Southern Vermont Newspapers Use Owner's Slavic Ties to Report on the War in Ukraine | Media | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Southern Vermont Newspapers Use Owner's Slavic Ties to Report on the War in Ukraine

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Paul Belogour - COURTESY OF VERMONT NEWS & MEDIA
  • Courtesy Of Vermont News & Media
  • Paul Belogour

In the days before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, two southern Vermont newspapers published a commentary from their unconventional new owner that appeared to endorse the imminent conflict.

Paul Belogour — a currency speculator from Belarus who bought the Brattleboro Reformer and Bennington Banner last year as part of a spending spree in southern Vermont — argued that the U.S. would benefit politically and economically from the clash abroad. The headline: "War is the answer."

A week later, the two papers published a front-page news story about the owner's direct connection to the country now under attack. A few dozen people work for Belogour in Ukraine, providing information technology support to his many businesses, including the Vermont companies. The story, by longtime Reformer staff writer Bob Audette, said the papers planned to share content directly from the Ukrainian IT teams as the war unfolds.

"Even now, under the threat of falling bombs, frequent trips to the shelters, making Molotov cocktails, donating blood, and with weapons at hand, they are still finding the time to continue with their work for my Vermont-based businesses," the story quotes Belogour as saying.

Belogour's connection to Ukraine presents an unusual opportunity for his trio of small-town papers to provide firsthand coverage of international news unfolding half a world away. But his own commentary about the crisis raised eyebrows in a corner of Vermont known for pacifist ideals, where his arrival last year with money to burn had already aroused some suspicion. 

"He's obviously a person a lot of people are thinking about," said Athens resident Tim Stevenson, 81, who writes a biweekly column for the Reformer. "Some are wary, as people like us typically are when people throw around money like Paul does. I think his piece touched a nerve."

For his part, Belogour is adamant that he was not endorsing the eventual Russian invasion. "It's just economics 101, economics of war, who benefits, who loses," he insisted in a phone call last week. "There was not a call for war."

Belogour came to the U.S. in the 1990s and attended Northeastern University on a rowing scholarship. He later launched two Boston companies: a brokerage firm that came under scrutiny for its conduct in the largely unregulated, $6 trillion-a-day foreign currency market; and a software development company.

He first ventured into Vermont following the Great Recession and has spent more than $3 million scooping up properties and businesses across the southern part of the state in recent years. His portfolio now includes a brewery, a real estate and development company, a maple syrup retailer, and a 1,500-acre plot in his current hometown of Guilford that he's turned into a summer destination known as Viking Village.

Perhaps his most notable move came last year, when he formed the Vermont News & Media group to purchase the two daily newspapers and their sister publications, the weekly Manchester Journal and the bimonthly UpCountry Magazine, from the Massachusetts-based New England Newspapers, which publishes the Berkshire Eagle.

Belogour said last year that the pandemic accelerated his buying spree. "It's the first thing about investment," he told VTDigger.org. "When there's blood in the streets, that's the time to invest."

Belogour has said he sold his financial firm, but he continues to operate his software company, which employs about 35 workers in Ukraine. They are mainly based out of two locations: Dnipro, a city of about 1 million people in central Ukraine, and Kyiv, the country's capital.

Several of the international employees have been working closely with the Vermont newspapers, serving as a "secondary IT department," according to Jordan Brechenser, president and publisher of Vermont News & Media.

"Our paper group works with them on a weekly basis in some capacity to assist with our digital back end," Brechenser said. 

As word spread that Russian forces had encircled the country, Belogour tried to move some of his employees to Bulgaria, where he has another office, he said in an interview last week. Seven took him up on the offer, while the rest refused to leave. "They wanted to deal with their families, their parents," he said. "A lot of them wanted to defend the country when the time comes, and I have tremendous respect for them."

Around that same time, Belogour sat down to write his controversial commentary. The piece, which ran in the Reformer and Banner on February 22, says a "limited" military conflict in Europe that does not involve American troops would benefit the U.S. by making it the only superpower "by default."

Belogour makes this case by arguing that nations stay relevant in one of two ways: by excelling at everything, or by making sure that "all other countries fail." The problems plaguing the U.S. — from rampant inflation to a diminishing global influence — can be solved "in a single shot," he wrote: "the shot between Ukraine's and Russia's militaries." 

The commentary noted that Belogour owns the papers and included a disclosure that said opinions of columnists "do not necessarily reflect the views of Vermont News & Media."

Brechenser, the publisher, sat on the piece for a few days before running it — partly because the paper had many other opinion pieces it needed to run before Town Meeting Day, he said, but also because he knew that it was a "heated topic" and that Belogour is constantly under a microscope.

"When he talks about controversial topics that are important to him, I'm always slightly cautious to how they will be received," Brechenser said. He confirmed that Belogour chose the headline.

Readers were shocked — and confused — by the piece. Some suggested that Belogour was attempting satire, while others, such as longtime Reformer subscriber Andy Davis, condemned him for glossing over the deadly costs of war.

"This idle talk of war as an 'answer' to American maneuvering for competitive advantage in global markets is dangerously close to the admiration for war voiced by fascists such as Mussolini in the lead up to WWII," Davis, 67, wrote in a letter to the editor. "This is not something I look for in our local business community."

