NEWS CLIP This fatigue about this war and how we're going to continue to support Ukraine is a real worry.
BROOKE GLADSTONE As Ukraine slips from the headlines. Those living in the war zone worry about getting their stories heard from WNYC in New York. This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. Also on the show, Big Tech said they'd clamp down on Russian propaganda: did they?
ANDREY BOBORYKIN When I checked, Russian state run media outlets were performing outstandingly well. They had hundreds of millions of views.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Plus, in Ukraine, a gamer and Twitch streamer who dumped his rig when the Russian invasion began risked his IRL life to get back online.
BOBI And I was able to recover my whole equipment.
MICAH LOEWINGER You drove back into the war zone to get your PC?
MICAH LOEWINGER Bobi. You're crazy, man. You're crazy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It's all coming up after this.
[END OF BILLBOARD]
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. Last week on the show, we examined the information war Russia is waging against its own people and much of the rest of the world. This week, it's all about Ukrainians fighting back on all fronts.
NEWS CLIP The Ukrainian counteroffensive is now underway. Four villages already taken back from Russian control in the south.
NEWS CLIP There's heavy fighting right now in the area around Kherson, a crucial port city...
NEWS CLIP This strike hit a key bridge in Kherson City, which is under Russian control. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Meanwhile, more than 100 miles northeast of Kherson, the Russian occupied Zaporizhzia power plant is generating global anxiety.
NEWS CLIP A team of U.N. inspectors arrived at Europe's largest nuclear power plant after new shelling shut down one of its two functioning reactors.
[SOUND OF SHELLING] [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE As Ukraine grapples with the threat of nuclear disaster amid the launch of an ambitious counter-offensive, it subsists on a steady diet of Western donations.
NEWS CLIP British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, visiting Kiev, today announced a $63 million military aid package, which comes as the U.S. pledged another nearly $3 billion. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE But even as money and materiel flow in, many within and without the theater of war worry that victory may.be impeded by a decline in something less tangible.
NEWS CLIP This fatigue about this war and how we're going to continue to support Ukraine is a real worry.
NEWS CLIP Ukraine trying to make progress in the south. Anticipating probably some war fatigue among some of their supporters, particularly in Europe.
NEWS CLIP The question is, how long can this last? When does the war fatigue set in? [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Studies do show a decline in headline news about the war, global attention is an inevitable casualty of any protracted conflict. Distant hearts and minds are inclined to drift to the next tragedy or intrigue or atrocity. Olga Tokarciuk is a journalist, longtime correspondent and nonresident fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, based in Ukraine, where she lives. Welcome to the show.
OLGA TOKARCIUK Hello and thank you for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE President Zelensky said last week that the end of this war and its circumstances depend on the world's attention. Agree?
OLGA TOKARCIUK Yeah. I think people in different countries focusing on what's happening in Ukraine and the atrocities that Russia commits, they put pressure on the governments to continue supporting Ukraine, to continue sending weapons to Ukraine. Only then Ukraine has a chance to win this war.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But it seems as if the governments of Europe and of the United States are continuing the money flow and the weapons flow. So how much do you need international hearts and minds?
OLGA TOKARCIUK Those flows are continuing, but they are still not enough. Ukraine's forces are still outnumbered and outgunned by Russian forces.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The government's branding campaign, called Be Brave Like Ukraine, launched in April with a flurry of t-shirts and social media posts, online videos, billboards, one of which featured a Ukrainian woman saving dogs from a war torn area. Has the messaging of Ukraine's government changed over the past six months?
OLGA TOKARCIUK I think the messaging has been pretty consistent, and that message is we will not let the aggressor take our land without a fight. And also, the messaging for the international audience has been pretty consistent as well. There the message was this is not just Ukraine's fight. Ukraine is fighting for the values of freedom and democracy. It's just that I think the manner in which it was delivered may be was transformed with time. More and more people were engaged in there. So it was not just President Zelensky.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So in that context, let's talk about First Lady Olena Zelenska. Over the past couple months, she started traveling internationally, giving interviews with the foreign press, and she famously posed for a Vogue cover shoot in July, sitting on war torn steps in a polished outfit. First of all, what did you think about that Vogue interview? I think it meant something different to Ukrainian women than it meant to its critics.
OLGA TOKARCIUK The critics of this photoshoot and interview were saying that it was somehow glamorizing the war, but in Ukraine, it wasn't seen this way because war is not just a terrible horror, but it also the life that is still continuing, which might seem weird to people who never experienced living in a war torn country. But suddenly Ukrainians realized that, well, yes, the war is terrible, but at the same time, people still go out. People still try to celebrate birthdays. It's the only way to keep sanity and to resist, to keep living your life.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You also observed that the Vogue cover in Ukraine was seen as an image of power that Ukrainian women have in the face of war.
OLGA TOKARCIUK Actually, a lot of Ukrainian women who are posting similar photos in a similar pose with a hashtag sit like a girl. And what they wanted to say with this campaign was that no one can dictate how women should sit or behave or look. And Elena Zelenska somehow symbolized all Ukrainian women who, despite the war, continue to take care of their loved ones, take care of themselves, and do some very important work for the country.
