Between Navalny and the press ‘Anti-Corruption Foundation’ spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh defends her team’s investigative work
Opposition politician and Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) founder Alexey Navalny has an uneasy relationship with journalists; not only with reporters from pro-Kremlin outlets, but also with those working for independent media. Navalny regularly criticizes the press for its alleged unwillingness to cover FBK investigations — and is also critical of reporters for refusing to take the opposition’s side in its fight against the Russian authorities. In turn, journalists have reproached Navalny for his handling of conversations with critical reporters, as well as for inaccuracies in the FBK’s investigations. Throughout 2020, Navalny has made increasingly rude statements about editors and journalists, including Meduza correspondents, with his commentary often coming across as more personal than professional. Arguably, Navalny’s relationship with the Russian media industry has never been more strained. To better understand why this is happening and find out how Navalny perceives this breakdown, Meduza special correspondent Svetlana Reyter spoke to Kira Yarmysh — spokeswoman for both Alexey Navalny and the Anti-Corruption Foundation (the following is a summary of their conversation — the full Q&A is available in Russian here.)
Kira Yarmysh’s involvement in politics dates back to 2013, when she volunteered to work on opposition politician Alexey Navalny’s campaign for Moscow mayor. “In fact, I didn’t know anyone, I didn’t talk to anyone, I had never even seen Alexey up close,” she recalls. Navalny ended up coming in second with 27.2 percent of the vote.
A year after the elections, Navalny posted an ad on his blog saying he was looking for a spokesperson. At the time, Yarmysh was studying public relations at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), and working in the press service of the Russian airline Utair. “I was sure they wouldn’t hire me: the requirements said an honors diploma and I don’t have one,” Yarmysh says. After agonizing over her application, she ended up getting the job.
“At first my work was pretty strange: I didn’t see Alexey, he didn’t have conversations with me — he was stuck under house arrest,” she explains. “My first day was August 1, it was the first hearing of the ‘Iv Roshe’ case. I went to the court immediately, without knowing what to do there — except to bring a passport. Where to register, who to sit with, how to talk — I didn’t know anything. And Alexey said to me, very indignantly, ‘What, you’ve never been to court before?!’”
Six years later, Yarmysh is still working for Alexey Navalny and says she has “huge respect” for him as a leader: “He’s the most honest and courageous person out of everyone I know. He has great authority for me. When I don’t know what to do, I think: ‘How would Alexey act in my place?’.”
Today, her job as press secretary looks much different. “Now I’m more involved in video production. We make all of the big videos that come out on his main channel. I basically only work on this,” she explains, referring to Navalny’s main YouTube channel, Navalny LIVE. Reaching 1.83 million subscribers, Navalny’s YouTube channel serves as a platform for discussing current developments Russian politics and, of course, his corruption investigations. That said, the Anti-Corruption Foundation has come under public criticism for occasionally putting out inaccurate work. And his exchange of criticism with journalists has created an increasingly strained relationship between Navalny and Russia’s press.
Asked if this makes it difficult for her to do her job, Yarmysh insists that this isn’t quite the case. “If Alexey quarrels [with someone] this doesn’t mean that I have to fight too,” she maintains. “Luckily, if a journalist needs some kind of comment they write to me, and not to Alexey. If I don’t have a personal conflict with this person, then what prevents them from writing to me, and me from answering? The truth is it’s not really that bad: Alexey decides for himself who to argue with, and I don’t interfere in this.”
On the other hand, Yarmysh admits that a diminishing number of Russian journalists are reaching out to her comments. “The narrowing of the circle of journalists who call or write to me has been going on for the entire six years,” she explains. “Western journalists write to me — their number is not decreasing.” (Be that as it may, Western publications aren’t exempt from Navalny’s criticism — back in January, he tweeted that the Financial Times deserved the “disappointment of the year award” for its interview with Russian billionaire Alisher Usmanov).
“Journalists are nice and pleasant, but when they don’t write about an investigation that I personally had a hand in I really resent it,” Yarmysh continues. “Of course I’m not prepared to say nasty things, but I really want to ask: ‘Why didn’t you write about this?’”
