'They've Had to Leave Behind Things That I Didn't': Talking to Jack Crosbie About Leaving Ukraine
'I'm going home, and they're going away from home.'
As many of you will know, our own Jack Crosbie has been in Ukraine for the last few weeks, covering Russia’s invasion and subsequent indiscriminate assault on the country. Crosbie’s dispatches—a couple for us and then a series of pieces for Rolling Stone—have focused squarely on the ordinary civilians caught in the middle of a bloody power struggle they did not seek and do not want. His work has been a welcome contrast to the chest-thumping banality (and retrograde politics) that has characterized so many of the responses to this conflict.
But now, Cros is leaving Ukraine and coming back to New York. On Saturday, I caught up with him as he waited in the city of Lviv, close to the Polish-Ukrainian border, along with thousands of Ukrainians trying to get to safety. We talked about his journey to the border, what covering the war has been like for him, and how it feels to be going home.
Update, March 7: Cros is now across the border and out of Ukraine.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Jack Crosbie: I’m here.
I can’t believe it.
Yeah, yeah. It was a little interesting a couple of times, but we're here. We're doing fine. I'm in Lviv right now, which is the far western city everyone's evacuated to. So I'm completely safe. There's no war here at all really.
That’s good to hear! I'm just glad that you’re getting out.
Yeah, I mean, I feel kind of bad, because there's still, you know, a lot of stuff happening. And there's still a lot to cover. I think the problem right now is that access to a lot of places is getting really hard. It's just really hard to drive and travel around. Like, we somehow got extremely lucky today. We made a what, in normal peacetime, is like a six-hour drive in like nine [hours], I think, but I've heard of other people that have tried to go from Kyiv to Lviv and it's taken them literally two days straight on the road. There's other legs of the drive that we did today that some people have said have taken like 18 hours in the past. It's crazy. So there's a lot more that I want to do, but I don't think there's a whole lot else I can do right now really.
How many people are making the same journey as you? Or are you on a less populated route?
Google Maps was on one today and it took us through some crazy route that somehow avoided a ton of the traffic. Yesterday we went [on] what should have been a three-hour drive probably, and we were on the road for like 10 hours or something. And the day before that it was the same thing—we drove for, I think, 12 or 13 hours for only 300 miles or something like that. So yeah, there's a ton of cars and a ton of traffic. There's checkpoints everywhere, so that just hugely holds up traffic in a lot of places, especially if you get a particularly exuberant one where they're searching a lot of cars and they blocked off a lot of the road.
These are Ukrainian troops who are doing these checkpoints?
Well, it kind of depends on where you are. Sometimes [it's] Ukrainian troops, sometimes local police, sometimes it's [a] civilian militia. Or sometimes it's a mix of all three. In the East it's all Ukrainian troops because that's the actual war zone. As you go further west, it can be just, like, random dudes around a burning trash can with two shotguns and like a pitchfork. And they're just stopping people and being like, “are you a Russian spy?” And we're like, “no.” And then they ask, “do you have any weapons in the car?” My reporting partner out here keeps making the joke that “no, we don't have any weapons, only javelins,” and no one gets it, but yesterday one guy laughed at it and he was really happy about that.
I'm like, is that exactly the moment to be trying out your one-liners? But I'm not there.
You gotta keep it light with the guys. You just kind of try and assess, like, how drunk and how rowdy they're being exactly. Honestly, we got super lucky getting here. The security readout that we got before was like, “the first drive is like eight hours, checkpoints not too bad. [The] second drive [is] 18 hours and the checkpoints are crazy.” So we were expecting the drive today to be really gnarly. And for some reason, it just wasn't. I don't know if we took a different route or if the Ukrainian military got to those checkpoints and was like, guys, calm down. [A TV network crew] who did basically the same route maybe three or four days before us got completely worked over by a bunch of dudes. But the big TV network crews roll around in giant vans and Suburbans. They have all these ex-military [people] sitting in them. We were just, like, two English-looking dudes in a rented VW Golf, so we didn't get too much hassle.
I kind of want you to be running around with the human tanks or whatever that the networks get, but it might actually be safer doing what you're doing. Less conspicuous at any rate.
Yeah, I go back and forth because the security guys are very cautious.
What would you say your risk appetite has been during this period?
On this trip, very low. And I tried to keep it very low. My partner really wanted to go down to Odessa, but the roads were just so bad on the first day and [it] would have been another, like, full day to get down there. It's super exposed down on the south coast, and the only point of going there was [we were] pretty sure the Russians [were] going to attack it any day. And that seemed like a bad scene. So I nixed that. And we just came back here because I want to go home.
I feel like everyone has been pretty stunned by the ferocity that has unfolded. Certainly from outside the country, everyone's jaws are just on the floor about how this has gone. Have you felt that from inside the country, that this went places that you were not anticipating?
