Another UN Security Council emergency session on the situation in Ukraine is about to start. I am getting ready for my on-camera stand-up.
I work in New York as a foreign news reporter for NTV, one of Russia's largest Moscow-based broadcasting companies. The channel is Gazprom-owned and controlled by Putin.
For the last couple of months, over and over again, I have been justifying Russia's position in the Ukrainian war in front of the audience of NTV's more than 100 million viewers.
“Russia is not an aggressor,” I usually say in my reports. “It is just trying to protect its citizens living in Ukraine from persecution by ultra-rightists and emerging neo-Nazis.” That's the official party line. However, we all know about Mr. Putin's imperialistic appetite and how he regrets the collapse of the mighty USSR, which Ukraine was part of.
After the Ukrainian revolution, part of my job was to look for political experts who would gladly bash America for its missteps in foreign and domestic policy, be it secretly sponsoring the opposition leaders in Ukraine or ignoring police brutality problems at home. Many U.S. think tanks' experts have accused NTV of bias coverage and stopped giving me interviews. They were afraid of their words being heavily edited, spliced, and taken out of context.
NTV is deeply mistrusted by its audience, too, and so am I as its representative.
A rally of Ukrainian supporters is staged near the UN. Men and women holding Ukrainian flags chant: “Putin go home; Putin is a liar.” The protesters see me approaching them with the NTV-labeled microphone.
“We are not going to talk to you,” they yell. “The blood of those killed in Ukraine is on your hands, too. You have no shame! NTV lies and you are a liar. Quit your job!”
A woman approaches me and threatens: “If you are going to put my face on air on your channel, I will sue you.”
This raging conflict affects not only my professional, but personal life, too.
I'm half Ukrainian and half Russian. My Russian mom and my Ukrainian dad divorced when I was 3 years old, and since then I’ve seen my father only in my
Growing up, I remember that everything my mom and my grandmother didn't like about me—be it physical appearance or character flaws—was attributed to my father's Ukrainian genes. “You are as stubborn as all Ukrainians” or “your feet are too big, just like your father's,” they used to say. Overall, my family, as most people in the former Soviet Russia, used to look down on Ukrainians, who were viewed as less educated, provincial, and not groomed enough, so to speak. I was raised with that nationalistic attitude, too.
Years have passed. My mom passed away when I was 20. With little left to lose in Russia, I decided to pursue my journalism career in the United States and got a producer and reporter position at NTV in New York. Since I moved there more than ten years ago, I have become a fan of Uncle Sam, but my job with the Russian TV network holds me hostage.
Amidst news coverage of the Ukrainian conflict, I'm thinking about my father. Where is he now? What is his view of this war? I actually could make a documentary based on my personal story.
The next minute I'm packing my suitcase and heading for Kiev, to film the revolution. It’s my first time in the Ukrainian capital and I expected to feel European spirit here, since Ukrainians want to be part of the EU so much. Instead, I see a tent city on the main square, Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square).
People come to Kiev from all over Ukraine, break the tents and stay here for weeks; they cook beet soup on fire (calling it the European borsch); they chop woods.
Tires are all over the square (the protesters burned them during riots), as are flowers, photos, and candles to commemorate the deceased. Women pray. Orthodox priests preach. All this reminds me of the Kievan Rus of the XII century: a wild scene, with Ukrainians looking like savages. The smell of smoke is pervasive—nothing in common with the modern European civilization. I am not feeling enthusiastic about that 50 percent Ukrainian blood in me.
I meet Alena, a 30-year-old Ukrainian woman who lost her father a couple of days ago. He took part in a rally on Independence Square and never came home. Somebody sent Alena a photo of her father's body riddled with bullets. She shows it to us. The man in the photo is being carried on a stretcher; he was shot in the head, stomach, and neck. Alena is crying and looking for witnesses to her father's death.
I am introduced to Igor, who fought against the pro-Russian militia on Kiev's streets.
A stranger, a middle-aged woman, approaches him during our interview and kisses him on the forehead. “Thank you,” she says. (Apparently, for taking an active part in this fight these couple of weeks)...
Igor's father lives in the United States. He is worried about his son. But Igor does not want to leave Ukraine.
Local TV producers take me to Ukrainian radicals, those ultra-rightists who Russia hates so much. One of its members, 25-year-old Alexander, was among those who took to the streets in Kiev, armed.
He wanted to fight for his wife and his little daughter's future—a future in the European Union that now ousted pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovich destroyed when he scrapped the EU agreement and decided to follow the Russian lead.
There are many people here with touching stories, many families divided by war. And I'm looking for my father, estranged by the personal feud and bitter divorce from my mom. Eugene Vasilchenko must be 55 (I don't know his birthday). Maybe he lives in Russia, maybe in Ukraine.
I'm heading back to New York, determined to find him through an online search. Weeks are spent browsing through different databases. He is not listed on any social network. Finally, I stumble upon a private database, pay a symbolic fee for the service, and receive a phone number with an address. The last name and the year of birth match my father's.
My cameraman Michael has arrived at my apartment. He is filming me making a phone call to my father. A woman picks up the phone. “Hello, my name is Julia Vasilchenko,” I say with hesitation. “I'm looking for Eugene Vasilchenko.”
“What do you want? I am his spouse,” the woman on the phone replies.
“Oh, Eugene Vasilchenko listed at this number might be my father. I'm not sure if this is the right person and the right number, but . . .”
“Yes, yes,” the woman interrupts. “I'm very well aware he has a daughter, Julia. Your mother Tatiana passed away, God bless her.”
“He is not home yet, but should be any minute. You can chat via Skype. Write down his Skype handler,” the woman says.
