How getting arrested for being a Russian spy in Ukraine changed my life

A totally independent approach to frontline reporting - supported by patrons and podcasts - provides a unique freedom to tell it like you see it.

On Day Two of Russia’s big war I was arrested by a Ukrainian soldier in Kyiv on suspicion of being a Russian spy. “Do I look like a Russian spy?” I yelled. Never argue with a Ukrainian with a loaded machine gun. I was carted off to the HQ of Ukrainian intelligence, investigated, freed and that evening back in my flat I made a two-minute film for Twitter declaring, long before it was fashionable, that Vladimir Putin was in trouble. That film got one million views. Some of those viewers supported me on my patreon account which I had set up a few days before. My patrons rose from zero to two thousand. That number has now gone down to 1,200 but the support of these bloody brilliant people – I love every single one of them – has given me the freedom to speak my mind to the Kremlin and everyone else who is listening.

My 1,200 patrons pay me roughly £4,500 a month. That means I can report the war as I see fit. A ton of that money goes on renting flats in Kyiv, fixers, petrol – Ukraine is vast – and, of course, alcohol. I have been to Bakhmut seven times, the hotly contested mining town in the Donbas, five as the guest of my great friend, Vlad Demchenko, the Ukrainian soldier who arrested me on day two. After Bakhmut, I need a drink or nine. But thanks to my patrons, I report on the war without favour or fear.

John Sweeney in Kherson

It is fantastically liberating. The other day I was a guest on the BBC Radio Four’s Media Show along with three other great broadcasters talking about the war in Ukraine. I am a little embarrassed to stay that I vapourised the apple cart when I said that the striking thing about this war, different to the wars in Yugoslavia, Iraq and Afghanistan, is that this one is a “war between good and evil”. The broadcasters for the mainstream media ummed and aahed.

My 1,200 bosses want me to speak my mind. In particular, they love the sign off of my War Diaries on twitter: “Vladimir Putin, do fuck off!” But I stand by my judgment that Ukraine is good and Putin’s Russia is evil. Not only that: that judgment sits squarely inside “due impartiality.”

The concept is a classic BBC compromise. I spent 17 years of my life working for Auntie and I loved much of that time. I still pay the license fee and I believe that, as Jeremy Paxman once put it, “the BBC is a noble thing.” “Due impartiality” means that BBC reporters should be impartial but the noun is qualified by the adjective “due”. So it was OK for me when I was a reporter for BBC Panorama to report that Scientology thought that I was a bigot, a liar and psychotic, that Scientology believes it is a force for good, etc etc, but also that ex-members believe that it is a brainwashing cult. Or, simply, that it’s a cult because the adjective “due” – in the sense of proportionate – governs the noun “impartiality”.

In English English “due impartiality” means “be fair.” Let’s apply that to Russia’s big war against Ukraine. The Russians say that they don’t target civilians. In the first week of the war, two Russian missiles attacked Kyiv’s TV Tower. One overshot and hit a row of shops, killing four civilians. With my own eyes, I saw the cops take away the bodies of an old man, a mother and her five-year-old daughter to the morgue. The Russian army rapes, castrates and uses torture on an industrial scale. It bombs schools, hospitals and homes on repeat. The Ukrainian army does nothing like this. Its army fights the Russian army. So it is essentially fair to call this war a battle between good and evil. When I say that Kyiv in 2023 feels like what I read about London in 1940, that’s not a flight of fancy. It is my strong belief.

I may be wrong. But my patrons and the 280,000 or so people who follow me on twitter seem to like the clear way I call a spade a spade, the Russian killing machine the Russian killing machine.

By the way, that does not mean I am uncritical of all Ukrainians. On my twitter feed to my patrons and in my book, Killer In The Kremlin, I set out the evidence that President Zelenskiy was foolish to promote Andriy Smirnov to the deputy head of his office after he had issued a death threat to an environmental activist in Kyiv. But Zelenskiy was democratically elected; Putin is a dictator and a fascist. To equate the two is to be so unfair as to lie.

Aside from my patrons, I have two other income streams that keeps the wolf from the Sweeney door: crowdfunding and books. I crowdfunded my podcast series, Taking On Putin, and we are crowdfunding our Byline TV film about Putin’s world war. I got a sweet advance for Killer In The Kremlin from Penguin. That said, going to the wars is not cheap: driving to the Bakhmut area takes nine hours, then nine hours to Kherson, then six hours back to Kyiv. Gas, fixers, apartments, food, drink: it all eats up money. You burn through thousands of dollars, every trip. Life insurance for someone like me is too expensive but I have a plan in place if I get injured. For the moment, my luck holds good.

When I go to the war zone, I take intelligent risks, mitigated. On my last trip our driver was my friend Paul Conroy, who is currently teaching hostile environment courses for Ukrainian journalists. We’ve done the training, we wear flat jackets and helmets and I carry a tourniquet in my brown corduroy jacket. I turn down offers of going to the very frontline. But it is also important to keep on telling people about the war.

I don’t want to bring down the giants of broadcasting and print journalism. I’m not suggesting that the BBC and the New York Times can be crowdfunded. But the invention of platforms like Patreon and Substack have enabled ordinary, extraordinary people in Britain and across the world to hear the voices of ordinary, extraordinary Ukrainians through story-tellers like me without bosses faffing around. And that is exciting.

Of course, it is risky. That’s part of the fun. When the Ukrainian cops blocked the streets in Kyiv for a high-profile visitor, I tweeted that the word was the visitor was Biden. Back in the day when I was at the BBC, management would have hated that.

I have never been so professionally happy my whole life. Oh – and one more thing – Vladimir Putin: do fuck off! 

John Sweeney
John Sweeney
John Sweeney is a former BBC Panorama reporter, the author of fourteen books including the Sunday Times best-seller Killer In The Kremlin and the host of the number one UK Apple podcast charted Hunting Ghislaine. From before the start of Vladimir Putin’s big war in February 2022 he has reported from the Ukrainian capital and the frontline for his 275,000 followers on Twitter. He lives in London and Kyiv.

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