"No such thing as a little freedom"

Russian journalist behind rare Zelensky interview offers a glimpse inside Europe’s new iron curtain

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Panorama is launching its English page today, where we make some of our best and internationally relevant stories available to a wider, English-speaking audience. We kickstart this project with a story on the most pressing topic of the day, namely the Russian invasion of Ukraine. We talk to Vladimir Soloviev, one of the four Russian journalists who conducted a group interview with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky – the first such interview by Russian journalists, only to then hit the information iron curtain erected by Russia in recent weeks.

In August 2008, during the Russian-Georgian war, Russian journalist Vladimir Soloviev* was in Georgia, interviewing then-president Mikheil Saakashvili about his take on the conflict. The interview was published in Kommersant, a leading Moscow-based newspaper. 

Now, Vladimir has interviewed another president of the opposing side during a Russian invasion. Once again, the war began with the fear that yet another Soviet Republic might join NATO and bring the Alliance on Russia’s borders. This time though, Vladimir Soloviev’s piece remains written but unpublished and banned in Russia – a measure of the extent to which Vladimir Putin’s regime has perfected its crackdown on dissent and independent media. 

“The situation changed dramatically. Nobody knows what tomorrow will look like”, Vladimir says of how the media is forced to operate now in Russia under what he describes as “very difficult and unprecedented conditions” in terms of the information blackout on the war. 

“There is always the fact that you don’t know what article could be the reason for a huge reaction and a ban”, he goes on to say.  We speak via Zoom, with him now being in the Republic of Moldova and heading to Transnistria right after our interview. 

Born in Ukraine, near Odessa, and with parts of his life lived both in Russia and the Republic of Moldova, including in the breakaway Russian occupied region of Transnistria, Vladimir Soloviev has a unique perspective of this war, which Russian audiences would understandably benefit from.

"I was born in Ukraine, near Odessa. I grew up in Moldova. I lived in Russia. I think that Ukraine, Russia and Moldova are my countries. I feel like all three of them are my native countries. My relatives are in the Odessa region now. They fled from Odessa and are living in villages and are scared to go back".

Days before, he was among a group of four Russian journalists to jointly interview Volodymyr Zelensky. It was the Ukrainian leader’s first interview with Russian media since the start of the conflict.

With him on that Zoom call with President Zelensky were:

– Ivan Kolpakov (editor-in-chief of Meduza, a Russian and English language news website banned in Russia and based in Latvia, a key source for Russian news for the rest of the world)

– Tikhon Dzyadko (editor-in-chief at TV Rain/Dozhd, widely considered to have been the last remaining independent TV channel in Russia, until it was forced to suspend its activity at the beginning of March) 

– Also with TV Rain, writer and journalist Mikhail Zygar.

Sending questions, through his colleagues attending the interview, was also Novaya Gazeta’s editor-in-chief and Nobel laureate Dmitry Muratov. 

Novaya, a newspaper famous for its journalistic courage over the years, was also forced to shut down, at least for the remainder of the war, as did Ekho Moskvy (Echo of Moscow – oldest independent radio station in Russia). All were accused by authorities of spreading “false information regarding the actions of Russian military personnel” in the war with Ukraine and calling “for extremist activity”.

The newly introduced criminal offense of spreading what Russian authorities label “dissemination of false information” about Russian troops carries penalties of up to 15 years of prison time. 

None of these Russian journalists asking the Ukrainian president questions is now in Russia.

Meduza’s Kolpakov is in Latvia, TV Rain’s Zygar fled to Germany shortly after the war started, Dzyadko (also TV Rain) left for Georgia, while Soloviev happened to be in the Republic of Moldova for personal reasons when the Russian invasion of Ukraine started. He remains there, reporting on how the war impacts Russia’s and Ukraine’s neighboring countries, such as Moldova.

The interview with Zelensky, banned in Russia within minutes

Still, these journalists whose country banned the mere use of the word ‘war’ to be used in relation to Ukraine spoke with Volodymyr Zelensky about precisely that. The word ‘war’ is mentioned 60 times throughout the interview, according to Meduza’s transcript). They discussed the toll of the war, its inconsistencies in reporting, the negotiations and prospects for lasting peace. Their questions were by no means softballs or pandering to the international hero that is the Ukrainian president – they pushed farther than most of the foreign journalists interviewing Zelensky over the past month. It was, in brief, a lesson of how to do your job as a journalist in the most extreme, emotionally charged and pressing conditions. 

