Her virtual tours around Kyiv normally attract between 30 and 100 people.
But more than 1,800 tuned in to Olga Dudakova’s livestreamed tours in Ukraine following the Russian invasion.
The first tour was scheduled with only a few hours’ notice, she said.
“It was totally unprepared,” she said. “I didn’t have a plan … I just wanted to show my soul and the tragedy of the situation. … This war is totally unjustified, and it’s unprovoked.”
Dudakova said so many people were posting questions during the online tour that she could barely read them because they were scrolling by too fast. She said people were asking basic questions such as: What is happening? Where is the bombing? What is the reason for the war?
But she didn’t have the answers, she said.
“I don’t know why we are attacked,” she said. “We are a peaceful country.”
The realities of war
CNBC spoke to Dudakova four days after she left Kyiv for the safety of a smaller town. Her family was in such a rush to leave that she put on a pair of shoes she only later realized were mismatched.
This is where Dudakova held her second tour, titled “A Small Town to Hide from Bombing.” While she was livestreaming, Dudakova said she was stopped by police because speaking English in public raises suspicions — a situation which played out in front of viewers, some of whom commented about it on the tour webpage.
“The way in which Olga dealt with the police who questioned her was both terrifying and heartwarming,” one review read. “This incident did more to bring the horrors of war home to me than all the news broadcasts I have heard and seen.”
Now, even this small town is no longer safe, said Dudakova. The Russian army is approaching, she said. When local authorities told residents to buy enough food and water to last a month, Dudakova decided to join the estimated 1.5 million residents who have fled Ukraine, a statistic tweeted this week by Filippo Grandi, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
“It’s weird, you know, I’m a tour guide. … I often tell about war — the atrocities that happened during war time,” she said. “But when you in are the circumstances, it is absolutely different.”
Dudakova likened Putin to a “wounded bear” who’s been “humiliated” on the international stage. “We don’t know what he’s going to do in the end,” she said.
Dudakova’s tours are livestreamed on Heygo, a virtual travel company that was launched during the pandemic. She called the website her main source of inspiration right now — a direct line to share what she is seeing and experiencing with people around the world.
“For the audience at Heygo, I’m kind of the representative of Ukraine, the representative of Kyiv because they can see what is really happening,” she said. “And, for me, they are like a community that’s really helped me.”
Tours are free, though viewers can tip. Before the invasion, people normally gave about 2 to 5 euros ($2 to $5) each, she said.
But that’s since changed, said Dudakova. Viewer support is now helping to fund her escape from Ukraine, she said.
Dudakova was already a popular guide on Heygo, said Ani Chemilian, the company’s chief of staff. But her decision to hold tours during the invasion allowed her to connect with more online travelers than ever before, said Chemilian.
“Dudakova’s first tour after the announcement of the Russian invasion placed her in the top 3 most booked experiences on Heygo,” she said. “The other two are an Icelandic volcano eruption and a Haunted London tour.”
Dudakova said she doesn’t know when her next tour will be held, but people who follow her touring channel will be notified when she plans to log in again. This can be on short notice, she said, mainly because of intermittent internet connectivity.
An uncertain future
Dudakova said her youngest child isn’t sleeping well and is frightened by slamming doors and other loud noises.
Yet, she said, others have it worse. “We are quite lucky because what is happening in other cities … I don’t have words to describe what is going on there. The things that are happening there are just beyond belief.”
They can occupy physically the space, the territory, but they can never defeat people and the spirit.Olga DudakovaHeygo tour guide
She said she felt the international reaction was slow at first, but has picked up, especially with sanctions piling up and the decision to disconnect select Russian banks from SWIFT, the interbank messaging system.
However, she said, Ukraine can’t win the battle alone. “If you can look at the map at the size of Russia and the size of your Ukraine, it’s just like David and Goliath,” she said.
Despite the devastation, Dudakova said the people of Ukraine are united.
Russia “can occupy physically the space, the territory, but they can never defeat people and the spirit,” she said. “What we are seeing now is the revival of Ukrainian spirit.”