Together with his colleague Oleg Potapenko, a journalist Aleksandr Kushnar opened a news website Amurburg in 2013 in Khabarovsk, Far East, Russia; uninterested in toing the line of Kremlin’s information policy, they happened to find an alternative local agenda. As a result, both had to leave Russia. Kushnar ended up in Lithuania where he opened Newsader, a new media resource.
Our interview with Aleksandr happened almost simultaneously with the 7th International LEIC Research Conference 2017 at Vilnius University, attended, among others, by Russian representatives. They argued that media feel freer in Russian regions than in the capitals.
Eating out of governor’s hand
“If you are asking, I’m a political migrant; I haven’t applied for political asylum in Lithuania, though. I am here as an accredited foreign journalist under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
I created Newsader when I was already here. It was the goal of coming here for me. After my arrival in March, it was launched in July 2015. There was no point of creating it in Russia under multiple threats. Many resources have been blocked already. They even want to block anonymizers, programmes to avoid blockings. This would be a Russian version of the Chinese or North Korean internet models. Under the .ru domain, this resource would be vulnerable; it is clear enough who controls this domain. Therefore, I chose .com domain for registration. Established in Lithuania, my website is well protected against blocking by the European legal system. It is true that Russians can easily block this website for Russian-speaking audience; they are not doing it yet.
I have interviewed Linas Linkevičius, a foreign minister. No problem. I cannot imagine interviewing a Russian foreign minister on my own request.
In my audience, 35 per cent are Russians, 35 per cent come from Ukraine, and the rest are from the US, Germany and other countries. During these 2.5 years, the number of visitors varied between 10 and 30 thousand on average. It reached 100 or even 140 thousand unique visitors on some days.
Compared to the newspaper where I worked first, it is a night and day difference. They all ate from the governor’s hand. On daily basis, they would have to fulfil his tasks, covering things from government’s perspective. These grey media stay in regions, interesting to no one. Rather than a journalism, it is money laundering in fact.
In Lithuania, I am free to enter any state institution. I have interviewed Linas Linkevičius, a foreign minister. No problem. I cannot imagine interviewing a Russian foreign minister on my own request. With my press card, I can go wherever I wish to, no one can ban me from doing it, from filming something or asking about something.
We launched Amurburg project in Far East with my colleague in 2013. Amur is our river. This was a project of Oleg Potapenko, a colleague of mine. Originally, we focused on local issues, covering Khabarovsk, Far East, with less attention to pan-Russian news. It turned around later, with a proportion of 10 to 20 per cent of local news and the rest focusing on Russia and the rest of the world.
In Far East and Siberia our side of Ural, we were the only source of a position different from official; hence, we got into a mess. Our coverage of Ukraine was different. We presented it as Russian aggression against Ukraine. I was explained I would face many difficulties if I go on doing what I was doing. As a minimum, funding would be made impossible to obtain. Restricting financial flows is very easy today. Searches in organisations are widespread. Amurburg was a tiny tot for them, even after 18 months or so of our very productive efforts. First 8 months were on voluntary basis, in a hope to get funding. We reached a record of 100 to 150 thousand visitors per day, and the average of 20 thousand. Being a formally registered medium, we would often reach Yandex (Russian popular search engine, ed.) news and get to tops almost every day.
Oleg was under constant pressure from the authorities, if we get down to details. He was the editor-in-chief. In the end, an officer tore a last page out of his passport in an airport and blamed him of an attempt to travel with a damaged document. Spoiling your passport, and then drawing up an administrative protocol against you. Some days after, Oleg took his chance to go through customs control again, guessing that security services would be less vigilant on Sunday. Having succeeded, he is in the US ever since. Russians often spoil passports on purpose.
“You have a life ahead of you. Why do you need it?”
Sasha, I guess you don’t want to have problems like Oleg? You are young, with a life ahead of you. Why do you need it? Stop it!
Oleg had to go through a lot of things. Using funds from various sources, we also received a local grant. Resulting in claims for using state money for criticising the state on our ‘anti-patriotic’ website. Events in Ukraine happened a way after our application. Naturally, we were not going to toe the line of state policy, in contrast to other local newsrooms. It made us different.
Our complete independence made officials and security services very angry. The chairperson of the Press Committee put it blatantly: “Sasha, I guess you don’t want to have problems like Oleg? You are young, with a life ahead of you. Why do you need it? Stop it!” We were talking when Oleg was detained. After his detention, I asked for a meeting with this official to get first-hand information about the reasons. He was honest with me: “FSB (Federal Security Service – transl.) is dealing with Oleg. They can also target you, if you stay with Amurburg”.