BROOKE GLADSTONE She speaks of the issue of mental health in Ukraine and of the plight of children in bomb shelters and sitting smartly on the steps in Vogue. Is she part of a multi-pronged effort, along with the T-shirts and other branding, to keep hold of the world's attention?
OLGA TOKARCIUK This is definitely part of that effort, but I think this is a very genuine effort. So this is not something like a marketing campaign. Like she was not very prominent and present in the public space in the first weeks and months of war. But she's been present in a sense that since she became a first lady, she was trying to advance the issues of equality, not just in terms of gender equality, but also rights for people with disabilities and LGBTQ rights. The Russian full scale invasion began, she added to that the issue of the mental health. Something that is very important that Ukraine will have to face in the next years, even after the war is over. Of course, she's involved in this effort to keep Ukraine on the front pages and in the media of the world. But she's also doing a lot internally for the Ukrainian society.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I was thinking about those selfie videos that President Zelensky posted early in the invasion. Those videos were engaged to great effect, not only with his own people, but with the world. How about now? Do they still work?
OLGA TOKARCIUK Yeah. You know, I remember in the very first days after the Russian full scale invasion began, me and other people whom we were sheltering in our house, internally displaced people from different parts of Ukraine, were sitting in the basement during an air raid alert and watching this videos of President Zelensky. And they were giving us a really strong morale boost to see that the president of the country is here. He's in Kiev recording videos from the outside of his office when Russian propaganda is claiming that he fled the country and he's already hiding somewhere in Poland. That motivated a lot of Ukrainians to resist. And me personally, I'm not watching them as often as I used to, but somehow it feels comforting, you know, to receive notifications that a new video from President Zelensky has dropped.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But you have noted that now that the initial thrust of the war has passed, many Ukrainians criticize the way that Zelensky handled his war communications just before the February invasion. Ukrainian officials seem to be in some denial, and I remember that a couple of weeks before the invasion, he told Ukrainians to prepare for regular barbecues in May.
OLGA TOKARCIUK He argues that he wanted to avoid the panic and also the economic collapse. And in fact, Ukrainian media were reporting all the statements of Western officials and Western media about an imminent invasion, the fact that Ukrainian officials did not explicitly urge people to prepare for a possible evacuation. A lot of people are bitter about it now. And we are seeing this initial super high figure of support to Zelensky, which were more than 90% in the first weeks after the invasion. They are slowly going down, but he remains the most popular politician in Ukraine with a huge distance between him and the next most popular politician, former President Poroshenko.
BROOKE GLADSTONE There's another way to keep the war viral, and that's memes Ukraine's Ministry of Defense. Twitter has more than a million followers and a very biting, dark humor. Is this run by one of the entertainment people that filled Zelensky's staff in the early days?
OLGA TOKARCIUK We have no idea who is the genius behind the Ukraine's Ministry of Defense Twitter account, but that person certainly is probably the most wanted and envied social media manager in all of Ukraine.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Maybe the world.
OLGA TOKARCIUK Maybe. Yeah. It's really funny because it was Russia that first started to use its official accounts, its embassies on Twitter, you know, for this trolling and use of means. But they were doing it very often in a very clumsy way and becoming a target of jokes themselves.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And then there's their NAFO, the North Atlantic Fella Association.
OLGA TOKARCIUK And and NAFO sounds then similar to NATO. And their motto is naval expansion is non-negotiable. Is this army of animated dogs started from the tweet of the Russian ambassador to Vienna who engaged in a debate with one of this cartoon dogs. And suddenly, like he was receiving a lot of replies and he tried to argue with them. But of course, like he was swept away by all this trolling and memes that they were creating. And it became a phenomena because this NAFO movement is also a charity movement raising money for servicemen who are fighting in Ukraine for Georgian Legion and some other fighters in Ukraine. And to become a fella, you have to make a donation first and then you will be given this personalized avatar. And it's remarkable that actually they've been making such a difference in a battle against disinformation on Twitter by reacting to posts of Russian government officials. It was even noted by the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense. They tweeted in support of NAFO. I'm also researching disinformation. And I led several research projects on disinformation, on Twitter. And I'm amazed to see how it actually can be countered, not just with debunking, not just with facts, but with very witty trolling and of course, in huge numbers.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But do you think this can also stave off war fatigue?
OLGA TOKARCIUK Humor is a very powerful tool. Of course, in this situation, it's almost always black humor. But humor helps Ukrainians to keep up their spirits and to resist. And I think for people around the world who support Ukraine, it also helps them somehow to alleviate this pressure from heavy, difficult news and also their own lives that might have been affected by this war in terms of rising costs and shortages of food or other things like laughing it out in times of crisis, I think helps to somehow survive and deal with it better.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Olga, thank you very much.
OLGA TOKARCIUK Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Olga Tokarciuk is a journalist based in Ukraine.
Fighting war fatigue is one challenge. Playing whack a mole with Russian misinformation is another. Andrey Boborykin and is executive director of Ukrainska Pravda, one of Ukraine's biggest independent outlets. He's also a member of the Media Development Foundation, helping independent Ukrainian media survive the war. He looked into big tech companies like Google and Facebook a.k.a Meta to see if they're actually keeping Russian propaganda off their platforms. They said they would. But mostly, he says: they're not.
