Despite the modern-day tools of repression used in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, independent journalists there continue to try to disseminate accurate, uncensored, honest information about such unapproved topics as corruption, nepotism, the treatment of dissenters, and the war in Ukraine (which the Russian government likes to refer by the Orwellian-sounding phrase “special military action.”)
To get a picture of how they try to go about their jobs, the Bulletin’s Dan Drollette Jr. spoke via Zoom with independent Russian journalist Farida Rustamova, who talked from an undisclosed location; the results are excerpted here. Rustamova has also written for numerous non-government media outlets in Russia for a Russian audience, including Meduza and TV Rain, on Russian politics and society. She has written for non-Russian publications—The New York Times, The Financial Times, and BBC News Russian, among others. She publishes the Faridaily newsletter. Her Twitter handle is @faridaily
(Editor’s note: This interview has been condensed and edited for brevity and clarity.)
Dan Drollette Jr.: We were hoping you could tell our readers a little bit about how Russian reporters are trying to provide independent journalism to their fellow Russians, despite Putin. You can go into as much or as little detail as you want; obviously I don’t want you to incriminate yourself or reveal something that could cause problems.
Farida Rustamova: For one thing, I generally don’t reveal where I am at any given time; I am sometimes physically in Tblisi, Georgia, and sometimes in Russia itself. At one point, I was in Latvia.
My daily whereabouts are definitely a huge secret that I carefully conceal. When I write articles or columns for the media, I do not designate my exact location.
Drollette: Is it better for a Russian journalist to be just across the border in the former Soviet State of Georgia?
Rustamova: Generally yes, but it’s really hard to say; it’s more a case of being sure to keep moving. The Georgian authorities have this semi pro-Russia slant and this semi anti-Russia attitude, so their official attitude is mixed.
As a Russian journalist, it’s clear that you cannot feel absolutely safe here, in terms of the security services and general law enforcement—from whatever country. A lot of things are sort of implied or indirect: Some of my friends have noticed that certain people always seem to be around in public places, in the background—and they are around so often that you start to recognize them. They are possibly Russian agents of some type, maybe the KGB or something else. You always notice them; they all look out of place, and very obvious.
But just because they are easy to spot doesn’t mean that they’re stupid.
I think sometimes they do it on purpose—they want you to know that they are following you, monitoring you. They’re making their presence known to indicate that “hey, we’re here, and we want you to know that we’re here.”
And in terms of a state, Georgia is not very good.
Drollette: But it’s safer than reporting from Russia, I assume.
Rustamova: Well, it looks like most of Georgia is safer than Russia for independent Russian journalists, at least for the moment. But recently, the Georgian authorities have pushed some Russian activists and journalists out of the country. Until now, they never did things like that, or at least they never made it obvious that they were doing that.
I think to some extent, the Georgian authorities are coordinating with the Russian authorities. It’s a convenient way for the Russian authorities to get what they want, and there’s always going to be some kind of cooperation between the security services of Russia and the security services of a former Soviet state.
But it’s all relative. Countries like Armenia are worse than Georgia, because Armenia is more openly and proactively pro-Russia, while Georgia has much more mixed feelings about Russia. As a rule, Georgia has been more historically anti-Russia—but then again, Stalin was born in Georgia.
Drollette: So, it sounds like it’s a complicated, twisted relationship going back a long way, with some pro-Russia sentiment and some anti-Russia sentiment—but overall, a better place for an independent Russian journalist to be working at the moment than within Russia itself. Though the situation is fluid.
Rustamova: Yes, on the whole. I don’t know of any uncensored, independent media in Russia right now. And most of the journalists who stay in Russia right now either work anonymously, or they do not work for truly independent media. Many Russian journalists, unfortunately, must now work at least part-time in controlled media—meaning media controlled by the state, which is almost all of the media outlets in Russia.
Some foreign journalists have stayed. They visit Moscow but they face huge pressure from the government. They encounter many direct threats from Russia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry officials. These officials can threaten to withdraw the foreign journalists’ accreditation, making it illegal for them to work in Russia. They adopted a specific law recently, that allows them to officially do this to foreign journalist.
Drollette: And I guess getting the story is only half the battle—how do you then get the story out to the average everyday person in Russia? Do you use Telegram? Or a virtual private network (VPN) that hides your computer’s unique identifying IP address? Or something else?
Rustamova: If you are in Russia, it is almost impossible to reach any non-official, independent media outlet without a VPN service. I saw an article that said that since the beginning of the war, Roskomnadzor [Russia’s telecommunications regulator] has blocked more than 5,000 websites in Russia (Sganga 2022). And of course, many of them were websites of the media.
So, if you don’t have access to a VPN, you’re stuck—which is why many of the independent media have their own channel on Telegram. It’s a very popular social network in Russia.
Telegram is really huge and very important.
