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How Russian Journalists in Exile Are Covering the War in Ukraine - The New Yorker - 06.03.23

Updated: Mar 11

Dozens of media outlets have fled to the capital of Latvia, only to encounter a distrustful public and a set of strictly enforced laws and regulations says Masha Gessen.

On December 1st, TV Rain, an independent Russian television station that had been banned from Russian cable and satellite channels, was in its fifth month of broadcasting from Riga, the capital of Latvia. Most of its journalists had fled Moscow during the first week of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, dispersing to Georgia, Armenia, Turkey, Israel, and elsewhere, only to discover in exile that, to much of the world, they represented a country waging genocidal war.

Banks wouldn’t accept them as clients, landlords wouldn’t rent to them, and residents in Tbilisi and other cities painted “Russians go home” on street corners. Early on, two Baltic states were exceptions: Lithuania, which had long served as a base for Russia’s political opposition, and Latvia. Last March, the country’s foreign minister, Edgars Rinkēvičs, tweeted, “As #Russia closes independent media and introduces complete censorship, I reiterate Latvia’s readiness to host persecuted Russian journalists and help them in any way we can.”

TV Rain now had three studios—in Riga, Amsterdam, and Tbilisi—and a Latvian license, which allowed it to broadcast on cable channels in the European Union. Alexey Korostelev, who was hosting that afternoon’s episode of the newscast “Here and Now,” was working out of the Tbilisi studio, a generic space in an office tower on the outskirts of the city. Korostelev, who was twenty-seven, came from a small town near Moscow, and got his first job at TV Rain by winning an on-air contest in college.

Like other journalists in exile, he had had to reinvent reporting, under near-impossible conditions: his job was to cover the Russian-Ukrainian war, but he couldn’t return to Russia or enter Ukraine, which has severely restricted access for Russian citizens. Korostelev, who was accustomed to working with a crew on his video stories, had learned to cobble together recorded phone calls and a lot of narrative voice-over. “More like a print story,” he told me.

Korostelev introduced a report about Sergey Safonov, the commanding officer of Russia’s 27th Motorized Rifle Brigade, who is suspected of stabbing an elderly Ukrainian woman to death near the town of Izyum. Sonya Groysman, a twenty-eight-year-old TV Rain correspondent based in Riga, had been able to interview Safonov’s bodyguard, a sergeant named Vyacheslav Doronichev.

Speaking into the camera of a shaky cell phone, Doronichev said that his boss and other senior officers had spent months “drinking vodka, and terrorizing local residents.” He added, “They would cut off people’s ears and fingers.” Under any circumstances, an active-duty officer of the Russian Army testifying, on camera, to apparent war crimes would have been a major scoop; as a piece reported from exile, it was a striking achievement.

When the newscast cut back to Korostelev, an editor in the studio, whom Korostelev could hear in his earpiece, told him that the next segment was delayed. He had to fill more than a minute of airtime. Korostelev, wearing a yellow sweatshirt with a mike clipped to its collar, began plugging a tip line, which TV Rain had started for collecting first-hand accounts of the war; Groysman’s report had originated with a message sent to it. “If you have any tips or witness accounts to share about the draft and the conscripts’ experience in the armed forces and at the front line, and if you’d like to discuss the problems in the Russian military, then contact us,” he said.

“We hope that we’ve been able to help many servicemen with their gear, for example, and basic necessities at the front, because the accounts that we have published and that have been shared by their relatives are frankly horrifying.”

Even as he heard the words coming out of his mouth, Korostelev wondered what had come over him. Help servicemen with their gear? Many of the people who had contacted the tip line were family members who said that their loved ones had been sent to Ukraine with little or no training, and without essential supplies such as thermal underwear, warm socks, or body armor. Korostelev had discovered that bringing attention to these reports often resulted in the men being withdrawn from frontline positions. He thought of this as one of his contributions to the antiwar effort: he was helping reduce the number of Russian fighters in Ukraine, one conscripted man at a time. He did not mean that TV Rain’s work had helped provide “basic necessities at the front.” But, somehow, he had said it.

In the first months of the war, Latvia issued about two hundred and sixty visas to media workers fleeing Russia, and nearly as many to their family members. Riga was already home to Meduza, arguably the most respected Russian-language news outlet. Now two dozen others came, including TV Rain, the Russian services of the BBC and Deutsche Welle, the Moscow bureau of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, several smaller publications, and about half the staff of Novaya Gazeta, whose editor-in-chief, Dmitry Muratov, had received the Nobel Peace Prize, in 2021. The population of Riga is roughly six hundred thousand people, and that of all Latvia is fewer than two million, so five hundred newcomers is “a noticeable presence,” Viktors Makarovs, a senior foreign-ministry official, told me.

Latvia, like Lithuania and Estonia, was occupied by the Soviet Union for nearly fifty years. (All three countries joined the European Union in 2004.) About a quarter of the population are Russian-speaking ethnic Russians who settled there during the occupation and their descendants. Latvian authorities have long worried about the group’s susceptibility to Russian propaganda. A former President of Estonia, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, whose wife, Ieva, serves as the digital-media adviser to the President of Latvia, has been an outspoken proponent of sealing borders against all Russians, citing, among other things, “a deep skepticism about transforming Russians who come here into non-imperialist democrats.”

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How Russian Journalists in Exile Are Covering the War in Ukraine - by Masha Gessen for The
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Ekaterina Kotrikadze, TV Rain’s news director, at the studio in Latvia. “We still own our sense of belonging to Russia,” she said. Photographs by Nikita Teryoshin for The New Yorker

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