About 5 a.m. on Sunday, March 6, an e-mail arrived in the in-box of the online newspaper Zvezda in the Ural region city of Perm.
“We didn’t immediately notice the letter from Roskomnadzor,” said Zvezda Editor in Chief Stepan Khlopov, referring to Russia’s state media-oversight agency. The message contained an order to remove “banned content,” but did not specify the offending material.
“That day there was a peace demonstration in the center of Perm, as well as in other cities,” he recalled. “I was there myself that day, hosting a live stream.
"After a little while, my colleagues reported to me that some message had arrived. And a little while later, they told me the site had been blocked.”
Since Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine, the government has cracked down forcefully on all forms of anti-war dissent. Roskomnadzor has ordered media not to use words like “war” and “invasion” and only to report information provided by official government sources. New laws against “discrediting the armed forces” by spreading “false information” have been hastily adopted, threatening violators with prison terms up to 15 years.
One by one, leading independent national media outlets have closed down or moved abroad. Independent regional media like Perm’s online Zvezda have also come under assault.
“We are now afraid of everything,” said Yaroslav Vlasov, a journalist with the website Taiga-Info in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, in an interview in March, “because they can come for us for any reason.”
'The Forbidden Word'
In the case of Zvezda, the specific reason may never be known. Roskomnadzor has not responded to queries asking which material should have been deleted.
“But we know what it is about. Because on February 24 -- the day the ‘special military operation’ began -- we published a statement saying we would call things by their real names,” Khlopov said. “Most likely they blocked us for using the forbidden word” -- war.
“Just like they banned other sites before us and other sites since,” he added. The website’s page on the Russian social network VK has also been suspended.
The Perm newspaper Zvezda was founded in 1917, and during the early post-Soviet period it was one of the bright lights of Russia’s nascent independent regional press. But in 2016 -- for various political and business reasons, Khlopov said -- the paper’s ownership changed. The paper edition found its way into the Perm region governor’s media holding, while many of the paper’s journalists created the Zvezda online outlet.
Helmed by Khlopov since the beginning, it quickly gained a reputation for its tight focus on local news.
“It covers local initiatives, city activists, environmentalists, artists, reports about people,” he explained to RFE/RL ahead of World Press Freedom Day on May 3. “Our audience is small but devoted.”
After the site was blocked, the journalists collectively made the decision to compromise. The word “war” was removed from their stories and several photographs of local protests were deleted. But it apparently wasn’t enough for Roskomnadzor, as the site remains inaccessible in Russia and the agency has met the paper’s requests for information with silence. The publication’s pleas have also been ignored by the Prosecutor-General’s Office, so the journalists are preparing to take their case to court.
“When all this happened, there was a serious wave of support from our readers,” Khlopov said. “So there are only thousands instead of millions, but they know us and value our work.”
The number of subscribers to the website’s Telegram channel has increased about 10 times over, he said.
Back To Samizdat
In April, Zvezda staffers came up with a new idea in their bid to circumvent Kremlin censorship. It was a plan that evokes the oppressive decades of the Soviet era, when forms of poetry, prose, and journalism that were banned or likely to be suppressed by the state were printed in secret and circulated surreptitiously among friends and colleagues in underground networks -- a phenomenon known in Russian as samizdat, or self-publishing.
The collective at Zvezda began publishing a weekly text edition in A4 format on their Telegram channel that could be printed out on any printer. In Khlopov’s words, it is a modest effort to bring objective information to readers “poisoned by propaganda.”
“It’s impossible to just do nothing,” Khlopov said. “We -- just one Internet publication -- can’t break the state propaganda on television and the Internet. Even all [independent] Internet media taken together couldn’t.”
In the face of that harsh reality, Zvezda staffers “proceeded from the principle that we must reach out to audiences that we haven’t reached before. At the least there is a symbolic significance for people out there who share our values -- that they aren’t alone, and they have not been forgotten.”
In the Soviet Union, samizdat publishing often led to a dangerous cat-and-mouse game with the state. That, too, is being echoed in President Vladimir Putin’s Russia: In April, at least three people were cited for “discrediting the armed forces of the Russian Federation” for distributing the samizdat version of online Zvezda.
“We didn’t call on people to distribute the paper,” Khlopov said. “We told them they could print it out and take it home, leave it on a pile with other papers and leaflets. Maybe someone will take a look, and something will resonate in their soul or in their head when they are watching television.”
Nonetheless, he said, the publication feels responsibility for those cited for distributing the paper, and it will help them with any fines that are imposed.
Since the website was blocked, Zvezda has lost all its advertising revenue. It has cut expenses to the bone and continues to exist on donations from a local businesswoman and politician from the liberal party Yabloko, Nadezhda Agisheva.
“But no one knows how long we can continue to exist in this environment,” Khlopov said.
“We have already lost the lion’s share of our independent media, both on the national and the regional levels,” he said. “And the persecution continues.”