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Bearing Witness: Tatiana Felgengauer on the Plight of Russia's Independent Media
"I sometimes think that hatred is the basis of my country, that it’s the only thing that can unite people here."
A few days after the Ukraine crisis began, the Russian government passed two new laws making it virtually impossible to report the truth about what is happening in the war. Most of Russia’s beleaguered independent journalists—whose lives and work had become increasingly restricted and perilous over the last decade—decided that it was finally time to leave the country. Tatiana Felgengauer is one of the few who remained. The former deputy editor of the well respected Ekho Moskvy (Echo of Moscow) radio station, Felgengauer knows intimately what kind of dangers she faces; five years ago, after Russian state TV accused her of working for the United States, she was stabbed in the neck by an assailant who forced his way into her station. Despite that experience, and the fact that her former employer has been shuttered by the government, Felgengauer continues reporting from Moscow, providing a rare and thus indispensable window into what’s actually happening. We spoke on Friday about her journalism, the plight of Russia’s media, about Russian public opinion and Putin’s standing.
Octavian Report: What was the situation for independent media in Russia like before the current Ukraine crisis started?
Tatiana Felgengauer: You need to go back to 2014. That was the year Russia occupied Crimea and the Donbas—not with the regular Russian army, of course, but with what we call “little green men” or “polite people” [i.e. Russian mercenaries or soldiers out of uniform]. It was an annexation, but nobody called it that. The problems for the media started then, because our parliament passed a law stating that you cannot say that Russia “took” Crimea. No, Crimea had decided to join Russia by a referendum, and everything was fine.
If Putin had stopped with Crimea, that might have been the end of it. But Putin didn’t stop. He decided to continue by trying to take Donetsk and Luhansk. And this was not as easy as Crimea, because to be honest, people in Crimea wanted to be a part of Russia. Obviously Russia’s annexation of Crimea was illegal, but it was not against the people’s will. Ever since then, the propaganda has been growing, and it is continuing right now.
OR: But back in 2014, 2015, there was still an independent media able to report the truth, right?
Felgengauer: It was much better than it is today. We had more media than we have now. But when Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine in July 2014, we saw the new script they began using. The authorities tried to confuse people about what had really happened, and the professional media couldn’t do anything because Russian officials just kept saying, “It wasn’t us. The plane was shot down by the Ukrainians.”
OR: But could you still do honest reporting?
Felgengauer: Yes, independent teams of journalists and investigators could work. It was much easier to do that than it is now, because there were not as many barriers imposed by officials.
OR: When did that start to change?
Felgengauer: It was a very smooth, gradual process. One by one, different media outlets were blocked. Or their owners would change, and the new owner would then change the editorial team.
The next big setback for the media here was when they passed the law about foreign agents. At first, it was only used against human rights groups. But then they began using it against journalists.
OR: And under that law, any organization that gets foreign funding has to register as a foreign agent, right?
Felgengauer: Technically, yes. But that’s not how the authorities use the law. They use anything as a pretext. If we had lunch together, and you paid for my coffee, then they could declare me a foreign agent because of you. And under the law, they created one more status that’s even worse than a foreign agent. I’m not sure what the precise English term is, but it means you are an undesirable or forbidden organization. This is what they did to Open Media and the MBKh news sites, which were supported by [oligarch-turned-dissident] Mikhail Khordorkovsy. And this designation is much more serious. It doesn’t just require you to disclose your funding, like the foreign-agent label does. If you get this classification, it means you are about go to prison, so you need to shut down your organization and leave the country.
Roskomnadzor [the federal agency responsible for monitoring and censoring the media] got the power to block anyone for anything, even without a court order or a warrant from prosecutors. If you get two citations from this department, then they can shut you down when you get your third. This iss very dangerous. Of course, it’s not so dangerous for us anymore, because we are no longer media.
OR: What happened after February 24 of this year, when Russia invaded Ukraine?
