Why and how we left Russia

My wife and I started freelancing back in 2017, when the last independent media outlet in the Perm region ceased to be independent. We went into complete obscurity, not really understanding how we would get by. Being a freelance journalist with three children in Russia is tantamount to financial suicide. We began to participate in various interregional projects, started projects of our own and received grants for them. We survived.

We worked on “heavy” subjects – investigations, research pieces, “undesirable” reports. It was already obvious that these could not influence the political status quo. It is enough to recall the Anti-Corruption Foundation’s (FBK) investigative documentary “Don’t call him ‘Dimon’”, which had already caused an unbelievable resonance in society at that time. So what? Nothing.

It was hard to find motivation [to continue reporting]. We were hoping for the “cumulative effect” to kick in someday.

We created an independent media project called “Fourth Sector“, which was awarded the Redkollegiya, the most prestigious journalistic award in Russia, but was named a foreign agent by the Russian state and had to be closed.

We were growing tired.

Our colleagues throughout Russia were at best deprived of their jobs, and at worst they were sent to prison. It was scary. We could go underground and work in constant fear, but where, for whom to publish, if sites are immediately blocked, and if most of those for whom we do our job consider us enemies of the people?

We decided to do something supportive and unifying for those like us, to create an internet platform that would support independent journalists. Thus was born Gribnica. This platform was established to enable journalists based in various regions of Russia to better increase their security, to see each other and to network, to cooperate and gain new knowledge. Unfortunately, the profile database on this platform had to be concealed for security reasons.

Parallel to this, we continued to participate in various interregional projects.

At the same time, there was, and there still remains, a risk of being labelled “foreign agents” (Gribnica has a diversified funding model which includes foreign grants, although that is no longer a prerequisite for being recognized as a foreign agent in Russia). Precedent shows that we can be jailed for up to 25 years. Terrifying. We’re scared for our children. We constantly question ourselves: to remain in Russia and to continue working from here, is it irresponsible towards our children?

A cache outside our house full of sensitive information. Encrypted directories on drives. Dummy work screens on phones, wiping of metadata, texts within texts, and a password in the phone’s calculator app [to decrypt it all]… Anonymization, conspiracy, ciphers… This whole wonderful set came to constitute our everyday life.

We knew about the pulling of troops to the border with Ukraine four months before the start of the war. We didn’t believe it was for real. And then February 24 happened. Shock, confusion, denial, sleepless nights with continuous doomscrolling. Then came acceptance and understanding. So did the decision to urgently get the hell out! No matter where. The irresponsibility toward our children if we stayed in Russia was too much. Enough.

Flights were cancelled one after another. Ticket prices to the closest visa-free countries rose severalfold. And there are five of us. This would amount to nearly 500,000 Roubles (over 6,500 Euros). We were miraculously able to buy tickets to Samarkand, Uzbekistan, at a normal price. Then there was a long road. We took with us only the most necessary things that we could carry in our hands. Airports in the southwest of Russia were closed so we first had to travel from Krasnodar to Sochi. We then boarded a plane to Moscow. From Moscow to Samarkand, from there to Tashkent. The journey lasted two days.

Now we continue to work on our projects from Istanbul. We regretted having lost the Gribnica’s profile database, so we came up with Glush. It is a completely safe service for finding independent media workers in Russia and beyond. Glush’s popularity is rapidly growing.

We also reincarnated the previously mentioned “Fourth Sector”.

What is this all for? Independent journalism in Russia has been mowed down and burned out. Most of the federal media journalists relocated. Local journalists of Russia’s various regions remain in place. What can, say, an editorial staff of three people from Anadyr do in, say, Germany? The local journalists were quite isolated from each other before (something that we wanted to change), and now many of these journalists have also lost access to their audience. We are trying to save ourselves and to help our local colleagues. When the present disaster somehow comes to an end, a semblance of life must be present in the local regions.

Why can’t we be present in Russia?

According to the current laws, or rather lawlessness, we face the threat of being labelled “foreign agents” and slapped with fines and prison terms the moment authorities turn their eyes on us. Considering that “vigilant citizens” are now actively assisting zealous state employees, this is merely a matter of time. Or perhaps we are already on their radar. We don’t know, we’re far away.

We will not be able to continue our work because it is not possible to receive grants due to sanctions. Needless to say, money is not our prime source of motivation. However, we do want to have a meal from time to time.

We have no right to, neither do we want to, put our children at risk. Moreover, the only acceptable option for their life in Russia now is complete isolation from the education system and from any contact with this system, which is absurd and impossible. But even this is dangerous.

