As it goes full authoritarian, the Kremlin is targeting the last vestiges of civil society and independent media.
When I returned home to Moscow in 2012 after three years in London as a correspondent for various Russian media outlets, my parents were puzzled. “Why wouldn’t you just stay in Britain?” my mom wondered, convinced Russia could only get worse before it got better. She’d seen it before. “We can go back to our internal emigration,” she said, referring to the late Soviet-era escapist practice of immersing oneself in the arts (both my parents are big opera buffs) or an obscure hobby—as far away from the propaganda on television and in the newspapers as possible.
I brushed my mother’s pessimism off. Back then, it felt like Russia was on the cusp of something wonderful and exciting. Hundreds of thousands of people were taking to the streets to demand change. The government barely fought back; some high-profile Kremlin figures even made conciliatory noises. I wanted to be there to cover it as a journalist.
On April 23, my mother was proven right.
That’s when, in a simple line of text issued by a nameless bureaucrat in Russia’s Ministry of Justice, my work as a journalist was undone. Meduza, the news website where I have worked as an investigative editor since 2019—one of only a small handful of independent Russian media outlets—was officially classified as a “foreign agent” by the Russian state, effectively shutting us down.
It’s not the first Kremlin media crackdown I’ve witnessed but by far the worst. In fact, Meduza was founded in 2014 by a team of exiles from Lenta.ru, a victim in a wave of Kremlin-orchestrated hostile takeovers of several semi-independent newsrooms. Based in Riga, Latvia, only a 90-minute flight from Moscow but outside of Russia’s increasingly repressive jurisdiction, Meduza flourished as one of the most popular Russian-language news media outlets not aligned with or owned by the government. The state begrudgingly tolerated us. Our legal status was murky—a Latvian media company staffed mostly by Russians working out of our second office in Moscow but neither registered with the Russian media watchdog Roskomnadzor nor accredited as a foreign media bureau with the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In October 2020, our bureau application was finally approved, not that it changed our situation in any way. Officials answered our calls like those of any other media outlet, and our sources trusted us. Our reportage and investigations won us numerous awards. We built a successful media business and were growing.
The results of the foreign agent designation were catastrophic—as they were intended to be. As of this writing, we haven’t even hit the bottom. Most of our advertisers—which included Russian state-owned companies and international corporations—have already fled. Important sources have refused to talk to us for fear of association with a so-called “foreign agent,” a term that has strong negative connotations in Russia suggesting espionage and treason. Our business was gone overnight. We have launched a crowdfunding campaign that will allow us to keep our heads above water for a little while but not without severely cutting back our operations. We had to close both our offices, cut our own salaries, and abolish the entire freelancer budget.
Russia’s foreign agent law used to target Meduza was first introduced in 2012, originally only targeting Russian and international nongovernmental organizations receiving foreign funding, such as Amnesty International. The law’s scope was significantly expanded in 2017 to include news organizations. Ostensibly, media provisions were a response to the United States’ requiring RT, the Russian state broadcaster formerly known as Russia Today, to register its U.S.-based affiliate under the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act.
Russia’s list of “foreign agent” media outlets originally only included outlets like Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that could be seen as an equivalent to RT. Meduza is the first independent news organization without ties to any government to be hit. The Russian Ministry of Justice has provided no explanation for its decision, but we know it doesn’t need much of a rationale to end up in the Russian state’s sights. In 2019, when the ministry designated Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation a foreign agent, Meduza found the decision was based on two foreign donations: one genuine donation from a Russian American supporter and one alleged from an obscure Spanish boxer and nightclub bouncer who, when Meduza approached him, struggled to explain what the Anti-Corruption Foundation actually was.
And Russia’s law is significantly more restrictive than its U.S. counterpart: In addition to having to file additional paperwork, “foreign agent” media outlets are required to preface any story they publish with a legal disclaimer announcing its status, written in letters larger than the story itself just like the health warning on a pack of cigarettes. That even applies to our social media posts—and since the mandatory disclaimer takes up exactly 221 of 280 available characters in a tweet, Meduza’s Twitter account has become a useless eyesore to its 1.3 million subscribers. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Russian outlets have refused to comply with these demands and have already racked up close to a million dollars in fines, which they can afford to either pay or ignore at the cost of their physical presence in Russia. Meduza does not have that luxury.
