Russia, Explained

Russian propagandists — Komi oil spill — COVID vs. Sputnik V

Photo: TASS
Photo: TASS

Here what’s in store for you this week:

  • We are doing a deep dive into the dark side of the Russian propaganda machine and folks running it;
  • We report from the epicenter of another devastating spill in the Russian Arctic;
  • We explain why Russians avoid the Sputnik V vaccine, despite a third wave of COVID sweeping the nation;
  • Plus, after another deadly school shooting, some Russians demand the return of capital punishment.

Russian Propagandists, Examined

While there’s no shortage of awful news about the hardships faced by Russia’s independent investigative reporters in recent months, this week we take a dive into the backgrounds of Kremlin stooges masquerading as journalists. We analyze and track the trajectories of key media figures in Russia, who have morphed from intelligent reporters and commentators to stalwarts of the Kremlin’s notoriously vile propaganda machine.

HOW TOP-PROPAGANDISTS ENDED UP BETRAYING THEIR JOURNALISM ROOTS. Tatiana Mitkova. Dmitry Kiselev. Andrey Babitsky. These are just three of many major figures in the Russian media landscape who have dramatically shifted their approach since starting out. Once seeming proponents of independent journalism, they now lead a powerful state-funded ‘industry of lies.’ Mitkova shot to fame in 1991 after refusing to read the official Soviet version of violent crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Lithuania. Now, she is a top manager at pro-Kremlin channel NTV and claims there is no censorship in Russian media. Kiselev, like Mitkova, refused to read a similar state-approved version of events in Lithuania, and even received a European Commission grant in 1994 to support “democratic institutions in Russia.” But in 2013 he was fatefully appointed to head Russia Today (RT), and was responsible for new methods of propaganda aimed at inciting hatred, aggression, hostility, intolerance, xenophobia and homophobia. He’s done his best to make sure the vitriol reaches a global audience.

COLLAPSING SPACE FOR INDEPENDENT JOURNALISM PUSHING MANY INTO HANDS OF PROPAGANDISTS. For several of us at the Novaya newsroom it has been nothing short of surreal to see former colleagues now running state propaganda outlets. Nothing can justify this choice, but one major societal factor definitely explains it. Growing state attacks on independent Russian journalism over the past decade has forced many journalists to make tough decisions about their future. This is what our chief legal correspondent Vera Chelishcheva labels the “cruel choice” of Russian journalism: stick to your professional integrity or get paid; live in peace or fear for your life and the lives of your loved ones.

“It’s almost like in Soviet times: either work in the propaganda department of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party, or write about fish and insects, or (as only a few managed to do) emigrate, or leave the profession,” Chelishcheva explains.

STATE ENSURES THAT INDEPENDENT JOURNALISM IS COMPLETELY UNSUSTAINABLE. From aggressively-imposed ‘foreign agent’ laws to tightening media regulations, the Kremlin has been working hard to eradicate even the smallest independent journalism enterprises in Russia. Most Russian journalists face a growing dilemma between following their original professional calling and feeding themselves and their families. Here, we call it the “mortgage dilemma”. At the same time, state-funded propaganda outlets offer lavish compensation packages ranging from between $55,000 to $1,200,000 per year (compared to a paltry average annual income of $5,500 across the country). You can literally get rich just by spreading nonsense over a variety of channels. No wonder so many of our former colleagues opted for the path of least resistance and some semblance of financial security.

2014 WAS A TURNING POINT. Many of these folks turned to “the dark side” around the same time as Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Take Andrey Babitsky, once a renowned war correspondent and a former reporter for the US-funded RFE/RL. He earned international acclaim for his skillful reporting on the Chechen wars, exposing war crimes in the process. By the late 2010s he had already become a prominent figure in Russian propaganda, publishing lies about the annexation of Crimea.“Babitsky turned from an implacable critic of the Russian authorities into an ardent patriot. In 2018, he … published a book in the repentant confession genre entitled ‘The Whole Truth About Liberals. How I became a Russian patriot’,” writes Chelishcheva.

