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AOAV speaks to Jen Stout, author of ‘Night Train to Odesa’, about reporting on the war in Ukraine

Jen Stout is a Scottish freelance journalist who has covered the war in Ukraine for major outlets including BBC radio, London Review of Books, Prospect, and the Sunday Post. Previously she had jobs in TV and radio with the BBC. Her work in Ukraine has been shortlisted for prizes by Amnesty International, the Foreign Press Association and the Scottish Press Awards, among others. Jen’s book about covering the war in Ukraine, Night Train to Odesa, was published on 2nd May 2024 with Polygon.  AOAV’s Executive Director, Iain Overton, here interviews Jen about this remarkable work.

Iain Overton: Hi Jen.  Tell us a little bit about the book and what you try to convey in it.

Jen Stout: I try to convey the sheer scale, variety, and richness of Ukraine. It’s not just a book about war reporting; it’s a book about my experiences in this country, the people I met, the extraordinary places that I saw because I really fell in love with Ukraine. I mean, back in 2018 when I first went there, but particularly in wartime. Because a lot is said about the resistance, and sometimes it can get a bit schmaltzy, but it is absolutely extraordinary what they’ve managed to do. And a lot of my friends are volunteers, and this has been their entire life for not just the last two years, but eight, nine years of this war.

So as a reporter, I really wanted to tell the full story with a much more vivid description because I wanted to get across just what these places are like and just how beautiful they are. Going across the Danube in the dawn, travelling across Ukraine, the way that Kharkiv looks in the spring. 

I want to write as well against some misconceptions, some myths about Ukraine. I don’t think there’s a good understanding of the country, and a lot of people think of it as this kind of war-torn, Soviet, grey, small country. 

I’m not going to lecture people and tell them they should sit and read lots of history books, but I wanted to make this book very easy to read, very accessible. It does have history and context about the war and about Russia and why this happened, but it’s told through stories and anecdotes and places rather than diatribes. 

Iain Overton: It is lyrical in parts, and it’s very easy to read, and it’s very accessible, all of those. And there’s a kind of a—a journeying quality to it. You very much feel that you’re the reader perched on your shoulders as you travel through. 

This is your first book. What were the points you wanted to try and address when you were writing? What were your main ambitions?

Jen Stout: It is daunting, but I think because I was so immersed in it for so long and because I’m writing about my personal experiences, including those of my friends, it actually became a joy. To flesh out these stories, to write about these places, was really pleasurable. 

For example, when I was in Odesa at a birthday party, talking to Larisa – If you just stopped her on the street for a quick TV interview or a snatch-and-grab vox pop, and she expressed her feelings, which are not pro-Russian but confused, divided, upset, and Soviet-nostalgic, it could be easily misunderstood.

These feelings are very complex. Explaining them is challenging because they can be twisted out of proportion and out of context, and understanding them might require a bit of sociology, particularly concerning shifting identities and the narratives people believe in. Even for an academic, this is hard to convey. 

But by sharing what was said at this birthday party, I can present it in a way that I think is much easier for people to understand, as readers have told me. This clarity is crucial because the war is partly built on revisionism and the twisting of history. We need to set the record straight, but in an accessible way.

Iain Overton: This approach that you’ve shown—this accessibility, this multi-perspective approach—is part of a wider shift by other writers trying to understand the many perspectives of conflict and the nuance of things. Were you trying to make yourself the least important person in the room?

Jen Stout: That’s really interesting. I think there are two different aspects here. Yes, in this kind of reporting, I saw myself as a conduit. I like to say I just go with the flow; often, I didn’t have a firm plan. I wasn’t sure how I’d reach the next destination. It felt like jumping into a big river, letting the current take me wherever, soaking up everything, and learning as much as possible. Of course, to truly understand other perspectives, it’s crucial to set aside your ego and learn when to stay quiet.

It is different from much of the reportage out there—where the reporter is almost invisible. You don’t sense their feelings, thoughts, or even when they’re tired. They might be going from one hotel to another, and travelling by car with a team – and I’m not criticising this at all, that’s just now that reporting is done. And I enjoy those books, but I don’t feel a deep connection to them, as I do with memoirs.

I know it’s somewhat egotistical to include so much of myself in the book. I didn’t want to whine about the practical difficulties like a heavy rucksack or falling ill, but I thought it important to share what it’s really like. People seem interested in these practicalities. Although I have many opinions and a leftist perspective—whichI think aids my analysis and explanation of events—I’d say my approach is more akin to that of a sociologist, trained in ethnography and observation, and focused on gently asking questions. But yes, learning to stay quiet has been crucial.

Iain Overton: Were there particular influences of other writers?

Jen Stout:  Martha Gellhorn was an enormous influence on me, absolutely. The way she wrote, yes, but it’s not just that; it’s how she conducted herself. The way she managed to access war zones, the way she handled the difficult men around her, enduring all that and still leading an extraordinary life. And her principles—her refusal to adhere strictly to the notion of absolute objectivity, or even to believe that it’s possible or desirable. I’ve always admired her strong stance against fascism and her support for the Spanish Civil War. And of course, her humour—humour is so important.