ANDREY BOBORYKIN When the war started in Ukraine, Facebook and Google were quick to say that, okay, we are banning in Russia today and Sputnik and all the state run channels from our platforms. And when I checked, Russian state run media outlets were performing outstandingly well. They had like hundreds of millions of views per month. Bigger than CNN on YouTube.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Google and Facebook, or Meta would say that they banned a lot of these sites after the invasion. But, for instance, on Facebook, they're really under a shadow ban. So you can still search for pages.
ANDREY BOBORYKIN Yeah so what they did was prevent people living in the USA or Canada from accessing these pages. They did the same thing in Europe, but they have been left on the platform. And if you are not living in the territories that I mentioned in Nigeria, for instance, you can access this content freely even if you are in Ukraine. If I'm using a VPN, I can take a link from Russia Today, which you cannot access from Ukraine because it's banned in our country. But I can take any link and I can post it on my Facebook account.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What do you think these platforms should be doing to prevent lies from being propagated on their sites?
ANDREY BOBORYKIN I think that the big tech, both Facebook, Meta and Google should acknowledge that these properties have been able to freely evolve on their platforms. Right now it feels like this is like a new thing. Russia Today, Sputnik and Russia One all of a sudden appeared on February 24 on Facebook and Google and YouTube. In fact, it was several years of systemic growth, a big part of which was incentivized by advertising.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You also feel a great deal of frustration with the way that they have been banning certain Ukrainian content, which you say does effectively serve the readers.
ANDREY BOBORYKIN Yeah. We work with over 50 independent local publishers in Ukraine, and a lot of data comes through us about their content being banned and their Facebook pages being penalized for violating the Facebook community guidelines. But when we go deeper into that, it appears that a lot of these bans are actually strange interpretations of very broad guidelines that Facebook has. A very frequent example is when a publisher reports a news piece that involves Azov Battalion, which is like a military unit.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is a very controversial unit. In the past, it had connections with far right groups. It had a terrible reputation, but it has been fighting on the side of Ukraine in this war. And you noted that there's a tremendous double standard. International organizations report a lot about Azov and that using that logic, you said you could report on ISIS or Al Qaida.
ANDREY BOBORYKIN Yes. In many cases, what is banned is clearly information within the public interest. The publishers are being penalized for just doing their job, which is crazy. We Ukraine used to be a region that is not of a big interest to big tech companies. We don't have like a very big, dedicated team of specialists who work through these cases. It's a matter of hiring, I don't know, ten more people for the media team that works specifically with Ukraine, because currently, as far as we know, it's a couple of people working from Poland that have to deal with hundreds of requests and queries.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Right. It would be terribly expensive for a small startup like Facebook to hire a few more people to cover this issue. But I know what gets up your nose that Google doesn't get any bashing, but it's just as bad. You think.
ANDREY BOBORYKIN Yeah because YouTube. It's one of the biggest websites in Ukraine. Over 20 million people monthly are visiting YouTube. And Google gets very little bashing for allowing Russian funded content to proliferate on this platform. They have like a very personal example. A couple of weeks ago, Nikolai, which is my hometown that is currently heavily shelled by the Russians. I had to evacuate my wife's grandparents from there. When I was moving their stuff to take to Kiev. I noticed that they had a smart television. It allows you to watch YouTube and there was a YouTube on showing a channel that they clearly know is funded by the Russian propaganda funds. And you could freely watch it in the cities that is heavily shelled by Russians. So I think that 100% Google isn't doing enough to prevent that from happening.
BROOKE GLADSTONE That's Andrey Bobarykin. He's the CEO of Ukrainska Pravda. Just after the Russian invasion, Bobi, a Ukrainian gamer, made his own escape with help from his followers in the game: Escape from Tarkov. We'll recap that adventure and then reveal his next chapter. This is On the Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. Now we turn to the exodus of refugees from Ukraine, which was described as the fastest growing displacement of people in Europe since the Second World War. Back in March, we brought you the story of Bobi, a twitch streamer and his family's flight from the war. We're rerunning it now, but if you've already heard it, stick around for a brand new second part of the piece. Micah, take it away.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. So thus far on the show, we've heard about journalist who fled Russia because of a series of draconian anti-press laws that could have landed them behind bars for years. Now we turn to the exodus of refugees from Ukraine, which is being described as the fastest growing displacement of people in Europe since the Second World War. Our correspondent Micah Loewinger, has the story of the flight from war, in an age of micro celebrity.
GAME SQUADMATE What's the news?
BOBI I don't know. No alternate.
MICAH LOEWINGER We're watching a live stream on Twitch.tv of a gamer who goes by "Bobi." It's February 24th and he's talking with his viewers.
GAME SQUADMATE Which direction do I need to go?
BOBI Thank you guys for being with me for so long. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER Most of the screen is taken up by a video game, a first-person shooter.
[SOUND OF A VIDEO GAME GUNSHOT]
MICAH LOEWINGER In the bottom right corner. We see Bobi's face. His weary eyes are peeking through a black balaclava. Behind him is a cot, a stack of wood logs, a furnace and a concrete wall.