Ours is not an isolated case of media suppression. Also this April, Moscow police raided the newsroom of DOXA, a student magazine, and the homes of its editors, charging four of them with “involving minors in unauthorized protests” and forcing them under house arrest. A few days earlier, officers from Russia’s Investigative Committee supported by an assault team from the Federal Security Service searched the newsroom of IStories, an investigative start-up, and the home of its editor, Roman Anin. The offense in question was an investigative report Anin published in 2016 in Novaya Gazeta, another embattled independent newspaper, about a lavish yacht gifted to now ex-wife of Igor Sechin, the CEO of the state-owned oil company Rosneft.
The very act of reporting from an opposition protest is now seen by Russian authorities as equivalent to taking part in the protest itself—today invariably called “illegal action” by the state media and other authorities, even though freedom of assembly is still a constitutional right. In late April, several independent reporters, including Meduza correspondent Kristina Safonova and TV Rain’s Aleksei Korostelev, were paid home visits by the police after covering the April 21 protests against Navalny’s detention. New demands and restrictions on reporting are being introduced on a weekly basis. Now, in addition to having to carry paperwork allowing us to cover only a specific event at a designated time and place, we are also required to wear bright yellow vests with the word PRESS emblazoned on them—the exact specifications set by the state media watchdog.
Not that all these new restrictions, ostensibly introduced for reporters’ safety, have ever shielded us from police brutality or prosecution. Safonova was clubbed by a riot policeman at a protest in January while wearing that very same yellow vest designed to protect her. Moscow police denies the incident ever happened.
With that backdrop, the risks are becoming unacceptable for more and more Russian independent journalists. The bravest of reporters have families terrified after almost daily news of arrests and searches. Not all can cope. Quite a few have already quit their jobs—either to leave journalism altogether or to take up positions at state-owned media outlets like RT, where they do little or no meaningful journalistic work and sink into overpaid obscurity. Worse, some have gone over to the dark side completely, denouncing their former colleagues and the subjects they once covered positively.
It has only been one month since the start of the government’s crackdown on Russia’s civil society. It follows a wave of protests in support of Navalny, who was arrested and imprisoned after his return from Germany, where he recovered from last year’s poisoning with the Russian nerve agent Novichok. The protests have been met by mass arrests and criminal cases, all of which has been covered by the few remaining independent media outlets.
The Kremlin’s crackdown has been extensive and brutal. Last week, Ilya Azar, a journalist and opposition politician, posted on his Facebook timeline a list of daily news headlines from MediaZona, an independent news outlet covering police brutality and political trials, from each day in April. The list runs for six pages and includes police raids and searches in activists’ homes and independent media newsrooms; arrests and heavy fines for social media posts announcing protests; high-tech criminal cases drawing on mass surveillance and face-recognition algorithms; new laws introducing even more restrictions on independent media and other civil-society organizations; and designation of Navalny’s national grassroots network as an “extremist organization, making it all but illegal and any contact with it a criminal liability.
The list is by no means comprehensive. Azar himself has been arrested multiple times—once in front of his 2-year-old daughter—and spent 15 days in jail for holding a one-person protest, the only form of protest that doesn’t yet require written permission from the authorities.
Up until now, political scientists have referred to Russia under President Vladimir Putin as a “hybrid” autocracy—dominated by a repressive apparatus of security and enforcement agencies but still maintaining a facade of democracy with managed elections and a few token free media outlets. Indeed, the Kremlin allowed some local activism and a few vocal opposition members in minor roles, such as municipal council members. Azar is one such politician, for example. But it increasingly looks like the Kremlin has decided to dispense of this pretense and go full autocracy. In 2020, Russians could console themselves by noting: “At least we’re not Belarus,” referring to the neighboring country’s massive, brutal crackdown on civil society led by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and backed by the Kremlin’s arms and propaganda. But in 2021, the differences between full Belarus-style dictatorship and Russia’s heretofore milder form have become fewer and fewer. Whereas in Belarus you can be arrested for wearing the colors of the old Belarusian flag on your clothes, in Russia, it’s a Navalny sticker that makes you a target for possible disenfranchisement for associating with an “extremist organization.”
There is a palpable sense of foreboding. It’s become clear by now that things will get significantly worse. The Kremlin has clearly signaled that it will no longer tolerate even token opposition or the hint of any threat to its rule. We’ve seen that no matter how peaceful the protests are, there will be police violence and mass arrests. Gone are the days when a top official whose corrupt dealings were exposed by independent journalists would be quietly demoted—after first being promoted or given an award so as not to create an impression the Kremlin could be pressured. Today, instead, a riot squad will be breaking down an editor’s door to confiscate all the journalist’s equipment and notes.
But even if my mother was right after all, this is a turning point in Russian history. As a journalist, I’m compelled to stick around and record it—until the moment they come knocking on my door as well.