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‘I try to live as though there are no walls’ Former protest organizer and independent journalist Ekaterina Vinokurova explains why she took a job at ‘Russia Today’

Source: Meduza
Pavel Golovkin / AP / Scanpix / LETA

The independent media journalist and protest organizer Ekaterina Vinokurova began working for the state media channel RT (formerly called Russia Today) in the spring of 2019. She now leads a project “The Regions,” which aims to increase RT’s influence among Russian viewers. In an interview with Meduza special correspondent Ilya Zhegulev, Vinokurova explained why she joined a state-run channel and how opposition politician Alexey Navalny affected that choice. This interview was recorded while Vinokurova was in Russia’s Ural region covering protests in Yekaterinburg.

You are currently in Yekaterinburg. Does that have anything to do with the protests against the new cathedral?

It has everything to do with the conflict that’s going on there now. I made this trip because I was asked to write a report. I spent six years working for a Ural news outlet [as the Moscow correspondent for Znak], and I’m a bit of a Ural person now myself.

So you won’t always be a manager, a department boss?

Sometimes, I’ll be a coach who also plays the game.

What is RT in Russian, and what role will the special correspondents’ department play in it?

The newsroom for the Commonwealth of Independent States and the Baltics is growing, and we have a lot of special projects coming out simultaneously. My project, “The Regions,” is one of them. During the negotiation process, I pitched it as an opportunity to tell stories that aren’t about politics — to tell a story about social life. I’m really fed up with Russian domestic politics, and I want to take a break. We want to show a Russia that’s more real than the one you see on Facebook or TV. In Yekaterinburg, for example. We’re also writing on Arkhangelsk, about the trash receptacle

How is that not “the Russia you see on Facebook”? My whole newsfeed is full of what’s happening in Yekaterinburg, and people have been writing about Arkhangelsk too.

What’s far less popular is news about [the forest fires in] the Baikal region [covered by RT here]. Or this incredibly powerful reporting from the Kemerovo region about how children born with speech impediments can’t go to a normal school until they’re seven. If there were a speech therapist [in that village], the problem would be solved. There’s going to be a heart-wrenching report on family orphanages. It’s a combination of an agenda that is relevant right now and topics that aren’t visible from the surface. That’s our basic principle.

So it’s a bit of social reporting with mild critiques of regional or municipal governments?

If you look at the piece on Kemerovo, I wouldn’t call it mild. We explained that there’s a mobile speech therapist project, but because the government wasn’t interested, the project was shut down. I don’t think that’s a mild story.

What was your opinion of RT before and how did it change?

Naturally, my opinion of RT was very bad. To be honest, I didn’t watch RT. I knew from somewhere that it was a total no-no, that it was all very bad. But in the last few years, I think RT has changed, and I’ve changed too. Take the foreign policy agenda. My position on Syria was in parallel with the government’s, more pro-intervention. When the operations in Syria started, I sought out Syrians who speak English or Russian and wrote a piece on the fact that many Syrians are grateful for Russia’s [military] presence.

And are you planning to report on the Donbas region, on the war?

That’s not my department — I don’t manage any war correspondents. Also, the Donbas isn’t a region of Russia. I can say that I haven’t worked on that topic yet. Of course, I want to write about the expedited [Russian] citizenship process, including for people who have moved from Ukraine to Russia. That topic is in my purview.

You say you’ve changed. You used to support the liberal opposition’s views, you would go to protests. What happened? Did Navalny seriously offend you?

I have never been a political agent. The only exception was the protest against the renovations [in Moscow]. Yes, I can’t rule out the possibility that my desire for change might have come about in part because of Navalny.

It’s clear that he was trolling you back then. After you said “Everything was all right until Navalny came along,” that quote became a meme. But it’s one thing to stop liking an opposition figure and another thing to go work for Russian propagandists. How could your position change like that and do a complete 180?

My position changed when I met Margarita [Simonyan, the editor-in-chief of RT]. It happened in tragic circumstances. When Andrey Stenin, the former Gazeta.Ru journalist, was killed in the Donbas [in 2014], that’s when I met her. Some of my acquaintances wanted to reach out to her. After being in touch with her for years, I realized that we disagree sometimes, but I like her as a person. She’s not mean or cruel, and you just have to find compromises everywhere else. Over the years, I’ve become a softer person; I make compromises more easily now.