As for Navalny’s own online criticism, Yarmysh says that whatever he posts goes through her, but she doesn’t necessarily try to soften his statements. “He’s not being rude, but rather saying what he thinks. His thoughts are often harsh,” she says. “I don’t think it’s necessary to forbid him from acting this way. So long as it doesn’t go beyond the boundaries of normal dialogue, it seems to me that he can say anything.”
Recently, an online discussion between Navalny and Meduza’s investigative correspondent Ivan Golunov seemed to be getting personal. But Yarmysh maintains that Navalny’s criticism “didn’t cross” the line (Navalny described Golunov’s articles as “impossible to read,” saying that reading them is “like watching a cat get chainsawed” — Yarmysh describes this as a “powerful metaphor,” adding that “Just because a person has a press card doesn’t automatically make him a good writer”).
On July 10, Meduza journalist Ivan Golunov published a post on social media in response to Navalny saying he was “not happy about the fact” that he (Golunov) had defended former journalist Ivan Safronov after his arrest on treason charges. Referring to Safronov’s most recent job as an advisor to Roscosmos head Dmitry Rogozin, Navanly called him a “Roscosmos PR man” (implying that he wasn’t really a journalist). In his response, Golunov posted links to a number of Safronov’s articles that the FBK had apparently relied on in own their investigations, expressing the opinion that Navalny considers journalists “servants.” Navalny strongly objected to these assertions.
In his criticism, Navalny went so far as calling Golunov a “little liar” over his claims that the FBK had relied on the investigative reporting of jailed former journalist Ivan Safronov. “These [were] undoubtedly very harsh and very offensive words, but it seems to me that specifically in that situation, when a person writes a rather arrogant post, accompanying it with links that don’t support his claims, it sounds like a lie,” Yarmysh insists, claiming that Navalny felt the FBK’s own investigative work was being “written off.”
According to her, Ivan Safronov and Navalny’s anti-corruption activists were simply covering overlapping topics: “Safronov mainly rewrote press releases and praised [Roscosmos head Dmitry] Rogozin, and we did investigations about Rogozin and his family. That’s like saying: the channel Russia Today and Navalny are writing materials about Putin, so this means the FBK is using Russia Today materials.”
At the same time, Yarmysh makes it clear that the FBK’s investigations aren’t journalistic works. “We aren’t journalists, we don’t need to present the point of view of the different sides. If we don’t like something and we consider such-and-such a person a crook, then we can call him a crook directly,” she says. “It seems to me that this is the secret to the success of our investigations — they call things by their proper names.”
Despite all of the controversies, Yarmysh says that she hasn’t considered changing jobs. “I can walk with my head held high because I’m not going against my conscience, because I’m working with a person who evokes constant admiration in me,” she says. “My political position aligns with him 99 percent — we only disagree on the issue of legalizing weapons” (Navalny has supported the legalization of owning handguns, Yarmysh is against it).
Asked about the recent resurgence of discussion around the issue of sexual harassment in Russia’s media sphere, Yarmysh claims that the FBK hasn’t had any complaints in the that she’s worked there. “Alexey is very sensitive about this — we just recently had a meeting [where] there was a big conversation about the fact that if someone feels threatened by a superior, they absolutely must come to either Alexey, or [FBK director] Ivan Zhdanov, or to me,” she explains.
Looking forward, Yarmysh says she has no ambitions of going into politics herself, stating “I’m not a politician.” Comparing herself to another prominent woman on the FBK’s team, lawyer Lyubov Sobol, who attempted to run as an opposition candidate for the Moscow City Duma in 2019, Yarmysh maintains that her goals are different.
“Lyuba [Sobol] — yes, she has political ambitions. It seems to me that when she was an FBK lawyer she also heard criticism about the fact that she wasn’t expressing herself and her personality enough. They called her Navalny’s colleague or the FBK’s lawyer,” Yarmysh recalls. “Then she spoke up about herself, became an independent figure — this is her ambition, she wants this. I don’t.”
That’s not to say that Yarmysh lacks ambition: rather than seeing a future for herself in politics, she says she’d like to take up a creative pursuit, writing fiction. That said, this is unlikely to happen any time soon. “Many times I’ve thought [what if] I leave Alexey and in two months something happens,” she worries. “Not necessarily a revolution or Alexey taking the Kremlin, but something like this will happen and I wouldn’t be at the epicenter. That’s just awful. So I stay.”
Summary by Eilish Hart