When Democracy Shines

March 10, 2022

A dispatch from Lviv, Ukraine

On March 2, 2022, barely six days into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Anne made contact with Joe Lindsley, a traveller, writer, and old friend who once upon a time had generously tried to help her land a job in Prague, at Radio Free Europe. Now, many years and adventures in media later, Joe lives in Ukraine as the founder of the Lviv Lab, which describes itself as “a platform for renegade storytellers to share authentic stories in innovative ways with these foundational ideas: We must respect, rather than steal, attention—and we must be afraid of being fake more so than being wrong.”

Spared from direct attack thus far, the historic western city of Lviv has become an important transit point for men headed to the front lines, as well as a resting place for over two hundred thousand women and children seeking to cross into other European countries.

Here is that conversation, made brief by Russian interference with the wires and breathless by the surrounding drama.

Anne Snyder: Joe, so relieved to see you alive and well. How did you end up in Lviv?

Joe Lindsley: I’d been to Ukraine a few times since 2018. I thought Lviv was a very energetic, creative city. Then in March 2020 I flew from Stockholm to speak on media at a conference at the Ukrainian Catholic University. One of the great things about the Revolution of Dignity was how it awakened this flourishing of democracy at every level in this country. Part of what’s so sad right now is how it is precisely that which is Putin’s main target. But in any case, some innovative Lviv journalists I had met created this public forum where they bring together rival politicians and those affected by their decisions to solve one pressing problem at a time.

AS: Fascinating. The journalists are the conveners?

JL: Yes. In the newsroom they have a studio. The journalists moderate. It’s a little bit of the town hall, but it’s regulated. You have to be invited to speak. And they’re very strict. They can only look at one problem at a time, so there are no attacks or anything. It forces people to come together and find solutions, and it’s all livestreamed. And then the journalists hold everyone to account. “Okay, you said you were going to do this during the meeting.” And the next week they ask, “What have you done?” And they keep having meetings on that same topic until the problem is resolved to some satisfaction in the city.

AS: That’s an incredible role for media to play. It’s such an act of initiating in service of the classic democratic project.

JL: Yeah, it makes democracy work in Lviv. Those are the stories the world doesn’t know about Ukraine. It’s this incredible civil society, not in our Western sense of NGOs created to catch all the problems created by an erosion of more traditional mediating institutions, but of people naturally coming together. The media here is funded by entrepreneurs and creatives in the city. They make some money from advertising, but really the governance structure is basically a salon gathering, and then they support this independent media.

I was inspired by their example, and so I approached them to see how we might talk and work together. Then the borders closed for the pandemic, and I had a suspicion that it would be better to be here and freer in Ukraine than anywhere else. So I said to myself, “I’m going to stay here for a while.” It’s a place of free speech that has a real culture. It has a real soul.

But I didn’t necessarily have a plan; I just didn’t want to leave. And then, especially last November, when the warnings became very serious about impending Russian aggression, I again decided I had to stay. I said, “Okay, I’ve been trained for this, I have the connections to do this, and this is where I want to be right now.”

I’ve heard so much about Ukrainian civil society, and I’ve seen it, but ever since the war began, I’ve seen a drastic change. When Ukrainian people post about the war, they call the Russian invaders the orcs, like from Tolkien. And I have this sense that this is the Shire. There is hardly any crime; it’s peaceful. They don’t even have bad words in the Ukrainian language. They have to use English or Russian or Polish to swear. So you’re watching this very serene, nice people face a dire threat. But I’ve seen the magic of civil society, truly a magic unleashed since Friday, February 25. It’s really astounding how people are collaborating across all different industries to help each other, to survive and to win.

AS: You founded something called the Lviv Lab. Can you tell us what it is?

JL: When the pandemic started, a few master’s students, undergrad students, and I got together and created the Lviv Lab for the Activation of Democracy. At first we were reporting on what was happening in the pandemic. Then it turned into a way to make media better, to change the funding mechanism and get away from attention-stealing media and move toward value-giving media. Our goal was to test here in Lviv a way where you could get people to pay for media so that they are the customer and get real value to boot.

That was our plan before we got hit by the war. But now the Lviv Lab has shifted to a Telegram channel, Ukrainian Freedom News. And I have a growing volunteer team here of probably twenty-five or thirty people who listen to Ukrainian Telegram and find out the reality of what’s happening with the war. And we translate that into English.

Lviv, Ukraine
Lviv, Urkaine

AS: Can you give an example or two of the collaboration you’ve seen in the last week? Who or what is sustaining your hope right now?

