” She once told a friend, “You should come visit me.”  

“What?” she remembers her friend saying. “I’m not going to visit you.” 

But Kakissis is quickly reminded of the realities of her assignment by nearby explosions in the middle of the night. 

“I would sleep through the air raid alarm, and then I would hear this enormous boom,” she said. “And I’m like, ‘Am I dead, am I dead? No, I’m alive.’”

Kakissis, whom NPR hired as Ukraine bureau chief last year, works eight weeks at a time in Ukraine, then gets two weeks off. She’s the only full-time NPR staffer at the bureau, located in a nondescript house in Kyiv, where she also lives while she’s in the country. Assisting her in the bureau are Field Producer Polina Lytvynova, Bureau Coordinating Producer Hanna Palamarenko and driver Serhiy Yesin. Other NPR staffers also take short stints in Ukraine every eight weeks to give Kakissis a break.

Kakissis has been reporting from Ukraine since shortly before the Russian invasion in February 2022. She had been reporting regularly for NPR from Athens, Greece, since 2011, where she covered issues affecting Europe such as nationalism, the migration of Syrian refugees and the eurozone debt crisis. 

She spoke to Current on one of her breaks from her home base in Athens, where she still has an apartment. Kakissis discussed life in Ukraine, the kinds of stories that NPR listeners are drawn to, and how self-care can help with reporting. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Current: What is it like going back and forth between a conflict zone and Athens? 

Kakissis: Whenever I cover something, whether it’s this assignment that I have now or the refugee story in Europe for several years, I just throw myself into the story. I try to live in the present as much as possible, even though obviously you have to plan stories and plan your features, coordinate your day with your news, research, all that stuff. But I don’t think about it so much as, like, going back [to Ukraine], how does it feel? Because it’s good to be in Ukraine, too. It’s a privilege to be able to cover a story as a journalist. It’s a great job. And those of us who get a chance to do it, we feel very grateful and lucky we have these kinds of jobs. So when I’m there, even though it’s exhausting, I’m totally into it. 

Those two months that you’re there are so intense and so focused on the news that sometimes, like this last rotation, I didn’t have time to go for a walk. … The day before I left [for Athens], I finally went on a walk with my friend Alex, who is Ukrainian and a former radio journalist himself. And he’s like, “We have to do the botanical garden, they’re right by the bureau.” And it was so nice to be able to not go somewhere just to do an interview. I do leave the bureau, but it’s always to do interviews. And here was this three hours where I got to walk around these beautiful botanical gardens overlooking the city with an old-style Ukrainian ice cream cone. Just walking around, it was so relaxing and so wonderful.

One of the things I want to do is find more time to do this, because your ears perk up in a way that they don’t when you’re single-mindedly going after an interview or focused on a story. You start noticing things that people are doing or people are saying. … Stories just pop up all over if you have a chance to do something that seems like self-care. But in the end, it’s like actually helping you do your job better.

It’s very intense work. My editors are great to encourage [you] the two weeks that you’re off, ‘Go to the beach, hang out with your cats, read books. … Just don’t call us.’

Current: How has NPR deciding to establish a bureau changed the work you do as a correspondent?

Kakissis: When we were all coming in last year for these short-term assignments, we were all trying to cram in as much stuff as possible and then get it all done and then get out because we thought we weren’t going to come back. … I was just trying to do the best job I could do because I didn’t know when I was going to come back. And so I wasn’t thinking long-term. I was thinking, what can I do in these four weeks that is going to be really good? Now the difference is that I’m thinking long-term, I’m thinking about projects, I’m thinking about developing sources, long-term sources that I can turn to again and again that can help us verify stuff.

[We] have to be very selective about the work that we do because we’re not The New York Times in terms of resources. … The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, they have more resources on the ground than we do. But what we can offer as public radio is very intimate looks into people’s lives and how this war is playing out, how this war feels, how people feel about the future. I know at this point people have said it a million times, but I totally believe it. I think that’s the great power of radio. Those kinds of stories are what stick with people and what people remember when they think about a war. What sticks with people in the end is a story about another human being and what they’ve gone through.

Current: How do you prioritize your coverage?