I cannot believe it. Michael sets up the camera so we can record me having the Skype conversation. I ask him not to come close to the computer screen, so my father wouldn't see we are videotaping him.
In a couple of minutes, which feels like hours, I'm calling, waiting for him to pick up. His Skype camera is still off. But through the empty screen I hear someone say, “Hello.” A moment later a face appears on the screen: a man wearing glasses. The light in his room is too bright and distorts his features.
“You look like my dad,” I giggle nervously. “Maybe you should turn the light off so I can see you better?” I ask. He does.
“You have your mom's features,” he says.
“I have your wedding photo, where your features resemble mine,” I reply.
For over an hour we talk about where I live now and what I do. It turns out my father has never even seen me on TV. Maybe he lied. He said he doesn't like the NTV channel.
He lives in Saint-Petersburg, Russia, and works as an engineer at a space agency similar to NASA, but despite his scientific mind he is stubborn and hardheaded. No wonder my mom didn't like that streak in me. Through email correspondence and phone chats, I find out that he is deeply affected by the Russian propaganda. He likes Putin, approves of his action in Ukraine and the Crimea Peninsula, and even uses the same rhetoric as the Russian president does in his public speeches and press conferences, saying that Ukraine was not even an independent state until Perestroika.
He is blinded by Putin's policy. He doesn't believe that the economic sanctions really hurt Russia, and he hates Western countries and their values, especially their approval of homosexuals. We have so many cultural differences. It seems like our views mirror the clashes of the U.S. and Russia. He is an old-school Soviet, while I am a global, open-minded New Yorker.
Even more surprising, my Ukrainian father hates "hohols," a slang term for Ukrainians. It turns out he was born in Russia, but his military family moved to Ukraine during the Soviet era. That's where he grew up and lived until he moved back to Russia to study and marry my mom. Hmm, I wonder why my mom always referred to him as Ukrainian. Perhaps it was just a family feud, sort of a propaganda war on a personal level.
Yet my father's relatives—his mom, sister, and nephews—are still in Ukraine. All of a sudden, not only have I found my dad, but also my grandmother, my aunt, and two cousins. Wow!
Meanwhile, the situation in Ukraine is deteriorating. People in the besieged provincial towns are heavily bombed. Lives are lost, buildings are destroyed.
Many have to hide in their cellars to avoid shelling. My father's aunt and her husband (Maria and Anatoly) are among those people. They live in Slaviansk, a town in eastern Ukraine rich with shale gas and a population of about 100,000 people. It has become a battleground between the Ukrainian and Russian forces.
In the summer I fly to eastern Ukraine to visit my relatives. On the way there, my cameraman and I pass through five security checkpoints, where pro-Ukrainian soldiers check our IDs.
Being a dual citizen, I have intentionally left my Russian passport behind and taken the American one with me. Neither have I brought along my NTV press credential. It is safer that way in Ukraine, where NTV is banned.
When we reach Maria and Anatoly, the couple insists that there should be no filming on the streets and near their house. They are scared and do not want to attract attention with journalists snooping around. Maria and Anatoly are pro-Russian, yet the town has just been taken over by Ukrainian forces. Neighbors rat each other out, they say. Those who are against the current government might get persecuted. And they have suffered enough, living for three months in their garage with a cellar that hid them from shelling.
Amid this turmoil, they show us great hospitality and feed us plenty of home-cooked meals and wine.
On the way back from Slaviansk, the security checkpoint guards ask us why we are carrying filming equipment in the area of an anti-terrorist operation and don't have media credentials on us. I explain that we were just filming my relatives, nothing else. They browse through my footage for about an hour and then let us go. Thank God I managed to hide an SD card with the footage of the destruction of Slaviansk. It’s pretty scary to be around armed, masked soldiers in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere. Frankly, I think my U.S. passport saved me.
We drive to another Ukrainian town, Dnepropetrovsk, a safer place, where my grandma, my aunt and her sons live. They are friendly and kind-hearted. My aunt is struggling to make ends meet, just as many people in Ukraine affected by the crisis. She tries to sell food supplements for a living, so far unsuccessfully.
Finally, the last leg of my trip: I'm going to Saint Petersburg to meet my father for the first time in 30 years. He comes to the airport to pick me up. I see a 60-year-old man, shorter than I. He is limping; he has a knee problem. We approach each other and hug, exchange some brief meaningless chitchat, and head to his apartment. On the way there, we talk about traffic jams, weather, and the current news. What's there to talk about when you haven't seen each other for decades?
I meet Marina, his wife. She is camera-shy, even more than my father. “Stop filming, paparazzi,” she tells me. After a couple of drinks they get more relaxed and start singing Russian songs, followed by “America, the Beautiful!”
The next morning, my dad drives me to the cemetery where my mom is buried. He buys flowers. It takes me some time to find her grave. It is covered with weeds. It’s probably had no visitors for a long time. My father doesn't recognize my mom on her tombstone’s portrait.
“I didn't ask you whether you need money. Maybe you do,” my father says. I assume he is referring to me not have the Russian rubles and answer that I can always withdraw cash from an ATM using my American debit card.
All this time I have been filming him with a palm-size camcoder. For the sake of an experiment, I haven't told him yet that I'm making a documentary about me, my family, and mass-media manipulation in this Russian, American, Ukrainian turmoil. I don't want him to become self-conscious in front of the camera. For now I just tell him it’s a family archive. I will disclose my real intentions later. Hopefully, he won't judge me for playing the role of a reporter in this family drama, although it might be tough to trust a journalist who works for a TV channel with a scandalous reputation. It is also probably hard to trust a grown-up daughter he never really knew, just as it must be difficult for Russia to trust Ukraine and the United States, and vice versa. Yet, I want to tell my father, "Trust me, I am family . . ."