When the Russian Ministry of Justice published a list of new “foreign agents,” Olga Churakova was writing an article in a Moscow café. “It was a normal working day,” the 33-year-old journalist recalls. Your colleagues from the editorial department forwarded the agency report with the news to the team. “I wanted to see who got it this time. So I went to the ministry’s website and suddenly I was on the list myself,” says Churakova.
About a year has passed since then. During this time, Churakova’s life turned completely upside down. Her career, her everyday life – nothing is the same anymore. “I lost my job and started a new one, I left Russia even though I didn’t want to at first,” she says. She tells her story together with her colleague Sonya Groysman in the Russian-language media podcast “Hello, you are a foreign agent”.
The so-called agent law has also applied to the media since 2017, along with other requirements. It is used by the Russian government as a means of pressure to silence critical voices in the country. Organizations, media and individuals can obtain foreign agent status if they are supported from abroad or are under “foreign influence”. What is actually meant by this remains a matter of interpretation.
The wording of the law is ambiguous and is applied selectively. Affected journalists are forced to disclose their financial sources and expenses. Articles, social media posts, videos and all other media products must be accompanied by an indication that they were commissioned by a foreign legal entity. The stigmatization within society hurts many media professionals even more than this harassment.
“After I got foreign agent status, it felt like my whole world was falling apart,” says Groysman. She and Churakova agreed to do a video interview with the Tagesspiegel on a Monday morning. While her colleague is at the seaside on her honeymoon, 28-year-old Groysman is in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. Both left Russia in the first weeks after the start of the war. “Everything that happened before February 24 feels like it happened in another life,” says Churakova.
Simultaneously with her and Groysman’s stigma as “foreign agents”, the Russian Ministry of Justice announced that her then employer, the online investigative platform “Proekt”, had been declared an “undesirable organization”. As a result, the medium had to close and the two journalists lost their jobs.
There were supportive words from colleagues here and there. “But because only a few individuals had agent status at the time, many people didn’t know what the ramifications of all this would really be,” says Groysman. That’s how they came up with the idea of starting their podcast – to talk about their life and work as “foreign agents”.
The podcasters also invite other media professionals to interview them in order to talk to them about their experiences with censorship and Russian-language journalism. A gimmick that the two of them came up with: At the beginning of each episode, the respective guest reads out the 24-word note that the publication is the product of a “foreign agent”.
In the meantime, two seasons and 22 episodes have been created – stories about protests in downtown Moscow against censorship, stories about moving abroad.
Since March 4 it has been banned from labeling the actions of the Russian army in Ukraine as “war,” “invasion,” or “attack,” making critical reporting in Russia all but impossible. Media such as Echo Moskvy and Novaya Gazeta have been closed or have decided not to appear.
“When it became clear that it would be dangerous for journalists in Russia, we decided to leave the country,” says Churakova. Since then, like her colleague, she has been making a living as a journalist abroad. Both work alongside the podcast for independent media in exile. Groysman is due to move to Lithuania later this month.
In Riga she will work as a reporter for the Russian TV channel “Doschd”, which will soon be back on the air. “Because as terrible as it may sound, the independent Russian media have been experiencing a renaissance since the beginning of the war,” says Churakova. The journalists would do a great job in terms of reporting on the war. And despite censorship, new media projects are emerging, even though they only reach a small part of the Russian population. One shouldn’t delude oneself, says Groysman: “The government is good at denying people in the country access to free information.” It is precisely here that she and Tschurakowa have an advantage with their podcast.
“Because podcasts aren’t very popular in Russia, our recordings are still freely available to people in the country,” says Groysman. “Hello, you are a foreign agent” is represented on all common streaming platforms, while high-reach media can only be consumed by those who have VPN access.
This is mostly true of the young and urban population, but there are exceptions: “Recently a listener wrote to us that she lives in a small village in the provinces and hears us,” says Groysman. “She said the podcast helps her not feel alone among everyone who believes the propaganda and isn’t part of the anti-war movement.”
Such feedback encourages the journalists to continue with their podcast. The third season should therefore continue on August 8th. “Like Vladimir Putin, we love historical data and figures,” jokes Groysman. On this very day a year ago, she and Churakova released the first episode of their podcast. And took their audience into the world of Russian journalism.