They always come at 6 a.m.
During the first nine months of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, I spent every morning waiting for the police to arrive.
Every Russian opposition leader, civil rights activist and independent journalist lives with that same daily fear that police will come to search their home and then most likely arrest them. Or that it will happen to their family members. I finally left Russia in December, even though I never wanted to live in another country.
And now in exile, I worry every day that my brave colleagues still in Russia face the same searches, the same fear, for simply trying to do their job.
Often, we don’t appreciate what we have until we’ve lost it. Independent journalism is necessary for the best version of your state, your country or your world. But it won’t exist without civil society, freedom of speech and support from its audience. Americans should be proud — they have everything, unlike Russia now. And you shouldn’t take it for granted.
How much can change in five years
The Russian government is afraid of independent journalism.
From Czar Peter I to Josef Stalin and Vladimir Putin, Russian authorities have understood that freedom of speech and powerful journalism can bring about change. Journalism is an alternative view of the present. Scientists and historians talk about the past; politicians sell visions of the future. But the future without free journalism looks like Russia or other authoritarian and totalitarian countries today.
Believe me, you don’t want to live in those circumstances.
When I first visited the United States, I was editor-in-chief of a regional Russian digital newspaper in Yaroslavl, a metro area of 1.2 million people in central Russia, about 150 miles northeast of Moscow. It was 2018.
Alexei Navalny, one of President Vladimir Putin’s chief critics, was still free — it was almost two years before he was poisoned and three years before he was imprisoned. His offices in Russian cities like Yaroslavl were still open and legal, and our editorial team covered their political activities, just as we covered all political activity. We were trying to provide our audience as much information as possible about what was going on in the region.
Marina Sedneva (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)
During my trip to the United States, I visited newsrooms and met with journalists from The Voice of America in Washington, D.C., local newspapers and even student journalists in Vermont.
On each visit I had to explain why journalism in Russia was different. Several times I talked about Roskomnadzor — the Russian authority that has a right to block any website if the government disagrees with the content. And I saw the surprise from Americans when I talked about Russia’s law that prohibited so-called “LGBTQ propaganda for children.” — even while Donald Trump was in office.
Russian journalists in local media outlets seldom asked the authorities hard questions. Mostly they just listened and repeated. Independent media on a local level is rare. Like many in Yaroslavl, most local publications receive money from the government. At my publication, a new manager decided to take money from regional governments in exchange for coverage without criticism.
I had no way to know back then that “LGBTQ propaganda” would now be forbidden for all ages, that Navalny would be imprisoned indefinitely or that I would be living in exile because I work for an independent media outlet that disagrees with Putin, his government and his war in Ukraine.
The situation with journalism in Russia today is the worst I have seen in my 10 years as a reporter and editor.
One day, when I was still working at the news outlet in Yaroslavl, my phone rang while I rode the bus home. A man said he was a head of Yaroslavl’s Roskomnadzor and as an editor-in-chief I needed to delete a story from the website. It was a story about Putin — a man in Yaroslavl had spray-painted a phrase describing Putin with a slur on the front columns of the region’s Internal Affairs Ministry building.
I hung up and told my editorial team about the request. We decided to ignore it because we didn’t violate anything.
The next few days our website was blocked by Roskomnadzor by order of the Prosecutor General’s Office. They used a new law about “disrespect toward the government” as a reason. And blocking was stopped only when we deleted a picture from that story — it was a photo of the building with the offending word blurred out (because obscene language is prohibited in Russian’s mass media).
A year after this incident, I quit my job. It happened because a new manager of that local digital newspaper banned all topics connected with the opposition or people who were against Putin or his party or local government.
I was lucky to find a new job — during the COVID-19 pandemic — when many people had lost their own, and it was with an independent media outlet. I was able to cover topics that many Russian newspapers are afraid of or just ignore. Our team believed deeply that stories about the success of democracy or about suffering caused by the authorities could help our civil society in Russia to resist Putin’s regime.
Then Putin started the war in Ukraine, and most people in Russia accepted and agreed with his invasion — even some civil activists who before the war had struggled against injustice in the name of human rights.
I was shocked. In my childhood every May 9 (which in Russia is Victory Day, a holiday that commemorates the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in 1945) we celebrated in school with the words: “If only there was no war.”
A war has been my main fear since my childhood. And I couldn’t understand why people around me didn’t feel the same, why they wanted to kill Ukrainian people, why they wanted to send their sons and husbands to the battlefield. And why the people who yesterday talked about human rights today sent money for military drones.
I was desperate, and I think we as independent journalists didn’t do enough to stop it. The thing is — journalism can’t solve problems on its own. As one of my colleagues said: Journalism is like oxygen for a human with a heart attack. Oxygen alone can’t heal, but it helps other resources to do it.
What the United States has — and Russia deserves
I came to the United States and Colorado this year as part of a program for journalists who cover Russia to learn from American newsrooms.
For me, journalism in the United States is a dream. Journalists in Colorado have real power and the ability to highlight problems: homelessness, public transportation, water supply crises and other important issues.
When they want answers, journalists in Colorado can just call the government and ask. Authorities feel democratic pressure and public expectation to respond. The last time I asked Russian authorities about something and they answered … I can’t remember that.
Recently, the editor-in-chief of the newspaper “Time” in Leningradskaya region (it’s in the St. Petersburg area) published (but then deleted) a comment about a New York Times investigation. New York Times journalists analyzed a strike on Sept. 6 on a market in Kostyantynivka, which is in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine where heavy fighting has occurred. Ukrainian authorities said the strike was carried out by Russia, but The Times concluded the strike was likely by an errant Ukrainian missile.
The story was published on a day when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visited wounded Ukrainian soldiers at a New York hospital ahead of the United Nations General Assembly.
“It is true journalism!” the Russian editor-in-chief said. Another Russian editor-in-chief answered him: “The New York Times just works in a country where journalists are able to do their job. It’s not impressive; it’s an ordinary situation.”
American journalists face some of the same problems as Russians: pressure from their audience, trust issues, burnout because of intense work. But here, in the United States, journalists can still do their job mostly without the fear of being arrested for their work or being murdered because of it.
Six journalists at Russia’s independent Novaya Gazeta (it means “The New Newspaper”) have been killed since the beginning of Putin’s era, and some of its journalists were poisoned, beaten or survived assassination attempts. The last time it happened was with investigative reporter Elena Milashina, who was attacked in the Chechnya region in July. She covers human rights abuses. Russian authorities did nothing.
Even in exile, Russian journalists like myself still struggle with censorship and threats. We call Russia’s invasion of Ukraine “the war,” even if it could prompt a criminal case because the government has banned the word “war.” In the Russian government’s opinion, the invasion of Ukraine is simply a “special military operation.”
We continue to cover social problems, criminal cases of political prisoners, the consequences of the war and government repression. Sometimes our editorial lawyer advises us to “publish and pray” that the authorities won’t notice anything in that story.
We are trying to tell readers inside and outside of Russia stories about anti-war protesters, opposition politics, civil activists and organizations that are still able to work and inspire other people and companies.
But first — we are working to stop the war. We are working to help people build a Russia that respects its own citizens and other countries. We are working so that one day journalists in Russia will have the same freedom as those in democratic countries.
Does that sound like a pipe dream?
Not to me it doesn’t. Not to me.
Marina Sedneva is a journalist with 7×7, an independent Russian news outlet that now operates in exile. In 2023, the Russian Ministry of Justice added 7×7 to the list of “foreign agents.” Sedneva spent the past two weeks working with The Sun as part of a program through the International Center For Journalists.
This article was originally posted in The Colorado Sun and reposted on IJNet with permission.