Leave alone threats on Facebook. Everyone gets them, because paper cannot blush. Famous for their outrageous attacks, trolls are ineradicable. Facebook filters out their messages. I keep them all. I attached these screenshots when applying to Reporters Without Borders. I was still considering applying for asylum then. Luckily, I have got an opportunity to live here legally as a foreign journalist.
- Your face asks for smashing ))) I can see it from your muzzle you are a creep;
- Wow, I’m happy you are from Khabarovsk ))) sleeping well?))
- No Ukes in Russia, OK? I will deal with you; stop writing bullshit, you Ukie clown; Kushnar, meathead. You can end up in a quod, I promise.
“Didn’t know Vilnius was an option”
They offered Vilnius. Why US, they asked. I did not know it was an option. They explained me that Vilnius has a large Russian-speaking community, and the channel works well. After a day or two of thinking, I concluded this was a good option.
Putin is also a symbol, though much lower in rank than Lenin. Putin is no longer a living person.
I had to sell my real estate, my small heritage. It helped us out of a bigger trouble. I came with a family, a wife and a baby. My daughter is five, born in Khabarovsk, Russia. They can take anyone hostage. My wife wanted to go home to bury her father, but I convinced her it was unsafe. Her mom agreed that the risk was too high.
My family members support me. They live in Khabarovsk. My mother-in-law visits us sometimes. They don’t like what is happening in Russia, but they are not public people. They are not open about it, but they hate all current Russia’s symbols. Putin is also a symbol, though much lower in rank than Lenin. Putin is no longer a living person. Russia has no president now. It’s not the president who is running Russia. No central government, actually. Though many think differently, each region is making its own decision. Regions are free to suppress locals. Moscow couldn’t do it, even if they wanted. The rights of violence against local residents is delegated to regions. No one cares about things happening somewhere in Khabarovsk. If someone is under pressure and media stay silent, ruining someone’s life is easy. Chances to survive are better in Moscow.
When events in Ukraine started, we covered it extensively since Euromaidan. Ukrainian topic brought us many views. Especially on Yandex News. Yandex News was still free of Kremlin’s (full) control in winter or spring 2014. Our coverage was pro-European or pro-Ukrainian rather than pro-Russian. As you know, Russian media described these events as American intervention by organising another Orange Revolution or an Arab Spring. We presented it as civil society’s self-organisation.
When the war started, I mean annexation of Crimea, we covered it as tough oppositionists. I can remember that hour! At 1 a.m., Khabarovsk time, we published an interview with Borovoy (Russian liberal politician, ed.), called “Our Tanks on Foreign Soil”. By coincidence, this interview’s headline came in the same time with the official decision to bring troops to Ukraine, Crimea, as the Council of Federation authorised using Russian troops abroad. The beauty of this interview was that the decision came on the same minute when we were publishing it. By accidence, it got to Yandex top. It came in hard-line opposition against intervention to Ukraine.
The Donbass war came next. We followed it closely, realising a vacuum in Russian media. We covered Russian invasion of Ukraine, Donbass and Crimea, and support to separatists. Calling them separatists was a key difference; other media would call them local rebels or ‘home guards’ (‘opolchentsy’) in spring and summer 2014. Rather than ‘opolchentsy’, we would always call them separatists or fighters. Yandex News would label them the same way, too. The situation is different now, with Yandex probably filtering out terms such as ‘pro-Russian fighters’ or ‘separatists’. Yandex denies it, though. Anyway, using these words made us many enemies.
As I know from certain sources, FSB educates and maintains about one hundred fighters in Khabarovsk, using them as ‘titushki’
What about local activists? There was an event our authorities disliked, the Amur Rainbow, bringing together local oppositionists. Originally LGBT-focused, it actually covered many subjects. This was just a public manifestation to express dissatisfaction with authorities’ performance, a defiance act. One day, a bad thing happened. A group of ‘thugs for hire’ came, beating and pushing away some people; we have it on video. As I know from certain sources, FSB educates and maintains about one hundred fighters in Khabarovsk, using them as ‘titushki’ (pro-governmental bullies in Ukraine during Maidan events, transl.). These are local thugs, usable for semi-legal violence against critical voices. These 100 men attacked the Amur Rainbow.
During discussions of Dima Yakovlev Law, or the sneak law, as some call it, prohibiting children’s adoption by foreigners, we raised this topic, too. Another topic popular those days was about Andrey Marchenko, a local activist in Khabarovsk. He is also in the US, by the way, after a prosecution for publishing a critical position on Russia’s operations in Ukraine on his webpage.