Kakissis: We prioritize in terms of news of the day we have to cover, especially if it’s big. We try to cover that in two-ways and spots. … I think breaking news can be handled best [as digital stories]. And then you need to think about how we have these, say, 10 feature ideas. Realistically, what are the three or four we can do really well this month? Let’s do them. They should be features that are pertaining to whatever news developments are on the horizon, whether it’s the counteroffensive, whether it’s corruption, whether it’s fatigue that the West has with the war, any of those things. And every couple of weeks, these priorities change.

We were finishing up a story in Zaporizhzhia. Some of our interviews fell through. We had a couple of days we didn’t want to waste. So we went to this island on the Dnipro River, which is a sacred place for Zaporozhian Cossacks. I thought, OK, I’ll do a postcard from here, kind of like a day of reporting from here. And it was fascinating. You can also do those kinds of stories because our listeners like being transported to a place to help them understand something about Ukraine. 

If you have that lull where you’re in a place and you’re waiting for an interview, there’s always something else you can do. These stories are sometimes the stories that the listeners remember the best, because they give you some sort of insight into the culture. We look at what the big issues are on the horizon, and we try to do news features focused on those. We also try to do newsmaker interviews if possible, like when we interviewed the defense minister, we interviewed the head of the Ukraine Security Council. And I think that those are also important because I think that listeners do want to know what their thinking is as well. But I think the stories that stick the most, or at least with our listeners, appear to be stories about people going through something and how they manage it, how they get from point A to point B.

Current: What’s best prepared you to cover this story?

Kakissis: I’m not sure if anything really prepared me. I don’t think we’re ever really prepared for the assignments that we go into. I think we just learn them. And I think that we just take each day or each week as it comes. I know that there are many people who have much more combat experience, like frontline experience. A lot of the other correspondents, for example, in Ukraine are former or ongoing war correspondents. Maybe I could have covered a few more wars before this. But I don’t think that’s put me at a disadvantage. In fact, I think that when you say I’m covering war, it doesn’t mean that you go to the trenches for every story. It means that the war is all over the country and it hits different parts of the country and the people in very different ways. 

When I applied for this job, I didn’t say, “I’m going to go and talk to a bunch of war correspondents.” I just told myself, I want to learn about this country. I’m going to read a bunch of books. I’m going to reach out to people who live there. I’m going to make friends and I’m going to meet military leaders. I’m going to talk to my colleagues who cover the military to help me with the stuff that I don’t know as much about, which is the combat. And I’m going to do a great job. That’s basically what I told myself when I applied, because I really wanted to do justice to this story. 

Current: Has day-to-day life changed in Ukraine since you’ve been there?

Kakissis: It evolves all the time. It really depends on what strategy the Russians are planning. It changes based on their strategy, what’s working or not working for them. In the beginning of the war, the city was really empty and felt eerie because Kyiv’s this super busy city with a lot of traffic. And I remember right after the invasion, it was just a ghost town. There were checkpoints set up everywhere, military everywhere. And it was kind of creepy to see that. But that life has all come back. The old men are out playing chess again in the park. When I first came to Ukraine, it was a month before the war and it was in the middle of winter. I saw this group of people there who were women in their 70s and 80s, and their coach was, like, an 80-year-old man. They were champion fast walkers. And I saw them out the other day. Things feel normal, but they’re not normal.

Correction: An earlier version of this article erroneously referred to Ukraine’s capital as Kiev. It is Kyiv. It also included an incorrect job title for Polina Lytvynova. She is a field producer, not an “interpreter and fixer.”

One thought on “How NPR’s Ukraine bureau chief seeks out ‘intimate looks into people’s lives’

  1. This is a great interview. Reading about the bureau gives listeners insight into the reality of the modern press corps. Thankfully, here’s another opportunity to take part in the cultural process of our allies and this story included the reasons Americans need to support public radio and a free press. NPR is so good to listen to, and Kakissis is such an impressive journalist. It seems especially necessary to see writers and producers of balanced and fair news as key members of our democratic society because there’s so much vilification of the press in our world from certain political figures in 2023. It’s great to see that the journalists have such grit and commitment to reporting. Bravo. Great story!

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