“We are like cockroaches in a nuclear war” – interviewing Putin’s latest enemy
What they were fearful of, has just happened: the Russian government marked them as foreign agents. From now on, even their interviewees can face the same destiny. The obstacle of keeping up the work has therefore more than just financial nature. Still, they persist and, by gaining support from their readers, managed to buy some time although even a medium-term plan is vague. Having destroyed its opposition, Vladimir Putin’s government has now gone further: it has put the sole remaining major independent news outlet, Meduza, in front of its administrative death squad. In his interview to Válasz Online, editor-in-chief Ivan Kolpakov explains why.
Probably it was the fairy tale of Russian-speaking media. Like the story of 444 and Telex in Hungary, after Index suffered a major governmental penetration. There is one difference though: they were read by conservative circles too, even Vladimir Putin’s siloviks spoke to them. Over the months with more significant web traffic, every sixth Russian internet user clicked on their site. When editor-in-chief Galina Timchenko was fired from the biggest Russian online media outlet, due to clear political reason, she and some of her colleagues have chosen to found a new media venture. They have left Russia and set up their headquarters in Riga, Latvia. Working in an EU capital but surrounded by a significant Russian minority and having relative proximity to Moscow – those were reasons enough. The name of the new venture was Meduza, more like as a reference to Greek mythology than to a jellyfish. One thing is sure though: it sounds catchy. It turned out soon that there is enormous need for a news media which breaches the gap between Putin’s propaganda empire and the tiny circles of the Moscow and St. Petersburg intelligentsia. Moreover, apart from being genuinely journalistic, it looks good. Eventually Mrs. Timchenko made a step back in 2016, she is now the CEO of the publishing company, and Ivan Kolpakov was appointed as her successor. But an administrative decision in late April, in spite of the EU’s rejection, has turned the Riga fairy tale into an Eastern European fabula. Most likely without happy end.
– Could you explain the genesis of Meduza?
– Me and my colleagues have been working for the biggest independent Russian news outlet, Lenta, which still exists in some kind of afterlife. In 2014 we covered the events in Ukraine but few days before the annexation of Crimea the owner of Lenta, Alexander Mamut, suddenly fired our editor-in-chief, Galina Timchenko, before which we knew he had some consultation with the Kremlin. It was an act of censorship especially that Mrs. Timchenko’s successor had the experience of directly working for the presidential administration. The newsroom was immediately destroyed because nobody wanted to collaborate with the new leadership as the political context of their arrival was clear for everybody.
– Was it an immediate U-turn for Lenta?
– It took a couple of weeks. After a period of meetings, chats and alcohol consumption, a group of freshly-fired journalists of Lenta realized that we wanted to carry on but the idea of launching a new political media outlet in Russian circumstances was crazy as the strangest event of Russian history, the (information) war with Ukraine, was already unfolding. It was a toxic environment for genuine journalism which made us relocate the business – it was nothing new, Russian journalism-in-exile dates back to the 19th century. At the beginning, we considered Meduza a small pirate ship with a staff of 20 people, including the only 3 reporters on the ground in Russia, and we never dreamed of repeating Lenta’s success. Eventually we still succeeded and
Meduza has become the major independent player on the market by rapidly changing Russian-speaking journalism (formats, language, stylistics, technologies etc.).
Meanwhile we also became a successful commercial company by attracting readers and advertisers through which we could be truly independent and impartial. We felt pressure from both conservative and liberal part of the society…
– … the best thing an independent journalist collective can experience.
– Agreed. The key symbol of your success is when no one likes you.
– What was the size of Meduza before the foreign agent case?
– 60 people worked for us and we had 12-18 million unique users per month.
– To what extent do you think Meduza’s success was dependent on Mrs. Timchenko’s personality? In 2018 for instance, Politico listed her among the 10 most important shapers of Europe.
– Her personality, leadership and reputation was definitely the base of our success. Her energy was also a booster of our project and meant a lot while we had to start our lives over in a new environment in Latvia.
– How would you describe a typical Meduza-reader?
– Their key feature is their age. We have the youngest audience among all Russian-speaking outlets which is, for a political media outlet, a novelty in itself. Meduza became instantly popular among high schoolers and the majority of our audience is still under the age of 45. The reason is that we wanted to create a good-looking contemporary media which believes that design and technologies have the same importance as quality journalism. Designers, developers and journalists had their seats around the same table and created content together. Nowadays it is common but even in 2014 it wasn’t. We are also popular in big cities – but one-third of those cities are not in Russia.
– What about their political orientation?
– In general, almost all Russian youngsters are opposing the current regime as they have been seeing the same leader for two decades. In the beginning, Meduza had a more consolidated oppositional readership than now – because now we are bigger. We certainly have more liberal readers than conservatives but when it comes to journalism we have our sources everywhere, including Kremlin’s administration.
– How much risk did those people take by speaking to you?
– Before April 2021, not that much. Meduza was a strange but also a fully accepted part of the Russian media landscape and in fact people in power were satisfied that we were not based in Russia therefore they were not in the need to control us. On the other hand they still read us because they need something to read and Meduza is fun to read.
