Politics

“We Knew That Something Big and Awful Was Coming”

I was a reporter in Russia for 20 years—until I finally fled three weeks ago. I watched our press fall apart in real time.

People stand in a dim room near a computer monitor displaying an image of Politkovskaya
People visit a memorial for slain anti-Kremlin Russian reporter Anna Politkovskaya at the office of the Novaya Gazeta newspaper in Moscow on Oct. 7.   Natalia Kolesnikova/Getty Images

This as-told-to essay was adapted from a conversation with Alexey Kovalyov, a Russian investigative journalist who fled Moscow in March after 20 years and is reporting on the war in Ukraine abroad. It’s been edited and condensed for clarity by Aymann Ismail.   

To be honest, I got into journalism because I wanted to get free stuff like tickets to gigs. I’m not going to go highfalutin on you—“giving voice to the voiceless” and whatnot. That came much later. It took me a while to embrace the real ideals of this profession. For a while, I was just having fun.

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I started about 20 years ago as a novice reporter at a local daily in Moscow. I wasn’t an investigative journalist right away. I was on the metro desk and the culture desk, and then I slowly climbed up the corporate ladder in journalism until, because I didn’t have any formal education, my career hit a wall. So in 2009, I went to London for about three years to get my master’s degree in international journalism. I feel quite privileged that I had the opportunity to do so. I stayed there for about three years after my degree, reporting for various Russian magazines in London. And then in 2012, I got an offer from, at that point, the largest state news agency in Moscow, RIA Novosti.

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I went back to Moscow. I thought it was a pretty exciting time to be there. And although I was working for basically the state propaganda mouthpiece, it was surprisingly liberal in many ways. I wasn’t censored in any way, despite some pretty risky things that we published. But that all came crashing down in December 2013.

I trusted the person who invited me in 2012. The pre-2014 RIA Novosti team was led by a pretty liberal and open-minded team of editors. Despite being basically state employees, they were really serious about journalistic ethics. There wasn’t any really obvious propaganda or “fake news.” And what came later was quite unexpected. One morning, in December 2013, an executive act signed by Putin came out and it said the entire agency would be liquidated and a new one would be formed and merged into a new kind of massive government-owned media conglomerate, which would include the resources of the former RIA Novosti agency. We learned about it on our way to work. They would replace this really liberal woman, Svetlana Mironyuk, who actually was the one who invited me to this job, with her nemesis, Margarita Simonyan, who is a super cringey Putin fan. At the time, she was also the editor in chief of RT, and now she’s kind of in both roles. She calls Putin her boss, which isn’t really something a journalist would do—call a president their boss. This new Kremlin-friendly top management team held a very different opinion on what news should be. And then it was a completely different thing from then on. It was actually quite absurd.

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In 2015, when the first phase of the Ukraine war was already in high gear, I noticed that there was so much industrially produced fake news. Then I realized there wasn’t a single fact-checking operation in Russian media. Everything, including my last place of work, the former RIA Novosti agency, was just pumping up these really awful propaganda and fake news pieces. So I started my own little fact-checking operation, a website called the Noodle Remover. It’s a Russian expression—to put noodles on someone’s ears is to lie, to bullshit them. So I was kind of removing those noodles from people’s ears. It’s been mostly dormant since 2019, because my full-time job now is taking up so much of my time, but I’m hoping one day to revive it. From there, I naturally progressed into investigative reporting because fact-checking requires a lot of actual investigative work. So I started doing these really complex crowdsourced and crowdfunded investigations. And then I worked with the only independent English-language newspaper, the Moscow Times, which is really a powerhouse.

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The thing to keep in mind is that the most important coverage isn’t really done by journalists in state media organizations. Ninety percent of all media in Russia are government-owned. All the major talking points, especially about coverage of things like the war in Ukraine, comes from a guy in the presidential administration. They gather all the heads of all the major national TV networks—there aren’t any independent ones left—and they’re basically given talking points directly from the president’s office to broadcast. It’s just government-mandated agenda. It’s not up for discussion. If you consume only Russian government media, and that is probably true for about 70 percent of Russians now, you wouldn’t even know there’s a war going on. It’s quite absurd watching this coverage. It’s like a parallel reality where you see a news piece about the Russian army liberating one Ukrainian town after another. They’re just making this shit up as they go. But not a single news story would mention that there was a war going on in Ukraine.

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I still have a few colleagues and friends in these state news organizations. Some of them are really opposed to the official actions, and they would sabotage the propaganda efforts everywhere they can. Their logic is, if I’m not doing the job, someone else will. So they stayed there and kind of tried to sabotage it in every way they could. Subtle stuff, like the way you choose a picture or a caption. We have a kind of an inside joke: the worse, the better. Make it really obviously bad, because nobody really cares about the quality as long as you put out the approved talking points. But most of my colleagues, 90 percent, just went along with it because it’s a cushiony job with a lot of perks like health insurance and a nice pension. They are going along with this stuff until they retire.

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Not long ago I talked to a few regular editors at all these propaganda news networks, leading up to the invasion. Right now, all of them are so demoralized. They’re telling me that they’re absolutely devastated. Their souls are crushed. They feel like they’ve been kind of debating with themselves about this delusion—that they could just simply do the job, concentrating on getting out straight news. But now it’s obvious there’s nowhere left for them to go because they aren’t any independent media left in Russia.