Yeah, 100 percent. Everyone has. Every single person I've talked to, you know—and I don't even ask the question anymore, because after the first three interviews [asking] “did you expect this to happen?” everyone's like, no, fuck no, of course we didn't. Russia has been saber-rattling and doing military buildups on Ukraine's borders half a dozen times at this point. They did one earlier this year and then backed off. And they also invaded the country eight years ago and have been consistently at war with it, albeit through proxies, but, you know, for eight years, so I think everyone in the country was just like, of course it's not gonna happen.
“I think that the focus always has to be on civilians, because they're the people that are, in general, most affected by war. They don't choose it. When you sign up to be in the military, you're accepting violence as a part of your life. Whereas if you're a civilian, that violence in war is foisted upon you, it is not consensual in any way.”
I remember at the very beginning when you were in Kyiv, you kept saying, “it's extremely calm here.”
Yeah. Even in Kharkiv. I think people were nervous, for sure. But I don't think anyone—I don't know. It's hard to view between what I've talked to people about and my own experience. I was nervous about it. When I came here was probably my most skeptical that anything was going to happen. Because at first when the buildup happened, I was like, “Oh, he's gonna invade Ukraine.” And then the CIA and the media was so crazy about it, I was like, “maybe they're calling this wrong. I don't think he'll actually do it.” The best point was [one that] Sam Sacks made early on when I was talking to him, [which] is there's no logical realist geopolitical reason for Putin to do this. It is immensely disastrous both for him and his economy and his country and his military as well as Ukraine. There's zero good reasons for this. All wars are stupid and senseless, but this is the most stupid and the most senseless one that we've seen since Iraq, definitely. And probably even since before that. I don't even fucking know. It's absurd.
The consequences have been so clearly horrible for Russia. And they always were going to be so horrible for Russia. It doesn't make any sort of objective sense that you would plunge yourself into something this recklessly.
[Putin] is not reacting to external pressures in a logical, rational manner anymore. This is a megalomaniac's need to exert power over a part of the world that he feels he controls. That's not to completely take the blame away from all the other parties. We can debate NATO expansion and how destructive that was until we're blue in the face, and I think there's really good points to be made there. But there were so many other exit routes beforehand that both countries could have taken and certainly Russia could have taken to avoid ending up where we are. And there was at least one actor in that conversation that was very stubbornly not taking any of those.
I haven't spent a huge amount of time thinking about the geopolitical reasons—
You’re doing other things.
It's sort of hard to think about that when you're very focused on the war on a micro-level. I'm sure people will come up with really smart and solid theories as to how everything played out many years from now but from the ground, it's inexplicable, and it's horrible, for everyone involved, Russians and Ukrainians alike. Obviously far more so for Ukrainians. Yes, the Russian economy is destroyed. Broad sanctions are absolutely aspects of war, and they're hugely damaging to the everyday people of Russia. But also, you know, the everyday people in Russia are not being cluster-bombed in their apartment complexes right now.
You're very understandably focused on what's actually been happening on the ground where you've been. I wanted to ask you about the kind of reporting you've been doing. I've really been struck by the precision of your focus on what's happening to everyday people in this situation. Has that been a conscious effort on your part?
Yeah, absolutely. You can kind of suss out what the right and wrong ways to report from a warzone are. I had some professors in j-school who were adamantly against the idea of military embeds whatsoever. They were like, you're getting a press tour by the people who are killing. That's not the perspective that you should be showing in war. I still don't know if I fully agree with that, but you need to keep that argument in your head when you're doing this stuff. I went in with that objective, the first time that I did war reporting on this conflict in 2015, in that I wanted to, in general, try to cover civilians more than I cover soldiers. Not because the perspectives of soldiers are not useful to covering the war, but I think that the focus always has to be on civilians, because they're the people that are, in general, most affected by war. They don't choose it. When you sign up to be in the military, you're accepting violence as a part of your life. Whereas if you're a civilian, that violence in war is foisted upon you, it is not consensual in any way.
So when I came out here this time, I knew that I really wanted to do that better on this trip, for a couple of reasons. One, because I am older and more mature, and I wanted to try to do a better job of the actual journalism of it this time. And two, because I didn't really want to do a lot of frontline stuff. Because as I said, my risk calculus was different this time, and I didn't want to get shot at as much, you know?
It's very seductive to—I call it “chasing bang bang.” It's especially bad for photographers, because to a certain extent, they actually do need that. You have to be close to the action at some point if you're going to get pictures that illustrate that a war is happening, and that can convince people looking at those pictures that a war is happening. But I wanted to pull myself back from doing that as much as possible, in this context, both because I wanted to limit my own risks and because that wasn't really the story that I wanted to tell. However, as a journalist, when shit is happening like that, that's where you want to go and what you want to do. If you're in a city where there is a front line, and it's there, and it's accessible, saying, “No, I don't want to go out and see the thing happening” is also sort of antithetical to being a journalist. So it's a battle that you wage every day, right?
