Alum at Helm of Ukrainian Newspapers Redoubles Efforts to Connect and Inform During Russian Invasion
Collage by Valerie Morgan; background image by Shutterstock
As Andrew Nynka Ph.D. ’18 stood in line for 26 hours at a checkpoint to cross from Ukraine into Poland, his thoughts repeatedly returned to his grandmother. Her account of fleeing Ukraine as a 22-year-old during World War II “didn’t really hit me until all of this happened,” he said.
Nynka, editor of the Ukrainian-language newspaper Svoboda and its English-language counterpart, The Ukrainian Weekly, was delivering satellite communication devices to freelance reporters in Ukraine at the beginning of Russia’s invasion. After his escape, Nynka set to work telling the stories of the war in Ukraine, and even returned to the region several months later.
The grandchild of four Ukrainian immigrants, Nynka grew up in a tight-knit community in New Jersey. “Everybody knows everybody,” he said. “We all came from the same part of Ukraine.” Svoboda, founded in 1893, and The Ukrainian Weekly, created in 1933, were essential reading for Ukrainian Americans, with news and features on politics, culture, sports and people. Today, the Weekly has about 5,000 subscribers, and Svoboda has some 3,000; the staff for both papers is three full-time employees, a part-time copy editor and 10 to 15 freelancers.
“In my mind, (the papers) are sort of the glue of the Ukrainian American community,” said Orest Deychakiwsky, a retired policy adviser for the Helsinki Commission, a government agency that maintains relations between the U.S. and the 57 countries in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, including Ukraine. “The Weekly and Svoboda (have been) considered the most important and influential” publications for Ukrainian Americans.
Nynka first worked at the twin New Jersey-based papers as a recent college graduate in 2001, when his inaugural assignment was to cover a Chernobyl commemoration bell-ringing at the United Nations headquarters. “I was hooked,” he said. He soon covered 9/11 and realized that he needed a stronger basis in journalism, leading him to earn a master’s degree at New York University and a Ph.D. at Maryland. After several years working at daily papers in New Jersey, Nynka returned to Svoboda and The Ukrainian Weekly as editor in chief in 2020.
As Russia began stationing troops near the Ukrainian border this winter, Nynka knew that “if things went really bad, communication could be down, and if communication is down, we should have some way of talking to our reporters, so that they can get stories out and so we can make sure they’re safe,” he said. He flew to Ukraine, staying in Lviv with his wife’s relatives who “basically all laughed at me because they thought, ‘Andrew, you’re being like a lot of the West–very sensational. You guys are all thinking this war’s going to happen. Calm down.’”
At first, Nynka’s visit felt like “old times,” he said, as he and his family went out to restaurants and watched people going about their lives as usual. But in the early morning hours of Feb. 24, his wife in Boston called to warn him that Russia had started bombing Ukraine.
His status as an American journalist put him at heightened risk, so Nynka decided that he needed to hightail it out of the country. With mixed feelings about fleeing when fighting-age male Ukrainian nationals could not, he accepted relatives’ help in getting to the Polish border, and along the way picked up an acquaintance, American journalist Dan Peleschuk, editor of the Atlantic Council’s online publication, New Alanticist.
Nynka and his companion arrived at the border around 10 at night, and joined that enormous checkpoint line. Nynka’s colleague compared it unfavorably to his two and a half days in a Belarusian jail. (At least the bread in prison, his colleague noted with gallows humor, “was really, really good.”)
With only the food, water and clothing that each person could manage to carry, those in line faced hunger, exhaustion and extreme crowding. When the checkpoint guards would periodically allow people through, it was “almost like a stampede,” said Nynka, with strollers, baggage and personal belongings underfoot.
After flying home to Boston from Poland, Nynka felt a pull to return. He could do humanitarian work and scratch his reporter’s itch to be close to the action. His wife, Melania, joined him for 10 days in April as the two carried medical supplies to Przemysl, in southeast Poland.
Now in the U.S., Nynka feels more compelled than ever to maintain the papers as a critical resource in the fight against misinformation. Readers with relatives in Russia might be battling their family members’ skepticism, Nynka said, a nearly intractable problem when, for example, Russian media might air old footage and maintain that it’s current.
“Our job is still to go and report and be on the ground and provide information that really can change someone’s mind,” Nynka said, “so that when someone’s sitting there saying, ‘I don’t believe that,’ you can provide a photo or say, ‘I’m here, and I’m telling you I see this.’”
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