Yevgeny Titov became one of the most well known Russian political refugees in Lithuania without having received this status officially yet. The migration services in Lithuania have contributed to it by rejecting Russian journalist Titov’s first asylum request, causing a broad public response in his defence. Russian federal TV channels, in their turn, first, broadcasted a story of Yevgeny using obscene language during interviewing their colleague; second, publicly questioned Yevgeny’s status as a journalist.
During nine years, Titov was a reporter of Novaya Gazeta, a liberal oppositional Russian newspaper, in Southern Federal District, where journalist Anna Politkovskaya worked before being killed in her house’s elevator in 2006. Titov never worked with Politkovskaya, since he joined Novaya a year after her murder. “You do think about a danger. By working in this kind of a newspaper, you oppose the system. You feel out of the system. You have to watch yourself day and night. You can’t drink out, since they can use it”.
In Titov’s words, Novaya Gazeta and radio Dozhd are two last resorts of oppositional quality journalism in Russia. “If someone wants to be a journalist in Russia, he or she must get radical. Or cooperate with the authorities,” – says Titov.
Yevgeny has experience of working on radio (Mayak Kubani and Russian News Service Krasnodar), in a newspaper (Vecherny Krasnodar), on TV (Yekaterinodar, Krasnodar), and cooperating with Radio Free Europe. Yevgeny has music education; he learnt journalism by working together with experienced colleagues as well as on courses of NGO Internews, established for improving professionalism of journalists in 1991 and closed down by Russian law enforcement in 2007, long before the beginning of fighting foreign agents.
Titov covered the other side of preparations for Sochi Olympic Games’2014, such as violations of human rights and ecosystems, corruption, and evictions from sites planned for new sport facilities. Boris Nemtsov, the opposition politician who was killed in 2015, partially used his stories in his report Winter Olympics in Subtropics.
“I was busy covering the Olympics. I had a dream to not see it happening, - says Yevgeny. – This was a grand imperial project. They had to construct, so they killed nature, demolished houses and evicted people. They disrespected law and destroyed families. Land registration took years, enabling them to ‘milk’ the people silently. This was the construction system in action. Usually people construct houses wherever they want to. Then they go and bribe officials to settle documents post factum. This is how it had been working for years. When Olympics came out of the blue, many houses proved to be unregistered. Instead of helping in registering them, the government exploited the situation. They started grabbing hold over the houses built but not registered. I spent seven years fighting these Games”. The journalist says he did not experience major pressure during the preparations for the Olympics or during them.
After annexation of Crimea, Titov covered corruption during the construction of the Crimea Bridge. He noticed surveillance during one of his visits to the construction site together with Ekovakhta (‘Environmental Watch’) activists and Swedish SVT TV journalists. On the next day, his newsroom colleagues received a text message saying ‘Zhenia was killed in Temryuk” (Zhenia is a short form of Yevgeny, transl.; Temryuk is a district in Krasnodar Krai, ed.). Temryuk was Titov’s next planned destination for reporting materials. As a direct death threat, that decided Yevgeny to emigrate after some time.
Providing the Investigative Committee of Krasnodar Krai with photographs of plates of the chasing cars, the phone number from which the threat came and the video recordings from the surveillance cameras near his house entrance, showing a suspicious man with vague intentions a step away from Titov, did not help. Titov assumes the FSB (Russian Federal Security Service, transl.) to be the instigator.
“The construction of the Crimea Bridge started, - tells Titov. – Infrastructure is absent, with no roads or schools, making it impossible for some people even to reach clinics, while a hundred metres away they are constructing a billions-worth bridge. Why don’t they build something that people really need? This is the essence of an empire: modernisation is beyond people’s needs. I started working on this topic. With a Swedish TV, I went to the construction site. The police car would chase and stop us. We were under surveillance from some Lada car all way long. We tried to drive through construction sites to grow the gap. When our car got broken, I called a taxi. The police stopped the taxi, though. I think they wiretapped our conversations”. Titov did not see Swedish colleagues scared; he says they understood they were in Russia.
“I produced a lot of footage on this bridge. Recording interviews with locals whose road had been broken. I came home by taxi and paid for it; on my way to the house entrance, I felt there was a man following me. I took a sharp turn and looked back; he was five metres away from me, or so. I realised he was following me,” – journalist is remembering the events of that evening.
Having checked the plates of the chasing cars, Yevgeny found out these were FSB cars. “With Novaya Gazeta, we sent a letter to the prosecutor’s office and the Interior Ministry. They identified nobody and said it’s undetectable. How can it be? There are plate numbers, car models and people’s faces on photos,” – questions Titov.
Yevgeny Titov decided to leave Russia in autumn 2015. He moved to Lithuania in August 2016 and applied for political asylum in late October. “I realised they would never allow me to continue my work normally. I did not know if these people would come back. You are never sure and have to double check every time. I understood that the system was covering them. I contacted Leonid Martynyuk (a political refugee in the US, ed.), co-author of Nemtsov’s report on Olympics and our activist of Solidarnost; he recommended going to America or Lithuania. I thought that if I travelled to America, I would never see my family again. Lithuania is just two days away. This was how I ended up here,” – explains our interlocutor. In the beginning, he had a yearlong Lithuanian visa.
