‘You can’t just walk away’ It’s a crazy time to be a reporter in Russia. But these journalists can’t imagine themselves doing anything else.
2021 has been a bad year for Russian journalism. Numerous independent media outlets were declared “foreign agents,” security officials raided the homes of reporters and editors, several media projects shut down entirely, and dozens of journalists left the country, fearing unlawful persecution. Meduza (the news site you’re reading right now) was labeled a “foreign agent” in April, which forced us to restructure our operations. To stay afloat, we launched a crowdfunding campaign and a merch shop. We and other journalists need your support more than ever. Luckily, it’s easy to make a contribution. In September, the brand Friend Function collaborated with Meduza to launch a special collection of clothes and accessories called “Pressa” (the Russian word for “the press”) — for those who believe in freedom of speech and want to show solidarity with independent newsrooms. We also asked our colleagues why they continue to work as journalists, in spite of it all. Here’s what they told us.
We’d also love for you to sign this petition demanding the repeal of Russia’s repressive “foreign agent” legislation. Thank you! 🖤
Correspondent for Dozhd television
“I don’t know why I continue to work in journalism,” says Ksenia Mironova. Her fiancé, former journalist Ivan Safronov, has spent the last 15 months in Moscow’s Lefortovo remand prison on treason charges that many presume are connected to his past reporting. And the newsroom Ksenia works for, Dozhd television, was designated as a “foreign agent” back in August. “Many of my journalist friends had to leave the country. A normal person probably would have tried to change fields a long time ago,” Mironova muses. “But I can’t do anything else, and most importantly — I don’t want to.”
Mironova says that not seeing your work produce direct results can make journalism feel like a thankless task. Indeed, journalists often cover difficult topics, knowing that their reporting may not have the desired impact. “You don’t even have the right to promise [people] something — help or that everything will be fine,” Mironova laments. “It’s difficult to write about torture, knowing that, in all likelihood, no one will answer for it.”
“But when [your] heroine who lost a child writes an enormous message thanking you for having a conversation it stays with you forever,” she continues. “There are examples of when journalists managed to resolve an issue or change something for the better. True, in Russia, doing this becomes more and more difficult every month. But this isn’t the fault of journalists. It’s difficult to win at chess when you’re playing by the rules, and your opponent hits you over the head with the board.”
Correspondent for Novaya Gazeta
Elena Kostyuchenko loves working as a journalist, even in Russia in 2021. “The harassment we face doesn’t make the job any less cool,” she tells Meduza. As a correspondent for the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, Kostyuchenko is used to working under pressure. “For us there was never this peaceful period, like for journalists from other publications,” she explains.
Novaya Gazeta has seen six of its reporters killed since 2000. When its editor-in-chief Dmitry Muratov was awarded this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, he said it belonged first and foremost to his deceased colleagues. “Our employees are killed periodically. Two women who worked on Chechnya were killed — one after another,” Kostyuchenko recalls, referring to correspondent Anna Politkovskaya and human rights activist Natalya Estemirova. “Now [Novaya Gazeta correspondent Elena] Milashina has taken their place. I consider the fact that she is still alive proof that journalistic solidarity exists and is possible — and [that] it works,” Kostyuchenko underscores.
The way she sees it, journalistic solidarity can appear quite radical. “If your colleague is killed or imprisoned, or not allowed to work, you have to take his place and continue to do what he did,” Kostyuchenko explains. “In this way, we show people, institutions, and the state, who perhaps want to prevent journalists from working, that it’s pointless to kill us, it’s pointless to close newspapers, it’s pointless to hang a ‘foreign agent’ label.”
Correspondent for Meduza
Meduza correspondent Ivan Golunov has worked as a journalist for more than a decade, and he sees no reason to stop now. In his view, society needs “watchdog journalism” — especially to counter forces like corruption. And Golunov is certain that his own investigative reporting has made a difference.