GAME SQUADMATE Yeah, that's bad news. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER Bobby is live streaming from a bunker 30 feet below a military base in eastern Ukraine.
GAME SQUADMATE Looks like a definite war boys.
MICAH LOEWINGER His viewers are sharing updates in real time as the invasion starts to unfold.
LOTTIE I've gone back and watched the whole video.
MICAH LOEWINGER This is Charlotte Wallens, she goes by Lottie. She lives in Trenton, Ontario, and she's one of Bobi's most devoted fans.
LOTTIE He felt the Earth move, and you see him sort of pick his head up and look around and he goes, "Guys, I think I need to go."
MICAH LOEWINGER It's at this moment, he realizes that Russia has begun bombing his location.
BOBI I hope I'll be able to see you again. I'll just drive to my family and I'll see if I can keep you updated– at least in text form. Discord guys
GAME SQUADMATE Yeah, you got Discord. Bob, you're good.
MICAH LOEWINGER Discord is a messaging app popular among gamers.
LOTTIE Watching him say goodbye to everybody absolutely broke me. He doesn't know if he's going to make it to see his kids, much less get to see the rest of the people he considers his family.
BOBI I love you guys. Thank you for whatever you've done. I love you guys.
GAME SQUADMATE Wish you. Good luck, brother.
BOBI Thanks, brother. To all of you thank you very much.
GAME SQUADMATE We'll see you soon Bob.
MICAH LOEWINGER That's when the stream ends. I saw this clip as it was circulating on the internet and went to Twitch to see if Bobi had signed back on. He'd been silent for eight days. I wanted to know what had happened to him, whether he'd made it to his family if they were all right. I managed to track him down with Lottie's help.
BOBI So Lottie, did you share with Micah, my location and stuff?
LOTTIE No, not your specific location...
MICAH LOEWINGER Before I tell you what happened, I need to get you up to speed. First off, his real name's Pavel, but everyone calls him Bobi, so that's what I call him. He's from Poland, and he asks that I smudge some of his personal details to protect his family's safety. He originally came to Ukraine to start a business 10 years ago, but in 2014, life in eastern Ukraine, where they were living started to get really rough. Putin's invasion of Crimea accompanied a parallel conflict in the Donbas region between Ukraine and pro-Russian separatists. About 75 miles from Bobi's home. The nearby violence and economic turmoil hurt his business, and it filled him with dread. To get his mind off of things, he started sinking his free time into a game called Escape from Tarkov.
BOBI Pitiable. No PMC guys. Be careful. PMC
GAME SQUADMATE You dead?
BOBI I'm dead, PMC.[END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER It's a first-person shooter game, kind of like Call of Duty. But way more hardcore.
LOTTIE In Call of Duty. All of your teammates are marked as your teammates, and all of your enemies are marked as your enemies, and you have a special map that shows you where all your enemies are. Tarkov has none of that and very little instruction to start with, so it's got a very steep learning curve to it.
MICAH LOEWINGER Bobi became obsessed with escape from Tarkov for a couple of reasons. First, he loved the brutal challenge. You can't just run and gun in Tarkov. You have to be tactical and deliberate. The point is to survive. The weapons are designed to sound and feel like the real thing, and if you let your guard down for a moment, you're dead.
BOBI Those who play Tarkov are those who are able to find peace with suffering and takes a lot of suffering to get good enough to enjoy the game.
MICAH LOEWINGER And the second reason?
BOBI What clicked with me because buildings are looking like, I'm used to seeing this Eastern Europe in real life. And the story was matching the place I was living.
MICAH LOEWINGER Tarkov is a fictional Russian war zone created by Battle State Games. A beloved Russian developer.
BOBI Tarkov was very similar to what was the beginning of the war in Ukraine.
MICAH LOEWINGER For instance, in the game, you can play as one of two private military group. Which he says matched the dynamic in the early days of the war in Donbas.
BOBI There was private armies formed by oligarchs in Ukraine.
MICAH LOEWINGER I get that he really liked the game, but was he good at it?
LOTTIE Yeah,18000 hours.
MICAH LOEWINGER Holy crap.18000 hours is two years.
BOBI I was playing almost 20 hour a day every day. I was like. A zombie using Tarkov as the only drug to keep me out from having any contact with reality.
MICAH LOEWINGER When I think of an escape, I think of going to some fantasy land that's so unlike real life that it gets your mind off of it. But this sounds like you were just escaping into a computerized, gamified version of the world directly around you.
BOBI In real life, majority of things are usually taken away from your hands. If you like it or not. In Tarkov, majority of your outcome depends on you.
MICAH LOEWINGER He felt that lack of real world agency when COVID hit Ukraine. His business, all his investments he'd spent eight years building vanished overnight. He remembers telling his Tarkov friends about it in early 2020.
BOBI I ask them guys, I'm bankrupt. I have family, wife, two daughters and I don't know what to do, how to live. And the best thing I have left under my name is my life insurance. How I can commit suicide. They told me, Don't panic. Why don't you just do what you do right now? But for a living? And then they asked me straight, Why don't you just stream Tarkov?
