High up in the Carpathian Mountains, two Kyiv broadcasters keep the signal alive.
By Nicolas Niarchos
March 18, 2022
Recently, at a closed ski resort in Ukraine’s Carpathian Mountains, Roman Davydov leaned into a microphone and announced the latest news from the war. Kryvyi Rih, in southern Ukraine, was being attacked; a U.S. journalist had been shot; and the British Foreign Secretary had announced new sanctions on Russian oligarchs in London. Davydov, who is forty-three, with dark hair and an oft-furrowed brow, is the voice of Kraina FM, an independent radio station that, after Russian bombing began in Kyiv, relocated to an undisclosed location. (The staff of Kraina FM asked me not to identify the village, for security reasons.) Outside Davydov’s improvised booth, a corner office lent to Kraina FM by a local accountant, an odd sense of normalcy reigned. Beyond the ski-rental shop, where a cluster of sandbags had been piled, a man in a blue jacket and ski goggles operated a small lift for a children’s slope in the bright sunshine.
The area, which is several hours south of Lviv, has become a shelter for displaced people, Bogdan Bolkhovetsky, Davydov’s colleague, told me. Bolkhovetsky, Kraina FM’s station general manager, said that he and Davydov had arrived in the village “by pure chance.” The west of the country is full of refugees, and there are few places for families to stay as they make their way toward the borders of Europe. “We found this place because it was the only place vacant,” Bolkhovetsky said. They arrived in the evening on February 27th; just days later they were setting up the station in a sloped-ceilinged, wood-panelled space that barely fit their two desks. They acquired laptops and a mixer from the supply of aid making its way from the rest of Europe to Ukraine. “We called our friends in Austria and they were so quick,” Bolkhovetsky said. “Guys we’ve never met just sent us the equipment, and a friend of ours brought this equipment in. I mean, they brought us these German laptops and the mixing console and we’ve never seen these people before.”
Kraina FM is an independent radio station that grew out of a now defunct channel called Radio EU. Until the Russian invasion, the station mainly played Ukrainian rock and pop, although it also featured children’s programming and occasional news flashes that, when the channel was launched, in 2016, Davydov said would be “the most independent” among Kyiv’s radio stations. Kraina FM was “more funny and easy,” Davydov told me later, in an e-mail. “Now it’s mostly just rock” and “not happy information.” Like millions of other Ukrainians who have fled their homes, most of the station’s staff left Kyiv after the fighting began. “Everyone was scattered for two or three days,” Bolkhovetsky told me. “You look at Google Maps, you see the name of the city and you just start calling hotels to stay overnight.”
Bolkhovetsky, who is forty-nine, had awoken from a “terrible nightmare” on February 24th, when he saw a news alert—“Putin addresses the nation”—and heard the first low thuds of Russian bombs exploding around the capital. “I just started packing the bags, throwing everything in,” he said. With his wife and nine-year-old son, he fled to a summer house outside Kyiv. Within days, Russian helicopters were attacking nearby. Some flew low enough for him to see the pilots in the cockpit. “The faces look like you,” he said. “Just people on the job, like fucking robots.” His son spent most of the day in the basement, still in his pajamas. At one point, when the helicopters flew off, Bolkhovetsky piled his family into the car. Once he had reached a town that was not being attacked, he called Davydov, and together they searched for a safe place to set up the station.
Davydov had fled Kyiv with his wife and three-year-old daughter, heading to his wife’s office in central Kyiv, where they thought they would be safe. But Russian shelling forced them to seek shelter underground for days. Davydov had a microphone and a connector in the trunk of his car, a setup that he had previously used to record soccer news late at night for early-morning bulletins. Despite the shelling, Davydov kept the broadcasts going, recording one-man news items and uploading them remotely during pauses in the explosions. “For two or three days we broadcast only with my one microphone,” he said. In the background of these first recordings, one can hear children and dogs—Davydov was recording them in the crowded shelter with his head enveloped in a plaid shirt to muffle the sound.