“I'm traveling in the exact same path with them—we're both basically fleeing the country—but I'm going home, and they're going away from home.”
And it was one that was largely decided for me in this war, because the circumstances have just been so chaotic. Access to a lot of these things has been a huge amount of luck and chance as to, like, if things happen near you, [or] the accessibility of drivers and fixers and translators, which you absolutely need when doing frontline stuff.
I had another fixer that I used in this region, but everyone we knew was busy. And then the ones that weren't busy, because the war was so all-encompassing, they had to go back and take care of their families. Especially when we were in Kharkiv, basically everyone's fixer left, because most of these guys have families in various cities. So you don't have the freedom of movement and freedom of planning that you use to keep yourself safe.
So to bring it back around, I had an easier time covering civilians rather than soldiers in this war this time, because that's primarily who I was around. And that's also primarily how I was also experiencing the war. It's this struggle because you don't want to make the story about you. But I thought that it would be effective with the situations that I was in to use myself as a vehicle. I know I'm writing for a Western audience. I know I'm writing for an audience that I will be familiar to. And if I could explain how some of these things felt to me, and how people were explaining them to me, and how that was affecting me, that they could maybe connect more. So I think that's kind of what I was going for. I was trying to use my access to some of the same experiences as the people who were here to explain them for an audience that really has no concept of what these experiences were like.
You mentioned being in Kharkiv. Was there a moment where things flipped over into, “this has become extremely bad?” Or was it a sort of slow-motion experience?
It was much more of a slow burn, I think. I was talking to my reporting partner [about this] in the car today, and I think in Kharkiv especially, neither of us were super-scared directly for our lives at any time. Both of us have been under shelling before. Those sort of brain muscle memories come back to you. I can hear something going off in the distance and generally tell, that's got to be, like, at least a kilometer away, I think we're fine for now. You get used to that very, very quickly.
I think, for me, the stressor— and I can't say that this is what everyone in that city felt, but I think it's probably something that was common among a lot of people—a lot of the stress there was that we weren't sure how we were going to be able to leave. We just didn't know if we were going to have a way to leave the city if we needed to.
And the beginning of the war, I don't really know what it was like watching it from the U.S., but from the ground where we were, we had no idea [what was really happening]. I heard from people that Russian troops had fully encircled the city on the first day, which was very much not true—they still haven't fully encircled the city. A couple days later, they got troops all the way into the city center, and there was street fighting happening a few blocks away. And we're like, oh, is this it? Are they taking the whole city? And it turned out it was like four truckloads of guys, and they just got destroyed by the Ukrainians, and then it went back to normal. So you're just not sure what's happening, and what your options are. That uncertainty was very much the worst part of it for me—just feeling so out of control over the situation. The most comforting thing in a high-risk situation like that is feeling like you have some agency and control over your risk, which for basically the whole time we were in Kharkiv I did not feel like I had. That will very much affect, if I ever do this kind of work again, how I approach that.
This is how it is to be a journalist in any situation to a certain extent—you are experiencing it, but you're also apart from it in a certain way, and you in theory have a way out and back into your own life in a way that that the people you are covering don't. But in a war situation like this, that sort of contradiction is so heightened. How has it felt to be in that space?
Yeah, it's tough. We stayed last night in this converted school building that had been converted to be a refugee center, essentially. And so we were talking to a bunch of people who were like on the road like us. All the hotels are booked up everywhere and we couldn't get a hotel room either but then someone told us about this school, and they were like, yeah, sure, we'll take in two journalists, it's fine, we have enough beds. And all of these things are a shitty contradiction, because you're like, well, if I take a spot on one of these trains, that's leaving the city, I'm literally taking a refugee's spot. If I take a bed at this school, I'm literally taking a potential refugee's bed. But at that time, there were no other beds, we were all in the exact same situation.
The difference for me when I was talking to these people—it was really hard. I talked to a bunch of people that were almost exactly my age. It was an entire office of co-workers that had all fled together, all like 20 and 30-somethings. They run a digital design agency that was based out of Kharkiv and all their clients are in the US. So these were very much upwardly mobile young professionals. We were talking about our experiences getting out of the city, and how bad it was, [and] I was really conscious of how we had both been affected by the stress of feeling trapped in that city in very similar ways, but now that we were out of it, I'm traveling in the exact same path with them—we're both basically fleeing the country—but I'm going home, and they're going away from home. The journey only gets better for me. They were saying they're very much relieved to be outside of that danger, but they've had to leave behind things that I didn't.