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‘Aren’t you afraid she’ll pull a trick like Ovsyannikova?’ In Russia’s regions, journalists who oppose the war against Ukraine continue working for publications with state ties

Source: Meduza

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine prompted a wave of resignations from state-owned and pro-Kremlin media outlets (including TASS and RT). A few of those who resigned in protest also made public statements — like Channel One’s Marina Ovsyannikova and editors Egor Polyakov and Alexandra Miroshnikova. But there is very little information about how the war has affected Russia’s regional media landscape, which is under even more active state control. That said, it’s already apparent that the repercussions for anti-war statements are more severe outside of Moscow, despite the fact that these cases draw far less attention. Together with the Novaya Vkladka project, Meduza sought out correspondents and editors from regional publications who oppose Russia’s war against Ukraine, but continue to work for (or recently quit) media outlets with ties to the state.

‘We don’t need problems’

Marina (name changed) remembers the initial days of the war in detail. At first, she believed the statements from Russian officials. “They said they would only bomb military facilities. The first day, I still filled my head with this nonsense,” Marina recalls. “The next day, I went on Facebook and saw photos of the Kharkiv subway, which was jammed with people [with] blankets, mattresses, children, and food.” 

Marina works for a large regional newspaper in a city in southern Russia. The newspaper’s main beat is agriculture, and she says most of its income comes from ads placed by large agricultural companies, as well as classifieds. 

The news about the war shocked Marina. Her grandmother is from Zaporizhzhia, a city in southern Ukraine. And Marina herself has fond memories of attending university in Crimea; on weekends, she would pay visits to a friend in the Kherson region. She “loved Ukraine for its melodious language,” ATB supermarket chain, and delicious food.

At first, Marina openly condemned the war at work, paying little mind to who she was talking to or what she said. She even shared footage in a work chat of a bombed out Kharkiv school, after receiving a video from a friend who studied there. 

After she posted the slogan “No to War” on her Facebook page, a colleague — who Marina describes as a “completely sane person” — sent her a private message asking why she was “busting her ass for the Banderites” and then blocked her. Marina’s other co-workers dubbed her “practically a traitor.” “You better shut up,” one warned. “Do you want us to get shut down?”

A week after the start of the invasion, the newspaper’s staff were invited to sign an open letter from independent Russian journalists opposing the war. Most of the staff refused, fearing reprisals. “Roughly speaking, they said that we don’t need problems. We want to work and publish the newspaper. People have debts, children, mortgages,” Marina explains. “This keeps people in line: if you go away for 15 years [for spreading ‘fake news’ about the Russian military], who will your children end up with?”

The newspaper’s editors only published one article about the war: a column Marina wrote about her friendship with Lida, a young woman she met in Yalta in 2010. Lida refused to speak Russian, which meant Marina had to switch to Ukrainian: 

“My grandmother looked after me. You could say Ukrainian is my very first language. I speak it, at least. I wrote about all of this in my column as an example of the fact that Ukrainians don’t want to feel like ‘little brothers’ [...] Now we wouldn’t write about this: if during the first week some media outlets spoke out against [the war], now it’s impossible.” 

Since then, the editorial staff have “buried themselves in agriculture and stories about everyday life” — despite the fact that the newspaper is based in a city near the border with the Kremlin-controlled Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR). To Marina’s dismay, they didn’t even cover the influx of refugees forcibly evacuated to Russia from the Donbas: “Our farmers are straining to gather humanitarian aid — cardboard boxes with clothes and food, because all these people need to be fed!” 

According to Marina, most of the newspaper’s staff either support Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine, or believe it has “nothing to do with them.” Some have relatives fighting for the DNR, while others live there themselves. As such, the newspaper’s editors have instituted a “don't talk about it” policy to avoid “squabbles.” 

In early March, the newspaper’s owner announced that it would cease publication by mid-summer. Officially, the closure was attributed to the rising cost of paper — but Marina thinks censorship might have played a role as well, due to her column about her Ukrainian friend. She plans to keep working at the newspaper until July and then she hopes to find another job.

In the meantime, Marina is still struggling to cope. “This situation [with the war] drives people like me into a deep depression, because it’s not clear how to keep working, how to come to terms with yourself and not lose your mind,” she says. “You become such an observer: you just watch and there’s nothing you can do.” 

‘Corrupted by censorship’ 

Vasily Masalsky from Kaliningrad handed in his resignation letter a week into the war. For the past six years, he worked as an editor at Komsomolskaya Pravda radio, covering local politics and the economy. “Since our region and town is small, you have to understand that the editor is the [radio] host and correspondent. ‘Editor’ sounds big, but it’s basically head cook and bottle-washer,” Vasily explains. 

Vasily had been thinking about quitting for a year — ever since, in his words, “more and more propaganda began to appear” on federal stations. Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine was the final straw. “In the first days of the war, we didn’t understand what local news we could talk about. And when the initial shock wore off there was a meeting with the [media] holding’s editors, where they made it clear that if we didn’t know how to do our jobs, then there was no need to,” Vasily recalls.

Vasily quit after the meeting, along with several other people. “There were no special entreaties [for us to stay], everyone was sympathetic to this decision,” he recalls, adding that those who found compromises stayed on, because they had “nowhere else to go.” (Komsomolskaya Pravda radio’s Kaliningrad office did not respond to Meduza’s questions about the aforementioned meeting and the number of employees who quit after the start of the war.) 

