Does Russian Journalism Have a Future?

Does Russian Journalism Have a Future?

Does Russian Journalism Have a Future?

Reflections of a glasnost-era veteran.


Moscow—Since the Russian invasion of February 24, 2022, the media landscape here has changed dramatically. New legal initiatives followed the beginning of the “special operation in Ukraine” (as it is dubbed by Russian law), as did the draconian implementation of restrictive regulations. Almost 300 media entities have been banned in 2022, more than a hundred journalists have been placed on the “foreign agents” list.

The Mass Media Defense Center (included by Russian authorities in its list of “foreign agents”) and a December report by the center analyzing the 2022 media situation noted that after the new laws were passed in March 2022 (banning “fake news” about military forces and the discrediting of such forces), more than 180 administrative cases were opened.

The fines for “fakes” on the Web and in the media totaled 85 billion rubles, or more than $1 billion since the beginning of spring. Every Friday, new names are added to the list of foreign agents. The list already includes more than 500 NGOs, media outlets, and individuals. In addition to the law on “fake news” about armed forces, other new regulations limit journalists’ work, and media experts count more than 30 new restrictive initiatives adopted in recent years. Scores of journalists have left the country, including many well-known investigative reporters and the founders of independent media projects.

At the same time, leaders of independent journalism such as Nobel Peace laureate Dmitry Muratov, editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta, and Alexei Venediktov, editor-in-chief of Ekho Moskvy radio, now shut down, continue to work in Russia. Novaya Gazeta, whose license was revoked by the authorities, appears in a new format: a monthly magazine and several programs on YouTube, Telegram, and other platforms. Ekho Moskvy continues to exist in online programs and is even attracting more viewers and listeners. Quality journalism in Russia is clearly transforming into niche entities and new formats, but it’s not disappearing, and that’s important.

“We stay with our readers, we breathe the same air with them and experience the same things they do.” This declaration of Novaya Gazeta’s Dmitry Muratov has become a motto for many journalists, reminiscent of the famous words of poet Anna Akhmatova in Stalinist times: “I was then with my people where my people, unfortunately, were.” The association with the long tradition of resistance to censorship and tyranny is not accidental. There is a revival of the long-standing practice of “Aesopian language” from Soviet and even Tsarist times: the art of writing and reading between the lines. There is also a revival of coverage of the concrete problems in the lives of ordinary people.

According to expert estimates, the total number of those who work in the media in Russia ranges from 250,000 to 300,000. And not all of them are inveterate propagandists or cynical opportunists. In the more than 30 years since the adoption of the post-Soviet Media Law, which guaranteed freedom of speech and the rights of journalists to adhere to their convictions, a professional environment has formed in the country and a new generation of journalists, committed to the most important values of the profession, has emerged. The development of the Internet, which swiftly covered the whole country, including those isolated in villages and settlements, in the forests or in the mountains, facilitated its growth. Independent, primarily online resources aimed at the residents of specific cities and regions emerged (almost) everywhere. During the pandemic, the connection between local media and the audience has grown even stronger; moreover, people who until recently were not willing to pay for independent information have begun to fund independent media. The “accomplices” of Novaya Gazeta, that is, the contributors who contribute funds to it, simultaneously participate in shaping the content, suggesting new topics. This form of interaction has become widespread in the regions.

In the many months of restrictions in Russia, a number of new media projects have emerged that focus on specific topics and problems, primarily online. These include environmental protection, the economy, regional problems, women’s rights, and family members in the military. Many well-known journalists have opened their own Telegram channels. “Eyewitnesses” talks about how the military operation affects people’s daily life. “NeMoskva Speaks” brings together journalists from the Russian countryside and those who have left the country, reporting unique information about life in the regions.

Almost every other week a new fresh media initiative is born in Russia. Kedr on environmental issues; Agrobook on the economy, new streaming from Novaya; “Echo” and dozens of other YouTube and Telegram channels. Some journalists in the mainstream media still do their best. Eva Merkacheva, a top writer from the daily Moskovskij Komsomolets is one of those who opened a Telegram channel, “Merkacheva Rights.” She covers human rights, especially the plight of j who have been in detention for over 20 years, and a number of cases have been resolved and prisoners released because of her journalism.

“The future of Russian journalism is in the regions,” says Sergei Lapenkov, president of the Alliance of Independent Regional Publishers. The Alliance was founded in 1990s and unites about 100 private media outlets, big and small; at a recent forum, its participants announced a national contest for the best journalism about life in the regions. The best of regional coverage continues the tradition of truthful and perceptive reporting, which had existed both in Tsarist Russia and in the Soviet Union.

Lately, I have been thinking more and more often about my own youth during the Cold War and my teachers, the great Soviet-era journalists who under conditions of total censorship could tell the reader what was most important; they managed to instill the belief that sooner or later justice would prevail and freedom would come. This hope was a source of strength and education. I remember well how in the beginning the Afghan war was also called a “special operation” in fulfillment of our international duty, and how over a four-year period many of my peers died there. It took four years for the first article about those losses to appear. And then the next year, Gorbachev came. I remember how in our glasnost-era magazine Ogonyok we tried every day to expand the territory of free speech. History is not made by leaders but by people, including journalists and readers. Perestroika and glasnost happened not because Gorbachev invented it but because he heard the demand for change. He read newspapers and magazines attentively. Some publications caused him to make serious decisions. The important thing was that there were people who could clearly and reasonably formulate a public demand. And today there are still such people in Russia.

Gorbachev’s funeral viewing in Moscow was attended by people of all generations, not only veterans of perestroika but also their children and grandchildren. The Yabloko Party (the only party that openly calls for peace) held an online speaking marathon in memory of Gorbachev, and for many hours, people from all over the country spoke not about the past, but about the present and future. Many of them were local journalists and bloggers who sought to help people here and now. They had centuries of Russian tradition behind them and a powerful knowledge of internal resistance. But they had also known the brief period of freedom that Gorbachev inaugurated. Perhaps the brutality of the war will undo or eradicate that era. Or maybe that spirit of freedom will find a way to survive.

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