Aleksandr Yermoshkin was another very smart person, a scholar and an LGBT activist. Again, LGBT cause was just an excuse; he disliked local government openly. He was a good teacher and an intellectual at local universities. Someone smashed his head. We have it on video. He left for America. By the way, Aleksey Romanov, my colleague who is now in Georgia with his family, fled Russia in spring 2016 after being beaten some time ago. We work together on Newsader. His case was covered on our website, too. The problem is that Amurburg.ru domain is technically unavailable for preview now. He is out of service since payments were stopped.
‘I do not think Russians are cold-hearted’
In contrast to Lithuanian society, the Russian one is much atomised. I keep comparing these two societies. What makes a Lithuanian, Latvian, Estonian or any other well-organised European society different from a Russian one? They are consolidated. You have civil society, civil identity and responsibility. They stand up to defend a breached right or an offended person. Collectively. In Russia, if someone is beaten, only good friends will stand up to defend him, or maybe his/her teammates. Every man for himself. Violence is so widespread, especially in provinces, that it does not surprise anyone, especially when LGBT activists get beaten.
Empathy is a deficit. Yet, I do not think Russians are cold-hearted. They do sympathise with someone in need. However, they stay indifferent to political activists who suffer for their cause, since this is exotic rarity in regions. When Navalny comes, he can attract a group of 100, 200, 300, or 500. Too little for a city of 600 thousand, isn’t it? Some people, especially young and active ones, are more sympathetic and open to change. Just like five years ago, it is as true now. Therefore, Navalny received some attention in Khabarovsk. You might like or dislike him, but the fact is that people would come to his events. If Yashin came, or Alekhina from Pussy Riot, people would come to see them, too, since the Russian public has interest in change. However, passionate people are rare.
Violence is so widespread, especially in provinces, that it does not surprise anyone, especially when LGBT activists get beaten.
Why Lithuanians would be more active defending each other? They understand there are democratic mechanisms enabling legal protection of human rights. In Russia, these mechanisms have been destroyed. The goal actually was to atomise people. With these institutions broken, self-organisation of the society is problematic.
Look how it works: one day, my colleague Potapenko was sitting in the office of our region’s security chief. His last name is Mkrtychev, an interesting one. You can google him; he’s really funny. The devil only knows why we have many people with non-Russian names in Far East. As they were sitting, Mkrtychev told his colleague who had just entered the room: look, what if we draft him to the army? This is a suppression machine in action. It is across Russia, especially in provinces. Imagine courts completely under control, or a military recruitment office that can easily de facto imprison any man of a conscription age without caring about any laws. Putting in a mental hospital was a fashion in old times.
Lawlessness and impunity are the key problem. They cause all other issues, probably. By security, Russia ranks 152nd in the world. Even North Korea is a line above us. Russia is followed by countries in war: Syria, Iran and some other countries, I think. 160 in total. If police officers beat or detain you in Khabarovsk, you can’t oppose it.
‘You need nerves of steel’
Being a journalist is hard if you cover hard-core politics against the Kremlin’s line. Being a journalist is possible if you cover low-profile topics or social issues without stepping on local strongman’s toes. If you work for the Kremlin, you are supposed to work off your salary by producing propaganda. It gives you carte blanche.
Lifenews, for example. They gave up on all good journalism standards, stooping to the level of abomination, creating blatant fakes and inventing stories. Rather than a journalist, a person working there is a propagandist, a security officer.
If you work for a relatively independent medium, such as Ekho Moskvy, Dozhd, Fontanka, or Rosbalt… Obviously, they are dependent, too, staying in certain limits. Still, journalists are allowed to do more there. They must meet professional standards and be brave, since investigations are scary sometimes. Latynina has been recently forced out of Russia. Why? Though many are critical on her and her previous biography, she was digging under someone. So, she received hints. Her car was nearly burnt up one day. Her parents were under threats and had to leave.
You need courage to speak up about things. If you are afraid and give in to threats, you cannot be a journalist. You need nerves of steel. Receiving e.g. messages with death threats once in two or three days is a huge stress. Certainly, actual killing is unlikely, (the interview was recorded before the attempted murder of Tatyana Felgenhauer, a journalist of Ekho Moskvy, ed.), but disability is a realistic threat, as we remember from the case of a journalist from Khimkinskaya Pravda, who died in the end. This was a delayed death after a head injury and four years on a wheelchair.
With the Union of Journalists fully under control, just like all large mainstream organisations, because they are pro-Kremlin and dependent on Kremlin, I would not expect significant help from the Union of Journalists”.