Should I stay or should I go? Thoughts of a Moscow journalist who fled for Riga

Ukrainian flag on the window of a store in Riga (Credit: Anastasia Kashirskaya)

I left Moscow on 23 April, and the next day I crossed the land border between Russia and Latvia. For exactly two months, I had been in the new Russian reality that came crashing down on us on the day of the invasion of Ukraine. Before 24 February, I thought that there was no freedom in Russia, but now I cherish that time with nostalgia.

A lot has changed in the 60 days of the “special operation”. For a journalist working for an independent Russian outlet, it is common to call the war a “special operation” and to put it in quotation marks, hoping that readers will understand that the quotations are a way of writing the word war and not accepting the actions of your state.  The dozens of colleagues who have fled Russia, the familiar names on the list of “foreign agents”, the absurd new laws, and the closing down, suspension and relocation of several media create a feeling of hopelessness – especially for someone for whom journalism is much more than just a way to make a living.

The law against “fake news” about the Russian army, which can send you to prison for ten years with just one careless post on “extremist” Instagram, began to work as quickly as it was passed by the Duma, the Federation Council and signed by the president – in one day. In short, this law prohibits any alternative opinion on the actions of the Russian army.

As with all repressive laws, at first, you are afraid; you don't know how they will work: at what scale, how often, against whom…? Will this law affect you? Your colleagues? Your loved ones? How soon? Or maybe I'm worried for nothing, and it won't affect me?

You're constantly searching, trying to understand the logic around why the authorities warn you, why they fine you, why they put you onto the “foreign agent” list, why they arrest you for only 24 hours or why they sentence you to prison. 

 All of a sudden, journalists were required by law to show a  special editorial assignment just to cover rallies on the streets of our cities because the press card, which is required by law, was  no longer enough. It became normal to detain journalists while working at rallies, despite wearing the yellow vests as required. The vests and special assignment letters did not keep journalists from being raided and even beaten by law enforcement officers.. These attacks went unpunished, of course.

Journalists were forbidden to cover a number of topics (e.g. suicide or drugs), and were forced to label people and organisations without good reason. Media outlets were fined, forced to remove content, blocked and closed, branded as “foreign agents” and undesirable organisations.  Journalists were arrested and forced out of the country.

But you get used to it, adapt, feeling on one hand as a criminal and on the other as a traitor to the ideals of your profession. Absurd laws become the norm, despised though they are. You begin to censor yourself; you don't write about certain topics, you omit certain details. You may feellazy to write up a long bureaucratic speech issued by the state, but if you don’t, you can get fined, not only screwing yourself but also the entire editorial team.  

Is it possible to stay in Russia under these conditions and continue working as a journalist? I'm sure it is. Am I ready to adapt to this new reality? Probably not.

My main argument in favour of leaving - for the time being - is that I would be much more useful in freedom than behind bars. Yes, I'm not a very famous journalist, I don't run my own social media, and I haven't even had a single administrative conviction in my life, so there’s little chance that I would end up in prison.

The decision to leave was difficult.

I left Moscow filled with the confrontation between the “no war” signs and the Z-shaped ribbons of St. George (Editor’s note: Russian military symbol consisting of a black and orange bicolour pattern), and came to Riga. Here I have not yet seen a single building (except for the Russian embassy) with the flag of Latvia, or any other country without a Ukrainian flag next to it. It helps me remember  that Russia’s “fake news” law is not the norm.