Elena Kostyuchenko: ‘The Russian secret services somehow knew’

CJR · Elena Kostyuchenko: ‘The Russian secret services somehow knew’

 

Elena Kostyuchenko reported atrocities as they unfolded inside Ukraine until Russian censors forced Novaya Gazeta—her employer and Russia’s oldest independent newspaper—to halt publication. How did Kostyuchenko gain access to the country her homeland was invading? What did she see there? And how does she view Russia’s future?

On this week’s Kicker, guest host Keith Gessen, who is a professor at the J-school, a founding editor of n+1, and a contributor to The New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, and the London Review of Books, welcomes Kostyuchenko to the latest in his Delacorte Lecture series.

 

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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Keith Gessen: How did you become a journalist? 

Elena Kostyuchenko: We had the opportunity to get a professional education, to learn the basics of a profession. One of the options was journalism. The classes were organized by the local newspaper, and they promised to pay for every published article. 

Writing was easier than washing floors, so I went there and started to work. But I cannot say that what I did at the time was real journalism. This newspaper was quite under the control of the local administration. There was a lot of censorship and all that stuff that I didn’t see as wrong, because I didn’t know any other way to produce journalism. 

Then, fortunately, I bought an issue of Novaya Gazeta. It was the last independent national newspaper in Russia. I read Anna Politkovskaya’s article about Chechnya, and I was totally devastated. And I realized that this was real journalism, and it was here. So I decided to go for it, to Novaya. I finished school. I entered Moscow State University. They gave me a dorm so I was able to move to Moscow. I went to Novaya’s office and asked them to take me in as a trainee. And they did. I was seventeen. A year later, they made me a staff member. I’ve been working there for seventeen years now.

Gessen: And you never met with Politkovskaya?

Kostyuchenko: I did meet her, actually. She was the first person I met at Novaya. When I entered the office, I didn’t recognize her. I asked the local people, “Who is this beautiful woman?” They told me she was Politkovskaya. 

We worked at the same time for a year. They took me on as a staff member in April 2006. In October 2006, she was murdered, so we never really had the chance to talk. I mean, we did have a chance to talk, but I was very shy. I was just a trainee. So I thought that one day I would become a real journalist, and when that happened, I would approach her and tell her how grateful I am, and so on. Somehow I thought I’d have so much time. Apparently, that wasn’t true. 

Gessen: She was a very brusque person, right?

Kostyuchenko: No, no, she was never brusque. Actually, she was very kind and intelligent, even tender at some point. But yeah, she had her thoughts and beliefs. At times, she could be furious. I remember that one day she had a fight with Dmitry Muratov, our chief editor. It was crazy.

Gessen: What did you have to learn when you started at Novaya Gazeta? Can you describe what Novaya was in the context of Russian journalism over the last fifteen years?

Kostyuchenko: Well, it was changing. When I started to work at Novaya, I was so proud. When I became a staff member, I was so proud and so happy that I celebrated with my friends, drinking for three days. I couldn’t get drunk because there were so many endorphins in my blood. 

But when I went to J-school in Moscow and started to share the news that I worked at Novaya Gazeta, everybody was like, “Oh, well, not a bad first place to work. Maybe someday you’ll get into a serious media outlet.” Many people were skeptical about Novaya in those days, because the main mood was that we needed to find something beautiful within Russian reality—that our country was getting stronger, that we had this nice young president, Vladimir Putin, who would bring us happiness. Why were we always criticizing him? What’s wrong with us? Why do we always write about Chechnya? Novaya only finds problems, why do we always investigate things? Why can’t we just be happy? That was the main mood for a long time. 

Writing was easier than washing floors

Also, we had something specific at Novaya, which is why we could work longer than other media. Most independent media outlets were already closed in Russia. In Novaya Gazeta, we don’t have an owner. Every staff member has shares, and that’s why every position is elected. We elect our chief editor, we elect our editorial board. If we decide to make some changes in our main documents or our main rules, we vote on those, too. 

