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Reviews / ‘Warmth and determination’ – Jen’s masterful reports from inside Ukraine now available as a book

Jen Stout. Photo: Polygon

WHEN a young local journalist fulfilled her lifelong dream of living and working in Russia, no-one could have known, and least of all Jen Stout herself, that this would be the launchpad to the unlikely career as a war correspondent.

Three months in, in February 2022, her life and those of millions of Ukrainians changed forever when Russia invaded its neighbour following years of simmering low level conflict.

Russia had shown its real face and Jen needed to get out quickly while the world watched in disbelief as war as a way of continuing politics by other means returned to Europe.

But Jen did not return to Shetland. Much to the horror of friends and family at home, she felt drawn to Ukraine – where she had friends from previous visits – and started reporting from the Romanian border where thousands of refugees were crossing the Danube.

As she ventured into Ukraine as a freelance reporter with no institutional back-up, first to Odesa, then further east to Kharkiv, Dnipro and finally the frontline, Jen’s first-hand reports on the human cost of Russia’s war became a regular feature on BBC radio, television and in many print publications.

She now has pulled 18 months of reporting from November 2021to April last year into a fascinating book that is full of empathy for the people of Ukraine as they show remarkable resilience to the onslaught of the Russian war machine.

“The more Russia attacked Ukrainian society, the less inclined people were to despair. They only got angrier,” she writes.

In Night Train to Odesa, she does not shy away from drawing the bigger picture of what goes on in the centre of Europe and, speaking through the first-hand experience of local people, it becomes all too clear that post-war Europe is at a turning point once again.

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When she catches up with judge Oleh Fedorov in a café in Kyiv after having previously met in a bunker in Kharkiv, the army volunteer sums it up perfectly. “It’s our last chance to become really free. To become really independent from them. If we don’t win now, Ukraine will never exist again. It will be destroyed. It will become part of Russia,” he tells her.

And earlier in the book, she reflects on her own journey and how easy it was to “adopt a knee-jerk pacifism” living in an island community far away from war “where it was easy to be against it”.

But sitting in a bunker with other people who were no longer strangers, experiencing patriotism and pragmatism, all this loses its relevance, and a very different reality takes over.

“The atmosphere was a super-strength distillation of what you could find all over the country,” she writes. “Solidarity, collective effort, a powerful sense of common purpose.”

In this immensely readable book Jen Stout offers us a rare insight into life in Ukraine while missiles target the major cities, and thousands lose their lives defending their country. She finds warmth and determination all over the place – two attributes that can as easily be used to sum up.

Night Train to Odesa. Priced £17.99, Night Train to Odesa: Covering the Human Cost of Russia’s War is published by Polygon on 2 May.

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