“Is There a Future for Russian Independent Media?”

The press in Russia has been operating under slow but constant erosion during the entirety of Putin’s watch.

The artwork for this piece was developed during the Rhode Island School of Design course “Artists Report” and supported by the Center for Artistic Inquiry and Reporting.

In the wave of obituaries and reflections that poured out since Mikhail Gorbachev’s passing, most accounts described the complicated and even tragic legacy of a political leader who won the respect of the world, yet was cast aside at home. He set out to reform the Soviet Union only to lose it entirely, and in the process, lost the support of many Russians, whether because they mourned the loss of empire and identity, or because his attempts at modernization fell short. Of course, none of these internal critiques could have even been voiced without glasnost, Gorbachev’s policy of openness that eased censorship and allowed thought, literature, and art to flourish—albeit briefly.

“Without him, freedom of speech would have been impossible,” says Tikhon Dzyadko, editor in chief of TV Rain. “Freedom was more important for him than anything, and Putin is destroying all of his legacy.” Indeed, Putin’s aggression toward independent media began almost immediately after he took over for Boris Yeltsin. While violent attacks and murders of reporters have never officially been tied to the Kremlin, the lack of thorough investigations and criminal justice in these cases over more than two decades has set the tone on the government’s attitude towards investigative journalism. Yet the most effective levers for pressuring or censoring the press under Putin’s watch have been through bureaucratic or economic means—pushing out owners or editors, feigning tax issues, and more.

TV Rain experienced this stifling power of the Kremlin on more than one occasion. It was Russia’s last independent television network until it was shut down this March for violating the newly passed law that threatens up to 15 years in prison for calling the conflict in Ukraine an invasion or war. The channel had already nearly gone bankrupt after being dropped by cable providers and losing its advertising revenue in 2014, on the pretext of its having run an offensive poll about World War II—but it had long been a target because it aired protests in Russia and Ukraine. This time, however, the Moscow studio went permanently dark and the journalists working there fled the country out of fear.

The press in Russia has been operating under slow but constant erosion during the entirety of Putin’s watch—if not through blunt force, then through more subtle interference, such as the requirement to add the label “foreign agent” on their work if an organization involved received any foreign funding. Some have criticized the independent media for going along with incremental restrictions over the years, arguing that their acquiescence normalized the creep of oppression. Dzyadko disagrees that any concessions equated to doing the Kremlin’s bidding or that they threatened the integrity of their reporting. “With Putin, Russia hasn’t had freedom of speech, but had independent media despite all the problems and difficulties from the government,” he said. “I don’t think that our compromises were crucial. We reported on everything we wanted.”

Throughout the 2000s, technology has allowed pockets of free speech to exist through YouTube, social media channels, and organizations based beyond Russia’s borders. It continues to provide access now, but in a more limited capacity. While digital natives may have no problem using VPNs to bypass censors, the same can’t be said for the majority of Russia’s population. In July, TV Rain relaunched with a European broadcasting license from a new headquarters in Riga, Latvia, with additional studios in France, the Netherlands, and Georgia. Dzyadko says the channel has had nearly 11 million unique viewers on YouTube, roughly the same numbers they had prior to shutting down. Telegram is another space for dissent and open information sharing, with some channels maintaining huge followings.

I do wonder if these lines of communication are also in jeopardy. If we learned anything from the last two decades since Putin came into power, any display of leniency by the Kremlin toward independent media was a temporary facade. In reality, year by year, the noose only got tighter. For now, those seeking out alternative thought and dissenting content will have to continue to operate with caution, endlessly deleting traces from their phones.

Many foreign press and independent journalists have left Russia since the war began and set up shop in surrounding countries. They now have all the editorial freedom Putin’s Russia didn’t allow, but with this shift comes a new set of challenges. Not everyone is welcoming. Websites like Meduza, which depended on donations from Russian audiences, have been forced to find new avenues of funding. Perhaps most crucially, they are almost all now on the outside looking in; a press corps in exile.

Naturally, this distance raises concern. How much can we really know about what’s happening inside Russia if most of the reporters willing to tell the truth (rather than those spreading propaganda at state run outlets) are not there to see it for themselves? Will they lose touch over time? Will we all? Dzyadko acknowledges that being unable to be in Russia physically is “a big problem and big challenge,” but he still remains hopeful. Unlike during the Soviet era, he says, “we have [the] Internet and social media.”

It’s impossible to say what the next stage of journalism in Russia will look like. A lot rides on how long ordinary Russians are willing to endure the current situation. Protests have been spreading across the country after Putin announced the mobilization of 300,000 men, but the numbers of those willing to take to the streets so far are paltry for a country of nearly 150 million. If Soviet history is a reflection, a country with no robust history of a free press can absorb an unfathomable amount of lies, either giving up or giving in to the Kremlin’s talking points. As the author Elena Ghorokova wrote about growing up in Leningrad of the 1960s and ’70s, “the rules are simple. They lie to us, we know they’re lying, they know we know they’re lying, but they keep lying anyway, and we keep pretending to believe them.”

But nothing can fully erase or extinguish that spark that Gorbachev lit more than 30 years ago. Even Vladimir Putin’s refusal to attend the funeral read more like an acknowledgement of the former president’s impact than a dismissal of it. Maybe in some way, the newly forced distance of displaced Russians—journalists and everyone else—can even spark some creative new force to chip away at the state’s armor and the veneer of stability it provides. The fire of glasnost hasn’t fully been put out. There has to be some hope.