Oksana Baulina could have just shut up and enjoyed the ‘good life’. She was a Moscow fashion magazine editor.
She wore gold Ugg boots and drank champagne at catwalk parties. She rubbed shoulders with the wives and girlfriends of the Kremlin’s favoured oligarchs.
It was a far cry from her upbringing in a grim, industrial city in Siberia. Who could have blamed her if she had closed her eyes to the politics of the kleptocracy? She had it all, it seemed.
And then she gave it all up. This week Oksana, 42, died for her principles: A dissident in exile, on a shabby pavement next to an access road to a car park at the rear of the devastated Retroville shopping centre in Kyiv.
She was killed by a 120mm mortar round, fired by her fellow countrymen as she reported from the other side of the front line of Vladimir Putin’s squalid war. One of her civilian companions also died. An escorting policeman was grievously wounded.
Yesterday the Daily Mail laid lilies on the spot where Oksana – our wholly admirable colleague and the personification of why journalism matters – made the ultimate sacrifice. She is one of at least seven journalists known to be killed in this month-long war.
Oksana Baulina, a Russian journalist, pictured, was killed by a 120mm mortar round, fired by her fellow countrymen as she reported from the other side of the front line of Vladimir Putin’s squalid war. One of her civilian companions also died. An escorting policeman was grievously wounded
Through the words of friends and former colleagues, we also pieced together a remarkable life that was ended by the regime she chose to oppose.
She had given up her old existence to work for the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny who, this week, was jailed for nine years on trumped-up charges in a Russian court.
In 2019 she had launched his YouTube channel – Navalny Live – for which she continued to work until February 2020. The following year she went into exile for her own safety and eventually settled in Kyiv. She had begun her climb to the top at the Moscow edition of the British listings magazine Time Out. When she was killed she was working as an editorial assistant at the independent Russian website The Insider.
Sofia, a heartbroken close friend of the journalist, spoke to me yesterday. ‘Oksana was a bright, shiny, beautiful, amazing person – emotional, brave and completely uncompromising,’ said Sofia.
‘She possessed a heightened sense of justice: That’s why she couldn’t stay away when someone she cared about was in trouble. She was the only journalist I know who took a brave step and switched her career from the entertainment industry to the opposite – fighting the regime.
Yesterday the Daily Mail laid lilies on the spot where Oksana – our wholly admirable colleague and the personification of why journalism matters – made the ultimate sacrifice. She is one of at least seven journalists known to be killed in this month-long war (Daily Mail writer Richard Pendlebury pictured)
‘She gave up a great salary and luxury life – in order to serve her ideals. She had to leave Russia in 2021 for the sake of security, but she missed Moscow and dreamed of coming back to free Russia.
‘She sometimes jokingly recalled her collection of Louboutins (designer shoes) which remains in a warehouse in Moscow – until better times.’
Sofia said that Oksana’s ‘task in Ukraine was to record interviews with Russian soldiers imprisoned in Lviv. She fulfilled her task and we thought it’s time for her to come back home. But she also wanted to record more material – and that’s when she decided to go to Kyiv. She was unstoppable – she wanted everyone to see the truth about the war. I wish we never agreed to let her go, but I don’t think it would have worked anyway.’
Lawyer Olga Shakina recalled: ‘I met Oksana literally under the splashes of champagne. She had a wonderful sparkling Moscow career – big positions in glossy magazines, parties, press tours of five-star hotels on tropical islands.’
But then the Russian occupation of Crimea took place. Oksana refused to toe the line.
‘While the rest mumbled “gloss is out of politics” and continued to spin in a whirlwind of magic parties and wonderful trips, (Oksana stepped away).’
Ksenia Krushinskaya, Elle magazine’s senior features editor, worked with Oskana on InStyle and Glamour publications. ‘Many are writing about the turn in her career – about leaving the gloss to politics and independent media – as something unexpected, out of the ordinary… that “something went wrong”.’
She added: ‘But, in my opinion, for Oksana personally, at the moment when she left fashion and beauty in order to try to change the situation in the country, everything just went “right”.’
Her ex-husband Kirill Kutalov says: ‘We saw each other for the last time when she left. Now it turns out – for ever.
‘She wrote to me a few days ago: “I’m going to Ukraine.” And that’s it, I sent her a request for a chat, but she did not answer.’
Oksana Baulina (pictured) was killed by Russian shelling while covering the destruction taken place in Kyiv due to Putin’s war
Jamie and I revisited Retroville today. What had been Ukraine’s newest, largest and most shiny shopping mall until destroyed by a Russian ballistic missile that killed eight earlier this week, is still a place of devastation and dread.
There is still the apocalyptic rumble of outgoing grad rockets and a huge column of smoke sits on the north western skyline – the perpetual fire at Hostomel airport.
This is the artillery front line. Perhaps why the Russians hit it so hard. They claim rockets were hidden inside the mall.
Ukrainian soldiers let us through the security perimeter to lay our flowers. One of them uses footage from his iPhone to lead us to where Oksana – who was covering the rescue operation the following day – was killed. The evidence is plain. On the pavement is a small clotted pool of her lifeblood. Next to it is a bottle of water and another containing antiseptic.
Nearby a sign has been shredded by shrapnel from the blast. The sign reads ‘see you later!’ and is a message to drivers leaving Retroville’s car park rather than any existential warning.
‘That’s where she died, in the road,’ says the soldier. ‘That’s where her companion died,’ he adds pointing to an area of grass beside the sign, that is churned up by tank tracks.
Beyond us, Sport Life, once Ukraine’s largest fitness club, is now a concertinaed heap.
Oksana’s body is on its way to Warsaw. Someday it will reach her hometown of Moscow. Her life is over. But her spirit lives on.