Last March, shortly after Vladimir Putin declared war and announced an invasion of Ukraine, his government blocked TV Rain, Russia’s only surviving independent news network. Soon, word spread that Russia’s parliament planned to impose a law banning “fake news” about the military; the staff of TV Rain learned that they could be vulnerable to criminal prosecution. Valeria Ratnikova, a twenty-two-year-old rising star at TV Rain, was paralyzed by grief. “Her close and extended family lived in Moscow,” Annie Hylton writes for CJR’s latest issue. “Just a few months earlier, she’d moved into an apartment with her boyfriend, building a nest that sequestered her from the near-constant risk of being an independent journalist.” Ratnikova didn’t want to flee. Then she received a call from Ekaterina Kotrikadze, the news director and anchor of TV Rain, who told her, “The government decided to destroy every free voice in Russia.”
With that, Ratnikova became one of hundreds of Russian journalists who scattered across Europe since the start of the war. In exile, many have tried to carry on with their work; often, their loyalties have come into question. When TV Rain set up shop in Latvia, the public response was divided: “Some had hostile feelings toward their new neighbors,” Hylton writes. Late last year, Latvian authorities revoked the network’s broadcasting license—and Ratnikova faced exile once more.
How did you meet Valeria Ratnikova? What about her stood out to you?
I was introduced early in my reporting to Ratnikova, whom TV Rain’s higher-ups described as a “rising star.” The more time I spent with her, the more I wanted to know about her; despite her youth, she was more self-reflective, thoughtful, and honest about her suffering and triumphs than most people twice her age. In attempting to tell the story of TV Rain’s challenges of reporting in exile, it soon became apparent that we would use that narrative as a vehicle to tell her story—the experiences of a young journalist coming of age under Putin’s sharpening authoritarianism, who was forced to carve out a career in exile while indeterminately separated from family and friends in her homeland.
What is the background on TV Rain—what was it like for the network before the Ukraine invasion? What drew Ratnikova to work there?
Every independent Russian journalist and expert with whom I spoke held TV Rain in high esteem; since its launch, over a decade ago, it was perceived as a bastion of independent reporting that held true to its mission and ideals despite operating in a highly risky and threatening environment. It attracted young, ambitious reporters who wanted to report hard-hitting, independent news. In the years preceding the Ukraine invasion, TV Rain had been nearly intimidated out of existence—the regime had classified it a “foreign agent,” and it had been evicted from its studios. Early in her career, Ratnikova didn’t know much about the free press, but her classmates introduced her to independent figures and outlets that made her critical of state-run media outlets and the propaganda they peddled. She became determined to appear on camera and host the news for independent television. TV Rain was her only real option in Russia to fulfill this ambition.
You speak in the piece to Kevin Rothrock—the managing editor at the English-language edition of Meduza, a well-regarded Russian outlet—who says that most members of the country’s free press have traditionally resisted defining themselves as “opposition” journalists, preferring instead to call themselves “independent.” How did the invasion complicate that sense of identity for Ratnikova and her colleagues?
According to Rothrock, the distinction between “opposition” and “independence” has somewhat collapsed. Funding sources may not be as straightforward, for instance, but the other issue is partly that Russians must “constantly perform their goodness when they exist outside of Russia.” There is a lack of patience for anything Russian—and TV Rain’s staff felt this sharply in Latvia, where the public was somewhat hostile and seemed to expect them to take sides after the war started. While TV Rain publicly acknowledged and maintained its stance against the Russian invasion, it wasn’t enough. They had to walk this impossible tightrope and eventually became victims of what one expert described as a sentiment that “all Russians are bad” and “responsible for the war.”
When it becomes clear that TV Rain cannot stay in Russia, it takes some time for the staff to find a new home base. Why did they choose Latvia?
Latvia shares a border with Russia and is inhabited by many ethnic Russians. Russian is widely spoken, and for many Russians, Latvia feels culturally adjacent, given its Soviet past and demographics. Latvia is a democracy and a member of the European Union. It has a free press. Riga, the capital, is a modern city, making it an attractive location for many Russian journalists. Early on, Latvian officials publicly and privately welcomed TV Rain and other independent Russian journalists, offering them humanitarian visas. TV Rain was provided with a European broadcasting license. By the time TV Rain relocated, an established diaspora and community of journalists in exile already existed in Latvia, so it felt like a natural hub for their operations and a good place to reach their audience, which consists primarily of Russian-speaking people in and around Russia.
Once TV Rain starts broadcasting from Riga, it soon becomes clear that operating in a new place is harder and more complicated than anyone realized. What set off the discord between TV Rain and the Latvian public?
TV Rain made a series of public missteps that fed into a skeptical and divided public. The channel’s higher-ups have acknowledged that in their relocation, they had not considered Latvia’s past and enduring traumas from Soviet-era occupation, the political context of the Ukraine war in Latvia, and the impact of their presence there. And because of its prominence as a Russian independent media source, it was almost inevitable that in trying to toe the line between maintaining allegiance to its Russian audience and operating in a somewhat hostile environment, it would falter and have its motives questioned. Early on, TV Rain began stacking up violations and fines from Latvia’s media regulator, which eventually led to its license being revoked for “national security” reasons, which local media watchdogs described as a dangerous precedent.
How did Ratnikova handle all of this?
Simply put, she was devastated. The way she described experiencing this public ousting was similar to how she felt the night she had to flee Russia. Her mental and physical health suffered, and she sought professional help to navigate the tumult. She questioned her future and role as a journalist, her ability to work in the field, her immigration status, and whether it was all worth it.
Where do Ratnikova and TV Rain stand now?
With the help of local NGOs, TV Rain is challenging the license revocation in Latvian courts—both to restore its reputation and reverse the grounds for the decision. (The regulator’s claim was that TV Rain posed a “national security” risk.) Even so, Ratnikova—and most of TV Rain’s staff—plans to relocate to Amsterdam, where they were granted a new European broadcasting license. No one from TV Rain described this as a happy outcome; they had been planning their future in Latvia, where many have apartment leases and children who attend school. Amsterdam is a more expensive city, and getting there involves yet another relocation. Still, they welcome the possibility of operating in another European country. At this point, Ratnikova says she is indifferent to where she lives because the only place for her is back home in Moscow.Betsy Morais is the managing editor of CJR.