It means that it’s hard to influence us from the outside. But it also means that we don’t have investors, so we were the poorest media outlet. In Russia, we have the smallest salaries. So my colleagues from other media were very skeptical about that. They were like, “Why live like homeless people? Why don’t you find a nice owner?” I don’t need an owner; I can do it myself. 

And then, in 2014, the annexation of Crimea happened, and the Donbas war started. Many media outlets were closed by their owners, because the owners got phone calls from the Kremlin to close them down. 

Novaya was the last independent national newspaper. Then people, and my colleagues, viewed us in a more serious way. The situation was getting worse and worse and worse. When this war started, so many media outlets were blocked, but not Novaya, because the previous year, we had won the Nobel Peace Prize. Somehow that was protection for us for a while, but then we got two warnings from Roskomnadzor, the Russian censorship agency. After two warnings, they can take your license away, so we had to stop operating. 

Right now we’re not operating, but we were able to report on the war for thirty-two days, and I think that’s a lot.

Gessen: Before you were shut down, and certainly since 2014, when the situation in terms of press freedoms and political freedoms was getting worse—Novaya is not on TV, right? So its reach is limited, right? How did you think of the purpose of what you were doing? You wrote that incredible report from Norilsk about the spill. When you’re doing journalism in an authoritarian regime, like in an authoritarian state, where the government ultimately is not responsive to what is reported in the media—when it controls most of what is said in the media—what’s the point?

Kostyuchenko: Well, people still need information. And our readers are the best—I mean that. They’re very different. Even Putin was amongst them. Putin was subscribed to Novaya Gazeta all these years. But there were many nice people too, like schoolteachers, workers, managers, and prisoners. 

We kept our print version for so many years because we wanted prisoners to have access to the information. In national prisons there is no internet, so you can get information only from printed media outlets. So we did this for them, mostly. And there are many readers. Our weekly circulation is around four hundred thousand. Our number of views on the website per day before this war was about a million, and when this started, it was about four million, which is comparable to TV audiences. 

So we are just trying to be a normal, nationwide newspaper in a not-normal situation. Novaya is not exceptional. Like, if we were publishing in Europe, we’d be just a usual media outlet. We do pretty much the same thing they do. But in the Russian landscape, it looks a bit different.

Gessen: Were you surprised that the war started?

Kostyuchenko: Yeah, I didn’t expect that. I mean, even then, Putin said in his historical speech that Ukraine was invented by Lenin. I was thinking like the majority. I thought he would send troops into Donbas officially, and once they’re there, he would blackmail the whole world. Like, “If you won’t agree with me, they are gonna move forward. If you agree with me, I will move them back,” or something like that. 

I didn’t expect that they will bomb Kyiv and other cities. The night the war started, I got a phone call from my friend, and she said to me, “Kyiv was bombed.” And I asked her, “Who’s bombing Kyiv?” 

I can’t describe my feelings, because, actually, I have none. Since the war started, I don’t really feel many emotions. But, well, everybody was awake already, so we just basically came into the office and started to decide who would go to Ukraine. There were many people who wanted it, but they chose me because I had experience covering war before, I had experience in Ukraine. And I’m a girl—it’s easier for girls to work in war than for boys, because nobody takes us seriously.

Gessen: How did you get there?

Kostyuchenko: It wasn’t easy. They had correspondents in Kyiv. So they wanted to send me to the south, to Odessa, Mykolaiv, and some other places. And the easiest way was to go to Moldova and try to cross the border on foot. But when I was about to go to the airport, Moldova closed its skies. So I asked them for a ticket to Romania. It’s like the next country over. But then they found out that to cross the border there is possible only by ferry, and the ferry stopped operating in war circumstances. So I went to Poland, and tried to cross the border once. Poland let me out, but Ukraine didn’t let me in. They said it’s not possible with a Russian passport anymore. They knew Novaya, they knew who I was, but they were like, “We are very sorry. We really want to be able to let you in, but we cannot.” So I stepped back. My newspaper started calling Ukrainian officials to explain to them how important it was for us to be present in Ukraine right now. Some of that contacting worked. The next time I tried to cross the border, they let me in.

