July 21, 2023
The Globe and Mail
As a reporter, Anastasiya Garagulya understood that the news being published and broadcast in her city by the Russian occupation authorities was propaganda. She refused to believe the stories about President Volodymyr Zelensky having fled the country or the massive losses the Russians claimed to have inflicted on the Ukrainian army.
For six months, while the eastern Ukrainian city of Izyum was under Russian control, the Kremlin’s version of events was all you could get. That warped perspectives to the extent that many residents were shocked to see the Ukrainian troops who arrived to liberate the city and the surrounding Kharkiv region last September.
Living in a small village outside Izyum – among an older population that she felt broadly welcomed the idea of this part of Ukraine being rejoined to Russia – Ms. Garagulya kept her skepticism to herself. “When you’re in the village and you have these elderly people around you just gossiping and spreading fakes, and you’re the only young person, you can’t even share your thoughts about why these things are fake,” the 31-year-old said. Many of the city’s younger residents, who had grown up in an independent Ukraine, fled ahead of the Russian invasion, while many of the older residents who stayed behind remained nostalgic for the Soviet Union.
And so, Ms. Garagulya had tears in her eyes when, days after Izyum was liberated, she finally put her hands on a copy of the Izyum Horizons newspaper for the first time since the invasion began in February, 2022. That first post-occupation edition, printed Sept. 16, 2022, showed Mr. Zelensky and his chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, striding through the battle-scarred streets of Izyum, surrounded by Ukrainian troops. The headline read: “Ukrainian flag over city council.”
Izyum Horizons has been the standard bearer for accurate local news in this part of eastern Ukraine since the country gained its independence in 1991. For precisely that reason, editor-in-chief Kostiantyn Grygorenko fled Izyum just before the arrival of Russian troops, knowing he’d be one of the first people they would seek to interrogate.
After entering the city, Russian forces immediately shut the newspaper down and looted its new broadcast studio. They launched a new pro-occupation monthly bulletin, the Izyum Telegraph, that copied the logo and look of Izyum Horizons, though the content was radically different.
The Telegraph was printed in Russian, and its staff worked out of the occupation headquarters rather than an independent office. The June issue carried a front-page story declaring the dawn of a “new epoch” in the city, hailing the new administration’s restoration of public services. “Every day is filled with new colours,” the article read, even though residents lived without electricity, heat and running water for almost the entire occupation.
Mr. Grygorenko kept the Ukrainian-language Horizons website going from his internal exile in western Ukraine, focusing his efforts on debunking the propaganda printed in the Telegraph. Ms. Garagulya – a freelancer before the war who is now a full-time staff reporter at Horizons – said
she and other pro-Ukrainian residents trapped in the occupied city would occasionally go closer to the front line, where they could get a Ukrainian mobile signal, to read real news on the Horizons website.
Now that the nightmare of the occupation is over, Mr. Grygorenko and Izyum Horizons are back at work, publishing 2,000 copies every two weeks, in addition to the website, which is accessible again in Izyum and has 180,000 visitors per month. The Horizons team recently produced a special edition dedicated to revealing what life was really like during the occupation.
It’s a sensitive topic for some, Mr. Grygorenko knows, especially when the paper prints photos and names of people suspected of collaborating with the Russians. But, he says, exposing the truth is crucial to the return of democracy in Izyum. “Historians, when they study this time, will first come and look at the newspapers,” he said. “Nothing really exists unless it was written.”