Learn to interpret financial records, code and collaborate — it’s how you’ll expose corruption, uncover transnational crime and hold world leaders to account, if investigative journalist Roman Anin’s reporting career in Russia is any indication.
Anin is the winner of ICFJ’s 2020 Knight Trailblazer Award, which he received for launching his latest reporting venture, IStories (or “Important Stories”). The 33-year-old has spent more than a decade shining a light on corruption. He does so in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, a country where widespread corruption has desensitized citizens so much that its consequences can be difficult to impress upon readers.
“Corruption usually involves money laundering, and usually involves companies from offshore havens,” said Anin. “You have to explain all this to your readers, so we try to be creative and simplify things. But still, it's difficult to surprise the Russian audience with corruption.”
Learning to tell these complex stories presented a challenge — and opportunity — for Anin. He taught himself the ins and outs of accounting and financial analysis in order to better understand how to recognize corruption.
“It's crucially important that every reporter who is writing about corruption develop [financial] skills,” he said. “Without them, it's just impossible to prove your stories, and to find stories.”
To make things more challenging, Russia is a notoriously hostile environment for journalists. For the majority of his career, Anin has been a reporter on the investigative unit at the daily Novaya Gazeta, where five journalists have been murdered for their work since 2000. “You just have to get used to this idea that it's dangerous and you have to live with it because otherwise you will not be able to do your job,” he said. “All of us investigative reporters in Russia, we've made our choice and we're grown ups, and we understand the risks.”
Anin described his 2016 investigation into renowned Russian cellist Sergey Roldugin’s vast offshore empire through which he laundered billions of dollars as perhaps his most consequential reporting to date. Roldugin is a close friend of Putin, and the godfather to Putin’s daughter.
The reporting, published as part of the Panama Papers, inspired similar investigations of its kind into money laundering in the rest of Europe. It also prompted a response from Putin himself, said Anin. “[Putin] said, quote, ‘It looks like this story was written by a lawyer and not a journalist,’ which I personally loved because it means that I did a professional job because there was not a single fact that he could argue.”
Before Anin began poring over financial records to produce groundbreaking investigations, he was a professional soccer player in Moldova — a dream upended when his family moved to Russia in search of a better life.
“I was kind of depressed and I was thinking, ‘What should I do next?’ I was lying on the sofa watching a soccer game on TV, and the commentator was really bad. So I was like, okay, this guy knows nothing about my favorite game. I could have done it probably better than him,” he recalled.
Anin enrolled in Moscow State University to study journalism. From there, he secured a job as a sports reporter with Novaya Gazeta in 2006. Two years later, when Russia went to war with Georgia, a short-staffed Novaya Gazeta sent Anin to cover the war. Pleased with his work, the paper’s editors moved him to the newsroom’s investigative unit when he returned.
In early 2020, after 14 years with Novaya Gazeta, Anin left the paper to launch his new project.
IStories is a collaborative, investigative news outlet that uses coding to more efficiently carry out its reporting. For example, Anin has developed apps for the newsroom to facilitate analysis of company dealings, state contracts and procurements, he explained. “I just see how efficient I have become, and that I spend less time on some of the repetitive tasks that we have to fulfill while doing investigations.”
Central to IStories’ mission is its commitment to collaborating with regional and international media. “We try to publish all of our stories in cooperation with regional, central and international media,” said Anin. Already, IStories has collaborated on the FinCen Files, a collaborative, multinational investigation into global banks and large-scale money laundering. Coordinated by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, more than 100 media partners have been involved, with reporting from the investigation so far published in over 80 countries.
“I think that such investigations as the Panama and Paradise papers show that the real power of journalism is in uniting forces, and not in competing against each other,” said Anin. “I'm really proud that I was part of major cross-border investigations for the last 10 years.”
Anin launched IStories only five months ago — right as the world was first coming to grips with COVID-19. The novel coronavirus forced him and his team to shift course before even getting started. They dropped their originally planned reporting and refocused on the pandemic.
“We were the first ones to report that the ventilators that were bought by the Russian state were actually bad, and that they were sold to hospitals,” said Anin. “There were a chain of bogus companies and after our study was published a couple of these ventilators actually burned out in the hospitals, killing at least six people. And then the state had to cancel all the contracts.”
As Anin continues to develop IStories, he plans to stay true to the outlet’s name — bringing Russians the important stories they need to hold their leaders accountable. He is also building out an educational platform on the site to equip fellow journalists with skills critical for investigative reporting today.
“My advice is: learn how to code, learn how to read financial data, and learn psychology to be able to get everything from sources.”
David Maas is the manager of IJNet.