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Russian exile medium Meduza survives thanks to donations

Russian language news site Meduza was controversial in Moscow from the start. The founders themselves talked about the news channel as a small pirate ship that had anchored in the Gulf of Riga. From the Latvian capital, they could work around Russian compliance requirements issued by the censorship authority Roskomnadzor.

Kolbjörn Guwallius

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“Meduza is a medium in exile. When we started in 2014, we thought it was one of the worst years in Russian history. Crimea was annexed that year, the war in Eastern Ukraine started,” says Ivan Kolpakov, editor-in-chief of Meduza.

He is in Malmö, Sweden, to participate in a press freedom event hosted by the Swedish Publicists’ Association. Scoop’s reporter, also the president of the southern section of the association, conducts the main part of this interview on stage in front of almost 200 people.

“When we started ten years ago, we thought that at some point we were going to be forbidden. We’re going to get blocked,” Ivan Kolpakov says.

Meduza started out as an ad-funded web-based newspaper where Russians could read things that could not be said in Russia, or at least were not viewed upon lightly when told. Since the foundation, the censorship and repression against the opposition has hardened to a situation that is increasingly described as worse than during Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin’s time in power. Accordingly, the Kremlin’s attempts to silence the site have gone further, but Meduza continually finds new ways to survive. And the small pirate ship has grown to become the most read independent news channel in Russia.

The first really hard blow from the Putin regime came in April 2021, when Meduza was labelled a foreign agent. Ads from Russian companies had up until then been the major part of its financing, but following the blacklisting, they disappeared.

“Every decent person or organization in Russia has this label now, but it wasn’t that fancy back in 2021. Despite the fact that we started abroad, and we started as an independent and oppositional media, we were at some point financially successful and had created a sustainable business model.”

Ivan Kolpakov continues:

“We were even pioneers in native advertising. When we were labeled as a foreign agent, it destroyed our income in one week. Businesses don’t like to be in a political context. The label was designed to remind people about this label from Stalin’s time – the enemy of the people. And it actually worked like that.”

Working from exile had not only been a bright idea, it was also the result of the actions of the Russian regime. To understand why, we need to go back to 2013.

In the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, the popular protests on Euromaidan had begun after then president Viktor Yanukovych had canceled negotiations with EU of a partnership deal. Following pressure from Russian President Vladimir Putin, the land would again turn to Russia. But the protests led to the removal of Yanukovych.

By March 2014, Russian soldiers without nationality designation showed up on Crimea. Cautiously, western media described the obvious invasion like “little green men” taking control of the Ukrainian peninsula. Vladimir Putin initially called them “local self-defence groups” with which he had nothing to do.

At the same time, online newspaper Lenta.ru – at the time Russia’s largest media channel – published an interview with Andriy Tarasenko, one of the leaders of Ukrainian far-right party Pravyi sektor (Right sector) that had been active during the Euromaidan protests. Among many other organizations and volunteers from the entire political spectrum, one should add, but that is a different story.

“If you help anyone in the country to avoid prison, or avoid mobilization in the army, avoid the war, it’s a big thing”, Ivan Kolpakov says.

The censorship authority Roskomnadzor issued a warning to Lenta for promoting extremism. That became a clear signal to owner Alexander Mamut, a businessman with close ties to Vladimir Putin. Editor-in-chief Galina Timchenko got fired and was replaced with Kremlin-friendly Alexei Goreslavsky. That made half of the staff resign from the up until then independent publication

Galina Timchenko moved from Moscow to Riga in Latvia and started building her own media house that would be able to report to a Russian audience independently of Rozkomnadzor. The name chosen for it was Meduza. Shortly after its introduction in October 2014, the site also started reporting in English for an international audience. Meduza quickly became popular as a fast-paced media channel that refused to be kept on the Kremlin’s leash.

One of the co-founders, also from Lenta, was Kolpakov. After some time, he became editor-in-chief.

“The media we used to work for before was crushed by the government, so we decided that we needed to move abroad and start a new media organization.”

Russian media in exile was a rare thing at this time since it was still possible to work from inside Russia to some extent. Since Russia expanded the invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the exile has become a necessity for media that wish to survive. Meduza no longer has any staff left in Russia. Everyone has been evacuated.

“But we have of course some crazy guys who still work for us as reporters inside Russia. We call them guerrilla reporters. They are working deeply under cover, or what you should call it. They are risking their lives and freedom. I think these guys are doing the hardest part of our job, and the scariest one.”

The reporters inside Russia seldom write entire articles, instead they deliver material that is combined with other texts.

Since the 2022 invasion, the thumbscrews on independent media have tightened further and no media can work freely inside Russia any longer. In the beginning of 2023, Meduza was designated an “undesirable organization”

“That means Meduza is now totally forbidden inside Russia. I’m a criminal since I’m leading this organization. If I cross the border with Russia, I will immediately go to prison for five or six years. If I’m not accused of treason against the state, that could mean around 25 years in prison,” says Ivan Kolpakov.

He is thankful that his choices made him leave Russia while he still had the option.

”It would be untrue to say that we are not afraid of Putin and threats to us. But it’s doable.”

Ivan Kolpakov

For the Russian public, the branding means that it is forbidden to have anything to do with the company. Reading is still fine – if you at all manage to reach something to read – but sharing content, commenting on social media or contributing to financing can lead to prosecution and in worst case imprisonment.

Of course, that does not just go for Meduza. At the beginning of the 2022 invasion, Russians could publish engaged posts against the war on social media, but it has become rarer as the repression has increased and even a single post on social media can result in a prison sentence.

