Democracy in Danger

Saving the rule of the people — one episode at a time.

S6 E4. Resisting Russia’s War

A year into the invasion, courage is Ukraine’s most steadfast ally.

Hundreds march in the Latvian city of Kuldiga on March 2, 2022, in a show of support for Ukraine, not long after Russia’s invasion of its former Soviet neighbor. Millions around the world joined the call then for Vladimir Putin to end Moscow’s illegal aggression. But this devastating war, which really began with Crimea’s abrupt annexation, in 2014, drags on. One guest on this episode is a Ukrainian youngster studying online amid power outages while providing humanitarian aid to her fellow citizens in and around Kharkiv. We also speak with a Russian activist who is working from Estonia to combat disinformation in her native country.

Photograph by Sandris Kuzmickis via Shutterstock.com

This time on the show, we bring you a tale of two struggles. In Ukraine, a 16-year-old living just miles from the Russian border does what she can in the face of missile strikes, power outages and daily trauma. And in Estonia, an exiled Russian activist works to oppose Putin’s war and help refugees escape the conflict. Where democracy is most in danger, they teach us, joy comes from standing up for yourself — and for others.

Firefighters work to extinguish a blaze at a school in Zhytomyr — outside the capital, Kyiv — after a Russian bombardment, on March 4, 2022. Rescuers meanwhile search for survivors.

Photograph Sviatoslav Shevchenko via Shutterstock.com

Evgeniya Chirikova was a businesswoman who found her calling as an activist a decade ago, when she and her husband realized that Russian powerbrokers were planning to cut down a beautiful forest near her home outside of Moscow. Today, she’s an exiled dissident fighting from Estonia for peace in Ukraine and opposing Putin’s disinformation campaign through the Russian-language portal she helped found: Activatica.org.

Near Ukraine’s eastern front, shelling and missile blasts have a become a grim reality of daily life. Amid the explosions, Diana Razumova delivers aid packages with her stepfather and tries desperately to communicate with relatives in the occupied and battered southern city of Mariupol. Assistant producer Rebecca Barry brings us a conversation she taped between Diana and a UVa undergraduate taking a course on global pro-democracy activism.

Will is joined this time by guest-host Steve Parks — the UVa English professor who teaches that course, and directs the Democratic Futures Project.

About our guests

Evgeniya Chirikova is a Russian activist who fought to preserve Khimki Forrest and now helps Ukrainian refugees escape to safety and access vital resources. After taking action against Putin’s regime, she moved to Tallinn, Estonia . But Chirikova’s dream is to return one day to her to her motherland with her family and rebuild democracy at home. In 2011, the U.S. State Department recognized her with a Woman of Courage Award. Follow Chirikova on Twitter @4irikova.

Diana Razumova is a Ukrainian Global Scholar, a deputy in the Kharkiv Youth City Council and a member of the nongovernmental youth-oriented Foundation of Regional Initiatives. She also helped create Agents for Change, which provides online psychological services to young people in Ukraine who have been traumatized by the war. Diana plans to continue her studies in the United States with support from her scholarship. Follow her on Instagram @diarrzz.

Leena Fraihat is a second-year student at the University of Virginia. She is majoring in media studies and her passion is storytelling. She contributes to Humans of UVA as the project’s chief operational officer, giving voice to personal narratives from around Charlottesville, Va. A proud Palestinian, Leena spent much of her childhood in Doha, Qatar, before moving back to Northern Virginia with her family.

This episode was released on March 22, 2023.

What we’re reading

By our guests

Chirikova and her colleagues at Activatica produced a video on the terrible toll Russia’s invasion has taken over the past year.

A volunteer prepares boxes of humanitarian aid in Dnipro, Ukraine, on March 16, 2022, shortly after the full-scale war began.

Photograph by Vojtech Darvik Maca via Shutterstock.com

Her team teaches classes to Ukrainian refugee students on the Isabelle ferry in Estonia.

Activatica interviews Ukrainians who have made their way to shelters in Estonia. Many fled after being deported to Russia by Putin’s army.

Chirikova won the Goldman Prize in 2012 for fighting to save Moscow’s once-federally protected woodland ecology. There’s more about her past and current work on the news site Waging Nonviolence.

Diana, now 16, published a powerful creative essay earlier this year on Medium. It’s based on accounts she heard of war crimes and suffering in Mariupol, her erstwhile hometown. She writes from the perspective a woman living through those horrors.

Read Fraihat’s op-ed about Hoos Connected in the Cavalier Daily. Those are courses at UVa designed to foster deep dialogue among small groups of students seeking healthy, supportive friendships in college.

And find the full conversation between our student guests at the Karsh Institute’s StoryCorps collaboration One Small Step. Special thanks to Samyuktha Mahadevan partnering with us on that production. There’s more about Mahadevan’s work in this story from C-Ville Weekly.

From around the web

The Committee to Protect Journalists has more on Activatica, what it does and the reporters who risk their lives to do it.

A year ago, one of the organization’s videos showed an antiwar protestor being arrested in Moscow’s Manezhnaya Square. It went viral, fetching more than a million views on Twitter.

Photograph by Sebastian Castelier via Shutterstock.com

There has been fighting in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, against Russian-backed separatists, for almost a decade. This soldier monitors the front lines in November 2014.

President Putin made a surprise visit to Mariupol just days before this episode dropped. His visit came after the International Criminal Court indicted him on charges of committing war crimes, along with Russia’s commissioner for children’s rights, Maria Lvova-Belova. Lvova-Belova is accused of unlawfully deporting Ukrainian children to the Russian Federation.

The other big news this week is Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s visit to Moscow. Here’s some analysis from the New York Times.

In an essay for Bloomberg last summer, columnist Hal Brands of Johns Hopkins University connected the war in Ukraine to this history and, ultimately, the long demise of the Soviet Union.

For the Financial Times, however, the war may represent a return of sorts for that empire.

Refugee children from Ukraine near a border crossing at Korczowa, Poland, in May 2022.

Photograph via Shutterstock.com

Go deep on the Russian government’s revisionist history, with Serhii Plokhii, or learn more about the persistent plight of those who oppose Putin’s rule, with Masha Gessen, on some earlier episodes of Democracy in Danger.

As our listeners know, we care a lot about the fate of people power in Eastern Europe. We’ve been talking about the all-out invasion of Ukraine on the show since it began unfolding on Feb. 24, 2022.

Heard on the show

At the top of the show you’ll hear a medley of recent news clips — from PBS, France 24, the BBC, CBS and ABC.

We also dialed up some fresh tracks for this episode. You’ll hear songs by some of our favorite podcast-friendly instrumentalists: Ketsa (“Night-Shadows”); Chris Zabriskie (“The Temperature of the Air on the Bow of the Kaleetan”); Daniel Birch (“Heart”); Ketsa — again (“Rain Stops Play”); and, in two spots, Jean Luc Hefferman (“Upbeat”).

Our theme music, of course, is the title track off the 2010 album Neogrotesque, by the Montreal band Tortue Super Sonic.

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