Both Bolkhovetsky and Davydov have spent most of their careers working in radio. Davydov studied economics, but, when he was eighteen, he started doing humor programs for a station in what is now called Kamianske, a city of more than two hundred thousand people on the Dnieper River, and never looked back. He has worked just about every job on the air since—copywriter, traffic manager, music director, brand voices, program director. In 2004, he moved to Kyiv. Bolkhovetsky, who was born in Luhansk, an eastern region of Ukraine claimed by Russia-backed separatists, worked as an English and French teacher before going into radio in the late nineteen-nineties. He moved to Kyiv in 2005 and worked at a succession of different radio stations.
Once they got Kraina FM up and running at their mountain location, a representative from the National Council of Television and Radio Broadcasting in Ukraine requested that they play a national broadcast. “Everybody else switched to the national station,” Bolkhovetsky told me. “It was a continuous broadcast of just one program on TV stations and everywhere.” Bolkhovetsky and Davydov decided to continue their own programming. “I mean, you tune in to any station and it is the same,” Bolkhovetsky told me. “What’s the point? Let’s have one which is different.” They decided to re-create Kraina FM as the “station of national resistance.”
At the moment, Kraina FM is broadcasting to some twenty cities and online. During the first week, the programming was almost exclusively news about the Russian advance. By the second week, the station had morphed into something profoundly different, coördinating humanitarian logistics and explaining which towns needed what. And a lighter side also crept into the programming. “In the first week, we didn’t think about something funny,” Davydov said. “And now it’s humor about Russians—aggressive humor—poetry, patriotic poetry, some little features about Ukrainians.” They broadcast a famous Ukrainian Father Christmas telling children’s tales at night and a psychologist who gives advice for how to care for children during days marked by shelling and air strikes—talk to them kindly, show love, listen, and don’t contradict what the child says.
A network of around fifteen people, in Ukraine, Poland, and Russia, helps them put out Kraina FM’s programs remotely. They use Ukrainian news agencies and the app Telegram to source and put together bulletins. The Internet connection is awful, and they’re often unable to upload stories and recordings. Usually, Kraina FM’s programming reaches about a million people, but these days they have no idea how many people are listening. The person who would normally monitor that is likely still in Kyiv, presumably with more urgent matters to contemplate. Perhaps the real measure of the station’s popularity has been its drives to locate supplies for the Ukrainian military, first responders, and other humanitarian groups. One day a television producer in Kyiv told them that the military needed a hundred laptops. Davydov and Bolkhovetsky announced the request on air. “We made the announcement, like, every fifteen minutes or twenty minutes,” Bolkhovetsky said. About two hours later, the military called back; they had enough laptops. Nevertheless, laptops continued to flood in. When I asked why they continued to produce the show, Bolkhovetsky pointed to this experience. “What other reason do you need in this moment?”
The ski village is something of a transit hub for people fleeing across the border. “People come, people go,” Bolkhovetsky told me. “That’s how it works here.” At a certain point, the time came for their own families to leave—their wives and children had been anxiously spending their days in the resort’s hotel rooms while Bolkhovetsky and Davydov got the station running. Both families fled to other parts of Europe. “It’s better to be by ourselves,” Bolkhovetsky told me. “They will take care of themselves and we’ll take care of business and ourselves.” Still, saying goodbye, he said, was “terrible, like never before. It’s not compared to anything in my life, to anything.”
Under Ukraine’s current martial law, military reservists between the age of eighteen and sixty have to register to be conscripted into the Army, and all other men in that age group are not supposed to leave the country. Even if Bolkhovetsky and Davydov wanted to leave, they would not be able to. I asked Bolkhovetsky and Davydov whether, if called up, they would fight against the Russians. On one of their first days in the village, Bolkhovetsky told me, “We went to the local military station and we said, ‘We are here. What do you want us to do?’ ”
“What can you do?” the local soldiers asked them.
“We can do radio,” Bolkhovetsky replied.
On hearing this, the unit chief looked at him. “So go and make radio,” he said.
© The New Yorker March 18, 2022
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