Illustration by Petr Sarukhanov
Illustration by Petr Sarukhanov

SNAPPED UP BY RUSSIA TODAY. State-aligned channels make no secret of their attempts to recruit media figures feeling the pressure. “To all journalists, techies, cameramen, etc., who are sick of working against their country in various garbage dumps, who are ready to work honestly for their state. Submit your resume. We will be glad to hear from you,” RT head Margarita Simonyan wrote on Twitter after journalists were detained and beaten during pro-democracy protests earlier this year. Over the past three years, a number of prominent independent journalists have switched to RT:

  • Maria Baronova, a former Bolotnaya defendant and assistant to Khodorkovsky, works for Simonyan and RT’s Russian edition now;
  • Former and journalist Yekaterina Vinokurova writes RT columns;
  • Former Novaya and Dozhd journalist, Ilya Vasyunin, is also now on RT — writing about ‘censorship’ in independent newsrooms;
  • Elena Masyuk , most recently a columnist for The New Times, a former columnist for Novaya Gazeta and a member of the Public Monitoring Commission for the Protection of Human Rights in Prisons, left for RT too.

BACKSTORY. Being a journalist in Russia has never been easy. Journalists are routinely taken to court as part of a campaign to silence and intimidate, and violence against them is common. Last year, one, Irina Slavina even committed suicide by setting herself on fire in front of a Ministry of Interior’s office in the Western Russian city of Nizhny Novgorod following years of harassment and constant pressure for her investigative reporting. The government crackdown on independent reporters and outlets took a brutal turn in 2019 and has reached new lows in recent years. Our investigative reporter Elena Milashina was attacked in Chechnya back in February and has faced death threats over her latest reports. Six of our journalists were also murdered over the past 25 years, including Anna Politkovskaya. Her assassination still hasn’t been adequately investigated.

Read our full story on the varied lives and public beliefs of Kremlin propagandists here.

Komi Oil Spill, Explained

A massive oil pipeline spill in the northwestern Russian Komi region is just the latest in a long, horrifying series of man-made environmental disasters in Russia’s northern reaches. This time nearly 100 tonnes of oil leaked into the already fragile ecosystem. This week, Novaya’s Arctic correspondent Tatiana Britskaya reports on the disaster.

SPILL POLLUTED AREA FIVE TIMES THE SIZE OF MOSCOW. Locals initially spotted an oily film on river water several kilometers downstream from the pipeline. It belongs to LukOil, the country’s largest non-state crude oil producer and one of the largest in the world. Even though the company says liquid is no longer being pumped through the pipeline, the slick continues to move along the river and settle on its banks. Cleanup could take weeks.

“MOST OF THE OIL SETTLED ON THE RIVER BANKS. Now the water level is dropping, and a black strip remains on the shore,” local eco-activist Alexander Sladkoshtiev tells Britskaya. He adds that the polluted area now exceeds 12,000 square kilometers via interconnecting rivers and waterways, and the damage to local nature is expected to be massive. That will include the destruction of unique local forests, tundra and rivers.

REGULAR OIL SPILLS, POOR INFRASTRUCTURE. The current spill might be a large one, but it is definitely not the first one. Local authorities have ignored dozens of similar incidents in recent years. “Residents of the Usinsky district of Komi face oil spills regularly. The land here is covered with a network of oil pipelines; ecologists periodically record the leaks, accidents are common. Local residents believe that the problem is with dilapidated infrastructure, but the Russian oil industry is not inclined to agree with this,” writes Britskaya.

Oil spill in the Usa river. Photo: TASS
Oil spill in the Usa river. Photo: TASS

GROUNDHOG YEAR. In this week’s op-ed reflecting on the disaster, Novaya’s columnist Alexey Tarasov argues that nobody has learned any lessons from repeated ecological disasters in the Russian Arctic in the last year. Specifically, the Nornickel fuel spill that devastated the vast area in the region and inflicted enormous environmental ruin. “It is obvious that no systemic and technological lessons have been learned from last year's accident,” Tarasov writes. His comments came just as a different jet fuel spill was discovered in a town in the Krasnoyarsk region, Dudinka. Taimyr Fuel Company, a subsidiary of Nornickel, was responsible for the issue, but claimed that only 20 liters of jet fuel leaked (independent assessment claims it was 200 liters).

BACKSTORY. The Russian government keeps expanding the industrial harvesting of natural resources deep into previously-protected nature reserves. For that, the Kremlin dismantles Russian environmental regulations to maximize the country’s profits. This couples with aggressive military expansion in the Russian Arctic as the government rushes to take over new trading routes that are opening up due to climate change. These policies provoke more and more man-made ecological disasters and further abuse vulnerable indigenous communities. Last year the Arctic saw the largest human-made fuel spill in its history. Back then, the Russian government colluded with the country's largest nickel producer to whitewash the disaster. The spill has also damaged the environment that provided local indigenous communities with basic food supplies.