Steinbeck too – his dispatches during the Second World War, especially his observations from the UK, captivated me with their attention to tiny details—like a girl selling flowers during a bombing raid —that really stick in your mind and make the scenes distinct. Marie Colvin was another significant influence. 

I started reading Anna Politkovskaya when I was studying Russian in high school and thought she was incredibly brave, especially how she kept returning to Chechnya to report. I remember an interview where someone, maybe even her family, told her, “You don’t need to do this.” She knew it might get her killed, but her response was not self-aggrandizing—more a practical acknowledgement of her duty because she had the platform and could make a difference.

Iain Overton: You mentioned you were in the BBC. Do you think you see the world in quite filmic ways?

Jen Stout: Yes, I’m not a trained photographer; photography’s been a hobby of mine since my teenage years. I tend to see the world very visually. This influences my writing, as I strive to describe things beautifully—things that I find beautiful, which might not typically be seen that way by others. For example, I found a lot of beauty in the de-occupied territories of Ukraine, areas that were heavily destroyed. I can be romantic about places—and I think that’s perfectly fine. 

Iain Overton: From a journalistic perspective, what do you think readers will gain from my book? 

Jen Stout: I hope they’ll feel connected to a place and a cause that might have seemed foreign, distant, and confusing to them before.

Iain Overton: Do you have thoughts on how the war will end?

Jen Stout: It very much depends on us, doesn’t it? I don’t think this conflict will be over quickly. And I know they can’t give up. No one I’ve ever met in Ukraine has suggested that they should. There’s an existential threat looming over them—we know what happens under Russian occupation. 

In the beginning, people would say, “We believe in victory,” like a mantra. “Everything’s going to be okay.” You don’t hear that as much anymore. You can’t sustain that kind of dizzying hope for two years, especially when it feels like your allies are gradually disengaging and caring less each day. Yet, despite the dwindling hope, I haven’t seen any despair or signs of giving up. But the grief is overwhelming; the losses are profound.

Iain Overton: It’s easy to fall into the trap of sort of claiming national exceptionalism or national character, but I’ve repeatedly travelled out to Ukraine and think there is a pronounced stoicism in the Ukrainian psyche. Was there any engagement that you felt was particularly poignant in describing the current situation? 

Jen Stout: I think “stoicism” is a really interesting word to use, yeah. You could find stoicism in Russian culture too, but it’s very different. There, it often manifests as accepting harsh realities with resignation, enduring brutal rule and tyranny without much protest. The Ukrainian form of stoicism is distinctly different. It combines a readiness to challenge authority, infused with sarcasm, humour, and a deep commitment to living well regardless of circumstances.

I remember once in Donbas, on a cloudy, quiet day, I was with a Ukrainian volunteer and some soldiers. They weren’t just sitting around; they hosted a big feast. These guys prepared amazing dishes—they caught and smoked their own fish, smoked chicken, made carrot salad, and served horilka (a Ukrainian alcoholic beverage). 

Andre, one of the soldiers, mentioned something that stuck with me. He used the word ‘byt’, which is a little word with big meanings, it’s everyday life and the dignity and importance of that. “We’re not animals,” he said. “We should still live, despite everything.” 

This resilience shows in the way people tend to their gardens, even when half of it has turned into a bomb crater. They just keep going, recognizing the beauty and preciousness of a normal, peaceful life.

Iain Overton: Would you classify your book as a war reporting book?

Jen Stout: Yes, but it probably spans quite a few genres. It’s a memoir, I suppose, though I’m a bit embarrassed by the term. It also goes into travel writing, history, and even nature writing at points. Honestly, I’m not really sure which category it should fall under. 

The best compliment I ever received about an article was when someone described one as a ‘proper first draft of history.’ I think that really captures the essence of my approach. It’s personal observation, making it a journey seen through my eyes.

Iain Overton: What sort of response has the book had?

Jen Stout: The nicest feedback is when people tell me they wouldn’t usually read this kind of book but find it surprisingly easy to understand. For instance, someone recently mentioned that, despite reading numerous reports from Ukraine, this was the first time they truly felt they grasped the situation. That’s incredibly rewarding. I think – I hope – that it doesn’t come across as hectoring or lecturing; rather, it serves as a vivid record of a people under immense stress.

Iain Overton: I thought it was an excellent, excellent book and I hope that lots of people buy it because it really does articulate why people outside Ukraine should still care and contemplate this conflict.

Jen Stout: I would like to add one thing, especially since it’s often overlooked: there are many ways to approach reporting. Sometimes there’s a lot of anti-media sentiment. People say to me, ‘Oh, the media lie, but you’re independent.’ Well no – I completely reject that notion. My colleagues, in TV and radio and print, they experience these events just as deeply as I do. I wouldn’t say narrative, long-form reporting is superior to the more analytical, ‘straight’ style of news. We all contribute in our own ways to the same fundamental task.

Iain Overton: Have you got anything lined up so people might be able to come and hear you talk?

Jen Stout: I have a book launch scheduled for June 10th in Edinburgh, followed by another in Shetland, the next week. Over the summer, I’ll be speaking at various festivals, including the Edinburgh International Book Festival and Kirkcudbright. Details can be found on my website. 

Iain Overton: Brilliant, I hope people reading this will go and go and see you.