“Western investigative journalists have this method of assessing their performance [by calculating] the amount of money saved as a result of their work. When I found out about this method, I decided to calculate my own effectiveness — now, I don’t even remember how many billions of rubles it turned out to be,” he says.
That said, Golunov’s investigative work has also landed him in hot water. In 2019, Moscow police planted drugs on him and arrested him on trumped up charges — he was released following a solidarity campaign. The officers involved were later convicted of falsifying a criminal case. Golunov sees this incident as part of a wider pattern of pressure on journalists, one that is more or less constant — even if at times the repressions are less obvious.
Be that as it may, he’s determined to continue his investigative work. “There have always been people who have tried to influence the media in some way. And what is one to do? Wait 25 years? That’s kind of stupid. You need to do what you can, as circumstances allow,” Golunov insists.
Editor, designated as a “media foreign agent”
“I looked at hiring ads for supermarket cashiers after being designated as a ‘foreign agent’,” Maria Zheleznova tells Meduza. “Let’s say that I decided to give myself and my profession a couple more chances.”
Zheleznova has worked in journalism for a decade, and she never seriously considered going into another profession. This is in spite of the fact that she’s been forced to resign from not one, but two journalism jobs in her career. Zheleznova was one of the many journalists who walked away from the once well-regarded business daily Vedomosti in 2020, after “the owner and the editor-in-chief changed, and it became clear that it would now be a completely different paper.”
“When you understand that doing what you did and what you came to this newsroom [to do] is becoming completely impossible under the influence of circumstances beyond your control […] all that’s left is for you to hand in your last article and quit,” Zheleznova explains. “Even if you understand that this was the only right decision, it’s still hard.”
After leaving Vedomosti, Zheleznova went to work for the investigative news outlet Proekt. But her time there was cut short when the Russian Attorney General’s Office outlawed Proekt as an “undesirable” organization. “In ten years I’ve had three jobs. Twice I resigned with a heavy heart, and the third was Proekt, which our government, in recognizing its work as ‘undesirable,’ killed in an instant,” Zheleznova laments. “I have a gloomy resume, indeed.”
On the topic of journalistic solidarity, Zheleznova says that its capacity to change anything depends entirely on its scale. “Yes, it exists, but we’re not talking about a professional corporation of thousands, united by common values and a willingness to defend them,” she explains. “It would be naive to think that here and now journalistic solidarity can do everything. […] In the summer of 2021, a rally for freedom of speech and against declaring media outlets and journalists ‘foreign agents’ […] wasn’t able to gather tens of thousands of outraged journalists. It wasn’t able to bring about the immediate repeal of this wild law. But I thank everyone who did come out, truly. It sucked, but it could have been even worse.”
Correspondent for Novaya Gazeta
“We, journalists, are the last line of defense in the state’s war against its own people. And I’m not saying this for the sake of bravado — this, alas, is the truth. And you can’t just avert your eyes, close your laptop, walk away, and forget,” Novaya Gazeta correspondent Ilya Azar tells Meduza.
With this in mind, Azar says asking why he continues working in journalism is a redundant question. “What do you mean why? How could it be otherwise? Yes, all of us, sitting in bars after midnight, love to complain to our colleagues,” he admits. “But to give up everything and leave the profession? Are you serious? [...] I never seriously considered that option. And the harder the times, the more you want to continue.”
The way he sees it, journalists working in Russia today have a mission: to continue working against the odds. Azar truly believes that the more restrictions the authorities place on journalists, the more vital their work becomes. “In my understanding, there’s no business more important to humanity than journalism — if becoming a doctor or a rescue worker didn’t work out,” he quips.
“Journalists save people, although this happens less often than they would like. They’re saving the country by talking about torture, corruption, lies, and unjust persecution,” Azar underscores. “And we will definitely keep doing this!”
You can purchase the “Pressa” collection and other merch from Meduza’s shop, Magaz. Part of the money from the sales will go toward supporting Meduza. Want to make a direct (or even a recurring) donation? We accept those right here!
Summary by Eilish Hart