Voice of America: Journalist Ksenia Turkova’s Journey from Kyiv

About This Episode
In Beautiful Journey’s season premiere, host Alya Michelson welcomes Ksenia Turkova, a Voice of America journalist with over 20 years of experience in TV and radio. Join them as they journey back to their early days in Moscow, where they both served as journalists for different media outlets during a time of profound change and growth. Get an insider’s view of Ksenia’s impactful radio work in Kyiv just before the Revolution of Dignity, a series of protests in Ukraine that unfolded from late 2013 to early 2014. Journey with Ksenia as she leaves Kyiv to further her journalistic career with Voice of America in the United States.


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(00:00) Alya Michelson

Scripted intro: Welcome to Beautiful Journey, a podcast about the inspiring journeys of women from around the world and their successes, I’m Alya Michaelson. I’m an artist, philanthropist and global citizen. I’m also an immigrant. As a journalist I love storytelling, and I believe it can help build bridges to new people and communities. That’s why I started this podcast….

Today, I want to meet Ksenia Turkova. I actually Ksenia back in Moscow years ago, when she was working for a famous independent radio station, Echo Moscow, which now closed due to censorship. At the time, I was a military correspondent for a different media outlet that was partially state-owned. It’s very different to be journalist in Russia than most other countries in the world. When I immigrated to the United States, staying in media wasn’t something I considered at all. For many reasons. Very few people are able to make this transition. But some still try. As the world gets more connected and complicated, I think hearing voices and the perspective of people who have lived outside the United States is more essential. Here’s Ksenia, her story begins when she left Moscow, where she was a broadcast star to open a new radio station in Kyiv.

(01:16) Ksenia Turkova:

So first, I moved from Moscow to Kyiv. And the interesting thing is that I moved right before the Revolution of Dignity started, I moved in the summer of 2013. And I was thinking I was moving just for a year to launch a new radio station. I moved with some of my colleagues from Echo Moscow, and GanaSantaPham [illegible], a Russian radio station. So we just wanted to launch the radio station news and talk. And after that, some of us were going to go back to Moscow. But then the revolution started, by then, the start of our radio station was postponed. And we were practicing [for the new station] while watching all those events. And when we finally started the radio station, it turned out to be very, very successful, because before in Ukraine, they almost didn’t have any news and talk radio stations. And so people needed the information every day, the news, talks, and interactions. And so it was very, very successful. And I decided to stay in Ukraine first because I felt responsible for that project, and that I wanted to stay to continue. And second, I just felt like I supported Ukraine in those events, especially after the annexation of Crimea and after the war in Donbas started. So I decided to stay. I was in Ukraine until 2017. And in 2016, I went to the US for a vacation. And it just happened that I got a job offer from Voice of America. It was a tough decision. I was a single mom with my son. And it was difficult for me to decide to move that far. But finally, I decided to try and move in 2017. And actually, I don’t regret it. That’s how I moved here.

(03:25) Alya Michelson

How did you find your voice as a journalist in America because journalism is one of the hardest professions to carry on once you immigrate?

(03:34) Ksenia Turkova

Well, I think it’s a little bit easier for me because I work for the Russian service of Voice of America. So I work in a Russian environment, a mixed environment, I would say: Russian, English, and Ukrainian. But it’s easier when you move to your native language environment. But I agree that it’s difficult to find your voice as a journalist in the country you moved to. And that’s what I’m trying to do now. Because I just started my YouTube channel in English. And I’m trying to be more of an American journalist than a Russian journalist. I don’t like when people introduce me as a Russian journalist because I left Russia 10 years ago. So I would say I’m just a journalist with Russian and Ukrainian background.

(04:25) Alya Michelson

Do you think there is an interest from American journalists or the general public to this kind of journey?

(04:29) Ksenia Turkova:

I think American journalists are very interested in what is going on in Russia, and especially with journalism. And I think they respect independent Russian media and independent Russian journalists. For example, the ones who had to leave the country recently because of the censorship, and I feel that respect and I feel the interest. Of course, I think American journalists understand what Russian propaganda is. They don’t mix it like Russian state media and the Russian independent journalists, they distinguish it. And I feel great respect to those people who still are trying to maintain the level of professional journalism. Not in Russia anymore, unfortunately, but for Russia. As I figured out in the last couple of years, especially after the events in Belarus, I interviewed a lot of Belarusian journalists, and a lot of them are now out of the country, because they can’t stay in the country, they will be in prison. So they told me that now you can be a good Belarusian journalist, only being outside the country. And I think now, it’s also the remedy for Russian journalism, as well, you can maintain your professional standards only being outside Russia. Unfortunately,

(05:56) Alya Michelson:

It’s definitely painful to hear. But I’m very curious about your views on this subject. Do Russians even need journalism, or propaganda became so powerful, that this is the only thing they can hear and digest?

