He has been following Russia’s brutal war in Ukraine up close for a year. Martin Dorazín (54), a recent recipient of the prestigious Ferdinand Peroutka Journalism Award, has been in the field for practically thirty years. He has been in multiple wars and conflicts, from the Balkans to Karabakh. But his favourite moments are when he can just live with people in a foreign country, which is slowly becoming his beloved part of the world.
Are you a war reporter or a journalist? I’ve always felt there’s a difference, or is there not?
I don’t feel that way. I just do a slightly different kind of journalistic work, but it still belongs to the set of journalism. I’m of a generation that’s been hit by set theory, and it’s good at breaking things down nice and neatly. No, it’s nothing outside of journalism.
Journalists in newsrooms work as a team, even TV news is a team effort, but here you’re always alone…
I like to be alone (laughs)… When you’re editing, you need to hear the sounds properly. I don’t like to wear headphones, I let the sounds from the field into the space and maybe I do something with it. In the meantime, I go smoke, cook and listen to hours and hours of material to pick out something that makes sense to me. Eventually everything has to be concentrated into five minutes, because radio can’t handle the larger format these days. Fortunately, we have a website where there are full versions, even what doesn’t fit on the air.
So you’re a recluse?
No, but I do seek out solitary work. I don’t want to be interfered with. If someone’s always talking, the work drags, you make mistakes, you get tired. Loneliness is part of the job, but I’m not always alone, if you don’t feel like it and you don’t have to hand something in right now, you’re not under deadline pressure, you can go out, see friends, go shopping, just live. That’s what I love about this job, too. I feel quite a lot of freedom in this job.
A TV reporter ends up consulting with the cameraman when he’s editing, your work is completely original.
Yes, it’s very much auteur, radio work is like that, unlike TV work where you work in a crew. I did six years in television, as you well remember. I was a newsreader, an anchor and a newsroom worker. It’s a very collective thing there, which may not suit some people, especially if you’re somewhere for a long time with a cameraman and a sound man and you’re constantly getting on each other’s nerves. In television, it’s really a collective work, visually, sonically and journalistically. But I prefer the solitude of radio.
Don’t you ever feel sorry that your work is going to dry up fast? It’s here and now, and then nothing. Haven’t you thought of bigger concepts, books, films, big radio stories?
No, definitely not books. I’m not a graphomaniac, I generally don’t like to write, for me it’s an ordeal to write something. The spoken word is more important to me than writing. That’s also why I never wanted to work in a newspaper, although I have written for them in the past. I wouldn’t want to be a classical writing editor in a newspaper, there the contact is so indirect. We have contact with the presenter in the studio and it’s live, we feel the person on the other side.
When it’s online, live, I can’t take back what I’ve said, I can’t correct it, and that’s the magic of it. There’s such a tension, the things you can say, often you get tangled up in things and you don’t know how to get out of it, then the presenter helps you. It’s an adventure every time, I still enjoy the live broadcast after all these years because you never know how it’s going to turn out.
I don’t write down my inputs, I make my handouts in the form of numbers and different points so I don’t get tangled up. I don’t write down exactly what I’m going to say. You can tell, then it rustles the paper. But it’s quicker, editors like it better, because then you don’t overflow in time, so to speak…
War reporters usually can’t help it, once a conflict breaks out, they go. Is there a desire for adventure, a need to be right in the thick of it? What drives you to go again, whether to the Balkans, the Caucasus, or Ukraine, to places that are very dangerous?
It’s not that I rush there with some perverse joy or pleasure. The last time I was in Karabakh, where it was also very tough, I was already saying to myself that I don’t want to go anywhere. I still wanted to work abroad, to be a correspondent for the Czech Radio, but I wanted to do some more pleasant things. Contributions to the Foreign Correspondents’ Notebook. That’s the kind of tourist-gastronomy stuff, the Karl Kyncl and Pavla Jazairi style features, which we all learned from later. That’s what I wanted to do, people enjoy talking about food. But at the same time you learn a lot about the country when you film it. I like to work more quietly and not get into all the wars. It’s not the adrenaline rush that people talk about. I didn’t even want to be in Afghanistan, although I was there for a while at the end.
So what’s your drive?