Felgengauer: With my radio station, Ekho Moskvy, there was no warning or warrant or anything. They just shut us down.
Felgengauer: Well, the war started on a Thursday. And they shut us down the following Tuesday.
OR: How? Did they revoke your license or send people into the station?
Felgengauer: No, they just flipped a switch. You know how radio works? You broadcast through a main transmitter, which is not in your office and which you can’t control. So they just shut us off. We were part of Gazprom Media, and after several days, their board decided they didn’t need a radio station that’s unable to broacast, so they liquidated us.
OR: Is there any independent media remaining in Russia today?
Felgengauer: Well, it’s so difficult, because right after the beginning of the war, the parliament passed two more laws restricting coverage. The first bans anything they can call fake news. And the second law prohibits writing or saying anything that could “discredit” the Russian military. The punishment for that is 15 years in prison. Now, what does it mean to discredit the Russian military? If you call what’s happening in Ukraine “a war” instead of a “special military operation,” that can qualify. A lot of people were detained just for carrying posters that said, “No war, no Nazism, no Fascism.” This law is pure censorship, and many journalists left the country as a result. So that is the answer to your question. We still have professional, independent media who write about Russia in Russian—but they are no longer in Russia. They all had to leave.
OR: Why did you stay?
Felgengauer: I’m very stubborn. And people have found ways to continue to work despite the two laws. Novaya Gazeta just blurred the forbidden words in their reports. It was fantastic, because it let you see what censorship actually looks like—you could see it with your own eyes. But unfortunately Novaya Gazeta got a second citation from Roskomnadzor, so they decided to stop their work. And now we have no such media anymore. And the really strange thing is that Roskomnadzor keeps shutting organizations down anyway. For example, yesterday they blocked a website that was about women and feminism, not about war. All the time they block and block and block.
OR: So how are you able to continue your work, which you now post on YouTube?
Felgengauer: On our radio station, we had both news and other programming. Right now, you can’t do the news part. So instead of reporting, I focus on commentary. I avoid mentioning specific figures, like the number of soldiers that have been lost, for example. And I don’t use words like “rocket” or “missile,” since that would be information involving the Russian military, which you’re not allowed to talk about.
OR: Are you able to criticize government policy at all?
Felgengauer: I do not, but I do. Of course, they can still say that it’s fake news or that I’m discrediting the military, but it’s not so obvious. I don’t know. If they want, they can find anything to get you. But I continue to call this a “war,” because that’s the truth.
OR: Even though saying that is now against the law?
Felgengauer: Yes. Because it really is a war. And saying that is more important than anything else.
OR: You could be doing this work from Yerevan or Istanbul or Baku, like many of your peers and colleagues. Why are you doing it in Moscow?
Felgengauer: I think there are very important things happening in Moscow, which I have to see for myself. I want to see, I want to understand how the air is changing. I want to see whether the people who print those big “Z” signs, who wear the emblem on their clothes, really want to or not. This kind of observation is really interesting and important.
OR: Given how overwhelming Russian state propaganda has become, do you think that people believe what say in your work? Or do they think, “Oh, Tatiana’s a foreign agent, she’s working for the Americans, she’s fake news.”
Felgengauer: The people who prefer propaganda don’t believe me, of course. But there are a lot of people in Russia who still need the truth, objective information, and professional journalism. They have lost a lot of the media they used to listen to, watch, and read. We cannot leave these people alone against the government’s propaganda. We need to create new channels offering honest information.
OR: Who are these people?
Felgengauer: They vary. They are of different ages and come from different social strata, with different incomes. They could be teachers, workers, unemployed, anyone. But one thing unites them: they have critical minds and their own brains.
OR: Do you have any sense of how most Russians actually feel about the war in Ukraine?
Felgengauer: I have no idea. I don’t think anybody knows. It’s impossible to do sociological studies in a totalitarian country. People are really scared. They don’t want to answer questions. They don’t want to tell the truth. So any poll results you see right now are fake.