(06:16) Ksenia Turkova:

It depends on what part of Russian society we are talking about. Because there is a big part of Russian society, unfortunately, that does not need independent journalism and does not need independent information. I just read that according to the recent poll, made by [Proper noun, illegible] – it’s a Russian state agency – we understand we need to keep in mind that it’s very difficult to do polls in the autocracies like Russia, especially now during the war, but 81% of Russians still trust Putin. So a lot of Russian people don’t need this information. They just watch, like, let’s say, two TV channels. And that’s it. But there is a big part of Russian society that is against war, and they’re trying to protest. And we know that people are being detained, people are being arrested. And of course, those people need this information. Luckily, we have the internet now. Well, in Russia, it’s been difficult nowadays. But still you can find this independent information. And that’s why it’s so important to have those independent journalists working outside Russia. And actually, I don’t think it’s something bad, because COVID showed us the world is like a big village, we are all in one big house. And we’re global. I don’t think it’s something bad.

(07:54) Alya Michelson:

Right. All right. Well, the interesting thing, you were saying, there are no more independent hubs, not in Russia, because they were closed down. So all these independent journalists have individual platforms, like YouTube. So is internet media the only place for Russian journalists to operate?

(08:16) Ksenia Turkova:

For investigative projects. For example, there was a Russian independent media project called ‘Project’ – a project called Project. They were closed in Russia because they were labeled as an undesirable organization. And when you have this label, it’s very dangerous for you to stay in the country, because it might be a reason for a criminal case. And so journalists from the project have left the country. The founder of that media, [illegible proper noun], he lives here in the US and some of them live in Georgia in different countries. And they still work as a team, one of the best Russian speaking media, investigative media teams. They even told me that it’s easier for them to make investigations outside Russia, because they don’t have those restrictions they have inside. That’s why they could be even more successful.

(09:25) Alya Michelson:

Right, right. Let’s talk about language a little bit because you’re also a linguist. I saw that you did several guest lectures about Ukrainian events throughout the perspective of language.

(09:37) Ksenia Turkova:

I’ve given several lectures, yes. I usually talk about Russian propaganda. I also gave a couple of lectures here in DC, one about Putin’s language portrait, and another one about Zelenskyy’s language portrait. And, again, it’s interesting what kind of questions people ask. In the last one about Zelenskyy people asked me, “What is the difference between Russian and Ukrainian languages?”, because a lot of people don’t understand. They think it’s something very similar, but they actually don’t have enough knowledge about it. And when I told them that the difference between Russian and Ukrainian language is bigger than the difference between Spanish and Portuguese, they were very surprised, because they were thinking it’s something like Russian. But now Ukraine, as we see, is trying to find its voice. And it’s very important to tell people about differences between languages, between different post-Soviet countries. So now finally, the world starts to know those countries,

(10:47) Alya Michelson:

How has your life changed after the events in Ukraine, as a Russian-American,

(10:55) Ksenia Turkova:

I would say that my life changed eight years ago, more than it changed now. Because when the annexation of Crimea happened, I lost a lot of friends in Russia, including close friends, like from my childhood, and it was very painful, very, very tough. I also had some issues with my relatives, and it was also difficult. But now, I don’t think my life, my political views, changed. Just may be my lifestyle changed after February 24. Because I think a lot about Ukraine. I called my friends every day, and Ukraine became a part of my daily routine. I would say it was not like that before. I mean, after I moved to the US, I was thinking about Ukraine. Because I spent several years there, happy years, but it was not weaved into my daily routine. Now it’s like 24 hours a day of Ukraine coverage in the news. Unfortunately, I see that there is certain Ukraine fatigue now in the world. And as with any war, actually with any tragedy, people are getting tired of the news. And I’m trying not to get tired. This is my personal goal, because I’m scared of being tired.

(12:22) Alya Michelson

Do you have Ukrainian heritage?

(12:24) Ksenia Turkova

No, I don’t have any Ukrainian heritage. Well, I did my DNA test, and I have some Ukrainian blood. I’m mostly Eastern European, and I have some northern European heritage, like Finland and Sweden. So I have some little parts of Ukrainian blood. But I fell in love with this country when I moved there.