– Could you recall the 23rd of April?
– I felt sick and stayed at home when I got a push notification from Meduza which said that our site was marked as a foreign agent. I thought “shit, this is really bad”. Then I got a message from Galina with an expressive emoji. We got no documents from the Ministry of Justice because they are not obliged to provide any – they simply mark you as foreign agent then you have to live with that. Several editorial meetings were convened to analyze the situation. Yet our last week started with the thought that “this is over” because this is a problem we cannot cancel. We have been considering this as a worst-case scenario, we tried to prepare for this at least psychologically but when it happens, it is much more scary than you supposed.
– What were the immediate consequences of the decision?
– It has created at least three groups of problems. The first one is the money. You have to mark your contents that you are a foreign agent, including social media platforms. It has to be huge – twice bigger than the site’s default font – and atop your page. Businesses do not like to deal with political issues especially in Russia. We have already lost our state-affiliated advertisers and some of our private ones have asked to cancel all native contents. This is a disaster, it has killed our business model in a heartbeat. There are of course some who remained but, aware of the circumstances, you have to be crazy to do so. The second group of problems is the personal risk of our journalists. If one works for a media marked as a foreign agent, (s)he can be personally marked as a foreign agent too. Alike the company, (s)he has to report the income sources by filling out a tricky document which is easy to screw up. Fines or prosecution can be expected in return while the website is endangered to be blocked in Russia which means the real death. The third problem is journalism itself.
If you are marked as a foreign agent, you have a degree from the state about treason and you are considered to be the enemy’s collaborator. It is a mental yellow star on your jacket with which you lose your sources inside the Kremlin let alone the siloviki structures.
Consequently a significant number of our stories cannot be published as the foreign agent law can harm even a single interviewee. This was the first occasion when Galina and me could not present a safety plan to our colleagues – we just said “guys, this is it”. Yet the staff decided to carry on. We are like cockroaches in a nuclear war.
– Do you have any instruments to undo the decision?
– You can go to court and try to win it, which we are going to do, but this is a ritual. It is important to raise your voice and express your disagreement but everybody is aware that we have zero change to change the decision.
– Kremlin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, addressed the issue by saying “the disappearance of any media outlet wouldn’t be felt strongly”. I assume you disagree.
– I am a fan of Mr. Peskov as he has huge talent to answer any question by using funny expressions. I don’t feel anger towards him. What else is there to react when someone believes that losing a media outlet that shaped the entire Russian media landscape would cost noting? In their reality, media outlets can only be political tools with enormous budget. Like RT. They believe we also have a puppet master who dictates how to dance.
– What’s next for Meduza? You have already launched a crowdfunding campaign.
– We feel enormous support from donors which buys us time to think. We told the same to our readers: “If you support us, maybe we will die later”. Meduza is bigger than its team and founders and more than pure business – however it was cool to make money and invest it in the media outlet we have constructed and felt satisfied that we did not have to ask for people’s money which they could spend to help nonprofit organizations. We have to rethink what we will do. As a private media business, we had the right to do what we wanted but now, by asking their support, we always have to be side by side with the people. As a media manager, I am not yet sure what does it mean.
– A week after the ministry’s decision, you published two scenarios that could explain what happened. According to the first one, the decision was reaction to the fact that Latvia is turning off Russian TV networks. According to the second, the Security Council of Russia is to blockade foreign media. Which one do you consider more plausible?
– It was a combination of circumstances, we cannot point on a single factor. Probably the decision makers also had their own – domestic and foreign – reasons.
– Who could have been the real decision maker? Certainly not some apparatchik in the Ministry of Justice.
– As they are the real people in charge in Russia, I think it was the Security Council.
– Maybe it was not his initiative but he might have been involved.
– Howcome they harass you and let traditional opposition outlets, like Novaya Gazeta, survive?
– Probably they consider Novaya Gazeta less influential and they are based in Moscow which offers more options to intimidate them. Their readership is older and youngsters are the real threat to the regime.
As a foreign media, Meduza is rather percepted as part of the enemy surrounding Mother Russia. They really believe that everybody wants to destroy Russia. This is Putin’s real idea and he gets lots of proofs.
– Can the case of Meduza be a part of the regime anti-Navalny campaign?
– It is hard to separate them. Clearly the regime has decided to completely destroy Navalny’s structures, they are now arresting not only activists but journalists or lawyers. These actions happen literally on a daily basis therefore the regime is quite successful in demoralizing his supporters. Observing these, I wouldn’t say that marking Meduza as a foreign agent was an isolated case.
– As for Navalny, could you explain his return to Russia after he recovered from a regime-orchestrated poisoning? In retrospect, it seems pointless.
– He could not act in another direction. He chose his destiny which is fighting Putin as strong as possible – and the strongest decision was to return to Russia. If you stay outside the country, you lose everything, you cannot become a powerful political figure anymore. If you return, you have a slight chance to survive but if you survive, you are going to be the winner.
Cover picture: Válasz Online/Szabolcs Vörös