Yevgeny’s family with two small kids stayed in Kuban. Yevgeny cannot reconnect with his family neither formally, because he has not received his formal asylum in Lithuania, nor ideologically, because his wife, says Titov, considers Lithuania a hostile country. He suffers missing the most precious age of his children: “I will never more see my daughter in the age of five or six. I am missing out. This is the only thing that destroys my life. My family members surrendered to stereotypes about Europe. They watch Russian TV and argue that paedophiles rape children in Europe. What if we take them along, and you report us for mistreating them, and they will be taken to an institution?”
When still at home with his family, Yevgeny forbade his children from wearing St. George ribbons at a preschool and school. Yet, he saw through a window their grandma secretly attaching the ribbons to their clothes to prevent them from looking unpatriotic on the background of other children.
“How is the feeling?”
Three high-profile stories about Titov whirled through Russian and even Lithuanian media during last two years.
The first one focused on the Second Open Free Russia Forum in October 2016 in Vilnius, bringing together Russian opposition politicians, political scientists, journalists, and activists, including political refugees. Two references of the community members are necessary to get an invitation. Kremlin journalists are not allowed to participate. However, one of them named Alexander Buzaladze showed up with his crew to check his luck. As he was recording the participants arriving at the forum outside the building, he introduced himself as a Russian-speaking German journalist and, as Titov claims, pushed a microphone on him at the Forum entrance.
Buzaladze is a creator of Swamp, an odious Kremlin propaganda documentary claiming to reveal the actual instigators of riots during the Bolotnaya Square rally on 6 May in Moscow (boloto is Russian for swamp, transl.) that appear to belong to Georgian and American conspiracy against the Russian authorities. Footage from the Lithuanian capital starts the movie.
Having found out who had interviewed him, Titov arranged a retaliatory interview with Buzaladze, in which he kept systematically asking the same question containing the obscene language: “So what is the feeling of sucking a dick?”, and published it on Youtube. Many would find Titov’s plain obscenities as looking better for journalist’s image than Buzaladze’s statements, such as “I defend the government, I work for the government, because I work on a state TV”. However, only the foul language caught the Kremlin’s media attention.
TV Rossiya 24 broadcasted a story about Yevgeny in its evening show. Praising Buzaladze’s self-restraint, they called Titov ‘a self-proclaimed journalist’ who had received his ‘five minutes of glory’. Journalists on both sides of the Russian-Lithuanian border split to three camps: strongly condemning, strongly supporting and sympathetic.
Dmitry Muratov, the editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta, described his former staff member’s conduct as inappropriate in his comment for Rossiya 24. After some time, Titov deleted the video from the playlist of his Youtube channel called Titovas (previously Noga).
The second Kremlin’s TV story came after Titov’s statement on behalf of the Russian European Movement established in Vilnius: “As Russian-speaking residents of Lithuania, we are joining the social action against the Facebook page of Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs where thousands of excited users are leaving comments with a hashtag Kremlin, You Will Not Rewrite Our History.” He referred to the civil initiative mobilised by a famous journalist Andrius Tapinas, in which 20.000 Lithuanian citizens downgraded the rating of FB page of the Russian MFA. The action came in a response to the statement of Maria Zakharova, the ministry’s press officer, about the NATO documentary focusing on the forest brothers in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia; she labelled the members of the liberation movement as Nazi remnants. Kremlin’s media dedicated another news story to Titov and his two fellow emigrants, calling them fringe elements and betrayers of the nation.
The third and most important story occurred after the decision of Lithuanian migration services to reject Titov’s asylum application. As a reason, they referred to a fact that Titov had emigrated only half a year after receiving threats. They also noted that environmental activists rather than journalists are primary targets for regime’s persecution in Krasnodar Krai. Lithuanian civil society and media community stood up in support of Titov. The migration service made a decision to reconsider Titov’s request given the new circumstances revealed. The decision is pending.
You filthy scum!
Titov continues his journalism in Lithuania by cooperating with the Russian-language version of DELFI news portal and other media, and contributing to the team of the Russian-language version of a Lithuanian satirical programme Hang in There with Andrius Tapinas. He also sings in a guitar duet Arbalet, cofounded with Valerijus Šerelis, an ex-commander of an Afghan crew of the independent Lithuania and a permanent participant of Mėnuo juodaragis, guitar poetry festival, as a part of Delčia group.
Yevgeny is learning Lithuanian; he says he always has a Lithuanian-Russian phrase book at hand. He tries to grasp specific features of local life. “The level of culture is obviously different here, something visible in driving rules, consumer services and day-to-day communication. This is a really European capital city,” – thinks the interlocutor.
Yevgeny does not know people from the local Russian community. “My task is to make them come and join us,” – says Titov with certainty.
Titov finds journalism conditions in Lithuania favourable: “It is easier to shoot videos, as no one is hitting my camera. Making a video in Russia is always stressful. People would break your equipment, tear your jacket and report you to the police. In Russia, camera recording is considered almost a crime. People react in a paranoid fashion. If you record them on camera, they take it as an offence. If they notice this, they might say: you filthy scum! It is not a case in Lithuania. Interaction level is higher here. Working is easier in this regard. It is easy to reach any official or any MP by phone; coming up to a city mayor and taking a selfie is not a problem. Authorities are much more accessible, something incomparable to Russia”.