My life plan had been to graduate, move back to Russia, where I was born, and work as a correspondent for an English-language publication, covering Russian politics and society.
That plan went out the window the night of Feb. 23, 2022.
Well, that’s a bit of an exaggeration.
Reporters on the ground were needed at that time more than ever to bring a perspective that wasn’t spun in every which way — seemingly in every way but the right direction — by the government and its state-controlled media.
But with every passing day after the first news notification that Russian tanks went over the Ukrainian border, this life plan of mine seems to be becoming impossible.
Don’t get me wrong, the situation for journalists in Russia was not sunshine and rainbows, even before the beginning of the full-scale war last year, and things were getting worse by the day. There was no particular moment that I came to this conclusion, but rather a series of events — and each felt like “the one,” even before the beginning of the war.
The moment it hit me was when I watched Dozhd, or TV Rain, an independent channel and newsroom I’ve been following alongside my family since I could remember, have their last-ever broadcast. The government blocked access to the channel, which hadn’t been available on cable since 2014, following the channel’s coverage of the invasion in early March.
That last broadcast, filled with tearful goodbyes from the entire newsroom, cut to a black and white taping of Swan Lake — a nod to the Soviet Union, when channels would broadcast the ballet to cover up tragic events and turmoil in the news, including after the death of Leonid Brezhnev in 1982 and during the attempted coup on Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991.
In 2021, Dozhd, alongside Meduza, another independent publication based out of Latvia, were declared to be “foreign agents.” The newly acquired label came with an inconveniently long disclaimer that must be placed ahead of any communication from the person or organization deemed as such.
“This news media/material was created and/or disseminated by a foreign mass media performing the functions of a foreign agent and/or a Russian legal entity performing the functions of a foreign agent.”
In January of this year, the prosecutor general designated Meduza to be an “undesirable” organization, taking it one step further beyond their previous and flashy “foreign agent” title. This not only bans the organization from operating on Russian territory at all, but puts Russian citizens at risk for even donating to or reposting material by Meduza.
Things got that much more dire when last month, the newspaper Novaya Gazeta removed its war coverage from its website and social media over concerns for reporters’ safety and potential legal action from the government. Just two years ago, Novaya Gazeta’s editor Dmitry Muratov was a co-winner of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize for his journalistic efforts.
The last straw was last week, when Evan Gershkovich from the Wall Street Journal was charged with espionage by the Russian authorities after being detained at the end of March. This is the first time a spy case was brought against an American reporter in Russia since the Cold War.
This really was the final blow, an end to an unspoken agreement which allowed accredited media from abroad to stay in the country and try to maneuver the increasing restrictions being placed on journalists.
Gershkovich was accredited by the Russian Foreign Ministry. He’s now on week two of detainment in Lefortovo — a notorious prison with reportedly tough conditions for inmates used to force interrogations.
Russian-based organizations are being forced to shut down and flee, foreign reporters are being sent a clear message that they’re no longer welcome unless they fall into step with the government line.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
For what it’s worth, the Wall Street Journal made all of Gershkovich’s reporting free — and it’s certainly worth a read.
When I was writing this piece, I was acutely aware of the danger I could face if I returned to Russia just for arguing in favor of independent journalism that goes against the government line. I considered an anonymous byline to protect my safety.
Even for calling it what it is — a war — journalists face potential jail time of up to 15 years.
But I have the immense privilege of not living in Russia, a luxury many can’t afford. If those living in the country with little chance of escape are scared to speak for fear of being imprisoned, enlisted or losing their jobs, I should take advantage of whatever small platform I may have.
I am nowhere near suffering the worst consequences of this war. I’m not a part of the 21,965 civilian casualties, more than 6,000 of whom were killed, as reported by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. I haven’t had my home or city destroyed by Russian bombing.
But it’s important to keep the pressure on, to keep talking about the atrocities that are going on to this day in Ukraine. And that’s awfully hard to do without journalists on the ground.
Evan Gershkovich was just doing his job.