MICAH LOEWINGER So he set up an account on Twitch. His wife used a connection she had in the army to help him rent a cheap bunker on a military base 18 miles from his home, which would allow him to stream without bothering his family. He also launched Tarkov Academy, a website where 40 or so people would end up applying to be coached by Bobi. The service was promotional and therefore free, but you'd have to put up with this:
BOBI While you're looting the stash, while I'm disconnected next to you. I'll die instantly. Do you understand what I mean? Protect me. Want the f* story to be told?
TARKOV TRAINEE Listen.
BOBI I told you. Protect me.
TARKOV TRAINEE If you're going to talk down to me...
BOBI Many people were saying I was taking Tarkov too seriously, but for them was just a game. For me, it was a source of feeding my family. So every time I die, I'd seen as taking a piece of bread from mouth of my children and wife.
KEITH BODNER The very first time I saw it, I didn't understand it.
MICAH LOEWINGER This is Keith Bodner, a 41-year-old operations manager living in the UK. He goes by "Keife."
KEITH BODNER He's a very intense person when he's in the game, and he's very focused and because he knows every aspect of the game intricately. I honestly thought this guy's crazy.
MICAH LOEWINGER Eventually, Keife and Lottie became two of his biggest fans.
LOTTIE Keife is Bobi's right hand man. They have been gaming together and working on the Tarkov Academy program together for years.
MICAH LOEWINGER Before the invasion, Bobi stream averaged about 40 viewers. Super tiny by Twitch standards, he made 500 bucks a month through donations and Twitch ads, which was enough for his family to live a humble but stable life. And a big part of the reason this operation even worked was because of volunteers like Lottie and Keife.
KEITH BODNER My responsibilities were to make sure that the discord was running smoothly and then moderating the stream.
MICAH LOEWINGER How many hours a week would you say you were moderating?
KEITH BODNER In the region of 50 hours?
MICAH LOEWINGER Why were you giving this person? I'm assuming you've never met in real life – 50 hours a week of free labor.
KEITH BODNER It's hard to explain, but basically you fall in love with Bob. You spend a little bit of time with him and everybody says the same. He's infectious.
LOTTIE Bobi takes everybody in who's kind and genuine, and he makes them a part of his family. Calls them brother, and he calls me sister. And that makes a very loyal following.
MICAH LOEWINGER Which brings us back to February 24th, just before 6:00 a.m. Ukraine time.
BOBI I love you. Thank you for whatever you've done.
GAME SQUADMATE Wish you good luck, brother.
MICAH LOEWINGER He ends the stream, rushes out of the military base. The air raid sirens are blaring, and he begins his drive back to his family.
LOTTIE About thirty-five minutes after he left the bunker, he saw a missile go over its head that we're pretty sure destroyed his bunker. We know it hit it.
MICAH LOEWINGER He starts dictating his will into his phone, which he sends to Keife in a series of audio messages.
KEITH BODNER I told him to pull yourself together. He's got kids that need him, and he needs to think on his feet and he needs a plan to get there. He was like, I know Keife, I needed you to tell me. And then as soon as he snapped out of that, his training kicked in.
MICAH LOEWINGER His training?
KEITH BODNER He spent 18000 hours playing effectively the most realistic Russian military simulator.
MICAH LOEWINGER Over the next four days or so, Bobi traveled over 900 miles as he navigated his way towards Ukraine's western border. To survive, he says, he drew on three lessons that he learned from playing Escape from Tarkov. Lesson one: think, don't run.
BOBI You want to run anywhere. You don't think, where are you running, you're just trying to run away and and as you understand your direction of your movement is determining, will you be alive or not?
MICAH LOEWINGER Throughout his journey, he sends Keife and Lottie messages like this on WhatsApp.
BOBI Everything either of us looks like after followed. No people, no civilization, no petrol and gas station. No food, nothing. Nothing left. Everyone who is running ahead of us took everything yesterday. I was told that we can only travel til dusk. After the dusk, it's better for us to stay in in the forest and move on the roads.
The first night was terrifying because we were in the middle of nowhere and missiles start falling around us. We didn't know what to do, and we see, I think, three families running to some shelter. So, we decided to just pull over, run with them and hide in the basement.
MICAH LOEWINGER Bobi looks at Dischord on his phone, and he sees that Keife, Lottie and some of his viewers are checking in on him.
LOTTIE We spent some time explaining like, Look, it's OK, you're not alone. You're never going to be alone. We will be with you every step of the way and we will watch over you guys over the internet while you're sleeping.
BOBI I actually felt like I don't feel all day lonely because I'm surrounded with people who has been so many years and so many hours speaking together
LOTTIE and all of us are sending our love and our support back to them all. Even the families, we don't know. And he told us that night that it kept them going through the night without panicking.
MICAH LOEWINGER Lesson two: listen for clues. The next morning, February 25th, they wake up to Shelling at around 4:30 a.m.
BOBI From Tarkov, I learned how to calculate the speed velocity of a gun and bullets which are shooting at me by estimating the sound of the bullet. And in real life, it's on 350 meters a second,
MICAH LOEWINGER He applied this technique to figuring out where an explosion was coming from.
BOBI I was able to actually estimate a distance to explosion by seeing it and counting the time to hearing it. I was able to understand that this explosion is 1.82 seconds away from me, 700-ish meters.
