Eleanor Beardsley & Igor Kossov: The road out of Ukraine

February 28, 2022

CJR · Eleanor Beardsley & Igor Kossov: The road out of Ukraine


In the five days since Russia declared war on Ukraine, invading troops have drawn ever closer and their attacks have grown more deadly. Domestic and foreign reporters on the ground are struggling to determine how much danger is too much, and where they can most effectively cover the conflict.

On this week’s Kicker, NPR’s Eleanor Beardsley and Igor Kossov, a journalist at the Kyiv Independent, speak with Kyle Pope, editor and publisher of CJR. The two journalists, both attempting to leave the country as they speak, discuss the war they witnessed and their decision to leave. 



The Ukraine invasion, and breaking our worst habits, Kyle Pope, CJR

Fighting breaks out after Russian troops enter Ukraine’s second-largest city, Eleanor Beardsley, All Things Considered

Sanctions likely to seriously hurt Russia. But they may not stop the war, Igor Kossov, the Kyiv Independent




Eleanor Beardsley: Can you hear me? 


Kyle Pope: Yes, go ahead. 


Eleanor Beardsley: OK, I’m heading out today.


Kyle Pope: You’re in a car with an NPR colleague? 


Eleanor Beardsley: Yes, they’re trying to get us out through Hungary, so we’re driving through the Carpathian Mountains. We’re catching a bus to the Hungarian border. We’re going to walk across and catch another bus to Budapest, and hopefully I’ll have my flight to Paris tomorrow. 


Kyle Pope: How far is the walk? 


Eleanor Beardsley: We just have to walk over the border, I don’t think it’s too far. Well, I don’t know actually, there could be tons of people at the border crossing. We’re just trying to catch our bus to get there, and then we’ll find out. It’s supposed to be less crowded than Poland. 


Kyle Pope: And where were you before this? 


Eleanor Beardsley: OK, before this I flew to Kyiv on Friday the 18th, and I spent a couple of days in Kyiv. Then I went east to the Donbas, and I went right up against the separatist Republic, some small towns like 10 miles from the front line. I ended up not going in the trenches or anything like that, but I was over in the east and then drove out of there and went to Kharkiv that one night, and that’s when the invasion started, the next morning. We spent one night in Kharkiv and my husband called me at 3:30 in the morning from Paris and said “where are you because CNN is reporting that Putin is going to invade Kharkiv.” And I said, “Oh, I’m in Kharkiv.” It’s kind of a horrible feeling. 

And then I spent the entire day. As soon as Putin declared war, I heard the explosions and it was just chilling, because we knew that it was starting. So we decided to get out instead of, you know, hunker down. We didn’t think they’d start shelling, so we thought let’s just get out of here. We left at 5:30 in the morning. 


Kyle Pope: How was the reporting before you left? How did you find the mood of the people? How did you go about doing your job? 


Eleanor Beardsley: Oh, well, I was in this village, Slovyansk. It was a village that was basically occupied by the separatists. They spent only like three months under separatist occupation, but it’s horrible. Like the journalists felt threatened. It was just a terrible time and many things were destroyed, people’s houses. The Ukrainian army took it back, and everybody was very glad. 

They were close, they were in Donetsk Oblast, so they were close. They never want to live under that, and I’m going to do a story about that. That was my next big feature, but the invasion came the next morning. I spent the whole day there and then drove out and the invasion came. I reached some of the people a couple days later, and they hadn’t been invaded yet, but now I haven’t been able to reach them, and I fear that they’re…I mean, the Republic is going to enlarge, try to take all of the Donbas. and the attack is on for Kharkiv and Kyiv, and then up from the south. 

*We watched the country completely change. everything changed. It changes every day. The first day of the state of shock, people in an absolute state of shock. We went out on the highways at 5:30 in the morning and there was nobody out. Then they started getting crowded. People just with a stunned look on their face. 

Then the next day it was anger. We rode by little towns, and there were hundreds of men out ready to enlist in the army, in the territorial defense. Fathers and sons together and you could see an anger. 

And then next day they’re mobilizing, and there’s roadblocks put up everywhere,. On highways, going into little towns, and neighborhoods. People had brought out guns, just protecting, looking for Russian saboteurs. I mean, the roads and many checkpoints at night, you have to turn the lights on, and the satellite thing, and look at you. They want to know who you are and the whole nation is really vigil. I mean, they’re preparing. 

And as they watch these two cities, the onslaught on the two biggest cities, the rest of the country knows that they could be next, and people are getting ready. We went to a little town, and when we arrived there’s an air raid, sirens going off, and people were just calmly filing down under us. Please go into this bunker under there they had benches set up, food and water, and they had little beds for all the kids. They were big enough so adults could fit on them too. People were lying there. Some people brought their dogs down. Other people had cats in cages. 

It’s like they’ve been doing it forever and they’ve only been doing it two days, a couple days ago. And so it’s a completely different country and things are shut down. Things are closed mostly.


Kyle Pope: How are people eating, are the grocery stores open?


Eleanor Beardsley: Yeah, the grocery stores are still open, though in that little town we went to, the family said that they had gone that day, and there were no provisions. The clerk said that the trucks had been shot at at the border. Not the border, the boundary, the town limits. 

