KYIV—In an exclusive interview with The Daily Beast, famed Ukrainian television presenter and producer Karolina Ashion shared what she describes as the most painful moment of her career: when her former boss—then the director of Ukraine’s 1+1 media conglomerate and current Minister of Culture Alexander Tkachenko—allegedly told her that her appearance on a popular morning show would hurt the network’s ratings.
Ashion is a Black Ukrainian. Her father came to Leningrad, USSR, from Nigeria to study engineering. Even now, six years after the incident took place, Ashion is emotional talking about it, and struggles to find the words to describe her manager’s behavior.
The presenter said the conversation with her then-boss began when she asked him why nobody would invite her to take part in the morning show’s broadcasts. She was working as an on-air talent at two weekly television shows at the time, but had a long-time dream to be featured in the major lifestyle program Snidanok z 1+1, the Ukrainian equivalent of Good Morning America.
“I remember Tkachenko telling me: ‘Have you seen yourself in the mirror? Our channel’s audience is not really… I am not ready to risk our ratings,’” Ashion told The Daily Beast. After coming home the day of the encounter, Ashion told her husband about the conversation with her boss. “I cried in the kitchen and made the decision to quit my job,” she told The Daily Beast. “Obviously it was impossible to stay.”
But Ashion’s career did not freeze. She was offered positions with other television channels and primetime shows, and her popularity flourished. If not for a more recent incident, Ashion might have swallowed the pain in silence, as many people of color often do in post-Soviet countries and across Eastern Europe. But on June 26, the presenter said she ran into the minister and his wife in the city of Lviv, after attending a Chris Botti jazz concert.
“Instead of solving this problem easily by just shaking my hand and giving some friendly ‘Forgive me,’ minister Tkachenko said with a smirk: ‘What do you want from me now? An apology?’” Ashion claimed. “His comments sent me back to the six-year-old incident. The minister demonstrated his confidence. He felt right back then, and he has no shadow of doubt he is right now.”
The Daily Beast reached out to Minister Tkachenko’s office for comment but the official declined to sit down for an interview. Instead, his office provided The Daily Beast with a link to the minister’s comments on Gordonua, a Ukrainian news website, in which he denied having ever said anything racist.
“Of course, you can use the moment when someone claims to be judged by gender, skin color or something else. And it’s a kind of hype. But you can also pay attention to the fact that Karolina now works for a channel that belongs to [Ukraine’s ex-President Petro] Poroshenko and where they always have biased interpretations of my positions in a biased way,” the comment read.
Ashion was upset by what the minister was implying. “The minister lies publicly, it’s disgraceful. Tkachenko accuses me of some political agenda now, but it’s wrong to twist the facts,” she said. “I’ve been cautious not to mix the issue of racism with politics. I’ve decided to speak out purely for the sake of thousands of Black Ukrainians, who are wounded just like me, suffering from racist comments.”
Tkachenko refused to apologize and declined to address the issue, even as it became widely discussed in Ukraine. And then, this week, another racism scandal erupted when a Black Ukrainian, comedian Victor Vemun, spoke out being invited to an openly racist show, Taras the Papuan, which has mocked Black people as “whites who’ve been burned over the fire.”
Vemun and his sister rejected the offer. “For as long as they say from our country’s most popular stages that the color of our skin is just burnt white skin, Ukrainian parents will tell their kids, that we, black people, are black because we are burnt, smoked humans,” Vemud said in his Instagram post captioned, “We plummet to new depths.”
Casual racism has long plagued post-Soviet countries. “For a long, long time I’d [only] get invited to castings for Cuban stripper roles,” Moscow movie actor Jean-Michel told The Daily Beast. “It is important to speak about this issue. I often notice that on seeing a Black guy… or a girl with big Afro hair, people can’t even fathom that the person was actually born in Russia.”
Although Ukraine has a better freedom of speech record than Russia, racism is not broadly discussed on mainstream airwaves. Some far-right voices have gained prominence in Ukraine during the war in Donbas, as defenders of Ukraine, although nationalist parties have very little public support in parliament.
“The issue of casual racism exists but the discussion is not going to begin until people decide whether ‘Ukraine is for Ukrainians,’ as some nationalists demand, or whether it is a melting pot,” Ukrainian television presenter and political pundit, Yevgeny Kiselev, told The Daily Beast. “Society has not decided yet.”
In the past few years, Ukraine’s ancient capital of Kyiv, the graceful city of Odessa on the Black Sea, and Lviv, known for its arts and its culture, have drawn in tourists from around the world. The Verandas of Kyiv’s central avenue of Kreschatik were packed with foreigners, diverse in nationality and ethnicity, all weekend.
“The sooner we begin to articulate, stress out the issue of casual racism, the better. I am very happy that Karolina had the guts to speak out,” prominent Black Ukrainian musician and composer Miroslav Kuvaldin said in an interview with The Daily Beast in Kyiv.
Kuvaldin’s father was from Nigeria, just like Ashion’s.
“Tkachenko simply does not understand what Karolina is trying to tell him,” he said. “He is entirely blind to the issue.”