Exiled Russian journalist, activist Elena Kostyuchenko talks experience

Elena Kostyuchenko at her talk. JOSEPH WEHMEYER / THE FLAT HAT
Elena Kostyuchenko at her talk. JOSEPH WEHMEYER / THE FLAT HAT

Thursday, March 21, Russian journalist, LGBTQ+ rights activist and author Elena Kostyuchenko presented her lecture titled “The New Social Journalism in Russia & Ukraine” to an audience of students, faculty and community members in Washington Hall.

The event was part of the annual Tepper Lecture Series sponsored by the Gregory Tepper Lecture Fund, Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies Program, Reves Center for International Studies, Global Research Institute, Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies Program as well as the Film and Media Studies Program.

Kostyuchenko spoke for about 20 minutes before answering audience questions. She discussed life in an increasingly repressive and authoritarian Russia and its effects on the country as a whole. 

Kostyuchenko was an investigative reporter for Russia’s last independent newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, for 17 years before the publication shut down and later had its media license stripped by the Russian government in 2022, partially due to Kostyuchenko’s work as a war correspondent in Ukraine. Russian censorship laws passed following its invasion and outbreak of war in Ukraine made a return home for Kostyuchenko dangerous.

“When I was in Ukraine, I became a criminal right away,” Kostyuchenko said.

In her own words, Kostyuchenko has long attempted to document Russia as experienced by those whom it systematically and brutally erases. Much of her recently published and critically acclaimed book: “I Love Russia: Reporting from a Lost Country,” discusses such stories.

Kostyuchenko continued to report on the war in Ukraine, but left after being warned that Russian soldiers had orders to kill her en route to her next assignment in Mariupol. Ruling out a return home, Kostyuchenko moved to Germany, where she soon fell extremely ill to what doctors believe was a poisoning attempt that is under investigation by German authorities.

“When you work very intensely and you know that you can be killed, arrested, prosecuted or threatened for crimes [for your work], you need to believe that the work you do is the most important work on the earth,” Kostyuchenko said. “And we did believe it.”

Independent journalism in Russia has long been a dangerous profession — six of Kostyuchenko’s Novaya Gazeta colleagues have been killed since 2000. 

Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies Professor Sasha Prokhorov, who helped organize the event, put Kostyuchenko’s work as both an investigative journalist and activist into perspective.

“Within the current climate in Russia, it’s a very difficult agenda to pursue,” Prokhorov said. “She puts her life in jeopardy every day.”

Kostyuchenko elaborated on the experiences of her fellow journalists.

“Many of my colleagues from Novaya Gazeta also went into exile because they couldn’t imagine themselves working under these new laws,” Kostyuchenko said. “They went outside of Russia and established Novaya Gazeta Europe to continue their work. Some of them chose to stay in Russia to keep reporting whatever they can … These people are true heroes and I am very happy to be here and pass the word about them because they risk their lives every day.”

Kostyuchenko also discussed the ethical conflicts she initially experienced while being engaged in both journalism and activism, which she has been involved in for over a decade

“We believed in this Western concept that in order to preserve our objectivity, we shouldn’t … get involved in politics too much,” Kostyuchenko said. “Even then, I became [an] LGBTQ+ activist. I felt like I was betraying my profession because I got involved in things. So I decided that I wouldn’t report on LGBTQ+ issues because I’m not objective [and] let straight people report on LGBTQ+ issues, they’re objective for sure. I had this idea for a few years, then I stopped believing it. Thank God.”

The LGBTQ+ rights movement is increasingly targeted in Russia, however, exponentially so after a 2023 Russian Supreme Court ruling labeled it as “extremist.”

Kostyuchenko also discussed how media organizations have adapted in exile.

“Basically right now being an exiled journalist, we are in a technological race with the Russian government because they try to block our work and information,” Kostyuchenko said. “So far, we are successful.”

Although Russian censorship soared since the outbreak of war in Ukraine, some remain resilient in attempts to keep independent journalism in the country alive. Exiled journalists stay in contact with sources still in Russia via encrypted messaging apps such as Signal or Element. Some Russian citizens use Virtual Private Networks to access restricted media, but even their continued allowance is in jeopardy

One audience member asked whether exiled journalists like Kostyuchenko can assess the impact that their work has had in and outside of Russia in light of current restrictions.

“We can’t really measure it,” Kostyuchenko said. “I know that people are reading us. People need this information. That’s why we’re working. We don’t really know how it influences reality — [and whether] it influences in a good way, bad way or at all.”

Still, a new generation of journalists has emerged in Russia, eager to document what is going on around them. Kostyuchenko noted the difficulties they face, however.

“When my generation had to leave Russia, these young people came and stepped into our shoes,” she said. “We try to mentor them, but it’s hard because the situation they work in right now is completely different from what we got used to.”

At several points, Kostyuchenko reflected on the fatigue settling in among the opposition to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who recently extended his rule following a widely-denounced election.

“I also have to [talk] about the feeling of despair we all have,” Kostyuchenko said. “We had this energy of anger in the beginning and now we’re getting tired.”

Jackson Henning ’25 attended the talk and reflected upon his experience.

“It was interesting to learn about dissident journalism trying to survive in Russia through the use of VPNs and modern information technology,” Henning said.

After the event, Kostyuchenko signed books and met with audience members before speaking to The Flat Hat about her experience promoting her book in the United States.

“Everything has gone so well,” Kostyuchenko said. “People come to talk and ask questions — sometimes harsh questions — but it’s extremely important for me to be here and share the information about my country, my people and the situation.”

Kostyuchenko also indicated that a lot must change before independent media can formally return to Russia.

“Right now, basically, journalism as a profession is criminalized in Russia,” Kostyuchenko said. “Journalists in Russia right now work mostly anonymously because of laws and repressions that follow the laws. These laws need to be changed. This repression has to be stopped, and that’s not possible without a change in regime, and that’s not possible without a big change of people’s minds and decisions.”


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