I was working for like a month and a week. In Novaya, we have a protocol that our journalists shouldn’t work in wars longer than two weeks, because then you start to make mistakes. You get this false sense of safety; you think, “If I didn’t get killed before I won’t get killed now, so I’m going to be all right.” You can never be sure you’re going to be all right in a war. But nobody could replace me, because the trick to crossing the border, that phone call—it works only one time. It doesn’t work again. So that’s why I was working till Novaya Gazeta was operating, and when it shut down, I left.  

It’s easier for girls to work in war than for boys, because nobody takes us seriously

Gessen: So you were in Odessa, Mykolaiv—

Kostyuchenko: I was in Odessa, Mykolaiv, Kherson—I was going to go to Mariupol, but circumstances changed. Novaya wasn’t operating anymore. And I found out that I cannot really go to Mariupol, because the Russian secret services somehow knew I was going to go there, and they had made their precautions, so I wasn’t able to go through Russian checkpoints anymore. 

Gessen: So what was your experience like, just in those places that you went to? 

Kostyuchenko: In which place? In all the places? It’s very different. I didn’t mean to report from the border, because I was thinking I’d just go straight to Odessa. But I felt that the war had started from the time I arrived at the Warsaw bus station, because all buses going to Ukraine were full of men who were going to participate in protecting the country. And it was really impressive. I mean, there was already this document signed by Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, that men between eighteen years old and sixty years old cannot leave the country during wartime. So these men, they all would—they knew this was a one-way trip. Like, they wouldn’t be able to leave the country until the war ends. And they all went there. An MIT guy, like an eighteen-year-old European student with some fancy specialization, was crossing five countries. When he learned that the war had started, he crossed five borders to get into Warsaw to take this bus. He was calling his mom, but his mom wasn’t saying something like, “Oh, please don’t go to work here, please.” No. She was like, “Ah, I got your keys, I put them under the rug. So when you come home, you just take your keys.” 

Across the border, I saw thousands and thousands of women with kids who were staying in front of the border. They wanted to leave the country. And it was really cold. It was a very false spring. Some of the kids were so young. Some of them had real babies. Like a month or two, something like that. I remember a woman who was sitting like that on the ground, and her very, very small baby was laying on her knees. She was trying to protect him from the cold. So my first report was from the border. 

Then I went to Odessa, which was about to be stormed by Russian troops. They had already sent some ships to Odessa. But there was a storm on the sea for a few days, and seeing the storm, I guess the people were mining the beaches. So basically, when the storm resolves, the ships couldn’t come any closer because everything was mined. So I was writing from there. And then eventually from Mykolaiv, which was half surrounded by Russian troops. They were very close to the city, like thirty kilometers. There was shelling, constant shelling. I saw a lot of dead and wounded people, so many wounded kids. There were so many corpses in the morgue that they didn’t have space for them. They basically put corpses one on top of the other, like piles of corpses. I saw two sisters laying on each other: one was seventeen, and the other was three years old, killed by Russian shelling. I saw the guy who was working in the morgue; he looked at them in a very personal way. I was just guessing, but I asked, “Did you know them?” And he said, “Yeah, they are my godchildren. They brought them here and I recognized them.”

They basically put corpses one on top of the other

I was also able to document another war crime in Mykolaiv, when Russian troops shot a car with women inside and a red cross on it. This car was delivering teachers for the orphanage. They knew it was a civil[ian] car, they shouldn’t need [to shoot]. Three women died. I wrote their stories, too. When I went to Kherson, which was under occupation, it wasn’t easy to get there, because the city was blocked. I was looking for a way to go for a few days, and then I found a way to get in and to get out. I crossed the front line twice. And I was lucky to be there, because there were so many things to report about. People were disappearing in Kherson. They were being kidnapped by the Russian army, people like journalists, civil activists, people who had fighting experience in Donbas. They were disappearing, and were kept in a secret prison—I was lucky to meet some people who were able to leave this place, and they described the place they were held. So I was able to find out the exact location of this secret prison and the names of forty-four people they were containing there. So yeah, it was important to report. And yes, I was about to go to Mariupol. But somehow we found out about [the risk] before I got there.

