Bringing You the Daily Dispatch

‘I have my iPhone, X and a brain in my head’: Ukrainian journalist and social media star Illia Ponomarenko

‘I have my iPhone, X and a brain in my head’: Ukrainian journalist and social media star Illia Ponomarenko

Illia Ponomarenko was mulling over the idea of writing a book about the war in his home country, Ukraine. He decided to ask his X (formerly Twitter) followers – 1.2 million of them – whether this was a good idea. “There were a lot of positive responses,” the 32-year-old says, with a self-effacing grin. In early 2023 he began work at his new flat in Bucha, the Kyiv satellite town now synonymous with Russian war crimes. He finished the manuscript in two and a half months. “It was brutally intense and emotionally exhausting,” he says.

This month, Bloomsbury publishes I Will Show You How It Was, Ponomarenko’s gripping account of the battle for Kyiv. It is a wonderful work of reportage, immediate and raw, as well as vivid and personal. As the former defence correspondent for the Kyiv Independent newspaper, Ponomarenko is uniquely placed to tell the story of how Russia’s swaggering imperial plan – to conquer Ukraine and to topple its pro-western government – failed. “It was a pivotal moment in European history,” he notes.

When the all-out invasion began on 24 February 2022, Ponomarenko was at home in Kyiv. He thought Russian troops would enter the capital. Western governments made the same gloomy assessment. At 4.45am Ponomarenko knocked on his flatmate Ivan’s door, telling him: “Wake the fuck up, it’s war.” Soon, he heard explosions. “We were under no illusions as to what would happen. We would end up in a pit with a bullet in our heads. So we decided to go bright,” he recalls.

Going bright meant documenting events in real time – not just the epic fighting, but the emotions and anxieties of Ukrainians caught up in what he calls the “biggest European bloodbath since 1945”. Ponomarenko’s posts were heartfelt, illuminating and brutally mocking of Moscow. They lit up X, and in the space of five days, he went from 10,000 followers to more than a million. He is arguably the most famous Ukrainian abroad after Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

Ponomarenko and other Ukrainian journalists tried to stay human, he says, and to convey an authentic sense of being in the middle of a conflict that went beyond the headlines. “We were not merely informational. We were describing what we saw and how we felt. Nobody had a strategy for social media growth,” he says. “Someone would post ‘Fuck Russia’ and it would get an insane number of likes.”

Putin’s so-called special military operation was one of the most “absurd, unnecessary and shamelessly trumped-up wars” in modern history, he adds. There was nothing inevitable about it. “It was one idiot, drunk with power. There’s zero reason for Russians and Ukrainians to fight each other. A small group of people thought they are the ones who rule the world,” Ponomarenko says. “Russians are OK with it. Some are making careers, others money.”

The book opens in a pine forest somewhere east of Kyiv. It is March 2022 and Ponomarenko is on patrol with a Ukrainian combat team. On the roadside next to a pile of rubble he finds two dead bodies – of Russians. They are dressed in “swamp-coloured fatigues” and the “frayed remains of red-sleeve ribbons”. “Their pale bellies are bloated. Postmortem paralysis has shackled their fingers,” he records. Ponomarenko has no sympathy with the enemy soldiers, one of whom turns out to have come from distant Siberia.

He describes his writing style as “sharp and easy-going”, a conversation with a friend. The book is in part, he adds, a “love letter to Kyiv” – to its coffee shops and drinking dens, and to his girlfriend Natalia and resourceful friend-cum-driver Ivan. “Some of it is bromance,” he acknowledges. He cites Hunter S Thompson’s nonfiction novel Hell’s Angels as a literary influence, as well as Quentin Tarantino’s 2019 film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

Ponomarenko’s journey to reporter stardom is an unlikely one. He grew up in Volnovakha, a city in eastern Ukraine. His father was a welder; his mother a pensions manager. The family spoke Russian. A “bookworm” and a “nerd”, he played bass guitar at school. As a teenager, he realised education was his ticket out of the depressed and Soviet-inflected Donbas area. He enrolled at the state university in Mariupol and studied international relations and politics. In his spare time he learned English.

In 2014, the Kremlin staged a covert takeover of the regional capital Donetsk and neighbouring Luhansk. “Russia ignited this war. It became a self-sustaining process,” Ponomarenko observes. “On both sides everyone has someone who was killed.” In Mariupol, Russian “separatists” briefly seized the city. Ponomarenko got a job on a local paper and in 2016 moved to Kyiv with $100 in his pocket, eventually working for the English-language Kyiv Post. In late 2021 he cofounded the Kyiv Independent, after the Post’s oligarch owner shut the title.

I Will Show You How It Was ends in May 2022, on a warm spring day. It was a moment of optimism. Russia had been thrown out of the Kyiv region, “thanks to the resilience of our soldiers and military people”. “It was a human-made miracle,” Ponomarenko says. Since then, Ukraine’s mood has become darker. Its counteroffensive last year failed, Republicans in Congress delayed military aid to Kyiv, and Russia is advancing again, village by shattered village. Kharkiv and other cities are being pulverised. New US weapons are coming but have yet to arrive.

skip past newsletter promotion

How long will the war last? Ponomarenko’s guess is another two years. At some point, he thinks, there will be negotiations. “The question is whether we can do it from a position of strength,” he says. The war so far has been hard to predict and full of “black swans”, he stresses, such as the doomed rebellion last summer by the Wagner mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, who died in a plane crash in August. Ponomarenko is scathing about outside experts who say Kyiv should concede territory. “They are a continent and ocean away, sitting in an AC office,” he says.

One prominent US critic of Ukraine is Elon Musk, billionaire owner of X. Ponomarenko says he initially defended Musk because of Starlink, the “invaluable” satellite internet system provided by Musk’s SpaceX to Ukrainian soldiers on the frontline. Now, he remarks: “I don’t think Musk is evil. He’s badly informed and lives within his own bubble. A lot of people whisper in his ear.”

Ponomarenko says he wants to explain “complicated truth”. His book is a first draft of history and a compelling chronicle of Kyiv’s against-the-odds victory. Last summer he resigned from the Kyiv Independent, shattered, to become a full-time, supporter-funded author. He is currently reading Nevil Shute’s On the Beach and is thinking about writing a novel of his own, set in Mariupol and provisionally entitled Mary By the Sea – the English translation of the name of the ruined and now occupied port city.

In the meantime, he will continue to debunk Russian lies, and challenge the “useful idiots in the west and beyond” who spread them. “Putin spends billions on propaganda,” he says. “I have my iPhone, X and a brain in my head.”

Luke Harding’s Invasion: Russia’s Bloody War and Ukraine’s Fight for Survival, shortlisted for the Orwell prize, is published by Guardian Faber. To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

Source: theguardian.com