Center of the Storm

Located in Independence Square, the monument to the founders of Kyiv is covered in protester flags. Photo: Demotix.com.

Located in Independence Square, the monument to the founders of Kyiv is covered in protester flags. Photo: Demotix.com.

Telling Ukraine’s story in its own words.

By Steven Boyd Saum

The first Saturday in March, Natalia Popovych, ’03 MS Mass Communications, spent the day on the phone. The head of PRP Group in Ukraine, a leading public relations firm, she was calling contacts about collaborating on an urgent new venture. It would take incredible time and energy. Work would be on a volunteer basis. Why do it? To take a stand on the front lines of democracy. And perhaps save their country from being broken apart.Just a week before, months of peaceful and then violent protest in Ukraine had come to a bloody climax, with snipers killing people in the streets of Kyiv. The disgraced president, Victor Yanukovych, fled for Russia. The Ukrainian parliament named leaders for an interim government. The political maelstrom that had rocked the country seemed mercifully finished.
Through SJSU, “I became the first person in Ukraine to have any sort of formal education in public relations.”
Instead, in Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, pro-Russian gunmen began seizing government buildings, and unidentified combat troops appeared outside airports. In Russia, the Ukrainian revolution was denounced as a fascist coup; the Russian parliament authorized President Vladimir Putin to use force to intervene. But even before that, there was a “huge uptick in Russian propaganda,” as Popovych puts it. Meanwhile, the fledgling Ukrainian government had no press office for day-to-day updates, let alone for telling a bigger story: Here’s who we are, what we stand for, what we try to fix now—after two decades of corruption.One of the people Popovych called was consultant and longtime friend Yaryna Klychovska, ’00 MS—who notes that through SJSU, “I became the first person in Ukraine to have any sort of formal education in public relations.” With about 30 communication pros, they set to work—since getting a functioning communications apparatus couldn’t wait until after elections in May. It couldn’t wait a week. That Wednesday, in a room of the Hotel Ukraina in downtown Kyiv, they launched the Ukraine Crisis Media Center.The center provided a platform for new government ministers, leaders of Ukrainian civil society, diplomats, and representatives of international NGOs to offer press briefings—often six a day—with simultaneous translations available for international journalists. A live feed appeared on CNN. The center began regular web and social media postings of media analysis, infographics, and press releases in English, German, French—as well as Ukrainian and Russian.

Stand up

In what began as a “revolution of dignity,” as Popovych calls it, Ukrainian students took to the streets on Nov. 21, 2013, to protest the fact that the country’s president refused to sign a European Union accession agreement; the students wanted to be part of a wider Europe, to travel and study. When police beat them and drove them from Independence Square in Kyiv, tens of thousands of fellow citizens came out in solidarity to the square, which they’d rechristened Euromaidan.

“It was very liberating and inspiring to stand up for freedom and dignity, and stand up for basic European values,” Popovych says. Stand up meant being there physically—or helping produce newsletters, leaflets, fundraising, and getting the word out on social media.
“It was very liberating and inspiring to stand up for freedom and dignity, and stand up for basic European values.”
Popovych’s husband is Ihor Perehinets, ’03 MPH, a public health expert who has served as deputy director of the World Health Organization in Ukraine since 2008. He saw that it was crucial to help colleagues at the UN and other international organizations understand what was really going on at the square. “Many international operators in Ukraine didn’t believe something bigger was happening,” he says. He also made it clear to aid groups that, as protests continued, humanitarian assistance would be necessary.

The fighting that’s wracked eastern Ukraine since spring has made international medical aid on a broader scale critical. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have become internally displaced persons because of the fighting. Then there’s the dilemma of reconstructing and providing public health services at a time when the economically crippled Ukrainian government has no way to pay for essential medicines—for diabetes, hemophilia, and HIV, for example. Military combat make tetanus vaccines especially crucial; 300,000 doses were delivered by the WHO in October.

Out of the sky

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Photo: Demotix.com

“Hybrid war” is a term that’s been used to describe the clashes in Ukraine’s east. Thousands have been killed, including Russian troops—though Russia’s government continues to deny involvement. Through mid-summer, the outside world seemed to view the conflict as horrible, but ultimately not one that directly touched lives beyond Ukraine.

That changed on July 17, when Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, a Boeing 777 with 298 people on board, was blown out of the sky. Evidence pointed to a BUK surface-to-air missile fired from territory held by pro-Russian separatists. As the details of the tragedy emerged, the Ukraine Crisis Media Center provided the forum through which the story could be told. “We had the facts,” Klyuchoska says. On the Russian side, various conspiracy theories were floated—including that it was the Ukrainian military trying to shoot down Russian President Vladimir Putin’s plane. “Russia took some time to figure out how they were going to deal with it,” Klyuchovska says.

That tragedy galvanized global opinion as to who the villains were. But it didn’t bring an end to fighting on the ground—let alone the information war. In late summer, Ukrainian military advances against separatists were rolled back when Russian troops and armor joined the fray in greater force, though denial of their involvement persists. A ceasefire went into effect at the beginning of September, but the exchange of artillery between Ukrainian and Russian-backed separatists continued; hundreds more have been killed since the truce was declared.