Vasily didn’t make a public statement about his resignation; he didn’t think it would change anything. In fact, he has decided to quit journalism altogether and is retraining as a massage therapist. In Vasily’s opinion, what Russian journalism needs is new blood — not people, such as himself, who are already “corrupted by censorship.” 

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‘Lacking patriotism’

Olga from Buryatia (named changed) is a social media manager for a private television channel in Ulan Ude. Before that, she spent ten years working as a reporter at a municipal television station. By comparison, she says, the journalists at the private channel enjoyed a relative degree of freedom — until everything changed this spring.

Against the backdrop of sanctions and rising prices, many companies tightened their belts and the channel lost its advertisers. In an attempt to keep the channel afloat and save jobs, its founder signed as many contracts as possible with the authorities. Be that as it may, Olga says the vast majority of the channel’s staff oppose the war.

According to RFE/RL’s Siberian service, of all the regions in Siberia and the Russian Far East, Buryatia has suffered the most losses in the war against Ukraine. When the republic’s first soldiers were sent home for burial in March, Olga’s channel covered the funeral without “jingoism.” When publishing posts about the deceased, she only included the most basic information: their names, where they lived, and whether they had children. 

“I tried to work in at least some five-dollar words. To write, for example, ‘Ivan forever remains 19 years old’ [...] To at least somehow show the inhumanity of the situation,” Olga explains. “We didn’t use the phrase ‘fought against Nazism’,” she adds, claiming that this was an editorial decision. 

At a certain point, the administration took notice of their coverage and the founder had the channel’s director convey to the staff that the newsroom was “lacking patriotism.” Olga was instructed not to write any more posts about soldiers killed in Ukraine. “We also can’t take information [about the deceased from open sources] — like [the authorities] are watching us,” she says. “I don’t know if we’re really being watched or if the founder just thinks so.”  

In April, the head of Buryatia Alexey Tsydenov answered questions from the public during a live stream on VKontakte. Olga sent in a question about the number of Buryats killed while fighting in Ukraine, knowing it would likely go unanswered.

“Later, [my] editor sent me a bit of her correspondence with the city’s head of information policymaking. She had sent her screenshots of my questions and asked: ‘Aren’t you afraid she’ll pull a trick like Ovsyannikova and screw you over?’,” Olga recalls. “I replied that I was doing my job as a journalist. The head of Buryatia should have an opinion on such matters. The editor asked me to be more careful going forward.” 

Olga is still working at the television channel. The leadership, she says, decided not to write about military losses anymore. Now their broadcasts are filled with fluff pieces. As Olga puts it: “You’re not allowed to cover the ‘special operation’ the way you want, and you don’t want to cover it as required.” 

Olga’s work situation has made things difficult for her family. Her husband was threatened with losing his job unless she “calms down.” Olga feels “partly to blame,” because “you can’t work for a media outlet that’s loyal to the authorities and at the same time publicly declare a different position.” 

‘Soon there will be nothing to write about at all’

Valery Potashov worked for Stolitsa na Onego, one of Karelia’s largest digital news sites, almost from the day it was founded in 2003. According to Valery, Stolitsa had media support contracts with the regional authorities, but its journalists were quite free to write about the realities on the ground. Today, the news site’s leadership has forbidden any explicit coverage of the war against Ukraine. “We could have run into a block or a fine — that would have killed us,” Valery explains.

Valery managed to publish just three articles about the war’s impact on the region. The first was about the EU banning timber from Karelia. The second was about Finland possibly joining NATO. “Then one of my colleagues, who gets tips from the FSB, warned me that ‘my file was getting really full’ and said that if I had the opportunity to leave, it’s best to go,” Valery recalls. 

Determined to stay on “his land” the journalist didn’t go anywhere. Instead, he published his third article — an interview with a lawyer about Russia’s new law criminalizing the spread of “fake news” about the army. According to Valery, after the article came out, the FSB summoned the news site’s owner, the vice-speaker of the Karelian parliament Ilya Rakovsky, and “hinted that the journalist had to go.” 

The FSB did not respond to Meduza’s questions prior to publication. But Ilya Rakovsky says he had no such conversation with the FSB. “It wasn’t said directly, but, as I understood from the editor-in-chief, he [Rakovsky] was given a choice: if you want to keep working, then I shouldn’t be [here],” Valery maintains. “I also understood that the corridor of freedom [had become] so narrow that soon there will be nothing to write about at all.” Stolitsa’s editor-in-chief Natalya Zakharchuk did not respond to Meduza’s request for comment.

Valery handed in his resignation at the end of April. He says that his “official career” as a journalist is over, especially Karelia. “On my Facebook page and on my Telegram channel, I spoke very harshly about what I couldn’t write about in the media. And I think that my posts irritated the FSB and [the local] authorities more than the publications in Stolitsa na Onego,” Valery surmises. 

According to the journalist, none of his colleagues from Stolitsa support the war against Ukraine, but they didn’t protest his departure: “When you have a mortgage and kids, you won’t really speak out.”

Valery had an opportunity to work abroad — an invitation from his “Scandinavian colleagues” — but he doesn’t want to leave his elderly mother in Russia. For now, he’s moved into his summer cottage. He intends to stay there until the fall, seeing as he’s completely free — “without a profession, a job, or debts.” 

Reporting the war in Ukraine

‘We're all war correspondents now’ How Russia’s full-scale invasion has changed Ukrainian journalism

Reporting the war in Ukraine

‘We're all war correspondents now’ How Russia’s full-scale invasion has changed Ukrainian journalism

Story by Meduza and Novaya Vkladka

Abridged translation by Eilish Hart

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