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On Feb. 23, we knew that something big and awful was coming. Instead of just normally starting our day at 8 a.m., we agreed that there will be a guy constantly monitoring the news feeds and to wake everyone up if something starts. We were right. I jolted awake at 6 a.m. by a message that said, “It started.” I needed no explanation. I opened my eyes, just popped my laptop open, and it was clear what was going on. I’ve basically been working almost 24/7 since. Because even when I’m closing my eyes to just doze off, it’s still haunting me in my sleep. I also realized that I needed to just get the fuck out.

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On March 3, there were already rumors of impending martial law, which would surely mean the end of free press because it grants the president the powers to suspend most civil liberties and also close the borders. So if that happened, I wouldn’t be able to get out. There weren’t any flights left out of Moscow except in a few destinations that still accepted Russian flights. And the tickets there went for several thousand bucks, which we couldn’t afford. So me and my wife and my dog, we just panic-packed so many useless things into our bags, whatever stuff we could in a couple of bags, and booked a cab to the border. We drove for nine hours to the nearest border control point and walked across. Luckily we didn’t have any problems at the border. It took us about 16 hours to get here. And here we are now in Latvia.

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I can’t go back to Russia until Putin is either not alive or not the head of the Kremlin. I love my country. I want to live there. I love Russia. I love my home. I love my parents. But I have to be realistic about this. Luckily I have some experience with living abroad, so it wasn’t too stressful completely uprooting my life as it was for other people.

The day after I left, on March 4, the Russian parliament, in kind of an extraordinary session of both chambers, which rarely happens, passed a bill. It was passed into law and signed by Putin and put into effect on the same day. That effectively criminalized my work, for lack of a better word. It’s a law that basically punishes journalists for disseminating false information about Russia ministry. The same day, we arrived to Latvia, and we found out that our website was blocked by the Citizenship Ministry for, I think, “disseminating false information about the Russian special operation in Ukraine,” or whatever. It was obvious we were banned for calling the war a war. That’s not a word you’ll ever hear on the Russian government’s airwaves anywhere. Literally you can go on a news aggregator and type in “war,” and you won’t have a single result.

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There isn’t a single radio station or a TV channel or a newspaper except one that isn’t directly or indirectly controlled from the Kremlin. It’s called Novaya Gazeta. Anna Politkovskaya worked there before she was assassinated. They kind of hold the record for having the most employees and reporters assassinated during the course of their work. They are basically the only one that remains still in Moscow, and they have no other choice but to accept military censorship, but they are still putting incredibly brave war reporting from Ukraine, but it’s not about the war. There’s not a single mention of the war in those reports now. They have to accept this. It’s deeply shameful that we have to do this, but there is no other way.

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Meduza, where I am now a writer and editor, is different because we were born out of censorship. The website was founded by a team of exiles from different news websites that underwent the same kind of wholesale takeover by pro-Putin forces. So in late 2014, with the first phase of the war that Russia is still fighting now in Ukraine already in full swing, they left Russia and set up shop in Latvia, which is about a 90-minute flight from Moscow. We’re in a Russian-speaking city, and it’s incredibly easy to do business here. It’s an established base outside of Russia’s jurisdiction, making it a strategically wise choice. Most of our reporters and editors were in Moscow. We never actually considered ourselves exile media or partisan. We have an audience of millions. We went to government briefings. We interviewed government officials, because they knew that although they obviously hated us for what we were, they couldn’t just ignore the millions of people who read us.

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Reporting on the war is basically what I’m doing 24/7 now. We’re working six-day weeks and about 14-, 15-hour days. This is our entire mission now. We used to work as a general interest publication. We had a culture desk, we had a tech desk. But who wants to read book reviews now? It’s all hands on deck now. Our science editor is just aggregating war maps in real time. It’s all for war effort.

A lot of people I spoke to who are still in Moscow and still work at the state news organizations are just so completely demoralized. And now with many high-profile dissensions and protests live on air, I expect that there’ll be a lot more defections—not necessarily public ones, like when this woman ran in front of the camera, said, “No to war.” But I expect we’ll see a lot more of that.

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How other people view the press is complicated. Sometimes when I was in Russia, I would be like the only press person in the courtroom covering an unfair trial. Obviously, when people understand the value of free press, they start really appreciating it. But when the government propaganda is blasting 24/7, calling you traitors and foreign agents on the TV? Of course there’s got to be some blowback from that. I’ve learned to live with that. But when you’re talking to people who come to you with their problems, they realize that you are literally the only one that cares about them that will listen to them and will cover whatever issues they’re facing.

It’s pretty clear now that Russia’s in a pretty bad state. But please don’t take out your frustrations on regular Russians, because one consequence of this war was having our entire business model obliterated twice in one year, first by the Russian government when we were declared a foreign agent, which cut us off from our entire advertising base, then a few weeks ago when we’ve been completely cut off from our entire Russian user base—30,000 people who were donating money to us on a regular basis, because Visa and Mastercard don’t work in Russia now. Meduza had to reinvent our entire crowdfunding campaign overnight, now focusing on people outside of Russia, who probably don’t even know what Meduza is. I understand the logic behind it completely—that Russia’s toxic and everyone’s dumping them right now. But please give a thought to ordinary Russians who don’t necessarily support the regime. They’re suffering through no wrongdoing of their own.

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