During five-and-a-half months living in Russia-occupied Kherson, photojournalist Olexandr Korniakov risked his life to show the world the bravery and resilience of Ukrainians, and provide a critical on-the-ground perspective of life under Russia’s occupation. 

As we mark World Press Freedom Day, and the critical role of journalists and media outlets in advancing democracy and human rights, USAID recognizes the incredible personal bravery of Ukrainian journalists reporting on the front lines and in occupied territories. Because of their work, people around the world know the truth about Russia’s brutal war.

Olexandr Korniakov is a photojournalist with the Vgoru Media Platform, a USAID-supported media outlet based in Kherson. During Russia’s brutal occupation of Kherson city and much of the surrounding territory, Olexander risked his own safety to document Russia’s occupation of the city and inform other Ukrainians and the world about the situation there. (Note: at the time of writing, Russia’s armed forces still occupy much of Kherson oblast east of the Dnieper River.) 

Olexandr’s courageous work included covering peaceful Ukrainian protests in opposition to Russia’s occupation - directly countering the Kremlin’s false narrative that its military was welcomed in Kherson as liberators. The occupation authorities often responded to these protests with violence, including cracking down on demonstrators and intimidating activists and journalists. 

According to Olexandr:

“With the first rally, they started repression against activists and of course against journalists… There were one or two [Russian soldiers] who stood with a camera and filmed everything that happened from their side. I saw that as I was walking, he was following me with a camera. I went back and he followed me, so I understood that they were following me.”

Despite this, Olexandr continued his work. His photos, which depicted both peaceful resistance to the occupation and Russia’s repressive response, appeared in The Guardian, Al Jazeera, Human Rights Watch, the Washington Post, and many other outlets. (While living under occupation, Olexandr published his work under the pseudonym “Olexandr Chornyi”). 

Olexandr’s reporting increasingly brought him to the attention of Russia’s armed forces. After friends and family informed him it was not safe to return to his home, he went into hiding for six weeks. He eventually planned his escape from Kherson. The journey out of the occupation zone required him to pass through a Russian checkpoint.

“I left Kherson on the morning of August 10. If Russians were looking for me then my work there was over. I simply was not able to do it, so I left. But I was lucky. I saw that people’s laptops and phones were checked, but they only looked through my documents.”

During five-and-a-half months living in Russia-occupied Kherson, Olexandr risked his life to show the world the bravery and resilience of Ukrainians, and provide a critical on-the-ground perspective of life under Russia’s occupation. Olexandr explains how his desire to document the truth led him to accept the grave risks inherent in defying the occupation authorities:

“It was necessary to cover these protests. Since [the Russians] invaded, from the first days, they seized the TV tower, TV center and began to broadcast their news. Watching all their news, you think, ‘What kind of parallel reality are they from? Where do they get all this?’”

Olexander Korniakov
USAID/Ukraine Ukraine Stories