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'Propaganda Is Almost Everywhere': Grassroots Campaigners Take On The Kremlin War Machine

Anti-war graffiti in Crimea's Sevastopol: "No to War. Peace."
Anti-war graffiti in Crimea's Sevastopol: "No to War. Peace."

Life for independent Russian journalists under the conditions of de facto wartime censorship imposed by the government of President Vladimir Putin can be disheartening.

"There are moments of despair," said Anna Zhukova, who is the editor in chief of the Perm 36.6 Telegram channel. "When you see that you are working 12 hours a day and yet are unable to do anything to stop the war or to really change anything.

"On the other hand," she continued, "I see that there are tens of thousands of people in the Perm region who oppose the war. And if we stop our work, they will be left alone, unable to get uncensored information."

We decided that we would tell people the things that they aren't being told by [state] television."
-- Anna Zhukova, Perm 36.6 Telegram channel

Putin's government has been battling dissent for years, a crackdown that intensified in the months before Russia launched a massive unprovoked invasion of Ukraine on February 24. Since then, new legislation has criminalized spreading information that supposedly "discredits the armed forces of the Russian Federation."

More than 300 criminal cases have been opened under this law, along with more than 5,000 administrative charges punished by short jail sentences or onerous fines, according to OVD-Info, which monitors repression in Russia. The group reported that at least 19,443 people have been detained by the authorities in Russia for actions or statements against the war since the February invasion.

"Sometimes the scale of the catastrophe that is happening weighs heavily on us," said a founder of the Akbuzat Telegram channel, who asked not to be identified for fear of repercussions. Akbuzat covers events in the central Russian region of Bashkortostan, particularly how the war has affected people there. "But that is not a reason to throw up your hands and quit. It is a reason to gather your strength and proceed further. A long journey is accomplished by tiny steps."

Dozens of independent, social-media-based information projects have emerged after pressure from the Russian government's crackdown, most of them run by journalists or activists who fled the country under threat of imprisonment. In interviews with RFE/RL, they said they were motivated primarily by their consciences and that their main mission is to make sure Russians are not left alone against the massive tide of pro-war state propaganda.

Eye To Eye

The YouTube channel Razvorot (Turnabout or Reversal) is run by journalists Anton Rubin and Darya Litvishko from the mid-Volga city of Samara. The pair formerly hosted the morning show on the city's affiliate of the liberal Ekho Moskvy station, which was forced off the air in March for refusing to comply with the government's censorship over the war.

"Everything was shut down, and we were left in a vacuum," Rubin told RFE/RL's Idel.Realities. "We decided to continue our work, which we did, albeit via the Internet."

The initially small audiences did not bother the journalists.

"We started it most of all for ourselves," Rubin said. "It was a form of psychotherapy."

Anton Rubin: "We started it most of all for ourselves. It was a form of psychotherapy."
Anton Rubin: "We started it most of all for ourselves. It was a form of psychotherapy."

Among other innovations, Razvorot has created a weekly program called Eye To Eye that covers the war through in-depth conversations with people directly affected by it.

"At first, when we were talking about the war, we didn't have the view from the inside," Rubin recalled. "We were experiencing a feeling of collective guilt and helplessness, so we decided to speak with people who are there, in Ukraine. We began looking directly into the eyes of those who were willing to talk to us --and we experienced a terrible sense of shame.

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"We learned how they found out about the war, how they reacted to the bombing of Kyiv," he said. "We spoke with people who lived under occupation, who had been taken prisoner, who were helping displaced people. A wide variety of people. We are continuing the project, although it is hard because Ukrainians are less and less willing to speak with Russians. And technically, it has become quite difficult because of the blackouts there."

In recent weeks, Russian air attacks against the energy grid and other civilian infrastructure have produced widespread cutoffs of electricity, heating, and water supplies across Ukraine.

The channel regularly reports on the number of Russian missiles and drones used in attacks, with estimates of how much they cost and comparisons with what could have been purchased for the same money for residents of Samara.

"If that money had been invested in the economy and education, then in five or 10 years, there would be huge changes and our children could live in a flourishing society," Rubin said. "But instead, they will have to pay reparations. The war is taking away our present and our future.

"And, considering how the propagandists are conducting their war, they are taking away our past as well," he added, referring to the state's efforts to impose a simplistic, jingoistic version of Russian history through its control of media, culture, and education.

Navalny's Team Repressed, But Not Silenced

The Telegram and YouTube channels Perm 36.6 were created in the summer of 2021 by activists from the repressed Perm branch of imprisoned opposition politician Aleksei Navalny's movement. Although they relocated outside of Russia, they felt obligated to continue their connection with Perm, where all local media is controlled by the regional governor.