“My goal during this interview was to better understand the negotiations between Russia and Ukraine. I saw my role to ask the president about this issue, because we don’t really understand what exactly is on the table now. Russia has its version, Ukraine talks about other issues and I thought this was important”, Kommersant’s special correspondent explains.

Shortly after the 90-minute Zoom interview took place and prior to it being published anywhere, all of Russian media received a warning from the press watchdog Roskomnadzor and the Russian Prosecutor General’s office not to report on, or publish the interview. 

Kommersant decided not to run the story.

“Of course I was frustrated, but there is nothing I can do. I understand that my bosses at Kommersant are trying to save the paper”, he tells me. What would have happened if they had published the piece? “The consequences could be serious. I don’t exclude even shutting down Kommersant. Nobody wanted to find out what would happen”.

“It’s important to still be able to publish news, analysis and other types of work and not propaganda”, the Russian says of Kommersant’s work. 

Unpublished, but quoted all over the world

The pushback was, then, not unexpected – there’s been one announcement after another about Russian newsrooms shutting down over the past month and journalists fleeing the country to escape criminal charges or even jail time or to be able to keep doing their work, from the safety of other countries. 

So what was Vladimir’s thinking in doing the interview in the first place? Why do it when, in hindsight, it seems to have been a sure way to ask for trouble?

“Prior to this, I had an interview with Mykhailo Podolyak, top advisor in Volodymyr Zelensky’s office. I made this interview and we published it. There were some critical messages (afterwards), but no consequences. I thought that I would also be able to publish the interview with Zelensky”, Vladimir admits.

Still, with all the censorship and pushback that followed, what happened over the past week shows that even the thickest iron curtain can be made see-through by the sheer power of camaraderie and ingeniously using the digital tools available. 

True, Kommersant didn’t write a word about Vladimir’s interview. Yes, with incredibly few exceptions within Russia, it went unreported. But the same interview has been viewed over 5 million times on Meduza’s YouTube channel alone. Other Russian journalists who have YouTube channels also reported on it and continued to keep the ball rolling. “We can’t really say the interview was published in Russia. Meduza is Russian media, but based in Latvia and banned in Russia – the website is blocked and only accessible by VPN”, the journalist says.

Awareness was spread by foreign media, as well. Perceived in the West as an act of journalistic bravery, the interview was talked about all over the world. The New York Times described it as “a remarkable moment in the war in Europe”. It was highly symbolic, more than anything – an act of defiance of the fierce crackdown on dissent imposed by Vladimir Putin after he invaded Ukraine. 

Vladimir Soloviev hasn’t really followed the reactions. When it comes to criticism, he knows what the Russian propaganda is capable of, so no use in paying attention to it. As for the praise in Western media, he swiftly brushes that aside: “I just did what I needed to do. A lot of people wrote to me that it was great and that they were proud of me. I don’t understand why somebody would be proud of me – it’s just my work”.

He was in Kyiv shortly before the war started and was still convinced that Russia would never attack the city.

“I hoped until the very last moment that there would be no war. I was in Kyiv a week before the war started. I talked there with friends and journalists and I was the person who told everyone that we can’t imagine Moscow would strike Kyiv with rockets”, he recalls.

The last bastions of free press within Russia

Given all that he knows from his peers in Russian media and, more recently, what he experienced himself with the Zelensky interview, would he say that there still is a free media in Russia? “I read my newspaper, I speak to my colleagues at the Kommersant in Moscow and I know that they are trying to do their best. I don’t remember something like this in Russia”, Vladimir Soloviev admits. 

That is a lot, since we’ve been talking about pressures on Russian media and attempting to nuzzle independent journalism for many years now. It’s one of the first things the Putin regime set about doing after coming to power, in the early 2000s. “If my newspaper can work today, they will do it. That’s something. A lot of people are frustrated, because we now can’t work the way we used to a month ago.”

Many of his journalist friends and colleagues fled Russia after the start of the war and are now in Tbilisi, in Berlin, Yerevan, Baku, Istanbul and other places. Some of them launched YouTube channels and are trying to keep working and reporting. New media projects by these Russian journalists are likely to emerge in the near future. But at this rate, independent media will be almost exclusively within the diaspora and not in Russia anymore. “They are not only journalists, they are people”, Kommersant’s Soloviev points out. “It’s normal for them to be afraid in these conditions. I understand their situation very well. I understand that they want to be in a safe place and I know it wasn’t a simple decision to leave their country for any of them.”