I like to be in countries I know, where I have friends, classmates, that I’ve known for a long time and are close to. Ukraine, for example, has been such a bite-sized thing for a long time. From the Orange Revolution to the Maidan, the annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas. I am not drawn to the war itself, but to the developments that I have been following for a long time. So that it all makes more sense in the end. That experience will come through in the work. More knowledge of the environment, more involvement. It’s not part of reporting, but you can’t do without it in reporting.
I guess it’s hard to keep your distance. But you reporters today are asked to have a more authentically personal attitude and style from the ground, aren’t you?
There is no regulation or instruction, no befel, that it has to be done this way. I developed that myself, which I guess every reporter does eventually. Especially in tense situations, I have to get over my emotions. But again, the emotions must not be artificial and staged, you can see that too, the dramatisation of the situation. You have to be natural in it, it’s possible. You have to let it pass through you, including bad states and depression. For me they weren’t very deep, but even I can’t help being moved, sometimes tears, and constantly thinking about what’s going on. We’re in this from morning to night, there’s no getting out of it. And you can definitely hear it in the coverage afterwards, it’s not impersonal, and that’s a good thing.
You studied in Russia, you lived there too, you have friends in Ukraine, it must be a strange war for you. You are in contact with both sides, you see both sides of the war. Does that help your understanding of the conflict?
It helps, of course, because we have to watch the other side as well. I read and see and hear what is being broadcast in Russia and what my friends think. I’ve lost a lot of them because I feel like they’ve gone crazy, maybe they weren’t even friends. I guess I misjudged them. Most of those closest friends in Russia – which may not be ethnic Russians, there are Jews, Balts, Ukrainians who have lived in Russia for a long time or were born there, Belarusians, people from the Caucasus – fortunately stayed with me, and I’m very happy for that. They haven’t changed, but they are in a difficult situation, most of them in a much worse depression than we are here in Ukraine.
They are in a hopeless situation, they don’t know what to do. Those smart, humane people, which I count most of my friends among, cannot just go somewhere to protest, because they would be arrested immediately and end up in some kind of camp for several years. They can emigrate, but many of them have family, which makes it much harder. Most of my classmates are educated in the humanities, and it’s not easy for them to find a job, especially when you’re 50 years old and have a family. You’re not going to leave and start sweeping the streets in another country. You try to survive the situation at home. I’m sympathetic to their situation and I don’t envy them. We can’t lump everybody together.
Can you imagine meeting them again in Moscow? What would have to happen besides the end of the war?
I understand, that’s perfectly clear. I don’t want Russia to disappear, or to break up. I wish the regime that rules there were not there. But I know that the society is sick, that most people support Vladimir Putin. It’s not just that they are sick of propaganda. Something bad was left in the society, in the people, by the Soviet power. The fear, the shrinking from any official, the admiration for authoritarian power, a kind of fatalism, a fatal surrender that is passed on from generation to generation. Even young people are behind Putin!
First this regime has to end, and then Russian society has to get some kind of electric shock to wake up and look at itself in the mirror. Not in a crooked one. They need to realise that they have caused a lot of misery, including through their passivity, not just their active support for the regime. They must admit their guilt, their responsibility.
My friends and I have already met on neutral ground, in the Caucasus. They can’t talk to each other now like you and I here on the internet because they might be bugged, but they also need to talk to someone normal, the closure in Russia is suffocating them.
The electric shock you mentioned will have to come from some other authority, it’s not just going to happen in Russia, they need a figure like that.
They need one, but it has always been the case in Russian history that after a bad and evil Tsar comes a slightly softer ruler and all is well again for a while. The chance for self-reflection in society, as happened in the 1990s, should not be squandered. Many organisations tried, Memorial, the Gulag, the Sakharov Centre in Moscow and many others tried to wake up society. But the Russians didn’t like it, the bad image and the admission of the crimes that the whole society had committed against itself. But without that, even now, it will not go on. The era of the softer tsar will not be some shining Scandinavian-style democracy, but it must come, as perestroika or Yeltsin once did. I believe in this regularity of historical development, but the main thing is not to waste a new chance.
This article was translated from the Czech original published in the online revue Přítomnost.
published: 6. 3. 2023