Unprepared readers would most likely not understand what “dangerous” means. At one time, I studied a lot of archival materials about the time period of Soviet history known as the Great Terror. Hundreds of thousands of citizens were murdered in the country. You probably cannot even imagine what they did with them. I will not tell. I will only say that I, a grown man who has seen a lot, could not sleep after reading about the atrocities that took place in prisons. And now all of it is back. No. The threat is neither NATO, nor the United States, as per the Russian state propaganda. Russians are a threat to themselves. They threaten me and my wife.

Do you know how long it takes to turn a human being into a scared, humiliated animal? Any human being! A total of around six hours. In the evening hours, a person gets taken away, and in the morning a being is released that will never again become the same person, even though they look physically healthy. You might think that this is done by sadists who enjoy cruelty. But for the most part, these people are devoid of empathy. They are trained to not feel empathy, and this becomes their main and most valuable professional quality. Indifference is worse than cruelty.

In 2021, the rate of acquittals handed down in criminal cases in Russia was 0.28%. That is, if a criminal case is opened against a person, that person will almost certainly end up in prison. Because the police, investigators, prosecutors, etc. cannot afford to be “wrong”. They are punished for their mistakes. For them, it is better to condemn a person to 10 years in prison than to be reprimanded at work. We analyzed this in detail in one of our projects.

Why Turkey?

As a matter of fact, we had initially thought of Turkey as a transit country on the way to Europe. We came here burdened with stereotypes introduced to Russia by tourists. These stereotypes began to crumble on our first day of being in Turkey. Yes, we know that this is not the freest country for journalists. We know that “freedom of speech” here is a relative concept. However, after Russia, we were struck by freedom in the general sense of the word. It’s hard to describe, but as my wife and I were strolling through a local park, we saw and felt that the people here were truly free. Free from complexes, from conventions, from stereotypes.

I see Turkish flags, portraits of Kemal Atatürk everywhere and I understand that patriotism should be exactly like this – not imposed, sincere. They sincerely love their country, sincerely revere Atatürk, and even I feel my gratitude to him for the fact that he managed to create a wonderful secular free state in which we found shelter. At the moment, we do not wish to leave. We do not know what will happen in the next two or three months, but we would like to wait for this mysterious future right here. The people here are wonderful and friendly. We feel safe. And we never tire of being surprised at how well homeless cats and dogs live here. They are the true masters of the city.

However, there are also some features here that you need to get used to. One such feature is what we call “the Great Turkish Random”. Say you go to open a bank account. The branch may tell you that they have reached the limit for opening accounts for foreigners. Alright. Another branch of the same bank may require a residence permit. But the migration service requires you to provide information about an open bank account and a deposit in order to issue the residence permit. In the third branch of the bank, they may ask to see a rent contract, which must be certified in some department. And finally, in the sixth branch of the same bank, they will open an account for you no questions asked. We are yet to understand how it works exactly. Perhaps it depends on the solar flares. We continue to observe.

The main unsolvable problem for us is the Turkish internet. It resembles the Russian roads. It is indeed a serious issue. Good, fast, and reliable internet is of critical importance in our work. It does not exist here. No money can buy it. The internet here is somewhat similar to what was in Russia 10 years ago. However, the same problems are present in Israel, Germany, Great Britain, Czech Republic, France, and the U.S. Many of our colleagues talk about this, which surprises us: What? How? Does Russia really have anything to boast of besides the size of the country, Gagarin, the victory over Germany in 1945, and the number of nuclear bombs? This is probably why the online services we see in many countries pale in comparison to the ones in Russia. I do believe that sooner or later a good modern internet operator will come and everything will work out, something that cannot be said about the Russian roads.

What next?

We do not know. We hope that we will be allowed to stay in Turkey. Returning to Russia is not an option. We no longer want to return. We did everything we could for this country and became enemies of the people. This is it. The limit of belief in a brighter future has been reached. It is too dangerous and useless.

We haven’t been writing much lately. It is very difficult to understand who our target audience is now and what topics are relevant. What would be interesting to do nowadays is to go to the training bases and military recruiting stations in Russia, to see how everything really is, to report from there live with full immersion. But this is impossible. Unfortunately, I am a citizen of Russia, and in those places, I will immediately be conscripted. And if they bother to find out what I do and read my Facebook, they will put me in jail for a long time.

For these reasons, we decided to focus on providing assistance to journalists who remain in Russia or those who left the country like we did. Our audience is both in Russia and abroad. There is an idea in my mind that everybody likes. Without going into details, this idea is about creating a support mechanism for those who just arrived at an unfamiliar city or country. In the near future, I would like to turn this idea into a project and to find funding for it. It will be a project revolving around journalism with personal stories, but the main focus of the project will be the provision of assistance to journalists undergoing relocation.

Apart from this, we are learning Turkish. We are ready to be of use to this country. We, most likely, will never have a Motherland again. But it’s alright. At least for now, we have shelter. And we know how to be grateful.