WhatsApp is unblocked and no one knows exactly why. I think it’s because it is just too popular to be blocked; it has a huge general audience. It is especially popular among parents of schoolchildren, and among the older generation. In Russia, WhatsApp is the usual messenger to use to chat with your family—which is probably the reason why it is not blocked. And so WhatsApp is still possible to be used as an open channel for the media to reach its audience.
I would say that email newsletters are gaining popularity, because they are another tool to reach an audience without risk of being blocked. I guess it’s almost impossible to totally block e-mail.
That is part of the reason why I try to publish my newsletter on Substack. It is a very, very new platform, completely unknown in Russia.
Social media right now still probably remains the most important tool to reach your audience—even though most of the Western social media are now blocked in Russia, including Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. So you have to find a way around that blocking.
Drollette: It sounds like there are a lot of outlets to choose from—which I guess is the point. If one outlet is blocked, people just turn to another.
Rustamova: Independent journalists need to be able to adapt very quickly to ever-changing circumstances. But that doesn’t mean that it is easy. You have to master the technology and know how to get the audience’s attention on each new platform—and that can be quite a challenge. Just because you switch an outlet doesn’t necessarily mean that your audience can rapidly switch with you.
And a lot of Russians tend to get their information just from the state-run television channels. Russian TV channels are the most popular source of information for most of the Russian population, especially when it comes to the older generations—even though the Internet is so much better in Russia as a news source.
The problem is that the Russian state-run TV has so much money, as do all the state-run media outlets. They have so many resources; they are literally everywhere. They will try to brainwash you, and make you believe what they believe. They affect your mind, and your ability to reason critically.
Drollette: Speaking of state-run television, what did you think of the actions of that journalist on Channel One Russia TV—Marina Ovsyannikova, editor of the evening news—who burst onto the set of its live TV broadcast with a homemade poster that said “Stop the war, don’t believe the propaganda, you are being lied to.” As a Russian journalist, what did you feel when she did that? Do you think it worked?
Rustamova: Those are difficult questions for us independent journalists. When it happened, I first felt very enthusiastic about it. I still think that was a very brave act of protest. I don’t think that it was staged or anything.
But still, I don’t like this glorification—and in my personal point of view, that’s what it is—I don’t like this glorification of people who have been part of the regime for ages, as if this single act of protest makes up for it.
Don’t get me wrong, the free world should welcome all the people who decide to break out of the system and stop their relationship with the regime. And I hope that her example was a good role model, and that somebody was inspired by her example and quit. I hope so.
But still, I think that what she did is just one moment out of a lifetime of working for the regime. The people there, they are not journalists, they are propaganda workers. They help to brainwash our society, they help to bring out the worst in us.
Drollette: What do you see happening for independent journalists in the future? Will people continue to try to report, and try to influence things in Russia?
Rustamova: I really hope that independent journalists will get more support now than before. Because independent journalists in Russia know the country much better than anyone else, and can influence the processes that are going on in Russia.
The situation was very bad, right before the war—and then it got worse. All the independent media, they struggled to survive, and only a few of them remain in Russia. Putin was very successful in depriving them of any support inside the country.
I just hope that the situation will change after the war, and that independent journalists will be able to cover events in Russia and will be able to reach the Russian audience, because nobody else will do that.
But it’s so very difficult to predict anything right now. When it comes to Russia, it’s like living in a volcano. And everything is changing all the time.
So it’s quite difficult. But I hope that independent journalists will continue their work, because no one else will do it. There are 102 million people in Russia; we absolutely cannot leave them alone with Putin’s propaganda and his nuclear weapons. That would be a very foolish thing to do.
Drollette: Any last comments?
Rustamova: I think it’s important to remember that there are millions of people in Russia who really do not support what’s going on. Until the war started, there were resources where people with open minds could get independent information about what’s going on in the country and the government—despite the propaganda. And I think it’s very important right now to realize that, and to support this more mindful and positive part of the Russian people, which is more constructive in terms of democracy and stopping this war.
 See “Ukraine Reminds Georgia of Its Own War With Russia. That Creates a Dilemma” https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/19/world/europe/ukraine-georgia-war.html
 See “Georgia’s Struggle with the Stalin Myth” https://www.dw.com/en/georgias-struggle-with-the-stalin-myth/a-16992871
 See “What is VPN? How It Works, Types of VPN” https://www.kaspersky.com/resource-center/definitions/what-is-a-vpn
 Telegram is a free, cloud-based instant messaging service, founded by a Russian entrepreneur in 2013, that is encrypted from end-to-end—meaning that theoretically no one can access it other than the intended recipient. See “What is Telegram and why should I use it?” https://www.androidauthority.com/what-is-telegram-messenger-979357/
 WhatsApp is the world’s most popular free, internet-based messaging app, which third parties are unable to access. See https://www.businessinsider.com/what-is-whatsapp-guide.
 Substack is an American app, started in 2017, which allows writers to send digital newsletters directly to their readers and potentially monetize their newsletter by putting it behind a paywall (Fatemi 2020). One well-known example is Emily Atkin’s climate-focused Substack newsletter, Heated. See https://heated.world
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