'Stand Up And Keep Going': Russian Journalists Abroad Keep Independent Media Alive

A woman holds a placard reading "You can't shut up everyone!" as journalists and supporters took part in a protest against the "foreign agent" law targeting media in central Moscow on September 4, 2021.

When veteran journalist Viktor Muchnik, the editor in chief of one of Russia’s few independent news outlets, TV2, left Russia in March 2022 after regulators blocked TV2’s website, he thought it was “game over” for his career in journalism. Along with some colleagues, he considered opening a dry-cleaning business in the Georgian port city of Batumi.

It never opened.

Instead, Muchnik, who emigrated to Armenia, co-founded two new online outlets, both of which take critical views of Russia’s war on Ukraine. Ochevidtsy 24/02/2022 (Eyewitnesses 24/02/2022) shares the experiences of ordinary witnesses during Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, while Govorit NeMoskva (This Is Not Moscow Speaking) offers news, personal narratives, and podcasts about Russia’s regions.

Russia’s intensified crackdown on independent media since the full-scale invasion on February 24, 2022, has driven an unknown number of Russian journalists to leave the country to escape potential criminal prosecution for criticizing the government and the war, and penalties for using nonofficial sources in their coverage of the war, which by law must be euphemistically called a “special military operation.”

Viktor Muchnik was the editor in chief of one of Russia’s few independent news outlets, TV2.

But, as in Muchnik’s case, that exodus enabled the birth of additional critical news outlets abroad or extended the lifespan of others – beyond Moscow’s control. It was the latest twist in the Russian media’s dramatic evolutionary development since the government of authoritarian President Vladimir Putin undertook a draconian crackdown on dissent after the 2018 presidential election.

As of September 2023, some 93 independent Russian news outlets existed outside of Russia, according to a November 2023 study by the JX Fund, a Berlin-based media-development NGO. One-third of those were created after the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

With a combined estimated audience of 9.6 million unique viewers, 81 percent of whom are inside Russia, expatriate Russian independent media outlets are “a historically unprecedented phenomenon” that play “a key role in countering Kremlin propaganda and disinformation, as well as providing visibility on what is happening in the country,” the JX Fund said.

The NGO estimates that as many as 1,800 Russian émigré media professionals work in 30 countries; particularly in Germany, Georgia, Latvia, and Armenia. Among them are journalists for RFE/RL, which suspended operations in Russia in March 2022.

Denis Kamalyagin is editor in chief of Pskovskaya Guberniya, a news site based in Latvia.

Denis Kamalyagin, the Latvia-based editor in chief of Pskovskaya Guberniya, a news site focused on western Russia’s Pskov region, credits the Internet for independent Russian media’s survival abroad.

“We’re not living in 1923,” Kamalyagin said in an interview in December. “The emigrants who left during the [1917-23] civil war naturally lost touch [with their homeland] because there was no Internet. There was no way for them to even telephone. Now, there aren’t problems like that.”

But there are problems. Six expatriate Russian journalists interviewed by RFE/RL’s North.Realities identified maintaining local sources, protecting freelancers, and finding financing as among the most concerning.

'Living In Two Worlds Simultaneously'

Ivan Zhadayev -- the editor in chief of Vyorstka, a news site born in migration in 2022 – said his team was operating like a start-up, fueled by “enthusiasm under very stressful conditions, in a changing world.”

The second year, 2023, was about “how not to burn out, how to keep the team together, how not to disappear as professional journalists, how to get a foothold within the Russian media market,” he said.

Now, journalists have that foothold: The outlets JX Fund researched attract over 38 million website visits and 165 million YouTube views monthly and have over 430,000 TikTok followers.

“But they face the quandary of how to show Russia-based news consumers that, even abroad, they understand their interests,” Zhadayev said.

Many want news about “regional, socioeconomic, and everyday problems” within Russia more than they want news about the war, he added.

Ivan Zhadayev is the editor in chief of Vyorstka, a Russian news site based abroad.

Finding the right “intonation” from abroad is “100 times more difficult,” said Muchnik.

A “quiet civil war” is under way in Russia between those who oppose and support Moscow’s military campaign, with each side cocooned “in their own information bubbles,” he added.

The émigré journalists, too, sometimes feel as if they are in a bubble.

Yelena Trifonova, editor in chief of the site Lyudi Baikala, which covers the regions around Siberia’s Lake Baikal, said emigration has changed how expatriate Russian journalists view life in Russia.