Read the full Komi fuel spill dispatch here.

New COVID-19 Wave Despite Sputnik-V Vaccination

A fresh wave of the coronavirus pandemic strikes Russia. Around 10,000 new cases are being recorded on an almost daily basis, and in Moscow alone, 3,000 in what is one of the sharpest increases in case numbers since January. Why is Russia seeing a fresh spike? Novaya takes a look at the pandemic’s fluctuations, and reservations among citizens about the Sputnik V vaccine.

FAILING VACCINATION IS TO BLAME. Russia was the first country in the world to roll out a COVID-19 vaccine. But according to official statistics, only 9.4 million people have actually got Sputnik-V jabs or around 6.5 percent of the country's population. Actual numbers might be even lower if you take into account the government’s attempt to inflate vaccination data.

Illustration by Petr Sarukhanov
Illustration by Petr Sarukhanov

WIDESPREAD SKEPTICISM OVER SPUTNIK-V. Russia’s last remaining independent pollster Levada Center recently found that the vast majority of Russians are not willing to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Some 62 percent of respondents were actively unwilling, and 56 percent are not even afraid of contracting coronavirus. Vaccination points have been open in Russia since December, but few people appear to be queuing up to use them.

DISTRUST TOWARDS THE GOVERNMENT TORPEDOES VACCINATION, FUELS NEW COVID-19 WAVE. In this week’s op-ed our political editor Kirill Martynov draws a direct link between severe erosion of public trust towards Russian state institutions and the vaccination disaster.

“In a closed, censored, corrupt society, citizens do not expect anything good from the state, and the vaccine is no exception,” says Martynov.

RUSSIAN AUTOCRACY IS NOT EQUIPPED FOR A SUCCESSFUL FIGHT WITH THE PANDEMIC. “Research around the world confirms that countries where citizens trust their governments and social institutions are successfully vaccinated and emerge from the pandemic,” Martynov rights. He believes that reluctance to be vaccinated is a direct consequence of “the long-term national degradation of public institutions.” It is not a uniquely Russian issue, though. Same link between trust in the government and vaccine skepticism is on display in the US amid the Republicans and Trump voters, who are less likely to seek vaccinations.

“Perhaps, a future without Covid is available only for those who have managed to construct a normal democracy. Or for folks living in complete totalitarianism, where nobody is asked anything (and vaccination is mandatory — ed.),” Martynov says.

BACKSTORY. In total, some 114,000 people have died from Covid-19 in Russia, according to official figures. However, the real number is likely to be much higher. Russia had one of the largest Covid-19 outbreaks globally. But official statistics aren't always the most reliable indicators of the situation. Novaya Gazeta initially found relatively reliable data in only about ten regions, most of which had low infection rates. Our data analysis unit looked at other indicators to assess the severity of the epidemic, for example, whether the number of online searches for coronavirus-related symptoms has risen.

Read our full story on Russia’s reluctance to get vaccinated here.

Bonus Corner

  • DEATH PENALTY DEBATE AFTER THE KAZAN SHOOTING. Following the tragic Kazan school shooting last week, the Russian state monthpieces started circling around the idea of a possible return of death penalty. Nine people died in the assault at Gymnasium 175 which has rocked and traumatised the country. In response, government-controleld media launched a debate about lifting Russia’s moratorium on the death penalty (in place since 1996.) While some Russians see the death penalty as a potential deterrent against any future perpetrators of similar tragic events, others argue that the government might be exploiting the situation to deflect the public’s attention from its failings. Our columnist Leonid Nikitinskiy points out that better content review policies on social networks and tightening of gun laws would be much more effective at preventing future mass shootings in Russia.
Thanks for reading!
To keep up with Novaya Gazeta’s reporting throughout the week, you can follow us on [Facebook](,++ [Twitter](, [Instagram](, and [Telegram]( Our video content is available on [Youtube](, and don’t forget to visit our [website]( for the latest stories in Russian. _— The Novaya Gazeta Team_
Добавьте в Конструктор подписки, приготовленные Редакцией, или свои любимые источники: сайты, телеграм- и youtube-каналы. Залогиньтесь, чтобы не терять свои подписки на разных устройствах