Alya Michelson:

Do you speak Ukrainian?

Ksenia Turkova:

Yes, I do speak Ukrainian. I learned the language. And I use it almost every day now–because I take yoga classes with a Ukrainian instructor. Languages are my hobby. I take French classes to maintain my French with a Ukrainian teacher. In that way, I’m trying to pursue my hobbies. And second, just to help people, because they need our moral and financial help.

(13:18) Alya Michelson:

Did you feel any changes of attitude from Americans after February?

(13:22) Ksenia Turkova:

At first, a lot of people didn’t know that I’m Russian. When they asked me before, I told them that I moved from Ukraine. Maybe I mentioned I’m Russian, but it got mixed up in their heads so they didn’t realize I was Russian. For example, a lot of my friends – dance friends, I’m a dancer – they didn’t realize I was Russian. So they were very, very supportive. They knew I moved from Ukraine, I have a lot of friends there. And they all were texting me and calling me and we’re being very, very supportive – our dance community. And by the way, in Ukraine, they have a very strong dance community, swing dance community as well. And some of the swing dance community members in Ukraine, unfortunately, were killed. And yesterday, our friend, a very talented Ukrainian musician, was wounded. So they are all involved in the events. So yes, people were very supportive. And those people who knew that I was Russian, for example, in my son’s school, I never experienced any negative reactions from them, because I’m Russian because I know it’s one of the narratives of Russian propaganda now that Russian people are persecuted abroad, and people hate them. Not at all. Actually, exactly the opposite. People when they know I’m from Russia or from Ukraine, they know that both countries are involved in that war. Although one country is the aggressor, they still have compassion because they understand that I might feel guilt, or I might feel responsibility for that, and they have compassion. So I’ve never experienced anything negative from Americans. What I like very much about the United States – and it’s a very big difference between the United States and post Soviet countries, Russia or Ukraine – Here, people are always very respectful of your private life. In Russia or in Ukraine, they will ask you, “Why are you not married?” Or “Why did you get divorced?” Or “Why do you have only one child?” and so on. Here, it’s impossible to imagine that someone could ask you those questions. So that’s what I like a lot. Also, I like how they treat customers in stores, the customer is always right, you can return some items that you didn’t like. And I had a lot of negative experiences with that in Russia. And so it was such a great surprise that here it’s so easy, and everybody’s so respectful. What I probably don’t like, especially after Ukraine, is the US doesn’t have the same level of coffee culture as in Ukraine. In Ukraine, they have great coffee everywhere. And when I moved here, I saw those big pots with coffee. And for me, it looked like an insult to coffee. This probably was one of the biggest negative surprises in the United States.

(16:45) Alya Michelson:

I’m interested in the culture of stereotypes which, in my opinion, slows down assimilation for all immigrants. I’m very curious, what stereotypes did you face?

16:56 Ksenia Turkova:

I mostly heard stereotypical jokes about vodka and “You never called because you’re Russian.” And this joke is not funny, because everybody jokes like that. Also, something about Putin. So people joke about vodka, about being cold, about Putin? What else? About bears? Of course. I agree that I don’t like those stereotypical jokes. If we’re talking about, like, some serious questions and serious stereotypes. First of all, a lot of people point out my accent. And sometimes I don’t like it. I mean, I know I have an accent and I’m not embarrassed that they have an accent. But a lot of people like to emphasize it. And a lot of guys were telling me, Russian accent is so sexy. And for me, it’s not a compliment. Also, I heard stereotypes about spies and prostitutes. I was in a relationship with a guy here before I got married, and he told me that someone told him not to marry me because I’m Russian, I only want a green card. He laughed it off. But still, it was sad that this was given to him as serious advice from a friend.

Alya Michelson 18:36

I saw on your Facebook page that you started taking music lessons and dancing. I didn’t know that about you in Moscow. Is it something that you did Moscow or this is something that you developed here that helps you to assimilate better to American culture and find friends.

(18:55) Ksenia Turkova:

I started playing guitar when I was 10. Then I finished music school when I was 16 or 17. After that, I played here and there, but I love guitar. I don’t sing because I don’t have a good ear. But I like playing guitar. I have good technique. I took part in different competitions when I was a teenager. When I moved here, I heard about a lady, a great teacher who moved here from Israel. She’s a Russian speaking guitar instructor. And I started taking classes just to refresh all that. And she suggested joining a women’s group. During the pandemic we created a classical guitar group called Girls and Guitars. We just performed our first live concert. It was a small concert, just for our friends and families. But it was very nice. And yes, I love it. And it helps me a lot given the war. It helps me with my stress.

