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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.

Beholding Ground

June 22, 2021

“Have you understood all these things?” Jesus asked. The disciples said to him, “Yes.” And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

—Matthew 13:51–52

I have found the most compelling repairs are the ones that make themselves visible, that leave evidence of the breakage and also of the imagination by which the breakage becomes transformed. Such repairs are always provisional, imperfect, and ongoing. Like a nest, they involve continual mending. They ask for a willingness to keep remaking what is perpetually at risk of falling apart. It is this remaking by which a home, and a life, may come: not in spite of what has gone before, but because of it.

—Jan Richardson, Sparrow: A Book of Life and Death and Life


This entire project was born out of an ache.

It was an ache of wanting birth to stanch the flow of death.

It was an ache of watching institutions that I love shudder in dread of shuttering as the lockdowns took their early swipes.

It was an ache of sensing that my own nation was at its weakest physiological state in its brief yet storied history, weakened in all the things that allow a collective to endure a global wallop and stay standing: social trust and goodwill, respect for authority (with that authority then stewarding its legitimacy with honor and an eye for service), a shared identity and agreed-on origin story, civic maturity that puts the life of the whole ahead of oneself. It was an ache of doom before still further fragmentation, a doom of dread that a common vision of reality itself was evaporating.

I suppose at some instinctive level Breaking Ground was born also from the ache of an artistic brain trained to pay attention to the currents that run beneath the surface of shock and havoc, and to find there hints of revelation. I knew early that I needed multitudes of others smarter and differently skilled than I for this sort of societal scuba dive to come up clear (thank you, Susannah Black! thank you, contributors!); the question was how to gather when “scatter!” was the order of the day.

Thanks to the agility of digital tools, and to the awakened sense among many institutional leaders that the old way of doing things on one’s own would not cut it in the face of the interconnected social earthquake that was steamrolling our days, gather we did, albeit with fewer gigabytes blessing our communion. This platform publicly launched just hours after the first memorial service was held for George Floyd one year ago, and as I said in the gray twilight of what would become the violent summer of 2020, “Breaking Ground is first and foremost an act of hope.”

It was an act of hope that the church might yet prove itself agile in the fact of widespread suffering, and that a public space for reflection, conversation, and yes, skilled disagreement, too, could hasten helpful action. It was an act of hope that amid our society-wide need for energy and creativity, the technocratic and utilitarian would be tutored by the moral and the humane. It was an act of hope that today’s Christian minds might be prepared to light the kind of candle for vigil and next steps that a post-Christian society like ours might still recognize in the vestiges of buried longing. And it was an act of hope that a still-potent, still-faithful God was working and shifting and creating in our global upheaval, if only we could develop the patience to see.

But how to see, exactly? And with whom? How could we be confident that what we were seeing and naming was real, and not simply our own glass?

The central task facing our society as we exit the COVID-19 pandemic is to build a common vision of reality.

I have neither the philosophical nor neuroscientific chops to dissect the nature of reality: Is it a question? Is it subjective? But answering the above triad with care has been Breaking Ground’s high calling and, in a year of epistemological rupture, our thorny task. For it turns out that reality, like suffering, is iconoclastic: Each new drama shatters our preconceived notions of what’s actually going on, what works and what’s effective, what the categories for our understanding should be, what the questions are that we should be asking, and, most painfully for so many this last year, who our tribe actually is (or ever was). This shattering builds into a redefining process that can be as exhausting as it is indiscriminate, challenging individuals, institutions, whole nations, a generation.

It turns out that reality, like suffering, is iconoclastic: Each new drama shatters our preconceived notions.

What we tried to do here, in this pilot year of a conversational exploration and, hopefully, longer-term community, was dive into these trenches with you and trace in real time the contours of those shards so sharply lacerating our common life. We looked at the abject failure of our politics to stop mass death, a failure superseded only by the failure of our own Christian community to meet the moral opportunity presented by the nation’s awakening to the realities of ongoing racial injustice—a failure of clarity, unity, and grace that ceded the floor to the pagan poles. We reflected on the renewed attendance so many of us have found ourselves paying to proximate goods: the household, the family, the neighbor, the village. We named the weakening authority of expertise and sought a more capacious understanding of wisdom worth following, and how to cultivate cultural receptivity to such wisdom. We debated justice’s relationship to peace and vice versa as our streets shook, and revisited what unity in a polis even is. And so much more.

Woven through all the unmaskings of this year, of course, was the final crumbling of a narrative of self-sufficiency that has proved to be as false to the way we are wired as it is destructive to the tomorrow we need to build. Somehow, in the very paradox of social isolation, I think we’ve all finally realized that we cannot secure ourselves. As Walter Brueggemann said so softly in the first of six contemplations that set the tone for this whole endeavor, we can only be secured by someone who is faithful to us. We need someone to hear us, which in turn demands that we continually train to become the kinds of people worthy of another’s need to be heard and seen. This includes our neighbor. This includes God.

We need someone to hear us, which in turn demands that we continually train to become the kinds of people worthy of another’s need to be heard and seen. This includes our neighbor. This includes God.

And this is where we land. The central task facing our society as we exit the COVID-19 pandemic and return to some semblance of physical normalcy is to build a common vision of reality. We happen to be living through an institutionally neutered moment, when people are choosing totalizing explanations based on the psychic rewards of belonging to a particular group. It’s increasingly yielding extremists, but—and here’s my hope—it’s also squeezing out a chastened remnant. And it’s this remnant I’d like to speak to as we close.

It may be too late to build a common vision of reality, and it may never have existed in the first place; but without it, the system of relationships that we know as “society” will continue to disintegrate. “Common” does not mean complete; it is God, the ultimate iconoclast, who alone has that perch. But my hope is that those tethered to his love might yet be moved to create spaces like this one, on and off the page, for honest reflection, dialogue, imagination, and especially grace. For it is in the neighbor’s face that we behold God’s face, it is in the neighbor’s pain that we find our assumptions softened and our numbness dispelled, and it is in the neighbor’s story that our own story is tutored, shaping, as we perceive and listen and learn to love, the ground for us to stand on, and for us to build once more.

This piece was originally published as the coda to the year-long publishing venture of Breaking Ground, a collaborative web commons Anne created in June of 2020 to engage a year of layered crisis with patient, probing site, ingenuity in re-imagining the future, and, crucially, hope. You can find the specific contours of the fractures alluded to here at, where dozens of thought leaders and moral exemplars reflected in real-time on a world being remade.