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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

The Rise And Fall Of Russian Journalism Broke My Ukrainian Heart

Ukrainian journalist Anna Akage looks back on the glory days of post-Soviet, high-quality journalism, which captured her ima and how quickly it was bound to be replaced by a "new truth" permeating Russian society.

Black-and-white photo of TV host Vladislav Listyev reading Novy Vzglyad weekly

TV host Vladislav Listyev reading Novy Vzglyad weekly in 1992

Anna Akage

For more than four months now, we’ve been trying to make some kind of sense of the war in Ukraine. We have tried to describe the situation in Russia, its social, economic, and political realities, the decisions of its president, the actions of its army, and the reactions of civilians in both countries to what is happening.

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We have also repeatedly touched on the topic of propaganda in Russia, which by the beginning of the war had become total, reducing Russia to North Korea's level of freedom of speech and independence of the media.


Of course, this did not happen overnight, and was as much a cause as a consequence of the war. The gradual blocking of independent media and its replacement with propaganda made possible not only the invasion of Ukraine, but also Vladimir Putin's very presidency. The death of free media means the death of democracy. However, it was not always as inevitable as it may seem today.

Vladislav Listyev, the epitome of independence

Long before I chose the profession of journalism, I was literally in love with the star of the new post-Soviet media, journalist and TV host Vladislav Listyev. I watched every episode of his show Chas Pik (“Rush Hour,” an interview show more or less equivalent to CNN's Larry King Live).

I will never forget the day Listyev was murdered, his picture in a black frame suddenly appearing on all TV channels, crowding out other news for several days. It was 1995, I was 11 years old. More than 27 years later, the Listyev murder case remains unsolved. Nobody doubts what motivated the crime: He was consistently critical of the government, never shy about opening the most painful pages of both past Soviet history and the latest events in the new Russia. For men in power, plenty of what Listyev said would be better left unsaid; and he was liquidated with two shots in the back as he was entering his home in Moscow.

The history of modern Russia is lined with the corpses of brave journalists.

"Where do we get democrats in this country?,” Listyev asked about Russia. “[Democracy] is a very attractive notion, and many people are attracted to it, even wanting to change internally. But they can't change."

He continued, “Look at the size of the apparatuses of the government and the president. There used to be no such apparatus in the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, or even in the Politburo in terms of the number of people, the duplication of functions, ministries, and departments. The people are the same people who used to sit on Old Square — the majority still do. They weren't going to be democrats, they're just playing their part."

Courageous journalists, broadcasters and editors

There were other big names, prime-time programs and newspapers. The 1990s and early 2000s in Russia were rich in courageous and talented journalists and broadcasters — the editors of Novaya Gazeta, Ekho Moskva, Izvestia, Kommersant, AiF, and others whose role was to “contradict” and challenge the power structures. In the face of such massive political and economic upheavals, a new school of journalism was born, so different from the Soviet one, which had influenced both the quality of journalism in Ukraine and the audience of all these outlets.

In general, the history of modern Russia is lined with the corpses of journalists who dared to talk about corruption schemes, human rights violations, wars, prisons, and the secrets of the Russian establishment.

One of them was Valeriya Novodvorskaya, who during Putin's first term predicted not only a bleak future for Russia, but also aptly diagnosed the country's leadership and the sad, stubborn silence of the masses. Modern Russia is not worthy of Novodvorskaya.

"Ukrainian soldiers are dying so that their country called Ukraine can survive so that it can break away from our cursed, miserable, slave-like, evil Russia,” she wrote in 2014 after the annexation of Crimea, and shortly before her death. “As a native of this Russia, I tell you, I know what we have going on here."

Photo of \u200bValeriya Novodvorskaya speaking in a microphone at a rally in 2010

Valeriya Novodvorskaya speaking at a rally in 2010

ПОКА ТУТ / Wikimedia Commons

Free media outlets closing down, one by one

Meanwhile, from Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika to Vladimir Putin's new iron curtain, the Ukrainian media have lived their lives and their dramas. Among the dozens of journalists killed since 2014, every Ukrainian knows the name of Georgy Gongadze, founder of Ukrainian Pravda, reporter and an investigator from the time of President Leonid Kuchma, murdered in 2000. His body was found decapitated in the woods, his head never to be found. The murder remains unsolved.

But modern Ukrainian journalists also owe much to the example set by the new Russian school of journalism, in the techniques and ethics of investigation, reporting, and analysis.

A silent reality that is frightening in a different way than the bombs.

One of the effects of changing the world as we knew it on Feb. 24, the Russian leadership also eradicated, once and for all, the flower of the contemporary Russian media, replacing it with the twisted grimaces of Channel One's propagandists. Before our eyes, Russia's last free media outlets closed down, one by one, and countless journalists were forced to flee the country under fear of arrest or physical reprisal. Only a handful of Russian-language media outlets remain, all of them operating from abroad.

This total control of the media, the cleansing of the Internet, the blocking of VPNs, and the huge number of people working for propaganda in newspapers and on television not only justify virtually any government action, but literally re-educate Russians by instilling a new "truth" while manipulating their emotions and controlling their decisions.

Distorting truth beyond recognition

This total control of the media, the cleansing of the Internet, the blocking of VPNs, and the huge number of people working for propaganda in newspapers and on television not only justify virtually any government action, but literally re-educate Russians by instilling a new "truth" while manipulating their emotions and controlling their decisions.

In Putin's Russia, where black has become white and anyone who disagrees can be quickly sent away, it is hard to imagine what could motivate people to rebel against a policy that destroys Ukrainian cities and Russian citizens alike, isolating them from the world, and making them poorer by the day.

This is the silent reality that is frightening in a different way than the bombs. It is a risk for Russia, for the region and the world: that the truth is distorted beyond recognition, to be firmly lodged in people's minds so as to shape the future, even long after today’s leaders are replaced.

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