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The Grand Ambitions Of A Slain Journalist In Ukraine

A portrait of journalist Pavel Sheremet is surrounded with flowers and candles near where he was killed.
Sergei Chuzavkov
A portrait of journalist Pavel Sheremet is surrounded with flowers and candles near where he was killed.

Just last month, I sat across from journalist Pavel Sheremet in Ukrainska Pravda's media center — a cavernous room and cafe tucked away in a small alley in Ukraine's capital, Kiev.

Sheremet, a teddy bear of a man with an imposing presence and blue eyes that twinkled, was the driving force behind this center, which had a news website and was dedicated to investigative reporting. Sipping cappuccino, he explained that he had chosen Kiev as home because it allowed him to practice his craft.

Sheremet, 44, was a fierce journalist who bumped up against authorities in the former Soviet states where he worked. A native of Belarus, he had been chased out by the country's authoritarian leadership, facing threats, harassment and even prison. He went to Moscow until it, too, became too dangerous.

So he settled on Kiev, which he felt was far more open by comparison.

invited me to the city in June to teach a class in investigative reporting.

So it was a complete shock when I heard Wednesday that Sheremet was killed by a car bomb in the city. The vehicle he was driving belonged to Olena Prytula, who was his girlfriend and the lead editor of the website.

It was not only his death that stunned me. Sheremet and other journalists agreed that this was a golden age for freedom of the press in Ukraine.

Ukrainska Pravda's center, where I taught a seminar to a class of 45 journalists, was launched to spread the gospel of investigative journalism. Sheremet, who also hosted a radio news program, was a director of the outlet and talked to me about some of the ambitions he had for this center.

The idea was to train as many journalists as possible to carry out a type of reporting that is all but banned in neighboring Russia and Belarus. Ukrainska Pravda would convene classes and then post them on the Web so they could have the greatest possible reach.

The journalists I spoke to on my brief trip to Kiev told me the Maidan protests in 2014, which ousted an unpopular government, sparked a renaissance for freedom of expression.

"There are so many things to worry about politically and economically that [authorities] leave us alone," said Irina Slavinska, who leads a team of public radio reporters in Kiev.

We met in a cafe just down the block from the Maidan, where the protests erupted two years ago.

Ukraine's capital oozes its European roots along with its Russian Orthodox heritage. Gold-domed cupolas from 16th century monasteries speckle the city's skyline while Internet cafes line the boulevards. It is a city that is developing and developed all at once.

I also met with Prytula, Sheremet's partner at work and in life. We spent a few hours over dinner at a Georgian restaurant. She was less sanguine about the future. Prytula said that she had lived through three revolutions: the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine's Orange Revolution of 2004 and then the Maidan uprising in 2014.

She said corruption was still present, but that the war with Russia and economic hard times kept government officials too occupied, allowing the press freedom, at least for now.

She said there were so many bright and talented young journalists but they needed training.

She explained that their outlet would offer on-the-job training at Ukrainska Pravda, but people would take what they learned and go off and seek higher-paying jobs at Western news organizations or television. It was exhausting, she added.

We talked about how to get grants to start a school that could train journalists. We spoke about how Ukrainska Pravda could ask for a commitment from journalists to work for at least a year and create a network and mentorship program.

Sheremet was supposed to join us for dinner that night. But right before my class started, he apologized profusely for not being able to stay. He said he had to visit his son and a pending flight was earlier than he had originally thought.

I told him not to worry. He said he hoped we would meet again.

Joanne Levine is an editor at NPR.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joanne Levine