Fading colours: the diary of a Russian journalist who disagrees with the war

An inscription on a building in the centre of Ekaterinburg. (Credit: Arden Arkman)

This article is part of our project, “Ukraine Stories”, supporting Ukrainian and Russian journalists who are victims of war or censorship. Ivan Zhilin, a journalist living in Russia's fourth largest city, Yekaterinburg, describes life since the war started and the feeling of helplessness amid tougher censorship rules on Russian media.

21.04.2022 – Day 57 of the war

Life has become mechanical. You walk, you eat, you do things, but you don't feel anything. It's all autopilot.

It’s a recipe for instant ageing: wake up, live through the evening, go to bed. The day goes by, to hell with it. You could get anything done during that day: help a charitable foundation with an appeal to officials, write an article, edit someone else's material, try to programme, keeping in mind that independent journalism in Russia has come to an end, and that you need to learn another trade. But all of this now seems to make no sense.

I ask myself, what exactly has changed around me? The same house, the same apartment, the same forest outside the window – it used to make me happy. My family is nearby. And Yekaterinburg is not bombed (and no one was going to be). And yet it feels like life has been bombed.

It must be lousy for people from Ukraine to read this – bombs were really dropped on them.

Life has changed dramatically. On 28 March, the newspaper where I used to work (and where I am still retained as a staff member) suspended its publication. This was preceded by two consecutive warnings from Roskomnadzor, Russia’s communications watchdog and reincarnation of the Soviet Glavlit [Editor’s note: The official censorship agency under the Soviet Union]. Two warnings are grounds for closing the publication.

Well, we were still actively struggling until 28 March. We wrote the truth in the simplest way. The truth about millions of refugees, the truth about thousands of dead, about ruined cities. In the end – the truth that the war had also hit our country: that it had caused a shortage of medicines, that it had caused the rapid poverty of Russians, that it had led to the collapse of businesses and people losing their jobs. This war has no beneficiaries: we all lost because of it, but now it is almost impossible to say so inside Russia – for that under different articles will earn you between five to 15 years in prison.

And so it is on this scorched field that I now remain.

What to do? My friends from TV-2 in Tomsk (already blocked) suggested that I look for people like me. Those who don’t accept war. And to record their stories. Finding them here, around me, is not easy. Yekaterinburg has always been famous for its freethinking: it has been sprouting since the time when Old Believers fled to the Ural mountains from persecution. And rallies against the war with Ukraine were numerous here – hundreds of people came out to protest. Only Moscow and St. Petersburg had more protesters. But by mid-May, the protests were over: you can only go out with a placard and get fined once, and on the second occasion you risk going to jail. And most of the pacifists either lay down on their mattresses or moved on to guerrilla actions: posting pictures from Bucha, Mariupol and Irpen, replacing price tags in stores with anti-war leaflets.

Nevertheless, there are those who are not afraid to speak for themselves. One of them is the lawyer, Yulia Fedotova. She used to defend activists who protested against the development of Yekaterinburg parks, and now she represents in court those who oppose the bombing of Ukraine. Often these are the same people, which is not surprising: those who want prosperity for their country cannot support war.

Yulia tells us that those who advocate peace are helped for free.

“It is very easy to prepare complaints about detentions or court decisions. These are standard documents,” she says. But for the detainees, these complaints, first of all, buy time – they allow them to postpone the execution of court decisions, paying those fines or starting corrective labour. And secondly, these complaints give people the opportunity to go to the European Court of Human Rights while it  is still open to Russians.

I ask Yulia what is wrong with Russia, and she begins to argue in a very professional, legal way. She says that the most basic rights are trampled in the country: the freedom of expression, including the anti-war opinion (though what kind of opinion could be more legal!), and freedom of assembly – even for solitary pickets.

“I'm not afraid for myself. I am only afraid of being afraid,” she says. Because fear changes you. Fear makes you forget who you are. Maybe if I were to give up my profession one day, or if I were to shut up one day, then yes – then you could say that fear has won. But right now – and perhaps this may sound overconfident – now I find it hard to imagine myself being afraid.

Only conversations with like-minded people like this give me the strength to do something. Thanks to them, every day makes at least some sense.