MICAH LOEWINGER He realized that the time between explosions seemed to be getting shorter.
BOBI I told him my family we are leaving and everyone was shouting, What are you going the bombing? I said the shelling is around 1.5 km away from us and is coming towards us, so we will go opposite direction. I think the people in the basement, they were thinking, we are mental, but we were actually right.
MICAH LOEWINGER Lesson three: Put yourself in your enemy shoes.
BOBI I was always trying to explain...
MICAH LOEWINGER He would tell his students: imagine you are your enemy. Hunting you right now. How would you do it?
BOBI Where would you position yourself? How would you kill yourself? What would you expect to expose yourself?
MICAH LOEWINGER The Ukrainian interior minister had advised that civilians turn off cellular data so that Russians couldn't track their locations. This meant he couldn't see where he was driving for much of the trip. But Keife and Lottie could, because they were tracking his live location with end to end encryption on WhatsApp.
LOTTIE So we created a map for him on Google Maps and sent it to him as a screenshot and with the instructions page that you can print from Google Maps as a PDF so that he could pull it up on his phone, but turn off his data and everything else to try and make them as invisible as possible.
BOBI Because I had their information turn here left and right. They were able to guide me for the countryside, which I never been before.
MICAH LOEWINGER While they were focused on the immediate dangers of their journey. Bobi had no clue that he had become famous on the internet. That emotional clip of him saying goodbye during his last livestream had been spreading like crazy on Reddit and Twitch.
BOBI I was told that this was actually become so viral it was in Singapore television, in Spain, in England, in TV.
MICAH LOEWINGER More than a thousand bucks of donations had shown up in his bank account. Hundreds of new fans were pouring into his Discord server and showering him with support. This bit of new internet fame, he realized, meant he'd make more money from live streaming when they finally reached Poland, whenever that might be. When I interviewed Lottie last week, she described what she had gleaned about the state of the refugee crisis.
LOTTIE The vast majority of the Ukrainian refugees are fleeing through Poland. It is a five to seven day wait right now in a car.
MICAH LOEWINGER Lottie, and Keife searching Google Maps, looking for places where the family might be able to safely wait out the logjam.
LOTTIE Small, out of the way, close to the border, sub-5000 people with like a road that runs straight through it, one way in and one way out.
MICAH LOEWINGER When Bobi and his family arrived at their suggested village on February 28th, they went into a grocery store.
BOBI There was a queue for bread because of a shortage, of course, and we spent two hours with 30 babushka, which is 30 old grandmas in the queue being so welcome, so helpful, so thoughtful.
MICAH LOEWINGER This little town mostly just had kids and their grandparents because the combat aged adults seemed to be off fighting the Russians.
BOBI For me, it was heartbreaking of seeing the grandma when I see how much money she's having in her wallet. You can see her counting on her fingers. Will she have enough to buy bread?
MICAH LOEWINGER At that moment, the grandma gets a call from her daughter, who is out there at war, asking if she's OK. If the kids are OK.
BOBI And her grandma with absolute peace and smiles laughing, Yes, everything is fine. We have money and stuff and soon hangs off. She openly says to other grandmas that her pension didn't arrive yet because the postman is not working. So she’s actually struggling. And this was the instance when I said I'm done running. I said honey, let's use this momentum what we have. Let's stay here and help those who are really forgotten in this whole conflict. Because if I run to Poland, I would use from Ukraine, I will hear your mom or grandma who is blind suffering, going through it on her own without us, I would feel like a coward. I will not be watch myself in the mirror.
MICAH LOEWINGER They have a plan to escape if things get bad, but for now they're doing humanitarian work with the money they're raising from Bobby's growing fame. With Keife and Lottie's help Bobby set up gamers4Ukraine(dot)com, that's "four" like the number four. He sent me a picture of packed grocery carts, he says, are for families passing through. He told me he's already driven countless people to bus stops and train stations, and that they've also begun renovating a building which will serve as a free hostel for refugees.
BOBI But for the last few days when we are actually actively helping families to run to safety, it changed my life forever because the mental and moral reward for help with no interest cannot be replaced by any other action or activity in life. And I love it because I feel that I've done something which will be left over from my existence in this Earth.
MICAH LOEWINGER When this is all over, if it's all over, do you think you would go back to playing Tarkov 20 hours a day?
BOBI Yes, of course. I'm sure no doubts. I didn't play Tarkov for 10 days right now, and I–I miss it. I wish to be there.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Coming up five months later, Micah follows up. This is On the Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. You just heard the first part of Bobi's story. He's a Ukrainian Twitch streamer whose devoted fan base helped him and his family navigate the war zone. OTM correspondent Micah Loewinger wanted to know how Bobi fared since we first ran that story in March. So here's part two of his reporting.
MICAH LOEWINGER So how long's it been since we last spoke?
BOBI Five months.
MICAH LOEWINGER Five months? Yeah. What's happened? Catch us up.
BOBI Oh, so things are not changing as much as we wish. The war is still ongoing. We are hitting the hard part in the conflict where the losses are quite similar on both sides. I do still help with organizing supplies for local people and fighters.
MICAH LOEWINGER What happened to the refugee hostel that you built? Is that still functional?
