Not everyone has what it takes Roman Anin, whose home and newsroom were raided by federal agents last week, explains the challenges of investigative journalism in Russia today
Roman Anin says part of his job is knowing to expect a visit from the authorities at any moment. When federal agents showed up at his Moscow apartment last week, however, he wasn’t immediately sure why they’d come. Officials searched his home for almost seven hours, working until midnight, before questioning him for a few hours more. It was only the next day when he learned that a separate team had also raided the iStories newsroom on Friday. The searches are part of an investigation into a case of alleged privacy invasion “committed through abuse of office.” Anin is currently listed as a witness, but he believes he could face felony charges himself. The trouble stems from an investigative report Anin wrote in 2016 when he was still a reporter at the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, where he revealed that Olga Sechina (then Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin’s wife) owned one of the most expensive luxury yachts in the world. Meduza spoke to Anin about the raid on his home, why this case has suddenly returned, and what it means for other investigative journalists in Russia.
iStories chief editor Roman Anin says he had no advance warning about the privacy invasion case where he’s currently considered a witness. Igor Sechin won a defamation lawsuit against Novaya Gazeta back in 2016, when the article about the yacht was published, but Olga Sechina’s charges were rejected due to paperwork errors. Sources close to the Rosneft CEO told Anin that officials decided to take their time to pursue a felony investigation (not just another civil suit).
Anin believes it required the consent and orchestration of the Federal Investigative Committee’s senior staff to raid his home and the iStories newsroom. An entire team of detectives has been assigned to the case, and the Federal Security Service (FSB) is supplying “operational support.” Anin acknowledges that some police crackdowns in Russia are the result of “excesses” at mid-level positions, but he says a case involving Igor Sechin and his family inevitably reaches top officials.
The officers who came to Anin’s home were apparently looking for anything that might tie him to illegal activity. They seized belongings that have nothing to do with the 2016 article about Olga Sechina’s yacht — things Anin didn’t acquire until years later. Some of the “evidence” wasn’t even his: officials also impounded his girlfriend’s electronics. “They were especially interested in all the documents in English and the details of my studies at Stanford,” Anin told Meduza, referring to his journalism fellowship in California from 2018 to 2019.
But why would the police drag a journalist into a felony investigation and rehash his investigative report years later, reminding everyone that Igor Sechin’s wife once owned an impossibly expensive yacht? To answer this question, Roman Anin says it’s important to understand that Russia’s authorities believe their actions are perfectly rational. “From their perspective,” he explains, “it’s not stupid because they want to punish this uppity journalist and his little new media project that dares to publish these big stories. And they don’t give a damn what society says.”
But “society” can be a tricky concept. Anin warns that many journalists labor under the delusion that their readers in Moscow and St. Petersburg constitute Russian society. For law enforcement, however, “it’s the millions of people who don’t read Meduza or iStories or any of the other independent media.”
At the same time, Anin bristles at the suggestion that ordinary Russians don’t appreciate reporting about corruption. “Let’s not speak in the Kremlin’s terms by saying that ‘the people at heart’ don’t care about what we’re doing,” he told Meduza, describing how he has talked to locals in small towns and found a receptive audience for stories about corruption, so long as they are presented “concretely.” The challenge, he says, is explaining often convoluted schemes to readers.
However complicated a story becomes, the average person still understands and rejects what Anin calls “unethical consumption,” and this is the corruption at the core of his investigation into Olga Sechina’s yacht. “In a country where there’s such a [wide] gap between the rich and the poor, it’s unethical to spend money on such a luxury,” argues Anin. “And I’ve also got some questions about where Igor Sechin could have found the means to buy or even lease such a boat.” Russians surviving on a monthly pension of 13,000 rubles ($170) also want to know, he says.
But to be an investigative journalist, it takes more than explanatory powers and a grasp of popular outrage. Anin says a good investigator is someone who can “wield many skills all at once,” and he cautions those who think it’s just typing surnames into property databases. The work requires knowing how criminal justice works in Russia and understanding psychologically how to persuade sources to share case records. Most importantly, investigative journalists in Russia need to come to grips with the job’s “constant stress” and the unending risk of provoking pressure on their families, criminal prosecution, or even assassination. Anin says he’s known colleagues who were wrecked when the dangers of their work suddenly hit them. “You have to come to terms with whether you really want this,” he told Meduza.
Russians who do pursue investigative journalism will have different experiences, depending on where they do it. When federal agents raided Roman Anin’s home last week, they “made a show” of following every rule in the book, he says. “But [outside Moscow or St. Petersburg] in the regions, they handle journalists differently. They might beat you up, and they could easily plant something on you. They wouldn’t give a damn about proper procedures,” warns Anin.
Summary by Kevin Rothrock