Meduza actively encourages Russians inside the country, or those planning to go there, to delete any Meduza-related posts on social media, since the branding is retroactive and the law allows for “the judicial system” to try older posts that are still available.

The Kremlin has all kinds of methods to keep people from reading Meduza. The site was blocked at the time of the expanded invasion in 2022, which led the office to set up mirror sites with different IP addresses. In the beginning, it took the authorities about two weeks to locate and throttle access to a mirror site, but after opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s death in prison in February 2024, the attacks have intensified. In the middle of March, Meduza reported that new mirror sites where blocked for Russian readers on average every 10 to 20 minutes. Mirror sites are also regularly exposed to distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks

Despite all this, Russian readers can still reach Meduza through a mobile app that uses technology to bypass blockages – Ivan Kolpakov calls them the cyber iron curtain – and does not need a VPN.

“This is super-important. Firstly, people are unfortunately lazy even in authoritarian countries. Secondly, it’s really hard to get a VPN in Russia because you have to pay internationally for the services and the international financial sanctions made that impossible.”

The app is available in Russian only and is clearly aimed at the domestic audience which cannot reach the publication’s website. Among other things, the user can choose between different app icons so that people who are not very familiar with Meduza will not suspect that someone is reading the newspaper if they see the reader’s mobile screen.

For the same reason that Meduza’s Russian readers nowadays have a hard time using a VPN, they also have a hard time supporting the site – Russian people can no longer send money abroad. Because of this, the site is highly dependent on donors in the West, mainly individuals who subscribe to support it. The support model was first launched mainly for the Russian audience when Meduza was designated a foreign agent and lost its advertising revenue.

“When we were labeled a foreign agent and lost our financial model, we started the crowdfunding campaign. We didn’t think it was going to work, that we would get money for a couple of months and that we would try to find additional support from international organizations or something like that. But somehow it actually worked. We had 170,000 people in Russia who supported Meduza with money. That is a lot, and it was a sustainable model for some time.”

Since the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, it is absolutely decisive for Meduza to receive international support instead.

“It has become one of the most visible examples of journalistic solidarity for me, personally. When we started the international crowdfunding, hundreds of media organizations supported Meduza and spread the word about the current state of our media organization. But unfortunately, we are struggling again now.”

Shortly after Meduza was labelled an undesirable organization, the editorial staff discovered that the imfamous spyware Pegasus had been installed on CEO Galina Timchenko’s cellphone, with the Kremlin as a the most likely spy. The many attacks on oppositional figures have increased since the invasion of Ukraine. Journalists are put in prison with made-up charges and the most prominent opposition politician Alexei Navalny died in prison.

“He was actually murdered in prison,” says Ivan Kolpakov head-on. “That would be a more correct way to describe what actually happened to him. No matter what the exact reason for his death was, he was murdered.”

Another recent example of Russian aggression was when Navalny’s close co-worker Leonid Volkov was assaulted outside his home in Vilnius, Lithuania

“This happens on the territory of Europe. We predict that it will expand, and that there will be more attacks. It is the strategy of the regime right now to scare as many people abroad as possible. To stop them from expressing their opinions and fighting the regime. It is very effective.”

Many people in the West have a hard time understanding how Vladimir Putin can be a popular leader among certain Russians, but Ivan Kolpakov says that he also meets ordinary people in other countries who speak well of Putin. There is a resistance in Russia, but it is hard to tell how big it is. Ivan Kolpakov believes that sooner or later there will be a clear opposition movement, even though it is not likely to surface in the near future. Maybe the regime will even survive the death of Putin, he speculates. The leadership has a strong grip on power.

How do you work with safety for yourself and your co-workers?

“Well, we call it stupidity and courage. Mostly stupidity. We do a lot in terms of cyber security, as much as possible. For example, right now Meduza experiences the biggest cyber-attacks in our history. They are trying to attack us everywhere, our mirrors, our email subscriptions, and our crowdfunding campaign. It’s super-expensive. The intensity of it started the same day as Alexei Navalny was murdered in prison and they keep coming. We are doing more or less fine, but the signs are bad.”

Are you worried for your personal safety?

“I’m trying to be reasonable, we all do. There was an incident with our reporter Elena Kostyuchenko last year in Germany where she probably was poisoned. Of course, there is a lot of fear in what we do. It would be untrue to say that we are not afraid of Putin and threats to us. But it’s doable. You can manage it, you can work with it, you can think about it. And you can keep in mind what is important to you. Probably you need to resolve the problem with fear anyhow. Everyone has one’s own recipe.”

So how long will you cope?

“Honestly, it’s hard to say. Several times I thought that it would be better to stop doing this job. But when something really bad happens, you think that probably it’s the best place to be. Because there is an audience, and they are important. If you’re thinking about the audience and their needs, it makes things easier for yourself. We can’t do a lot of stuff in Russia, and we don’t have a lot of impact. We publish an investigation, and everything goes on as it did before. We don’t destroy careers, we can’t change the regime. But we can help people in the country, support them and provide them with news. Sometimes it saves people’s freedom and lives. That is already a big deal. If you help anyone in the country to avoid prison, or avoid mobilization in the army, avoid the war, it’s a big thing.”

Such things keep Ivan Kolpakov going.

“When you feel tired and exhausted, you want to stop, he says. I often feel that way. But then I’m thinking about the audience. It sounds a bit big, but it actually helps to stay in touch with the readers. Ask them if they still need me. And it feels like they still do.”

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