BOBI Not so much of refugees these days now. People who are living there are those who are coming back to Ukraine and they need a place to temporarily locate themselves.
MICAH LOEWINGER While Bobi was doing all this charity work over the past few months. He and his family had been really struggling.
ROBERT RHODES I'm telling you, he was practically homeless.
MICAH LOEWINGER This is Robert Rhodes, one of the Bobi's. That's what he calls his viewers from Twitch. Robert's a 21-year-old college student from the UK. In April, he cut class, flew to Ukraine and crashed with Bobi's family so he could chip in with the humanitarian work.
ROBERT RHODES That little room we were staying at – what do we have in there, we had some like tablets, we had some phones, some chargers, food, some nappies, and that's it. He had nothing, really.
MICAH LOEWINGER The timing turned out to be really bad. When he arrived, Bobi had pesticide poisoning and was sick with diarrhea. A shipment of supplies they had ordered from Sweden never showed up, so there really wasn't any work to do. And Robert began wondering why he'd risked his life to just sit around in this tiny town.
ROBERT RHODES I feel like, you know, I'm still wasting away here. As I figured I will go to Kiev, I'll take pictures because I brought a proper professional camera to take pictures and see how the situation is. See how it all is for real. I figured I'd just buy a bus to Kiev. He was telling me how it's such a bad, stupid idea but I was saying, I'm gonna do this, I'm gonna do this. And he figured, I'm not gonna let you die alone. I'll come with you.
MICAH LOEWINGER It sounds like you were a bit of a war tourist. Honestly.
MICAH LOEWINGER That's what sounding, isn't it?
BOBI He was actually shocked because he didn't believe that the main targets were all civilian targets. So he was able to see schools, kindergarten, hospitals, civilian, urban places being missiled by missiles.
MICAH LOEWINGER In addition to keeping his friend safe. There were two reasons why Bobi was willing to go on this reckless trip. First, he'd imported some military equipment, several binoculars, range finders and thermal scopes for sniper rifles and assault rifles, which he intended to donate to a Ukrainian colonel based in Kiev. And second, he and Robert had hatched a plan for him to start playing Escape from Tarkov again.
BOBI So when I was fleeing to pick up my family, I actually took a detour.
MICAH LOEWINGER Back in February, at the very beginning of this story, the day he rushed out of the military base.
BOBI I left my computer in a very remote road in the forest. There was a tiny concrete bridge and I just hide under the bridge in the plastic boxes covered with foil.
MICAH LOEWINGER From Kiev, he was just 4 hours away from the hiding spot.
BOBI And we went and I was able to recover my whole equipment.
MICAH LOEWINGER You drove back into the war zone to get your PC?
MICAH LOEWINGER Bobby. You're crazy, man. You're crazy. [LAUGHS]
BOBI Every single Bobi was against it, besides the one who came to help me. [LAUGHS]
MICAH LOEWINGER You are the poster child of a video game addict.
BOBI It's a lot of money for me. I won't be able to afford to get myself in the second similar setup. I also felt obligated because, as you may know, everything I have was thanks to help of my viewers. I didn't buy a single piece of equipment. I have right now. Everything I have: screens, keyboard, mouse is donated.
MICAH LOEWINGER Fortunately, the trip to and from the computer was successful and uneventful, and when he returned to his family, he began streaming Escape from Tarkov again.
BOBI We are still in Ukraine. We are still helping others to get through this war off Ukraine. But it is getting harder and harder. I will be honest. Contact, contact, contact, contact. On the rocks.
MICAH LOEWINGER I don't think I really understood how important this bit of normalcy was for him, both emotionally and financially, until I began reviewing clips from his live streams in May. He can be seen holding his face sobbing as he watches the donations coming in.
[BOBI SOBBING AT DONATIONS]
MICAH LOEWINGER But soon after Bobby returned to Tarkov, he realized the game had changed during his time off. Many of his friends had stopped playing after a series of updates aimed at making the game more accessible, had also made it less realistic and had attracted rampant cheating.
BOBI I'm no longer able to play Tarkov on so much as I was. I wish, but it's no longer a fun game to actually try to help people live.
MICAH LOEWINGER And for a moment, I think Bobi's future as a Twitch streamer was uncertain. Until the state of the war forced him and his family to reinvent their lifestyle once again.
BOBI The whole idea of how it all started was trying to be independent with their food supplies for next year because we are of concern for the whole economy of Ukraine on the verge of collapse. All the food supplies and everything is becoming harder and harder to get.
NEWS CLIP The World Food Program estimates that one in three households across Ukraine is now food insecure.
NEWS CLIP This comes as a train carrying food to people in Ukraine was struck by a Russian missile.
NEWS CLIP But right now, everywhere in Southern Ukraine, you'll see people harvesting wheat and grain and they're doing it amid artillery and frontline combat.
NEWS CLIP Some suiting up with body armor in order to feed the country. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER In nearby cities and in his village, BobI saw how people had transitioned to growing their own food to cope with these new challenges.
BOBI When we ask how much of land is enough to sustain a small family, we were told that 2000 meters will be just fine to feed all the vegetables and have chickens.
MICAH LOEWINGER A man who he befriended through his charity work offered him a private loan for two and a half acres of farmland. And in May, he and his family moved out there to begin their new life.