So, again: did your conflict with Navalny affect your decision to join RT?

Yes. I would be lying to myself if I said there was no connection. As I understand it, it’s one thing to fight for a new, beautiful Russia, the Russia of the future. And its another thing to fight so that you can be the one to fight for the Russia of the future. To fight to be a personality. And beyond that, this fight doesn’t have room for human values. There’s precious little space left for people’s own interests.

But nonetheless, you had never worked for the government.

I was appointed to the [presidential] Council on Human Rights on the president’s orders. And [I see that] people’s interests differ from the interests of the government.

Wait a second, I thought the Council on Human Rights is supposed to defend the interests of the people, not the government. And RT doesn’t do much to hide the fact that its main goal is to propagandize and support the current regime.

In recent months, RT’s Russian side has been defending the interests of [Defense Ministry dormitory] residents on Pirogovskaya Street. RT has had a lot of stories on citizenship [and people who can’t receive it in Russia] — on our so-called compatriots [from former Soviet countries] and their problems here.

And what about the New Greatness case?

I have been and still am an advocate in the New Greatness case. And back then, Margarita said that keeping [the defendants] in pretrial detention is wrong and inhumane.

So you go public with your opposition only when it coincides with Simonyan’s position?

I can do this without Margarita talking about it. And I spoke out about my position on the New Greatness case before Margarita did. And again, I started participating in RT’s philanthropic projects [now led by former opposition journalist Maria Baronova] before I started working for RT. I was registered as a member of the Council on Human Rights two or three months ago.

But nonetheless, there’s a red line you can’t cross when it comes to editorial questions. Or isn’t there?

There was a red line not long ago on a social issue. My red line is not to cause harm to my sources. Even if the source doesn’t understand that they might be causing themselves harm, like in the story [from Batenka, da vy transformer] where the central subject talks about how she’s a heroin addict and she can still live a full life. That piece didn’t change anything on its own.

Sure, but that’s a little abstract. How do you decide on a day-to-day basis what to publish and what’s unpublishable?

We do have an ethical system. And the principle is that you have to listen to all sides.

Second of all, you don’t want carnage to ensue in the village as soon as your correspondent leaves. For example, I think the story around the Perchikov family in the Pskov region is very complicated (Meduza’s widely discussed reporting on the matter can be found here). I don’t think there were any malicious intentions, but there were unintended consequences that weren’t considered in advance. People started bullying the family, and instead of helping the girl, who had some developmental differences, people started provoking her even more.

One of any journalist’s fundamental values is freedom of speech, and the government is infringing on that freedom more and more nowadays.

I try to live as though there are no walls. I live my life as though I’m maximally free. Why don’t we have censorship [at RT]? In part because we have the freedom to talk to each other. For example, I’m talking to you now.

So you think freedom of speech is the freedom to talk to each other. Okay. I heard that some folks from the [Moscow] mayor’s office came to you with a proposal to run for the Moscow City Duma. Why did you turn them down?

No, that’s not true. The people who came to me were a totally separate group who are opposed to the Moscow government. They asked me, and I thought about shooting a message to Mr. Metelsky [the leader of the ruling United Russia party’s faction in the Moscow City Duma], who is also running. I can’t rule out the possibility that in the process, while I was thinking about the idea and going to a huge number of people for advice, someone somewhere sent a message. And then, people played telephone with it, and it got distorted.

So really, how much have you changed in the past few years to join RT?

Now, I think I haven’t changed that much. I saw a lot of more objective and less objective pieces coming out of independent outlets and government outlets alike. That’s why I never shied away from going on the air for Rossiya 24. I won’t pretend I’ve always been objective. When you deal with a story for years, you do start forming your own position.

But there must be some kind of boundary where you’d want to report something and they wouldn’t let you or they would fire your coworker if they refused to dump their sources. Do you have that kind of boundary at RT, with Margarita Simonyan?

Well, judging by my first month and a half on the job, everything’s all right.

Ilya Zhegulev

Translation by Hilah Kohen