OR: Do you think that if Russians knew the truth about how badly the war is going for the military right now, and about the war crimes in Bucha and Kharkiv and elsewhere, that it would make a difference?
Felgengauer: Many people here don’t want to know. For people who prefer propaganda, it’s too painful to accept the truth. They want to avoid these terrible pictures and believe that it’s all just a movie, or images generated by a computer. They prefer to hide. And remember that we had two terrible wars inside Russia—in Chechnya—and Russian soldiers did the same things there.
OR: Given what you just said, can you imagine a scenario where the Russian public turns against the war and turns against Putin?
Felgengauer: Well, those are two different scenarios, because people might be against Putin but not against the war. Because the only thing most Russians care about is survival. They need to earn money and they need to use this money to buy food to eat. That means that in several months, there might be problems because of the sanctions, and because the war is really expensive. And then people might start to ask what happened. But the government will always find enemies to blame, like traitors, journalists, human rights advocates, or LGBT people. These are the main enemies of the great Russia. So I’m not sure people will blame Putin.
OR: Do you think there’s anything that could make Putin change his policy in Ukraine?
Felgengauer: I don’t think so. It is his obsession. He is obsessed with the idea that Ukraine is not a real country, that it’s not an independent country, and that it shouldn’t exist. And if he still hasn’t realized how terribly mistaken he is, I don’t think anything will stop him.
OR: Don’t Russians see the contradictions in Putin’s rhetoric? If Ukrainians are actually Russians, and he’s killing Ukrainians, then he’s killing Russians.
Felgengauer: No, no. He hasn’t said that they are actually Russians. He’s said there is no such country as Ukraine, and that the people there are all Nazis and sons of [the fascist Ukrainian nationalist Stepan] Bandera. He doesn’t see the Ukrainians as people. And many ordinary Russians don’t see them as people either. Honestly, Russians don’t see anyone as people except for other Russians. I’m sorry, but I’m a Jew, so I can say that.
OR: Where does that attitude come from?
Felgengauer: I don’t know. Maybe because of our very difficult history. And maybe because of our confused identity. Inside the Russian Federation, we have Russians, Jews, Chechens, and many others—others, others, and others. They are all different people, different nations. We have no internal unity; there is no united people of Russia. I can’t explain why, but I sometimes think that hatred is the basis of my country, that it’s the only thing that can unite people here.
OR: All countries commit crimes when they go to war. The United States has committed many atrocities. But at least since Vietnam, targeting civilians has not been part of deliberate U.S. policy. What we’re seeing in Ukraine now, what we saw in Aleppo, what we saw in Grozny, seems to be a deliberate, intentional Russian policy of using atrocities as part of state policy. What is it about Russian culture that makes that ok?
Felgengauer: How much do you know about torture in Russia? About domestic violence? It’s a part of our life, part of our reality. It’s what people here they do to their wives, with prisoners, and in war. Six months ago, there was a huge scandal about the amount of torture committed in Russian prisons. But it was not an accident. It part of an organized, comprehensive system.
OR: Is there anything that we in the United States or the West—either as people or on the government level—can do to help the Russian media and the Russian people?
Felgengauer: I think the main thing is try to explain that not all Russian people support this war. Don’t blame us all for Putin; it’s not my fault that he’s still president. A lot of people did their best to stop this regime. But it’s not easy to stop Putin, especially if the West continues to do business with him. So don’t blame us all, and please remember that we are different from each other and from him. A lot of us really tried to stop him, and keep trying despite everything. That’s the first thing.
The second is to remember that Russia’s independent media is collateral damage. Independent journalists here cannot earn money anymore because of the sanctions. I understand that. It’s difficult, but I accept it. But we’re in a strange situation. Inside Russia, I am considered an enemy of my country. Yet outside the country, I am seen as an enemy by the whole world because I’m from Russia. It’s not very pleasant, but I have to accept it.