Death and rebirth in contemporary Ukrainian journalism

Ukraine deserves to break out of the “sick man of Europe” mould, known primarily for the protracted war and corruption.

Mourning ceremony for killed journalist Pavel Sheremet in Kiev
Sheremet loved his adopted city, to which he had been exiled, and had become a household name in Ukraine, writes Zalmayev [EPA]

As with every other analyst, activist, journalist, critic and pundit involved with Ukrainian politics, it was with extreme sadness and trepidation that I heard about the assassination of Pavel Sheremet.

The prominent investigative reporter for the respected Ukrayinska Pravda had been driving to work when the car he was in was blown up with an explosive placed under his seat.

The intrepid Belarusian-born journalist was killed in the centre of Kiev, a short distance from the ornate 19th-century opera house.

He had loved his adopted city, to which he had been exiled from his native country and had become a household name across Ukraine and far beyond its borders for his intrepid muck-raking exposes.

It is a well-known truism that investigative journalists have many enemies. Sheremet’s death has already roiled the capital, and threatens to create serious fissures within the Ukrainian political life.

This wanton killing of a respected foreign-born journalist will require a serious response and investigation from President Petro Poroshenko’s embattled government.

It can happen to anyone

I had come to know Sheremet slightly over the years, and have grown to like him, but the news of his death was much more than a personal blow.

Such killings always have a chilling effect on the profession, and it is likely that Sheremet’s death will haunt Kiev for a decade or more in the same way that Georgiy Gongadze’s kidnapping and killing in 2000 has.

All of us in this trade understand our utter vulnerability in such moments. In fact, I myself had driven through the same intersection where the journalist was killed a mere 20 minutes before the explosion took place.

There has been a veritable influx of talented foreign journalists to Ukraine to report on the war and peace realities here.

The world, on the other hand, needs intelligent cultural criticism and coverage of Ukraine and its exciting new civic-based culture now more than ever.


How the reverberations of this assassination will be felt among this cohort is yet to be seen. But Ukraine’s political crisis over the past three years has created myriad opportunities as well as an acute need for communicating the complexity of the political situation here with the outside world.

Gifted foreign journalists and writers have come from all over the world with the express ambition of telling the stories of a country and society under siege, waging a war for survival, and engaged in the reconstitution and revitalisation of its culture.

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Post-Maidan Ukraine has been in the spotlight of world news as it struggles to balance the war in its eastern parts with its proclaimed aspiration to find a rightful place in the European family of nations.

That idealism has led an authority no less than George Soros to declare on multiple occasions that “Europe needs Ukraine even more than vice versa”.

The country is now in the midst of a romance with the outside world, which led President Poroshenko to declare that 2016 be the year of English language.

Breaking the mould

As it happened, I had been driving down the same road on which one of Ukraine’s leading voices was about to be silenced, and accompanying a prominent Western reporter to see another talented expatriate journalist in Odessa.

We arrived in this city in the midst of its marquee annual cultural event: the 7th annual Odessa Film Festival, which is a bridge to the West and to international film culture.

Vladislav Davidzon is a consummate cosmopolitan: he was born in Uzbekistan and had spent his childhood in Moscow before immigrating with his family to New York.

He had worked for Ukraine Today as its Paris correspondent. Having roots and family in Odessa, he had returned to Ukraine with his Odessa-born wife to found an English-language cultural magazine.

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The Odessa Review joins the newly revamped Kyiv Post and the Hromadske international television station as exciting fonts of dedicated English language journalism and analysis of Ukraine.

This smart and glossy magazine is published bimonthly and is a perceptive cultural publication, one that focuses on the new Ukrainian civic cultural identity as well as obsessing about the glorious past of the romantic Black Sea port town.

“We plan to be a bridge between Ukraine and the rest of the world, and we hope that the traffic goes in both directions,” Davidzon explained to me in between editing the review of a screening at the film festival.


”The energies that have been unleashed by the Maidan are reshaping the culture in all sorts of remarkable ways, and the cultural ferment that has resulted needs to be brought to the world’s attention.”

Ukraine deserves to break out of the “sick man of Europe” mould, known primarily, if not solely, for the protracted war in the east and pervasive corruption.

The world, on the other hand, needs intelligent cultural criticism and coverage of Ukraine and its exciting new civic-based culture now more than ever.

We must honour the memory and work of a courageous journalist like Pavel Sheremet by continuing his work of explaining the diverse happenings in Ukraine to the outside world.

Peter Zalmayev is director of the Eurasia Democracy Initiative, an international non-profit organisation dedicated to the promotion of democracy and rule of law in post-Communist transitional societies of Eastern and Central Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.