There’s a lot of fear. Nobody knows what’s going on, and stores are open and there’s food and water. There’s huge lines at the gas station. That’s a big thing, and they’ve only been letting people get five gallons at a time. That’s a big deal if you don’t have your car gassed up. We had to wait a long time for gas, many times. 


Kyle Pope: So Eleanor, let me ask you about the call from your husband. So he called at 3:30 in the morning when this happened. You talked to him. I know that you have kids at home. How much did you debate this in your head? I assume you’d already been thinking about this, do I stay or do I go? But tell me about the thought process there. 


Eleanor Beardsley: It was really scary, I was actually really scared. I wasn’t like, my life was going to end, but I really thought, My God, I am in the far east of Ukraine, 25 miles from Russia, in this teeny town. 

And of course, you know, the time we talked, I didn’t believe any of this. That it could be this. I couldn’t fathom it. I mean, it was wrong. I was one hundred percent wrong. But many other people, Ukrainians are in a state of shock. It’s like we’re having World War II in 2022. It’s unfathomable. 

I just received a video of Kharkiv being shelled from a friend of mine. It’s her apartment building she can see in the background. She now lives in California, but her father is in there and he’s 80 years old, and the people who filmed it, they’re talking, and you can see shells are raining down on a residential housing block. 

So yes, at that moment, our security guys said we need to go to the basement. My husband said “Do you have a French passport? I can never remember.” I’m like, “No, I don’t have a French passport,” I need to get one. He said, “You shouldn’t be stuck there with your American passport, you know?” And I just thought, Oh my God, I don’t want to be here when the Russian soldiers arrive, is all I could think. 

You don’t know what to do. When he called me, it was dark, and I called our security guy next door, and we decided to go on the road in a car, the three of us alone on the dark roads. And that didn’t seem safe, so we decided to wait till daylight and then decide, and we decided to go. And I’m so glad we did, because after that it sounds like the roads were blocked, and you can’t get back. 

But millions of Ukrainian people are making that same decision. Some are hunkering down and some are leaving. And I thought so much about World War II, about the Jewish people. Maybe they didn’t believe it either. 


Kyle Pope: I talked to a journalist from the Kiev Independent who was exactly where you are. He was in a car leaving the town. He’s in a different situation, he lives in Ukraine, he’s a young guy. But he was like, I’m leaving but I don’t know if it’s the right thing to do. Should I turn around and go back? I don’t know what to do. 

You know, I am reminded of our last conversation and we talked about this, and you had the view that I had, that a lot of people had, like this can never happen. This is absurd. Do you still, even having seen what you’ve seen and experienced these last few days, do you still have a hard time wrapping your head around it? 


Eleanor Beardsley: Yes, I do. And I think Putin has really lost, he’s unhinged or something, he does not understand Ukraine today. They’ve been in a bubble with phone or internet or something. 

The first day I was like, Is this a dream? I cannot believe this is happening. Then when you look at the footage, these soldiers are rolling into a country that’s done nothing and they are attacking it. And I still can’t imagine how they’re going to occupy it. They’re going to be attacked from now until kingdom come. They will not have one moment’s peace here. And but it’s going to be long and it’s going to be horrible, and no, I still can’t believe it, and neither can the Ukrainians. 

And I will tell you one thing, I will never doubt US intelligence again, it’s unbelievable. I mean, they got it exactly right. These crazy predictions about a full-scale assault on these major cities, which seems so absurd when you hear. It’s just a normal place, you’ve got a beautiful, nice city. It does seem unreal, and then when you see the footage of what’s happening. I mean, I think Putin’s a madman, a Hitler type character who lives in this world of fantasy and who nobody can reach, maybe. No one can tell him the truth. It seems like that. And a person like that can do anything, so it’s very dangerous. 


Kyle Pope: Are you feeling a sense of relief for your personal safety, or are you still worried about the journey that you have ahead of you? 


Eleanor Beardsley: No, I’m not worried for my personal safety. I think I was a couple of times, like trying to get out that first morning in Kharkiv. I felt very alone at 3:30 in the morning in the dark, straining my ears just to see if I could hear these attacks. I still couldn’t believe it, why is everybody fighting? And it was scary. You know, air raid sirens, and you don’t know, is that plane is going to fly overhead and strike us? 

But I haven’t really been scared, just that first morning. If I was going back, if I was in Kyiv, I’d be terrified, yes. Terrified of being shelled and terrified of what the Russian troops would do when they found an American journalist. It’s not only like young Russians. It’s Chechens, and mercenaries, and the Wagner Group. Really scary people. 


Kyle Pope: Well, it’s great to connect with you. Good luck on this. Hopefully, this last couple of legs here, and I’ll be thinking of you and looking forward to talking to you next time from your apartment in Paris. 


Eleanor Beardsley: Okay, and the next time I hope not to get it so wrong. And never doubt US intel. They’re good. 


Kyle Pope: All right, Eleanor, be safe. Take care, good to talk to you. 


Eleanor Beardsley: Thank you. Good to talk to you too. Bye bye. 


Amanda Darrach is a contributor to CJR and a visiting scholar at the University of St Andrews School of International Relations. Follow her on Twitter @thedarrach.