Before Ukraine, Putin waged war on journalism
A story of two women, a shared profession, and friendship
I’ve had a picture for three decades that captures instant connection, the kind that happens rarely. It shows me, then a 32-year-old opinion writer, a few moments after meeting Kira, an ambitious, energetic Russian reporter attending a journalists' exchange in New England. We were sitting on the steps of a home on the Connecticut shore during a sweet summer evening as another Russian journalist stood nearby. Kira had scooped up my daughter, Anna, then around 18 months old, and said something that made me smile as I turned moments before a photographer snapped the picture. The resulting black-and-white photo accompanied me from my job at The Day in New London to my desk at The New York Times, and it now hangs in my barn office.
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She and all courageous reporters have been on my mind one year into Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine.
Kira isn’t her real name, and I won’t use her last. She’s a kick-ass journalist and, because of that, for years I’ve been frightened for her safety. During that exchange program so long ago, she stayed in my home and told me she wanted to start a newspaper of her own. “I want it to be different from other Russian newspapers,” she said, eagerly. “I won’t let reporters mix opinions and fact in their stories.” I encouraged her, but inwardly, I doubted her dream. Yet a few months later the Berlin wall fell. Democracy was blooming. Anything seemed possible. I visited Russia the following year, astonished to see Kira’s bustling, popular newspaper, and smiled to see, on the wall of her office, the very same photo of the two of us that hung above my desk.
Freedom of speech and the press seemed almost inevitable then, in the early 1990s, but a conversation with Harrison Salisbury tempered my optimism. He was the legendary New York Times Moscow correspondent during the 1950s and was the author of the magnificent book, “The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad.” Then in his early 80s, we were attendees at a journalists’ conference at which he was the keynote speaker. I told him of how encouraged I was by events in Russia. He was very courteous, but said my hopes were entirely misplaced.
Russia had no experience with democracy. The energetic reporting I witnessed there was up against dark forces, he said. From the podium, Salsibury went further. He predicted “the rise of a Hitler-like figure” in Russia who would oppress its people, menace its neighbors and destroy the nascent freedom that the world was seeing. Don’t be naive, he warned his dismayed audience of journalists. Russia was not fertile soil for freedom as Americans hoped.
Of course, I didn’t believe him.
Fast forward to the present day. Vladimir Putin’s military has waged a bloodbath in Ukraine, aiming dozens of assaults on hospitals in the first month of the war alone, targeting civilians, the energy systems that people need for heat and raining bombs even on maternity wards. He has oppressed, controlled and closed publications, labeling independent news outlets as “foreign agents” and making it illegal even to advertise in media he doesn’t like, such as the brilliant Meduza, now, like so many publications, headquartered in Latvia.
During Putin’s tenure, dozens of journalists have been murdered; an early victim was Anna Politkovskaya, Putin’s relentless critic and the independent Novaya Gazeta investigative journalist. Politkovskaya was shot in the head outside her apartment in 2006. Sadly, she wouldn’t be the last. Four more would die before the paper’s editor, Dimitry Muratov, shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 2021 with another journalist, Philippines editor Maria Ressa.
Putin’s government forced Novaya Gazette to close after the invasion of Ukraine last year. Now, journalists in Russia are either Kremlin puppets, have fled to other countries or are in grave danger.
And my friend Kira? In 2021, the Russian government had labeled her publication a foreign agent, a very ominous sign. She had tangled with authorities long before, though, brazenly taking the government to court when the officials threatened to close down her news site over critical coverage. Amazingly, the Russian court sided with Kira and against the government. The following week, as her driver drove her home, thugs surrounded her car at a red light, pulled the driver out of the car and viciously beat him to send a warning to her.
Yet, at least a month into Russia’s war against Ukraine last year, her publication was still operating under onerous conditions before Russia began blocking news stories on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter and shutting off private internet networks people used to evade censorship. Every story I looked at Kira’s website in March of 2022 was censored and had the following message in capital letters: “THIS MESSAGE (MATERIAL) WAS CREATED AND (OR) DISTRIBUTED BY FOREIGN MASS INFORMATION PERFORMING THE FUNCTIONS OF A FOREIGN AGENT….”
It humbles and enrages me to see this stain, this censorship. Telling the truth shouldn’t be this hard.
I look at my picture and wonder: Is Kira safe? We are both grandmothers now. My hair is white, not black. The baby in the photo is a mother herself.
And yet I know this: If democracy ever lives again in Russia, it will be because of stubborn idealists like my friend and so many others who have risked their lives to tell the truth.