It’s a particularly dark time for Ukraine—a country where the layers of history are heartbreakingly heavy. There the horrors of World War II were preceded, under Stalin, by a man-made famine in the 1930s, in which an estimated 3 million or more Ukrainians died.

“Our grandparents were exposed to war and then we had three generations who lived in peace,” Klyuchovska says. “Not anymore.”

Know-how and principles

Yet Popovych, Perehinets, and Klyuchovska all share optimism in the face of the country’s recent hardship. “Call me an idealist,” Klyuchovska says. “But if you don’t have that hope, do we have anything to fight for anymore?”

It was a hope for something better for Ukraine that brought the three to San José State University through the Edmund S. Muskie Graduate Fellowship Program more than a decade ago. The Muskie program aims to bring emerging leaders in select fields from the former USSR to the United States for graduate study; one of the members of the selection committee at the time was Professor Emeritus Dennis Wilcox, past director of the SJSU School of Journalism and Mass Communications. Serving the State Department on the committee, he looked for candidates serious about making a difference and building democracy. When he interviewed Popovych, he says, “Immediately I spotted her as brilliant … She can quickly figure things out strategically.”

At SJSU, Klyuchovska and Popovych both worked with Wilcox to strengthen their chops professionally and to solidify “the values that we adhere to in our work up until today,” Popovych says. Klyuchovska explains that journalists “distorting facts, making up stories—it’s very commonplace in our part of the world, unfortunately.”

Wilcox in turn credits Helen Stevens, who directed SJSU’s international programs, for ensuring that the students settled into Silicon Valley to make the most of their experience. Popovych and Perehinets brought a special, delightful challenge: their first daughter was just a few months old when they arrived. In the master’s in public health program, Perehinets studied under program director Kathleen Roe, who also has chaired the health sciences department. “Dr. Wilcox and Dr. Roe taught not only technical skills, but leadership, ability, motivation—things you cannot learn studying books,” Perehinets says.

The global fabric

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Photo: Demotix.com

Klyuchovska is only half joking when she says, “I really want Ukraine to become boring again.” She grew up in L’viv, in western Ukraine, part of a dissident family. She remembers, under communism, the surreptitious Christmas dinners at home, singing Ukrainian carols—but quietly, so neighbors wouldn’t hear. After Ukraine’s independence, she completed university studies in literature and assisted at a Canadian public relations firm. Since studying at SJSU, she’s handled communications for companies that include Microsoft and Coca-Cola in Ukraine.

Klyuchovska has a 13-year-old son and now works as a communications consultant. When she says she wants a boring country, in fact she wants to tell stories about Ukraine’s entrepreneurship and IT savvy—like those about WhatsApp creator Jan Koum, who was born in Ukraine. But, according to Forbes, Koum left the “troubling political and anti-Semitic environment” in Ukraine for California (and studied at San José State) before creating his company.

“We need people to understand that global history is happening right now in Ukraine.”
One of the lessons Klyuchovska learned at SJSU was, “You’re part of the global fabric.” Likewise, the values of the revolution aren’t provincial aspirations of a people in some faraway place. “It’s much more than just a local Ukrainian story.”

Popovych and Perehinets are also originally from L’viv. Undergraduate studies brought Popovych to Kyiv in the 1990s, before she came to San José State to deepen her academic knowledge of journalism and mass communications. After returning to Kyiv, she headed up PRP Ukraine, then directed all PRP Group operations in the Russian Federation and Azerbaijan. The company is affiliated with Weber Shandwick, a global communications firm with offices in 81 countries. That international sensibility is reflected in the work Popovych has done with the Ukraine Crisis Media Center, which she continues to direct—now with a paid staff, thanks to support from international donors. This fall, the center began making translations of materials available in Chinese.

“My generation still remembers the joy of Ukraine becoming independent after the horror of the Soviet Union,” she says. “We thought that our kids would never have that appreciation of freedom and independence … They were already born in a country that was free.”

Popovych and Perehinets have three children. During the protests, their eldest would go to the Maidan to serve tea to people camped out in the cold. Their youngest is 18 months old. “It seems everything is always happening in the same time,” Popovych says, and she laughs.

Perehinets earned his M.D. in L’viv before beginning work in in Kyiv at an oncological hospital. The situation in the late 1990s in medicine was “quite depressing,” he acknowledges; he wanted to make a broader impact through work in public health. His studies taught him the value of helping people develop professionally and collaborating as a group—with the awareness that not everything can or should depend on one person alone.

He sounds very much the doctor when he says, “We are very fragile as a country.” The public health official’s emphasis on teamwork is echoed when he says, “We need people to understand that global history is happening right now in Ukraine.”

Steven Boyd Saum edits Santa Clara Magazine. He’s taught and directed the Fulbright program in Ukraine. His writing has appeared in Salon, Creative Nonfiction and elsewhere.

 

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1 Response

  1. Phillip Ammar says:

    Great article. I doubt many Americans put a lot of faith into what Vladimir Putin say’s. Our political history with Russia has never been very good, and it’s only gotten worse since they’ve invaded Ukraine. I’m not sure how committed the rest of Europe is in supporting Ukraine, but I believe the USA is sincere and will be reliable for as long as it takes.

    Merry Christmas and a peaceful New Year!

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