JL: There’s an effort mobilizing to get goods from Europe and from America here into Ukraine. And everyone who’s got a van or a bus is volunteering and quickly connecting with each other in chat groups and saying, “Hey, I need someone who can drive tomorrow to do this,” or “I’ve got an old grandma in Odesa we need to evacuate.” This is the work of everyone right now in this country. There are a few cafés and such open, but really everyone is focused on how to survive this, how to win. How to help each other and not leave anyone behind. That’s what we’re seeing in every single conversation we have.

AS: Yes. And no doubt saying to one another, “Whatever I have, whatever skill, whatever asset, how can we create?” In some ways, this font of extraordinary creativity is all just happening at once.

JL: Well, yeah. For example, we started with a Telegram group with just two or three people, and days later we set up a studio and are now building it out after having found some people—friends of friends—I’d never met, and there’s a coordinated team that’s popped up, helping connect people logistically to whatever information they need. I see that happening everywhere here. Everyone, every single person here, is doing that right now.

AS: Could you reflect on your sense of national unity in Ukraine—patriotism in the best possible way—versus your own experience as an American?

JL: Most successful Americans I know feel disconnected and isolated from family and friends, because they’re too busy, everything’s too far away. That’s not a problem Ukrainians have. Every holiday here is at least three days. The rituals that bring you together are still strong. At Christmastime you sit around the table and you eat the ritual food and sing the same songs over and over. And every song is very long and repeats the same phrases. On Christmas Day it’s normal to go to four in the morning. You go to three or four different houses and sing these same songs and eat the same food. There’s very little time for conversation in those moments, so there are no arguments. At first as an American I said, “Okay, how long are we going to keep doing this?”

Now that we’re in a war, I look back on those days of Christmas as something that is meant to give you energy and inspiration for the whole year. You have these connection points throughout the year that bring you together in a ritual of just being together with each other, and being happy.

In America, we don’t have these rituals that bring us back to these very human things that we need. Even in Western Europe, you’ve lost a lot of that. I think in Ukraine that might be the secret source of the demeanor of the people.

AS: Yes. It has been instructive to watch the comparative photos of Vladimir Putin and President Zelensky go viral. One is an isolated man snuffing out so much precious life with cold fury and distanced command, and the other is in the whole mishmash of it all, around tables with bread and wine and dirty noses and human togetherness. More than even the contrast, I think part of the virality of these photos is our own longing to have that kind of deep, thick cultural ritual together.

JL: Well, even the fact that there’s laughter here, even amid the most dire situation. Kharkiv has been devastated. Civilians have been the chief targets. I was just in that city weeks ago—one of the most entrepreneurial, creative cities, a start-up city. Everyone I met there was hustling and proud of it. And they never complained. They said, “Here’s our goal, here’s what we’re going to do.” In Lviv they complained a little bit, in an endearing way, but Kharkiv, no. Now that city’s been crushed. And even then, I text my Kharkiv friends, “How it’s going?” and there’s been such loss, but they can still laugh and joke about it in a way.

I have friends who are still trying to run their IT companies from bunkers, packed in with their families with furniture barricaded against the door. They don’t give up. There have been some videos emerging of Russian soldiers being interrogated. And some of them don’t seem to know what their motivation is. They’re sent from some poor town in the middle of Russia to just kill people, and these are twenty-year-old guys. They’ve seen the beauty of their peers’ lives here.

Lviv, Ukraine
Lviv, Urkaine

AS: Can you reflect a little bit on the relationship between your own Catholic faith and journalism, as well as your wartime thoughts on democracy and truth in the midst of war?

JL: Lviv is a majority–Greek Catholic city. It’s the biggest Greek Catholic city in the world, which means it’s in between East and West. It’s in union with Rome but Eastern in calendar, style, and ritual. And I’ve enjoyed that. It’s very meditative.

Even as you walk the streets of Lviv, almost like you hear in Istanbul, they broadcast the liturgy onto the streets. It’s part of the soul of this place. With the Eastern style of liturgy, mysticism is infused into everything in life. And as a journalist, I want to always understand that there’s mystery. That we can’t just explain everything.

For example, when I went to Kharkiv three weeks ago, knowing something was coming, I took a team of reporters and we all had a rule. We couldn’t ask people, “Hey, what do you think of the threat from Russia?” Because then we’re going to assume that was the first thing on their mind. Maybe it wasn’t. I wanted to step back and listen to the world, listen to them, with a sense of awe and mystery about the thing we’re trying to cover. We journalists need to have more of a sense of awe and reverence about what we’re talking about, the lives of people.

AS: Amen. Keep up the good work, Joe. You really have inspired me, so thank you.

JL: Thanks so much.

This interview was originally published in Comment Magazine on March 10, 2022.

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