A Russian journalist writes frankly about reporting on the war in Ukraine and the moment, while abroad, they learnt they could not return home. At least 500 journalists are estimated to have fled Russia since Putin’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February. Amidst a climate of intimidation, censorship, blocking and outright banning, most independent media outlets have relocated abroad
I am abroad. As I leave my hotel, my editor messages me: “I need to talk to you ASAP.” I am about to go on a museum tour and see the works of Francisco Goya, a painter I love very much. Why would the editor urgently need to get hold of me? I dial their number, and they say: “The FSB guys came to the newsroom. They’re looking for us; we can’t go back to Russia yet.” For the next hour and a half, I walk around looking at Goya’s works but not seeing them.
Our regional publishing house has been working in Russia for several years. Before the war with Ukraine, we wrote long articles about how people in the countryside live, and the problems they face. Many villages and hamlets are dying. There are no roads, no jobs, and there is no money – only bears and other wild animals roaming around. For the locals, life often means surviving rather than thriving.
After the war began, we started writing about the conflict. It was impossible not to, considering that a lot of military staff were sent from our region to Ukraine. We covered stories from patriotically-minded cities and towns and tried to explain where Russians get the desire to fight and kill. We met with the families of those killed and talked to them about why they believe their relatives are heroes.
When the ‘special operation’began, our newsroom started keeping lists of dead soldiers (and now of those mobilised). These short lists are much alike: born, graduated from vocational or training school, called up into the army, contract signed, left for Ukraine, died. The staggering numbers can send you into a tailspin. You lose track of their names and surnames; you don’t remember the faces of the dead. Everything turns into one endless obituary. The only thing that matters are the numbers.
At the very beginning of the war, the security forces began to pay attention to us. I wrote several pieces about soldiers who had been sent to Ukraine and captured there. They were recorded on video. The soldiers were lying on the ground and answering, shuddering. They were afraid of the Ukrainians. These were real people, even though the propaganda said it was all fake.
Immediately after the material came out, I got a phone call from an FSB guy and was asked to meet him. I knew I didn’t have to do that, so I refused. I remember the chill that ran through my body. I remember how my heart started racing. I was really scared. The FSB guy called a few more times over the next several months, but I ignored his calls.
Then I went abroad for a few weeks but decided to come back. At the Russian border they stopped me and started a long talk, asking: What did I think about the ‘special operation’? How did I feel about the actions of the Russian Government? I answered that as a journalist I had to be impartial in my work, but inside I felt greatly humiliated and helpless.
Then a lot of other things started happening. My colleagues were detained at a protest and spent several hours at the police station. I was detained at the city cemetery where they were burying the soldiers killed in Ukraine. The police held me for several hours of interrogation to find out whether I was a Ukrainian spy. Other journalists visiting our region were also prevented from working: they were chased by the propaganda media people who were making accusatory videos saying: “Here they are, venal agents of the West who want to tell us how bad things are here.” There were police detentions and threats from the FSB. We had it all.
At the start, I was afraid of being searched, afraid of being detained. I got ready for what to do in case someone started banging on the door, and who I should write to, who I should call. Then the fear subsided. It was constantly in my body, but it was no longer acute. It even seemed as though, well, all right, we’d be detained, well, fine, put into jail. But in the long run, one day, we would be released. Probably.
We made the decision to stay in Russia for as long as we could but agreed that when a turning point came, and we faced serious danger, we would leave immediately. My editors sent me to an event abroad. It was there, while viewing Goya’s work, that I learned the FSB had started looking for us in Russia. They came to our friendly newsroom and asked for our whereabouts. Other sources said that they might be pressing extremism charges. It looked to be like this was the very turning point we had been waiting for. It became clear that I couldn’t return to Russia for the time being.
I remember strange feelings during those days. As if I was simultaneously present but not there. I realised that I was looking at presentations with empty eyes – while thinking about how to live in my new reality. The word ‘relocatio’n came up more and more often. The fact is, I had been planning to leave Russia in six months anyway. But now it was being done by force. Now I was being made to leave. I was terribly angry at the Russian authorities for doing this and at Russian society for accepting it.
What was very valuable during those early days was the support of others. Exiled journalists helped with advice and warm support. Media people from other countries were also very helpful.
Our newsroom continues to work but it is not clear yet what will happen next. We are used to writing stories, going to the field, talking directly to people. You can’t do that in Russia right now. But we’re certainly not going to stop.
Note: For more perspectives on the impact of the crackdown on independent media following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, visit: https://za-slova.press/en. Many of the staff of media featured are now living in exile.
(By special arrangement with WAN-IFRA. The name of the author of this post is withheld for safety reasons.)