The Russian media sending truth back home

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The Russian media sending truth back home

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Days after Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, Russia’s last independent TV station ended its last broadcast by playing Swan Lake. This was the ballet that Soviet state TV liked to use as a stalling tactic at historic turning points, such as the attempted coup of 1991. By this point, TV Rain’s journalists were fleeing abroad. Margarita Liutova, who had packed a suitcase in hours, watched that final broadcast crying in a park in Yerevan, Armenia. Free Russian media seemed doomed.

Instead, TV Rain (known in Russia as Dozhd), The Moscow Times and other independent journalists have gathered in Amsterdam, from where they are sending truth back to Russia. Can they make a difference? And will they ever return home?

Their offices are in an orderly, uneventful bit of Amsterdam, hometown of Derk Sauer, the Dutchman who founded The Moscow Times and was a media proprietor in Russia for decades. He persuaded the Dutch authorities to accept about 150 Russians, mostly journalists, plus technical staff and family members. International foundations and crowdfunding pay for it all.

Sauer, whose toothbrush is still in its glass in his home in the suburbs of Moscow, sees parallels with the exiles who fled the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. He admits: “That exile became irrelevant, with lots of internal bickering.” They struggled to smuggle their publications back into Russia.

But the internet gives exile journalism wings. TV Rain broadcast the funeral of opposition leader Alexei Navalny for hours, using videos sent by people on the spot, plus many more collected from social media. Journalists in Amsterdam receive information from Russian soldiers at the front and even from inside the Kremlin.

TV Rain had about 70,000 paying subscribers before exile. Today millions of mostly Russian viewers tune in regularly, with one to two million watching its Navalny funeral reports. Russians follow the station, The Moscow Times and the Meduza website on Telegram, through VPNs and other clandestine methods. Every day, technical staff in Amsterdam find new ways to smuggle information past Vladimir Putin’s blocking operations. “It used to be a journalistic battle: truth against power,” says Sauer. “Now it’s, above all, a technological battle.”

The TV Rain journalist Eduard Burmistrov reflects: “A lot of our viewers feel very lonely. I want to cuddle them.” The station tries to tell Russians with doubts about the war: “We are not a small group. We are millions.” The aim is to sustain people who never hear their own thoughts in Russia’s public sphere, and who might prevent themselves from even thinking freely, because it feels too risky.

Some viewers are confused, says Burmistrov: they want Russia’s army to take Kharkiv, yet they would flee Russia to avoid mobilisation. In the past, one or two of TV Rain’s journalists themselves may have been confused. During an earlier exile in Latvia, the station fired a presenter who said on air that he hoped to help Russian troops at the front “with equipment and basic amenities”. Latvia then revoked TV Rain’s licence, prompting the move to Amsterdam, where locals are less suspicious of Russians. “It’s good the Netherlands wasn’t in the Soviet Union,” chuckles Burmistrov.

The exiles understand they might stay here for ever, dying forgotten abroad like their post-1917 forebears. Liutova, who now works for Meduza, wards off anguish. “I felt some despair the day Alexei Navalny was killed. Then I thought about what he conveyed to us. If you are healthy and free, you cannot despair.”

The dream is to return. Samantha Berkhead, Russophile American editor of The Moscow Times, longs to live in a post-Putin Russia: “It’s kind of like having a toxic ex. You think, ‘Oh, if I go back, maybe it won’t be the same this time.’”

I asked TV Rain’s Valeria Ratnikova whether remaking Russia after Putin would be a life-long project for her generation. “More than a life-long project,” she replies. “We will have to pay reparations, we will all have to build our society from the beginnings.” She wrestles with whether Russians share a collective guilt. “The first day of war, that was the main thing I thought, just a huge sense of shame that you cannot clear from yourself.”

But she notes a difference with Nazi Germany: “Most Russians don’t support the war. Most are conformists.” They wanted western-style prosperity, but didn’t think they needed freedom of speech. In a democratic Russia, Ratnikova says, Russians would have to get involved in politics.

Meanwhile, the exiles fight on. Liutova says: “Perhaps it’s the only long-term thing I am sure about — packing my suitcase in a couple of hours was the right choice.”

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