Davis told Seven Days that he has no qualms with Belogour personally. "I thought to myself, What is he thinking? Does he even really know this area?" Davis said, alluding to Brattleboro's history as a liberal bastion of anti-war sentiment. "It was just a really callous thing to write."

Steve Shriner, 64, of Brattleboro, agreed: "He should frankly know better — that in Brattleboro, 'War is the answer' is not how you title it."

The subsequent staff-written piece about Belogour's ties to Ukraine made no mention of the cold economic calculus in his commentary. Instead, Belogour appears to be anguished over the conflict, telling the paper that the war was "sheer madness."

"Did I ever imagine that my Ukrainian colleagues and I would be going through this? The answer is no," Belogour is quoted as saying.

The story kicked off a blitz of war coverage from Belogour's largest daily paper. The Reformer now has a web page dedicated to the conflict, where newspaper staff have posted dozens of videos sent in by Belogour's overseas workers. "Every day I'm getting 100 different videos from the people there," said Brechenser, the publisher. "I'm getting pummeled."

The videos often appear to have been shot on smartphones and offer little context beyond the brief captions the Ukrainians send along. One, for instance, shows a man with a knife standing in the doorway of a train as it's being boarded. "In Lviv, foreigners threatened with a knife people who were trying to board a train to Poland, only let their own people in," the caption reads, without describing who the "foreigners" were.

A smoke screen of misinformation has descended on Ukraine during the first two weeks of the war. Russian leaders have spread propaganda to justify their indiscriminate bombings, while Ukrainian officials have at times floated questionable claims about the dramatic resistance efforts. Both have been amplified on social media, posing a challenge to news outlets as they strive to cover the fast-evolving conflict responsibly.

Brechenser said he usually can't tell which videos Belogour's employees have shot themselves and which ones they have ripped from social media or received from their compatriots.

Noah Hoffenberg, executive editor of the three Vermont newspapers, said he and a few of his local staff members vet the videos for graphic violence, while Belogour and the Ukraine workers review any dialogue for propagandist messaging.

"Can I tell you with 100 percent certainty that this material is not created by either Ukrainian or Russian propagandists? I cannot," Hoffenberg said. "But what we felt as a group was that, with the rapidly unfolding humanitarian crisis, there deserved to be a sharing of these images and videos with our readers in Vermont."

In addition to the videos, the papers have published several original stories, including one that Hoffenberg wrote about an IT executive at Belogour's company, Eugene Sidoronok, who has been sheltering with his wife and 4-year-old son at a friend's home in Dnipro. "I don't have a weapon. But I have an ax, shovel and [pitch]fork," he told the paper. "My family and I will defend our land with everything that is at hand."

Another story describes how Belogour is leveraging his overseas assets to help Ukrainian refugees. The story, published on Tuesday, says Belogour plans to send a bus from a professional soccer team he owns in Bulgaria to the Ukraine-Poland border, where he said it will "pick up as many women and children as we can handle." The bus will then transport the refugees back to Bulgaria, where they will be offered rooms at a hotel Belogour owns there.

The only English-language daily newspaper in Ukraine, the Kyiv Post, has also agreed to share content with the three Vermont newspapers, according to Hoffenberg. The newspapers began publishing stories from the Post online last week.

The coverage seems to be drawing interest. Facebook engagement on the Reformer's posts about Ukraine has outpaced many of its local stories. The initial story about Belogour's staff in Ukraine was viewed more than 20,000 times in just 48 hours, according to Brechenser, who described that as a "large lump of traffic" for a small paper.

But the pivot has also raised questions about Belogour's influence over the papers and whether he's pushing for the stories about his Ukraine ties to mitigate the fallout from his commentary.

Hoffenberg dismissed the idea. Belogour has indeed been "eager" for coverage of the war, the editor said, but not because he wants to deflect attention away from himself. "He's got a pretty thick skin," Hoffenberg said. Belogour's interest "comes from a place of concern," he added. "He has workers, extended family, people that he knows and cares about there."

The editor, meanwhile, seems happy to oblige. "It's the biggest crisis going on right now," he said. "It's completely overshadowed the pandemic, and we have this opportunity to open a window into what daily life is like for people who look an awful lot like us."

In a phone interview, Belogour said he hoped the coverage would convince more people to "get involved" in Ukraine's fight for freedom.

"Do something about it," he said. "Not just talk. Talk does not solve conflicts. Sanctions don't solve a military conflict. Something has to be done on a concrete level, whatever that is."

Asked whether that meant he thought America and Europe should send in troops to Ukraine, something leaders say is not on the table, he responded: "Well, do you want to have hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians be slaughtered? What do you want to do? Watch through the binoculars across the borders as Russian bombs kill civilians? How do you feel about that?"

Correction, March 14, 2022: A previous version of this story quoted Vermont News & Media president and publisher Jordan Brechenser as saying that his organization has sent cases of Vermont maple syrup and beer to Belogour's employees in Ukraine. Post-publication, he retracted this statement.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Foreign Correspondence"