Portinikov emerges as one of nation’s top journalists, offering fearless commentary

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Nov. 12, 2010, 12:17 a.m. | People — by Natalia A. Feduschak

Vitaliy Portnikov (L) with Justice Minister Oleksandr Lavrynovych during the Shuster Live talk show on April 9.

Natalia A. Feduschak

The first impression one gets of award-winning journalist Vitaliy Portnikov is that he is always in motion.

He taps the table nervously as he speaks, quickly excuses himself as he picks up an incessantly ringing cell phone, and then continues an interview without having lost his train of thought.

Portnikov’s manner, however, is in stark contrast to the measured and often lyrical quality of his writing, some of which has been collected in a newly-published anthology titled “Virgin Mary in a Synagogue.”

It is primarily a compilation of Portnikov’s columns that appeared in the weekly newspaper Dzerkalo Tyzhnya between September 2000 and August 2006.

Vitaliy Portnikov's book 'Virgin Mary in a Synagogue.' (Courtesy)

It is perhaps this contrast of motion and depth that has helped Portnikov win a wide following, as well as recognition from both the public and his peers.

Today, the 43-year-old has emerged as one of Ukraine’s most critical journalistic voices.

He has consistently argued the need for the country to pursue European values and for its citizens to build a civil society where they create their own destiny. He has promoted the message everywhere, from book signings in Lviv and to youth festivals in Kyiv.
I want to have a dialogue with the reader.”

- Vitaliy Portnikov, journalist.

His commentaries are often bitingly critical of Ukraine’s elite and he is fearless in going head-to-head with politicians from all persuasions.

Portnikov’s determination to maintain journalistic integrity has sometimes caused him to part ways with colleagues and publications. But he has stayed true to his principles.

“I want to have a dialogue with the reader,” Portnikov said, and that includes promoting a different point of view.

“Portnikov’s columns have a strategic, but not tactical character,” renowned literary critic Ihor Mykhailyshyn wrote in the introduction to the anthology. “They are dedicated to eternal problems common to mankind, that is, those that are always real and even everywhere.”

Born in Kyiv, Portnikov studied at Dnipropetrovsk University for three years, and then transferred to Moscow State University, where he received a journalism degree in 1990.

It is in Moscow where he honed his journalistic skills. As a student he wrote for Molod Ukrainy and then later for Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspapers.

His job as one of the first correspondents in the Soviet Union’s parliament gave him direct access to the empire’s leaders, including men who helped, and refused to believe in, its ultimate demise.

After the Soviet breakup, Portnikov wrote for some of the region’s most respected publications, including those from Poland, Ukraine and the Baltic States. As it became more difficult to work as a journalist in Russia, he returned to Ukraine several years ago.

In May, Portnikov was appointed editor-in-chief of TVi, the independent TV station that had its frequencies revoked in September after complaints by U.A. Inter Media Group, the nation’s largest media group, which is partly owned by Security Service of Ukraine chief Valeriy Khoroshkovsky. The case is being appealed.

He continues his long-time association with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty for the Ukrainian and Russian services.

I did not know how the Soviet Union can be a father. That feeling was absent.”

- Vitaliy Portnikov, journalist.

The return to Ukraine was not a return to the provinces, Portnikov said. Even during the Soviet era, he felt that Russia and Ukraine were fundamentally different.

“I always sensed that when I crossed the border,” he said. The idea of a Soviet Fatherland that encompassed so many people and places was alien to him.

“I did not know how the Soviet Union can be a father,” he said. “That feeling was absent.”

What Portnikov intuitively felt, however, was the idea of a Europe that includes Ukraine.

“For me it is clear that Europe cannot exist without Ukraine, just like you cannot have Krakow without Lviv or Budapest without Uzhhorod,” he said. “These are common traditions.”

To those ends, along with political criticism, Portnikov’s works are often about connection and belonging. That is particularly true of the anthology, published by Akta.

He stopped writing for Dzerkalo Tyzhnya newspaper in 2008; his columns now appear in Profil.

“It is worth for every one of us to find a nation, the one before which we are responsible,” reads the cover of the simple, yet splendidly-designed Ukrainian-language anthology. “But we have earned the right to be happy and to live a meaningful life. At least next year.”

In Soviet times, it was more difficult to visit a synagogue than a church.”

- Vitaliy Portnikov, journalist.

Judaism has played an important role in Portnikov’s life. Its echoes are evident the moment a reader picks up Portnikov’s book. The cover features Jewish prayer shawls and symbolically important colors that speak of God and physical and intellectual purity.

Portnikov grew up in a secular Jewish family, but one that was linguistically, culturally and religiously astute enough for him to know who he was; the Soviets rid Jews of their identity, but “not internally,” he said.

“In Soviet times, it was more difficult to visit a synagogue than a church,” he said.

Portnikov learned rudimentary Yiddish as a child and later in his career wrote for a Yiddish-language newspaper, although his work had to be translated from Russian.

“The problem was no one knew Yiddish,” he said.
A homeland is [a place] that you love and one that loves you back.”

- Vitaliy Portnikov, journalist.

Age has given Portnikov greater consciousness as a Jew. His first trip to Israel evoked a range of emotions.

Today he has a greater understanding of the Ukrainian diaspora, another layer of connection.

“A homeland is [a place] that you love and one that loves you back,” he said.

After a coffee and lengthy conversation, it is time to end. Portnikov has to write.

“The essays,” he said, “are harder to do.”

Kyiv Post staff writer Natalia A. Feduschak can be reached at

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