To avoid “sliding into some distorted reality,” Trifonova reads small regional Russian news sites, talks with freelancers in Russia, and, like other émigré journalists, stays in touch with friends and family back home. But the sense of a disconnect lingers.

“It’s as if you’re living in two worlds simultaneously,” said Trifonova, who left Russia along with staff members in 2023. “You’re standing with your feet on two pieces of ice moving in different directions. You’re balancing between them and are afraid of falling.”

Yelena Trifonova is the editor in chief of the site Lyudi Baikala, which covers the regions around Siberia’s Lake Baikal.

Ivan Makridin, co-founder of Novaya Vkladka, an outlet that covers Russia’s regions, said such feelings have led some Russian expatriate news sites to lose their focus on Russia.

“[P]eople make media, and people at some point lose their focus because they’re far away in emigration, and, unfortunately, this impacts their work one way or another,” he said.

When Sources Go Silent

Sources inside Russia help émigré journalists keep that focus, but they are increasingly unwilling to talk, Trifonova said.

“People are closing up more and more; they’re afraid to talk with journalists,” she said. “You have to conceal the names of the main people and experts [in stories]. We never used to do this. We’re against anonymous journalism, but that’s what you have to do these days.”

Now, said Kamalyagin, even anonymous sources “who earlier were not afraid to meet with us somewhere in a cafe in Pskov and quietly leak information” are unwilling to talk. Pskovskaya Guberniya relies on Pskov residents coming to Latvia to get such information, he added.

Trying to contact sources potentially puts freelancers at risk as well. To protect their freelancers, neither Pskovskaya Guberniya nor Vyortska use bylines.

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Running an émigré Russian news site with freelancers in Russia means “you’re constantly worried about their security,” observed Muchnik.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Russia ranks among the world’s top five jailers of journalists, with 22, including RFE/RL journalist Alsu Kurmasheva, who has been in pretrial detention in Kazan for more than 100 days.

Makridin said, without elaboration, that sometimes his site has to make a “conditional compromise” on “our journalism principles” to protect freelancers from officials.

“Because without these people, we’re nothing,” he said.

Donor Dependent

Outside of Russia, Russian independent media may have found freer working environments, but the JX Fund report noted that grants account for some 80 percent of their financing.

As the war drags on, competition with large, independent Russian media for these grants has become intense, according to Kamalyagin.

Interviewed journalists, however, avoided sharing details about how they finance their operations abroad – a “pretty toxic” topic, said Makridin. Russian law dictates that journalists who receive financial support from foreign sources register officially as “foreign agents” under laws used to monitor and repress government critics.

Ivan Makridin, the co-founder of Novaya Vkladka, an outlet that covers Russia’s regions

None of the interviewees said that a foreign donor dictates their editorial policies, however.

“It’s important for [our foreign donor] that we write the truth about what’s going on in Russia,” said Kamalyagin. “That’s the main aim. [The donor] doesn’t set any other tasks for us.”

Kamalyagin and others said it is important to be objective and avoid sliding into activism.

“We talk with everyone because we understand that a large part of our country is either apathetic and apolitical, or even supports everything that’s going on,” said Zhadayev, whose site has been labeled a “foreign agent” by the Putin government.

“We will try, and are trying, and will continue to the maximum to do this [work] objectively,” he concluded.

'You Get Up And Keep Going'

All of the interviewed journalists expect to return to Russia, but they know that, under threat of arrest and prosecution, this will not happen soon. Even if Putin’s rule were to end soon, Zhadayev said, “repressions inside the country, pressure on journalism” could continue for some time.

Ilya Panin is the editor in chief of Cherta, another Russian news outlet based abroad.

Despite the difficulties of working from abroad, these journalists are motivated by a sense that their journalism is needed inside Russia.

After Lyudi Baikala published a story in 2023 about an orphan supplanted by soldiers on a waiting list for housing, for instance, Trifonova said, officials intervened and the orphan received an apartment.

“Everyone’s already on the edge of burning out, [at a point] when other remedies don’t work, psychologists don’t help,” Trifonova said. “But you just have to get up and keep going.”

Muchnik said the energy of émigré Russian journalists has impressed him.

“If there had been such vitality in Russian society overall, Russia would have been different,” he said.

Though the work “is getting more difficult,” said Ilya Panin, editor in chief of Cherta, another outlet based abroad, “Russian journalism, for now, is still alive.
“It may be pretty beaten up and burned out by now, but at least it’s still alive,” he said.

Written by Elizabeth Owen based on reporting by RFE/RL’s North.Realities