Isabelle Khurshudyan had long dreamed of visiting Odessa, Ukraine. Her parents were born there, and although Khurshudyan was born in the United States, she longed to visit her great aunt, who still lives in the city.
But when she finally made the trip this spring, it wasn’t just to see her family.
“Oddly, it’s war that finally brought me here,” Khurshudyan said.
After spending her first few years at The Washington Post covering the Washington Capitals, Khurshudyan, who is fluent in Russian, became a foreign correspondent in Moscow for the newspaper in December 2019. This spring The Post stationed Khurshudyan in Odessa, her parents’ hometown, covering Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
She recently explained the emotional experience.
“Some of it was this dreadful feeling of going to a city where my whole family is from — that I’ve always dreamed about visiting — and I’m literally like the angel of death waiting for this place to get ripped apart.”
At the moment, Odessa is a relatively safe zone. Khurshudyan, a 2013 SJI alum, can walk around freely, going to coffee shops and connecting with her roots. She said that while she has enjoyed learning about her parents’ culture and upbringing, the strongest personal connection she feels comes from building relationships with the subjects of her writing.
“‘The things that end up feeling more personal have much less to do with me and my history than it does with the people you meet,” said, Khurshudyan, who was recently named the Post’s first Ukraine bureau chief.
Every few days, Khurshudyan will venture toward the front line in Mykolaiv to do her reporting, sometimes embedding with troops, before returning to the relative safety of Odessa to write her stories.
A lot of her work, however, doesn’t end up on paper. Khurshudyan spends hours making sure she knows which roads are safe to drive down, which bullet-proof vests are most secure, and which troops she’ll be allowed to embed with. Because the situation and safety measures in Ukraine change so frequently, Khurshudyan has to take constant precautions to remain safe.
“The situation is very fluid,” she said. “A place that might have been safe for you like three days ago is now much harder to work in. So I’m trying to follow all of that and also see where the bigger trends are going.”
Learning and adapting on the spot is not a new phenomenon for Khurshudyan. She began working full time for The Post as a high school sports reporter after graduating from the University of South Carolina, eventually working her way up to cover the Capitals.
The only problem was that she didn’t know anything about hockey.
“She was not afraid to tell the coach, ‘I don’t know this sport,’ and the coach took her under his wing,’” said Post sports editor Matt Vita. “It certainly helped Isabel learn hockey, but I think it demonstrated to the coach that this was a person who is invested in this, who’s taking what we do seriously.”
In a similar, but almost inverse way, Khurshudyan’s knowledge of the Russian language has helped earn the trust of many of her sources now that she is a foreign correspondent. It even helped when she visited Capitals’ star Alex Ovechkin in his hometown of Moscow after Washington’s 2018 Stanley Cup win.
“It’s always easier when you can communicate with someone in their language,” Khurshudyan said. “It’s powerful when you understand people in their language because you really get the meaning a little bit stronger.”
Whether she’s in the press box at Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C., or standing on the front lines in Mykolaiv, Khurshudyan brings the same eagerness to learn.
Covering the Capitals nonstop for eight months helped prepare her for her long stint in Ukraine, she said. She plans to spend at least another month in Ukraine before taking a break, but her stamina hasn’t faltered.
“There was nothing that can prepare you for what she’s doing covering Ukraine these past couple of months,” Vita said. “She responds to a challenge really well, and she doesn’t let you down.”