Bulletins and Bulletproof Vests: A Feisty Community Newspaper Shifts Its Focus to Helping Ukraine Survive

The paper, co-founded by Nataliya Anon, MBA ’01, is a source of news for Ukrainian-Americans and support for people in the war zone.

April 25, 2022

| by Kevin Cool
Nataliya Anon speaks at a rally in support of Ukraine. Credit: Courtesy of Nataliya Anon

Hromada co-founder Nataliya Anon at a rally to support Ukraine. | Courtesy of Nataliya Anon

Months before Russian tanks began rolling into Ukrainian cities, a tiny, nonprofit newspaper in Corte Madera, California, warned that Vladimir Putin had bad intent. Hromada — “community” in Ukrainian — implored the West to act preemptively to dissuade the Russian president. We were saying, “Please impose the sanctions now. Do not wait until they start killing us,” says Nataliya Anon, MBA ’01, who cofounded the monthly newspaper in 2017 as a messenger of the Ukrainian diaspora. Now, the only Ukrainian-language newspaper on the West Coast has become not just a crucial source of news and commentary but also an energetic supplier of money and support for the Ukrainian people.

Mostly run by volunteers, Hromada has established a loyal readership — Anon says between 5,000 and 10,000 people read either the monthly print issue or periodic online updates. The war has enlarged the paper’s influence and its mission: As of April 1, Hromada had raised more than $200,000 to assist Ukrainians in the war zone.

The newspaper has always been a labor of love for Anon, whose full-time job is as the CEO of Svitla Systems, a software development company she founded 18 years ago. But she never expected it would include sourcing bulletproof vests for soldiers in her native country. “We put out a mailing recently that instructed people how to go to their local police department and ask for extra vests or ones that are worn out so that we can ship them to Ukraine,” she says.

Anon immigrated to the United States in 1992, soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall. She earned a master’s degree in information technology and accounting at the University of Kansas, then worked on the tax desk at Ernst & Young until 1999, when she enrolled at Stanford GSB. It wasn’t until she met Hromada co-founder Lesya Castillo at the Ukrainian Catholic Church in San Francisco that she entertained the prospect of publishing a newspaper. Castillo “is an editor, but needed business backing and financing to launch it,” Anon says. “I thought it was a great opportunity to unite the community and give it a voice.”

“In these very turbulent times, this newspaper gives us an outlet where we can voice our opinions,” Anon says. “Here we can state how we see this horrendous war unfolding and what is really needed from the community here in the U.S. to stop it.”

She is adamant that the West needs to do more to help Ukraine fight off the Russians. “Ukraine needs tanks, airplanes, antiaircraft weapons to stop this carnage,” she says. And she believes the Biden administration should seek to have Russia labeled as a state sponsor of terrorism.

You have spent nearly all your adult life in the United States, but clearly Ukraine remains close to your heart.

This is very personal for me. My elementary school classmate, who taught me how to ride a bike when we were like six years old, is in the city of Mykolaiv, which has been heavily shelled. He joined the local territorial defense group. I talked with him today [April 4] and he told me 10 civilians died from Russian bombs. Just today. Luckily, my parents live here, but when I talk to them the feeling is like somebody removed something inside of us, like a part of our soul has been taken.

Your newspaper was out front early asking for sanctions to try to fend off an invasion. What was the reaction at the newspaper when it occurred?

“Luckily, my parents live here, but when I talk to them the feeling is like somebody removed something inside of us, like a part of our soul has been taken.”

We could not really believe that this worst-case scenario — a full-scale invasion with killing of civilians on multiple fronts — was going to happen. [When the invasion began] on February 24, I was supposed to be interviewed by BBC radio, not in the context of the war, but in the context of business — what was I doing with our workforce in Ukraine? But I canceled the interview because frankly I was just shocked and so overwhelmed, I didn’t know what I was going to say. I was going to break down during that interview. That state of shock lasted for a couple of days, but then we reoriented ourselves. The paper comes out on the first of each month and we knew it was important that we keep that schedule.

Who are your reporters in Ukraine?

One of our writers is Oles Doniy, who is a very famous political activist in Ukraine. He was one of the leaders of the first Maidan Revolution in 1991, which precipitated Ukraine’s independence. Immediately after the invasion he sent me an article. It was titled “How do you tell your four-year-old daughter about the war?” Vitaly Portnikov, one of the top political observers in Ukraine, has his own column in Hromada. Andriy Dubchak, a journalist covering the war from the frontlines, has a regular column in Hromada. Our youngest journalist is Karyna Nikitishyna — she just turned 21 — who writes for us from Kyiv.

When was the last time you were in the country?

I was in Ukraine in September this past year and before that in May on business for my company. I was in Kyiv and Kharkiv and I’m telling you, it’s heart-wrenching. We don’t even know if the building where we rented our office is still standing.

Nataliya Anon with a table displaying copies of Hromada at the San Francisco Symphony. Credit: Courtesy of Nataliya Anon

The newspaper has raised more than $200,000 for Ukraine relief aid. | Courtesy of Nataliya Anon

Although the war has intensified the effort, Hromada has been involved in humanitarian work for some time. What was the impetus for that?

Before this war, there were already 3,000 children in Ukraine who were orphaned because their fathers have been fighting in eastern Ukraine since 2014 [when Russia annexed Crimea]. For the past four years we have collected Christmas funds for these children. We sent $50 per child to those families who lost their fathers and mothers in the conflict. Now there are many, many more orphans, very sadly.

So we already had a network of humanitarian organizations that we have been working with. And since the war started, of course, we stepped up. Basically, every day we send mini-grants — $5,000 here, $10,000 there — to local charity organizations or volunteers on the ground we trust.

Prior to the invasion, ostensibly as part of his rationale, Vladimir Putin asserted that Ukraine wasn’t really a country, but was a creation of Russia. Is there a sense among Ukrainians of nationhood?

Ukraine is a country with a 1,000-year history. It has its own rich heritage, its own language, which is very different from Russian. What Russia is talking about is a myth created in the head of Putin. Ukraine has been under a brutal occupation by Russians for more than 300 years. Many generations of Ukrainians died in gulags fighting for independence. And this is true in my family. My great-grandfather fought for independence during the Ukrainian insurgency in 1944. He was killed by Russian occupiers, leaving my grandmother fatherless at four years old. And now four generations later, when we thought we were done with this Russian aggression, it’s repeating itself.

Has the war clarified what you value most?

This experience has changed me personally. Everything is more black-and-white. Here [in the United States] we fight about cruelty against animals, the environment, but these things now seem like political niceties. It is hard to reconcile that with what is happening in Ukraine — atrocities, mass rapes, children being killed. When you see this, everything becomes much more naked and raw. This is a fight for the survival of innocent human beings. And the survival of Ukraine as a nation.

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