Gessen: What did you do? You said you had been in Ukraine in 2014. What kind of training did you get in terms of what to do in a war situation?

Kostyuchenko: None. When I came here, I was attending the Columbia J-school in 2018, where we did have a training, a good one. And I attended cuny J-school too, so I had another training there. The trainings are nice, but they are not a guarantee of your good work or your safety there. I believe in a more practical approach. I mean, it’s nice to have training, don’t get me wrong. It’s better to have some training than to have none. But in 2014, I didn’t have any. I worked in some crises. I didn’t work in the war before that, but I worked in a couple of revolutions; I worked in the Zhanaozen shooting in Kazakhstan. I had some combat experience.

Gessen: And so how did you keep yourself—like, what are your rules for staying safe when you were there just now, even in the war? 

Kostyuchenko: You mean in the war? You cannot be safe in the war. It’s like a crazy lottery: You never know what will happen next. If you get lucky, you survive. If you’re not that lucky, you’re gonna be killed. It’s a thing you should understand when you go there. In a war, you make many choices every day. But you never know what choice is right.

For example, in this Ukrainian war, I have a friend—he is Ukrainian, he lives in Moscow and has a daughter in Kyiv. She’s pregnant with his grandchild, and was here when Kyiv was bombed. On Thursday, he asked me, “Should I send them to the village?” And I said, “Sure, sure. It’s a good option.” And now we know, after Bucha and all that, that villages were the toughest places to be. Luckily his daughter is alive. She’s been evacuated. But she might have died there as many other pregnant women died. 

So what do I do [to stay safe]? I try not to provoke people with guns. I try not to scare anyone, because when you scare people, people shoot you. I don’t really trust life vests, because they make you heavy and slow, and I don’t really wear them. There is another aspect of it, too, like communication problems. When you go to the front line and you see some babushka there, you know, no vest or anything, and you’re there with a life vest and helmet and everything, asking her, “What do you feel right now?”—nobody is gonna talk to you this way. So yeah, there are basic rules which you can get from security trainings—like when there’s shelling you have to hide, but you also have to choose where you’ll hide. That’s the actual challenge. You don’t have time to choose. You take a very quick look and then you hide, using just your brain. I probably don’t have a very good security strategy. That’s fine. It works.

Gessen: You just mentioned this—when you were there and talking to people who were really in distress and had lost loved ones, how do you get yourself to talk to them? And how do you justify yourself forcing them to go through that again?

Kostyuchenko: Well, I’ve had some experiences of grief in my life. I’ve lost some people I loved. And what I know about that condition is that nobody can make you feel worse than you’re already feeling. So it’s not like you should be afraid to approach these people, because you cannot make their pain bigger. When you approach…first, you have to say that you are sorry for their loss. Because it’s true. And then you should explain to them why you are approaching them. Like, “I know that you lost your beloved ones. And I want to write about who they were. Can you help me with that?” People usually want to share things. And then you just should listen. I usually don’t ask people questions at all. It might sound strange, but I usually just listen. When you listen to them long enough, they tell you more than they would if you just asked them questions.

It’s not like you should be afraid to approach these people. You cannot make their pain bigger

Gessen: When you were talking about crossing the border, and they couldn’t let you in because you were Russian and you had a Russian passport, did you feel that you were a Russian journalist—an opposition Russian journalist, but still a Russian journalist in Ukraine? Did you feel like it is my country that is invading this country and killing these people?

Kostyuchenko: Yeah, sure. All the time.

Gessen: And how did people there react to you?

