Fleeing Putin’s wartime crackdown, Russian journalists build media hubs in exile
The Washington Post March 13, 2022
VILNIUS, Lithuania — Sergey Smirnov sat on the floor of a dark and dirty Airbnb, leading an editorial meeting of the Russian news organization that continues to work even as he and his staff are on the run from the Kremlin’s crackdown on a free press.
Smirnov, the editor in chief of Mediazona, was in an apartment above a fried chicken restaurant in this Baltic capital, surrounded by two dogs and the half-dozen stuffed shopping bags he was able to fling into his car on March 4. That was the day Russian President Vladimir Putin approved draconian prison terms for journalists who stray from Kremlin propaganda. Smirnov’s wife and two sons, including a 4-week-old newborn, remain in Moscow.
The 22 Mediazona reporters on the Zoom call were in Tbilisi, Prague, Istanbul — whatever city they could reach after international sanctions dried up flights from Moscow and rendered their Russian credit cards useless at gas stations around Europe. Where to get visas, apartments, funding, sympathy — these are the challenges they face in an unprecedented exodus of journalists from their homeland.
“I wonder if we should do a story on the hostility Russians are feeling in other countries,” one of the tired faces on Smirnov’s screen said. Another reporter agreed, while a third was hesitant.
Smirnov, who has already been imprisoned for his reporting in Moscow, shook his head. “We are facing difficulties, but it is nothing compared to what they are going through in Ukraine.”
The media clampdown in Russia that followed the invasion of Ukraine has decimated a journalism community already ground to near extinction by years of oppression. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said at least 150 of Russia’s few remaining independent reporters and editors have left since tanks rolled into Ukraine, plunging Russia into what the group called an “information dark age.”
Now — in Lithuania, Latvia, Georgia and other former Soviet states where Russian remains a common language — they are scrambling to set up newsrooms in exile, determined to continue the hazardous mission of speaking truth to authoritarianism.
“They are going to need to rebuild the infrastructure outside of Russia, and that won’t be easy,” said Vytis Jurkonis, Lithuania director at Freedom House, the pro-democracy watchdog based in Washington.
The immediate need, before any newsrooms or studios are built, is to get journalists and their families residency permits, housing, schools and ways to keep reporting.
“The logistics are hard,” Jurkonis said. “But they need to go do their work and not lose their audience. That’s what the Kremlin wants, to separate these critical journalists from their audience.”
Already, in shared hotel rooms or on friends’ couches, reporters are exploring ways to stay in touch with sources in Russia. Those who arrived earlier are schooling newcomers on the cloaking advantages of VPNs (virtual private networks), encrypted text apps and the chat functions of online video games.
On Sunday, Mediazona published multiple stories on police actions against antiwar protests in St. Petersburg, Russia’s second-largest city.
Dmitry Semenov, who escaped to Lithuania after being indicted for his writing and activism four years ago, is hearing every day from journalists suddenly on the run, wanting to know where they should go and how to do their jobs when they get there.
“Right now, any escape from Russia is good; any city you get to is better than staying inside the country,” said Semenov, who now reports for Lithuanian television and speaks every day with fleeing journalists — including from Radio Free Europe and Rain, the main independent TV network in Russia — about relocating to Lithuania.
Many have already arrived in the small but hospitable outpost of Vilnius, a city of medieval streets and half a million residents with a history of protecting human rights activists. Vilnius has emerged as a hub of dissidents and persecuted politicians escaping Putin’s reach, including a team that supports imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Exiled Belarusian presidential candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya also decamped to Vilnius in 2020.
Russian journalists say they feel welcome here, but the city is not without intrigue. In 2021, security agents were able to snatch Belarusian blogger Roman Protasevich, who was living in Lithuania, by having his flight to Vilnius diverted to Minsk with a fake bomb threat.
Last week, Lithuania’s state security service warned the swelling ranks of exiles in the city that Russian and Belarusian agents were becoming more aggressive here. In a Facebook post, it cautioned journalists to be alert for attempts to hack their devices and infiltrate their social circles.
“I don’t think the journalists should concentrate in any one country,” Jurkonis said. “It will make them easy targets for Russian operatives.”
For now, reporters are still recovering from their pell-mell flight from Russia. Just days ago, Olesia Ostapchuk was writing about Russian mothers who had lost their sons in Ukraine for the independent outlet Holod. After a new law threatened journalists with 15 years in prison for describing Russia’s war on Ukraine as a “war,” she headed for the airport.
It took two days of canceled flights before she finally landed in the western Russian city of Kaliningrad, allowing her to pull her 80-pound pink suitcase across the bridge to Lithuania.
“I left most of my clothes, my books, everything,” said Ostapchuk, 24. “Also my boyfriend and my family.”
She only told her grandmother, a Putin supporter who wasn’t fully aware of Ostapchuk’s journalism, that she was going on a business trip. She doesn’t know if she will ever see her again. She has relatives in Ukraine to worry about as well.
For Smirnov, the need to flee was not unexpected. One of Russia’s most esteemed independent journalists, he has run Mediazona since it was founded in 2014 by one of the members of Pussy Riot, the dissident punk band. The organization focuses on Russia’s criminal justice system and is known for liveblogging from the show trials against activists and politicians.
“Even before now, they faced political danger that most of us can’t even imagine,” said Carroll Bogert, president of the New York-based Marshall Project, upon which Mediazona was modeled.
Last year, Russian officials forced Mediazona and Smirnov to register under the restrictive “Foreign Agents” law, deeming that money generated by Google ads on its website amounted to international funding. Smirnov was also imprisoned for 25 days for retweeting a joke that offended the Kremlin.
He experimented with reporting from Georgia for a few months in 2021, but returned to Moscow after finding Tbilisi “too relaxing.”
“It’s not normal, but you get used to waking up at night each time you hear the elevator door open,” he said. “You feel the tension to understand the tension.”
Still, he kept a bag packed, cash on hand, passports ready and prepared veterinarian documents for his dachshund with a heart condition. When the new prison terms were announced, he loaded his green Kia Soul for the 27-hour sleepless drive to Vilnius, including a 13-hour wait at the border.
A few days later, Mediazona and numerous other independent sites were blocked by the Russian government for violating the new restrictions.
“I’m ready to go to prison for two years, but 15? No,” he said.
Smirnov’s son, born in February, doesn’t have travel documents yet. He hopes his family will join him in Vilnius in a few months, hopefully in better accommodations than the dank studio flat with the oversized hot tub that was all he could find.
“The apartments are all gone and I’m not a desirable renter, a Russian with two dogs,” he said.
Mediazona was getting about $50,000 a month through online donations, most from inside Russia. Those funds are gone now, along with most of the company cash that was in Russian banks. Smirnov’s immediate goals are to get the rest of his people out of Russia — he’s paying for their transport and a month’s rent wherever they are — and to keep the journalism going.
“We can’t even plan our future yet,” Smirnov said as he carried his ailing pet to the elevator for a bathroom break outside. “It’s still too crazy.”
Arturas Morozovas contributed to this report.