I started dancing in Ukraine in Kyiv. I just signed up for boogie-woogie classes, it’s rock and roll. And I loved it. I found a lot of friends there. I also took part in a competition, and I took first place in the beginner’s group.

When I moved here, I did two things before I found a place to live. First, I went to the church, because church is always a great community to find connections and friends. And second, I found a local swing dance community. I wrote an email to them. It was like maybe two days after I flew to US. I wrote to them saying, Hi, I’m Ksenia. I just moved from Ukraine. I’m a boogie woogie dancer, and I’m interested in swing dancing. And they were very friendly. And they immediately invited me to some party. And they went to the party and I met a lot of people. And now I would say it’s like my family here. And we all help each other. And now during the war, swing dancers from the DC area, they helped bring dancers from Ukraine, we organized a charity event, we collected money for them. So we’re all connected.

(21:42) Alya Michelson:

How are you connected to the Russian-speaking community?

(21:45) Ksenia Turkova:

Where I live in Maryland, there is a big Russian community – Russian-speaking community, not Russian – because they are all from different Soviet countries: Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Republic of Georgia. The Russian community is big and very helpful, very friendly. We’re not divided by political views. We all see the situation the same because I heard from different states, and from my friends, that some Russian communities are divided. I would say here in Maryland, our communities, I don’t feel that, we are not divided. And I teach at the Russian school on Saturdays;. I teach Russian Language and Literature in journalism. So that’s how I connected to the Russian speaking community. And my son attends a Russian school to maintain his language.

(22:47) Alya Michelson:

What advice would you give to immigrant women that you wish someone had given to you?

(22:52) Ksenia Turkova:

I don’t want to feel like I’m here for a set amount of time; like “I’m here until Putin is dead, and then I will go back to Russia.” I don’t want to plan my life like that. I’m here indefinitely. I live here. And this is my home. Now, what will happen in the future, we’ll see. But now, this is my home indefinitely. When you think that way, it makes your life easier. Because when you are always expecting something, you are always stressed. And maybe this is one piece of advice I’d give.

Also, I would advise that once you move, immediately try to find a hobby. If you have one, try to keep at it, like I did with dancing. It helped me a lot. If you don’t have one, try to find one and be part of its community, because my dance community, they helped me with everything. For example, I bought my first car here – before I couldn’t buy a car, I didn’t have enough savings. And I didn’t have credit cards, because I just moved. And I was on a one year visa. So banks just refused to give me a loan. And there was no way for me to buy a car until one of my dance friends sold me her old car. So I’m very thankful. Without my dance community, maybe I would not have found one to buy. So when you have a hobby, it helps you a lot and you don’t feel alone.

(24:34) Alya Michelson:

Where do you see yourself in five years?

(24:37) Ksenia Turkova:

I would say that I’m a person who lives in the moment, but at the same time I like to plan. “My husband always says, “You’re a great planner, but at the same time you can be spontaneous.” I can combine those things.

I see myself as an international journalist. I want to write more in English. I want to develop my social media. And I don’t mean only English speaking social media. Now we know that Telegram is very popular in Russia and Ukraine. So I want to develop different social media platforms.

I want to be represented in different languages, in English, and still in Russian, because I think my messages are still important for some Russian audiences and in Ukraine. I also want to develop as a researcher of media texts, Russian propaganda is a very important area to research.

I also want to develop as a teacher, as a language professor. I have an idea to create a school of post Soviet languages, for people in the US who want to maintain their own languages. I see that after what happened to Ukraine, people understood that it’s very important to maintain your own language. For example, if you moved from Kazakhstan, it’s important that your kids maintain the Kazakh language. And if you moved from Moldova, it’s important to maintain the Romanian language. Because in Russia, they don’t pay a lot of attention to those languages. Even local Russian languages, like Tatar, in Tatarstan.

(26:52) Alya Michelson:

What in your opinion will happen to Russian journalism in the near future?

(26:57) Ksenia Turkova:

Inside the country, for now, there is no future. Outside the country, it’s getting stronger, and there are more and more independent media being created. And a lot of young journalists and even former state TV journalists want to join in. So I see a big future for Russian journalists outside of Russia.

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