Kostyuchenko: They helped me all the time. From the moment I crossed the border. When I was flying there, my bank went under sanctions and my cards were blocked, so I had no money. I had a few rubles. I thought I’d change them to Ukrainian hryvnia, but all the exchange points stopped accepting rubles. So I had no money with me, like zero. And then across the border, my sim card stopped working as well, because there was no roaming network with the aggressor country anymore. I’d crossed the border, I had no money, I had no connection with anybody. And I had a very heavy bag with helmets and vests, because my newspaper made me carry it with me. I look around and see some guys smoking. I approached one of them. I was like, “Can you share some internet with me?” And he’s like, “Who do you need to call?” I say, “I need to call my office. I’m a journalist from Russia.” He was like, “I can call.” So he called Russia and I talked to my editor. Then he was like, “Your bag looks heavy. What are you gonna do now?” I said, “I need to go to Lviv.” He told me no cars are stopping around here, so I need to walk twenty-five kilometers. Wow. I’m not sure that I’d be able to walk twenty-five kilometers—it was very cold there, and if you stopped walking you’d freeze immediately. But he said he’d help me carry the bag. So he took my bag and we walked twenty-five kilometers through the night. And this is how I got by at every point. People helped me to get money, to get connection, to get contacts, to get from one point to another point, to cross checkpoints. They even offered to get me fake Ukrainian documents. 

They did it not because they liked me very much, but because they understood why I was there. They understood that I was going to report things to Russia, to Russians. Somehow, they thought that it’s important for Russians to know what’s happening in Ukraine, and what Putin was doing in their name in Ukraine. So they saw me as a chance to speak to Russians, and that’s why they helped me all the time.

Gessen: And two of your reports were blocked, right? They were taken down.

Kostyuchenko: Well, in Novaya Gazeta right now, I have four reports from the war. One is deleted according to the new law. The new law is that if you provide information which is different from what our minister of defense is saying, you’re a criminal and you can be prosecuted [with] up to fifteen years in prison. For me, it’s fine. But it’s not just me [who would be prosecuted], it’s the whole bunch of people who helped me to publish this report—my editor, proofreaders, Web designers, everybody. So it was deleted. Another two were deleted a while later, because the prosecutor’s office sent a direct order to Novaya Gazeta to delete them, according to the same law. But we knew that it would happen. So I was also publishing in another media outlet from Poland, [Gazeta] Wyborcza, which published it in Russian, too. And then reporting started to disappear from our website. A bunch of Russian independent media outlets, which were already blocked in Russia, approached me and asked, “Can I republish it?” It had this effect—you try to take something from the internet, and it spreads wider and wider. So basically many people read it. You cannot read it on the Novaya website anymore, but you can Google it and read it.

Gessen: You left Ukraine a few weeks ago, yeah? And then did you go back to Moscow? Or no?

Kostyuchenko: No, no. I went to Poland. I got to stay in Europe for a few months. The thing is, when I go back to Russia, most likely I am going to be arrested and prosecuted as a criminal according to this new law. So before that happens, I want to finish some work, pay some debts, and clean my laptop. It will take a while. When that’ll happen, I’ll go back to my country.

Gessen: Do you feel that what has happened after the invasion, in Russia—is that the logical place to which the Putin regime was always going?

Kostyuchenko: I think so, yeah. You know, it’s easy to say it was obvious, because retrospectively, everything is obvious, right? You look back and it was obvious, but it was the thing we always tried to prevent with our work. We failed, and we probably should have worked more. We probably should have done not just journalism, but more activism. Now, we also have this shitty conversation in Russia that if you’re a journalist, you cannot be an activist, because you lose your unique perspective on things. It’s such bullshit. But I believed in this bullshit for so many years. I was like, “I’m a conservative journalist; I should be objective. And if I step into activities, I lose my objectivity.” I mean, I was an LGBT activist for a while. But I didn’t like that at all. I stopped doing that because of some health problems. I’ve always had this illusion that my work is enough. Like I do my work fine, and it’s enough impact, you know? But it wasn’t true, obviously. And, yeah, I feel a lot of responsibility. It’s not my fault that Putin started this war, but it’s everyone’s fault. 

And some of the fault is on Western countries. Because we’d been reporting for so many years on what’s happening in Chechnya, in Russia, even in Ukraine, in Donbas, and we reported on all these laws, the new laws in Russia, for example, about how LGBTs are officially second-class citizens in Russia. It’s called fascism. And we’ve been reporting about it. But nobody listens. Everybody meets Putin, takes nice photos with him, and keeps buying gas and negotiating [with Russia]. And now you see the result.

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Paroma Soni is a CJR fellow.