Ekho’s editor-in-chief, Alexei Venediktov, who was sacked by the board in March, and who remained in Moscow, posted a picture with the severed head of a pig (Venediktov in Jewish) left at his apartment door. On the door, the vandals left a sticker of the Ukrainian trident symbol with the word “Judensau” (Jewish pig) written across.

What do Russians really know and think?

How does all this crackdown and intimidation of the media translate within Russian society? With so much censorship going on, what do Russians actually know about the events in Ukraine and their country’s actions there? 

A Levada poll released after the first week of the war showed that the share of Russians holding a negative view of Ukrainians had risen by 9 percent since November 2021 and that 60% of respondents “considered the United States and NATO countries to be the initiators of the escalation in eastern Ukraine”. 

At the onset of the barrage of sanctions and the international boycott of companies pulling out from Russia, many in the international media speculated that, as soon as ordinary Russians feel the brunt of the economic consequences, they will turn against their leaders in spades. That, so far, hasn’t happened. 

“Of course people feel the impact of the sanctions. Ordinary life has changed. A lot of people understand that life can’t be the way it was before the war”. But it is still too early to predict the impact the sanctions will have on the political and social landscape within Russia, Soloviev points out. 

And not only have the sanctions and the boycotts not weakened Vladimir Putin’s standing within Russia, but quite the opposite seems to have happened. A newly released poll by the same Levada – which has been declared a ‘foreign agent’ by the authorities – shows that support for Vladimir Putin has risen by 10 percent during the war, standing at 83% in March, compared with 71% in February and 69% in January.

Vladimir Putin’s approval ratings, over the years, according to Levada Center. Dark color = approve: blue = disapprove

This is proof of the way the Kremlin narrative works within Russia – as opposed to outside of the country, as Panorama has reported here (RO). Many also see here not necessarily a measure of Putinism’s strength, but of Russian pragmatism – what’s the point of dissent when there’s no real prospect of genuine opposition?

“The opinion polls show that a lot of people support the so-called special operation. I think this means that the only source of information for them is the state media, especially the TV channels”, Soloviev explains, adding that yes, many Russians do believe the official narrative that there is no war, but only a special operation conducted by Russian troops in Ukraine. 

“It’s a result of not even the last 8 years, but probably the last 20”, the journalist points out, a reference to the well-documented timeline of how Vladimir Putin created a very subservient and efficient propaganda machine throughout his years in office, while also weakening independent media.

It’s this precise process that allowed him to carry on with these final blows to quashing dissent and independent media, in an attempt to create this alternate reality in which Russia didn’t invade Ukraine, didn’t indiscriminately bomb countless civilian targets and didn’t leave behind a trail of civilian corpses assasinated before their so-called ‘second phase of the operation’, as the gruesome images in Bucha released over the weekend show.

“We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason”, Edward R. Murrow, an American legend of journalism, who became famous as a war correspondent, once said. I thought about this quote after my talk with Vladimir, because the name of Edward R. Murrow was how we initially met, back in 2015, and first discussed the state of politics and the media in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. We were both in the US at the time, fellows of a program named after Murrow.

“I’m trying to find the answer to whether or not this war was inevitable. It’s important for me to understand the mistakes that were made. For Russia, this is not a war between Russia and Ukraine. For Russia, this is a sort of war between Russia and the West”.

With one of the frontlines of this war being the fight for the freedom of speech and information, Russian journalists still asking questions, even when they can’t report the answer, are the country’s only hope for a return to democracy.

Author’s notes:
  • There is another Vladimir Solovyov, a Russian state TV host, a mouthpiece for the Kremlin’s propaganda. He is not to be mistaken with Kommersant’s correspondent, who prefers to write his name as Soloviev.
  • The quote used in the headline belongs to American journalist Walter Cronkite, who once said: “There is no such thing as a little freedom. Either you are all free, or you are not free”.

Ca să fii mereu la curent cu ce publicăm, urmărește-ne și pe Facebook.

Alina Mărculescu Matiș

Redactor-șef Panorama.ro

E jurnalistă cu peste 15 ani de experiență în presa scrisă, online și în televiziune, beneficiara unor importante premii și burse naționale și internaționale. A fost corespondentă la instituții ca NATO, Comisia Europeană și Parlamentul UE.

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