"We decided that we would tell people the things that they aren't being told by [state] television," editor Zhukova said.

Anna Zhukova: "There are moments of despair."
Anna Zhukova: "There are moments of despair."

After the invasion, the channel revamped its output, creating 20-30 daily posts about the war and the harm it was bringing to the Perm region, including as a result of unprecedented Western sanctions imposed against Russia in response to Moscow's aggression. Some of the channel's most popular posts were ones titled Why The Army Has No Clothes and How United Russia Members Shield Their Sons.

The channel also reported on uprisings of mobilized soldiers from the Perm region.

The Telegram channel Serditaya Chuvashia (Angry Chuvashia) also arose from the remains of Navalny's repressed organization. Activist Semyon Kochkin, after fleeing Russia under state pressure, initially created the project as an "apolitical" local news channel for the central Russian region of Chuvashia.

"But after the invasion, we kept working for a month and realized we needed to do more," Kochkin recalled. "If we didn't write about what was happening in Ukraine, our audience would start believing state propaganda and we would lose them. In short, circumstances made this an anti-war project."

The channel has published material about the problems of mobilized soldiers from the region and their families, as well as lists of killed soldiers based on their own research and tips from readers and other sources. Although Western sources estimate Russia has lost 20,000-25,000 soldiers in Ukraine, the Kremlin has only acknowledged 5,937 killed -- and that figure was released in September.

"We reported about a village where they installed a plaque for a slain local on which it described him as a 'hero,'" Kochkin said. "After the publication, we heard from locals who told us the man had been serving with the Vagner private mercenary company and that he had been recruited from prison. He was a poor student and his teachers and schoolmates disliked him. But now -- he's a hero."

Kochkin said he still has a hard time believing such a war could happen in this day and age.

"It is even more surprising that people support it," he said. "I see the main work of this channel as making sure the number of such people decreases, [and] to open their eyes."

Semyon Kochkin: "If we didn't write about what was happening in Ukraine, our audience would start believing state propaganda."
Semyon Kochkin: "If we didn't write about what was happening in Ukraine, our audience would start believing state propaganda."

Another former Navalny staffer from the Saratov region, Dmitry Tsibiryov, created a Telegram channel called Oni Za Voinu! (They Are For The War!), which names and shames teachers and school directors who involve schoolchildren in pro-war activities, which technically is a violation of Russia's law on education.

He runs the channel from outside Russia.

"The number of schools is constantly increasing," Tsibiryov said. "Earlier, we had to really search to find something, but now the propaganda is almost everywhere."

Although Tsibiryov said his channel is something of a "lustration list" that could be valuable after the war ends, he also said he knows of teachers who "actively sabotage" pro-war projects.

Dmitry Tsibiryov: "Now the propaganda is almost everywhere."
Dmitry Tsibiryov: "Now the propaganda is almost everywhere."

"Their example shows that a mature and sane person can make an independent choice and not force children to stand guard over memorial plaques holding plastic rifles," he said.

'Trying To Save Lives'

The Telegram channel Akbuzat, which focuses on the region of Bashkortostan and posts in both Russian and Bashkir, is something of a second-generation media project.

The creators, who asked that their identities be withheld for fear of persecution, took inspiration from the civic group Svobodnaya Buryatia (Free Buryatia), which has helped many soldiers from that region to quit the war and return home.

"We decided to create a similar movement to help soldiers from our region, primarily through legal aid," one of the channel's founders, who wanted to remain anonymous, told RFE/RL.

Initially, the channel helped Bashkir contract soldiers to renounce their contracts. After Putin changed the law to make that nearly impossible, the channel changed its emphasis to helping men who were called up during the military mobilization announced on September 21.

"There is a lot of disinformation out there," the source said. "Propaganda. Unethical lawyers and journalists. We are trying to fight against that and hope that, because we are from Bashkortostan ourselves, people will trust our information more and they will be able to better defend their rights."

The channel's most notable success came in October when it publicized the case of Akhmet Abubakirov, the only pediatric surgeon in the city of Sterlitamak, which has a population of more than 260,000 people. He was mobilized on October 25, but after Akbuzat reported on his case and a public uproar ensued, he was released from service and allowed to resume his practice.

"We are trying to save lives," the channel's co-founder told RFE/RL. "We are trying to be an alternative source of information, including in the Bashkir language. We are trying to counter state propaganda and overcome the feeling of helplessness. We are doing what we must do and what we can do."

RFE/RL senior correspondent Robert Coalson contributed to this report.

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