BOBI We don't have water here, we have toilet here, we have only 15 gas and everything else I'm slowly building.
MICAH LOEWINGER No running water, just electricity and gas, save for a couple of dilapidated buildings and some fruit trees. The land was completely empty and at first he was a bit overwhelmed.
BOBI Never had the farm. I've never had animals and none of my friends are able to give me any help.
MICAH LOEWINGER And so you turn to the activity that helps him process the world. Streaming video games on Twitch.
BOBI For the first time in my life, after several years of playing mainly Tarkov and Tarkov only. I'm trying to discover old and new horizons. I found hundreds of games which I never expected existed. For example, right now I actually enjoy Ranch Simulator, which is the Early Access –
MICAH LOEWINGER Ranch Simulator? [LAUGHING] So you're living on a farm and you're playing Ranch Simulator?
BOBI [LAUGHING] when I'm resting from the farm in real life, I'm doing the same thing I've done in real life. But in the ranch simulator.
MICAH LOEWINGER Your approach to life is the virtual reflecting the real and the sort of blurriness between the two.
BOBI Yes, you can try many things from games and money has no value in the game because you can always get more, get it faster. You're able to see some of your own ideas and execute them and then see how great you feel or how much you can improve and then work all over again, all over again. So I was laughing to everyone that I would play Farming Simulator 22 to learn how to farm in real life. And guess what? Thanks to Farming Simulator, I ended up actually re-organize the shape of land and to divide it to different parcels so I can grow more vegetables, more plants I need for my animals, and it'll be more efficient for me in the end.
MICAH LOEWINGER Farming Simulator 22 is as tedious and hyper realistic as the name suggests. It's a no frills intro for commercial farming. You're just a 3D guy with a bunch of land, and you learn everything from seasonal growing cycles to brand name tractors and heavy machinery.
BOBI Whoa! That's insane to me! Check this out. [END CLIP]
BOBI There are some farming simulator mod which is sponsored by European Union, which is called precise farming, which gives your old idea of what nutrition need to have to grow certain types of crops.
MICAH LOEWINGER This is fascinating. So the European Union funded a mod of farming simulator. John Deere also participated in this mod to teach people about what kind of pH values and nitrogen content in your soil will help you. That's wild.
BOBI And I learned all of it from Farm Simulator. Right now we are looking how to verify our level of the soil and how to prepare ourselves for next season. And when I explain to my neighbor that I want to do this and that and I want to get my small tractor, they were shocked because they are still using horses and doing everything by hand.
MICAH LOEWINGER Streaming these new games brought in a new crop of viewers.
BOBI Many of my viewers are actually farmers from US and recently one of the viewers from US, he actually helped me how to raise my cow because then I had a problem to make her do what I want her to do without punishing her, because it's a very nice, lovely animal, very emotional. Cows are very emotional, so when we took her from from her mom in a first day, when I came the morning to the barn where she was staying, I literally seen her crying. And I was so moved that I literally lie down in the barn on the hay next to her, then start petting her and she would lay down her face on my belly. And I was like, My God, this animal.
MICAH LOEWINGER What's the cows name?
MICAH LOEWINGER The very original.
BOBI I nickname Bessy, because all my viewers will donate me to buy some animals. They choose the name for them. So, for example, on my pixel he needed me to buy myself a nice rabbit. And a rabbit is called Laggy.
MICAH LOEWINGER Like a laggy game when there's latency from the internet.
BOBI Yes! Wonderful rabbit.
MICAH LOEWINGER Have other animals been donated?
BOBI Yes, we have hyper chickens. Hyper donate me for chicken. We have five white chickens, sixth gray chickens. I have two sheeps as well. And they have this which are also donation from the other viewers. So everything I have in the farm is actually somewhat of my viewers.
MICAH LOEWINGER It's fascinating to me you're playing farming simulator, which is a game based on real life. And then it's almost like your viewers are playing farming simulator by getting you farm animals and by giving you advice on how to improve your farm. You're their simulation.
BOBI Yes. I'm blessed to be in this part because many of them are living in big cities. Many of them, they say they wish to have a piece of land where they can grow their own potatoes or growing vegetables, their own type of cucumbers. But they are not able to.
MICAH LOEWINGER And so they're kind of living vicariously through your farm.
BOBI Yes. It helps me and give them a chance to to see their ideas being executed by this guy on the other end of the earth.
MICAH LOEWINGER Are you able to sustain yourself in your family with what you've built so far?
BOBI Not yet fully. We are using some of the products from labor for example, milk, wheat. But hopefully for next autumn I will be able to fully sustain every food supply without any need to go to store.
MICAH LOEWINGER Bobby told me his plan now is to start a commercial farming business like the one he runs in farming simulator. He's confident that Ukraine will win the war and that his family's safe where they are now. And I really hope he's right. I'll let you know when I call him back up in six months or so. For On the Media. I'm Micah Loewinger
BROOKE GLADSTONE And that's the show! On the Media is produced by Micah Loewinger, Eloise Blondiau, Molly Schwartz, Rebecca Clarke-Callender, Candice Wang and Suzanne Garber. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week, Andrew Nerviano. Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone.