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How a journalist and an aspiring writer in Ukraine grew while working on a news site


Watching the war in Ukraine play out in real time over social media, there's been this odd closeness with strangers an ocean away. You can order a drawing from a tattoo artist in Kyiv or follow the Instagram feed of a soldier on the front. You can help a refugee find housing or a job, almost like we're all long-distance neighbors. Well, this next story is about the bond between two people - a local journalist in small town New York and an aspiring writer in Eastern Ukraine. They discovered they had a lot more to learn from each other than either expected. Gregory Warner from NPR's podcast Rough Translation has the story.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Looking back, it is surprising that Emily Sachar and Pavel Kuljuk ever got past hello. Emily runs a hyper-local news site in the New York Hudson Valley, the Red Hook Daily Catch. She was looking for an editor to help with things like updates to the school board, spotlights of local farmers, when in came this application from Kramatorsk in Eastern Ukraine. Pavel was not exactly a shoo-in for the job. He'd never been to the Hudson Valley or to the U.S., did not speak English very well, and he'd never worked as an editor. But Emily was struck by a story that Pavel proposed for the news site.

EMILY SACHAR: He had gone through the Red Hook town board database. I don't even know where he found this. And he proposed a story with data on how revenue from dog permit licenses was down.

WARNER: Emily was intrigued.

SACHAR: I sent him a note, and I said, thank you for the idea. I don't think dog permits are of great interest to me right now, but tell me more about your database skills.

WARNER: Emily was actually working on a data story at the time about the 20 largest landlords in Red Hook, and the data had her stumped. So she asked Pavel to take a look.

SACHAR: In less than 3 hours, he had the entire thing figured out. He was filling in these really important holes in the data.

WARNER: Emily paid him for his work and was excited to look for more data stories to work on with Pavel in Ukraine. And then Russia invaded. And Emily reached out to see how he was doing. She asked him questions.

SACHAR: Where exactly are you? Who are you with? What sounds do you hear?

WARNER: Pavel would answer in Russian, his mother tongue. Then he would run it through Google Translate and email it back. We hired a voice actor to represent Pavel in English.

PAVEL KULJUK: Now the city is quiet, but silence is the most terrible sound in the war.

SACHAR: Just read it to myself, I read it out loud to my husband. I called a few people. And I said, am I imagining things or is this really gripping?

WARNER: So Emilie asked Pavel to write some dispatches from the war.

KULJUK: One of the owners of the house next to us is painting his fence in red, and our neighbors are preparing grapes for spring. For all of us, it is time for a garden. We don't want war at all.

WARNER: Pavel had done journalism for years for outlets in Ukraine and Russia and Kazakhstan and Belarus, but his writings for the Daily Catch were more personal about his life, his garden, his wife, Sveta.

SACHAR: He talks to the readers. He answers their questions.

KULJUK: Most of all, I like answering their questions about my garden. One offered to buy me a hose and ship it to Ukraine. I declined, and I still used a watering can, but it was very touching.

WARNER: But as the Russian army approached closer to Pavel's city, Kramatorsk, Emily realized there were also limits to what Pavel was willing to write about.

SACHAR: An example is, I'll say, why don't you take a walk down the road and just talk to people about how they're feeling? And he says - he'll say, everybody's fine. Everybody feels fine. Where just the day before, there was a Russian air strike 5 minutes from his house.

WARNER: And Emily was torn. She wanted to challenge Pavel, get him to report more.

SACHAR: As a journalist, I felt I had to push.

WARNER: But at the same time, he told her stories about his own childhood that seemed to explain his fear of the face to face.

SACHAR: I had to really make sure I was comfortable with the limitations that he placed on his own storytelling.

WARNER: Pavel had told Emily that when he was a kid, his father attacked his mother with a knife and stabbed her multiple times. And Pavel witnessed the whole thing. His mother lived, but his dad went to prison and Pavel grew up without him.

KULJUK: What happened put up a wall, separated me from others. I stopped trusting anyone. And this distrust created loneliness.

WARNER: After his family fell apart, so did his country. The Soviet Union collapsed at the end of 1991, when Pavel was a teenager. He supported himself by buying cigarettes in bulk and reselling them. He could not afford to finish college.

KULJUK: Also, I want to be my best because, as a child, no one told me what a good and smart boy you are. So now I try to prove that I am.

WARNER: And all these experiences shaped Pavel in ways that he is still processing. He describes himself as a person with a limited range of emotions. He doesn't like crowds or big cities. Still, with Emily's prodding, Pavel started looking for other ways he could report on the war without having to interview anyone.

SACHAR: One day, he said, I have an idea. Tomorrow, I'm going to go out and look at all the different kinds of ways that people are boarding their windows. We did a photo gallery called The Windows of War.

KULJUK: The most versatile and convenient way to protect the window from a blast wave is with an ordinary piece of carpet.

SACHAR: This is a window that's safest.

KULJUK: This also works to black out the light.

SACHAR: Most cost-effective.

KULJUK: A more economical way to protect windows is with solid wooden boards.

SACHAR: This is a window that's religious.

KULJUK: The most amazing way to protect windows is with icons and photographs of ancestors. This person thinks that if the image of God is facing the street, then the blast wave will not destroy the window.

WARNER: As spring turned to summer and the war continued, Pavel kept writing dispatches, and readers in Red Hook kept wanting more.

KULJUK: I would never have thought that my everyday life could be of interest to anyone. I'm not some kind of pop star, politician or a big businessman.

WARNER: All this interest from outsiders in Pavel's own life started to give him the courage to get interested in the lives of his own neighbors, the ones who hadn't fled. For the first time in his life, he sat down and did a whole interview with someone. He says it was one of the scariest and most rewarding things he's ever made himself do.

KULJUK: I didn't expect that I would grow working for the Daily Catch, didn't think I would. But it has been a challenge for me, a challenge that's made me grow.

WARNER: Emily says she realized how much Pavel had changed her when she was talking one day to a local farmer in Red Hook.

SACHAR: And I thought, I don't know as much about your life as I know about Pavel's life.

WARNER: And so she started asking this farmer a lot more personal questions, a curiosity sparked, she says, by her conversations with someone very, very far away.

KELLY: Gregory Warner is the host of our podcast, Rough Translation, where you can hear more reporting on Ukraine and stories from around the world. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Gregory Warner is the host of NPR's Rough Translation, a podcast about how things we're talking about in the United States are being talked about in some other part of the world. Whether interviewing a Ukrainian debunker of Russian fake news, a Japanese apology broker navigating different cultural meanings of the word "sorry," or a German dating coach helping a Syrian refugee find love, Warner's storytelling approach takes us out of our echo chambers and leads us to question the way we talk about the world. Rough Translation has received the Lowell Thomas Award from the Overseas Press Club and a Scripps Howard Award.