The Woman Speaking Truth To Power In Russia

Photo: Courtesy of Anna Nemtsova.
Nemtsova in Derbent, in the republic of Dagestan, in southern Russia. Nemtsova said she was there working on a piece about young Russian Muslims joining the Islamic State group in Syria.
Anna Nemtsova did not set out to be a reporter. But after teaching English and ballet, she felt that she was "supposed to be doing something more." So she decided to tell the stories of her homeland, Russia, filing her first story on the sinking of a Russian submarine and the death of its crew in 2000 for The Washington Post.

Since then, Nemtsova has covered some of the biggest stories in the region, including the conflict in Ukraine and Russia's annexation of Crimea, as well as the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17. But Nemtsova said much has changed since she began reporting, especially in the Russian government's treatment of journalists.

"It’s unfortunate. Ten years ago, we had much more freedom. We didn’t worry about our characters. Today, we do. That is the kind of censorship, self-censorship, that I personally suffer from," Nemtsova told Refinery29.

In 2014, Russia ranked 148th out of 180 countries in the world in terms of freedom of the press, according to Reporters Without Borders. But despite facing risks, Nemtsova has continued to cover Russia, as well as Ukraine and other parts of the region, for The Daily Beast and Newsweek, speaking truth to power in places where press freedom is often severely restricted.

Nemtsova spoke to Refinery29 from New York, where she had just received the 2015 Courage in Journalism Award from the International Women's Media Foundation.
Photo: Jemal Countess/Getty Images.
Anna Nemtsova accepted the 2015 Courage in Journalism Award in New York on October 21.
How did you begin your career in journalism?
"My husband was a reporter, freelance at that time, and my father was a reporter, so I always had a huge respect for journalism. I grew up in the newsroom of Pravda newspaper in the Soviet Union. And my father’s articles were censored, and he suffered from it. It was still a very tough time without much freedom of speech. But he was a passionate writer and a passionate reporter who managed to get the message through, who managed to tell the stories that mattered to him.

"In 1998, I met a wonderful writer, Daniel Williams, who wrote for The Washington Post...Daniel and I took a walk around St. Petersburg; I showed him the rooftops. We were sitting on the roof talking about stories, and I had a few ideas for him, which he liked, and he asked me to be his researcher, his 'fixer.' Fixer is a very honorable job. I think fixers [work] in tough places in the countries where an American reporter is often lost. To be honest with you, it’s one thing to read about Russia, [but] it’s a completely different thing to come and report there, especially now. So people need fixers, they need researchers. I wish I had one, somebody to help me now.

"At that time, I started looking for story ideas for The Washington Post, and on that rooftop, Daniel told me the course of journalism in 30 minutes...the main points on how to pitch the story. That was his first lesson. Later, I worked with Daniel at the Post for a few years, and I wrote my first story for The Washington Post about the submarine that sank in 2000 with 118 people on it."

What is the current status of freedom of the press in Russia?
"You can always be a journalist. When regional journalists ask me what to do — 'All of our newspapers are financed by the administration, and they are controlled by the administration' — I always tell them, 'Find a really good story... Have a character, a narrative, and a strong argument, and no editor will ever resist publishing your story.

"Of course, they exist within a frame. They cannot criticize the regional bureaucrats, they cannot criticize the Kremlin. There is no complete freedom for them. But even in state newspapers, there is space for good journalism. As for independent newspapers, there are few of them. There is a television channel called Rain, which is now only on the internet but you can still watch it, and they are great. There is a beautiful radio station called Echo of Moscow, and a few very respected, very heroic newspapers that have lost a few journalists to assassinations. But I am personally proud to live at the time of Novaya Gazeta. They lost probably over four or five reporters, but they are great."

The only way to find a good story, to tell a good story, is by going places. You cannot sit in New York and write about Russia.

Anna Nemtsova, Reporter
You write a blog called Putinology. Were you ever afraid or intimidated because you criticized President Vladimir Putin?
"I have been covering Vladimir Putin’s Russia for 15 years now; he’s been in power for that long. Nobody ever called me from the Kremlin or federal security agencies to put pressure on me. They have invited me to official events. I spoke with officials.

"The only pressure that I feel right now is the pressure on my characters. So I think twice before quoting anybody, or I ask twice, ‘Do you really feel comfortable if I mention your last name in my story?’ Because it did happen, a couple times, that people suffered after giving an interview to me. And that’s why I believe it’s our characters that have real courage to speak with us, to tell us about their life stories, about what’s going on in their region.

"It’s unfortunate. Ten years ago, we had much more freedom. We didn’t worry about our characters. Today, we do. That is the kind of censorship, self-censorship, that I personally suffer from. I wish I did not have to worry about the people I interview. But I do want to continue telling the story, and I will continue telling the story. It’s just a matter of finding a way to do it."

A lot of your recent reporting has been about the conflict in Ukraine. Tell us about the situation there, and what the world needs to know.
"Thanks to The Daily Beast, who covered all of my expenses for two years, I was able to cover both sides of the frontline. And I crossed it many times. I also covered it for Al Jazeera, The Washington Post, and Politico at the beginning of the conflict.

"Right now, things have calmed down a little bit. Not as many people killed, not as many houses blown up as in the beginning of this year. But devastation is the story. Especially now, when the winter is coming, many people live in ruined houses. They cannot leave because they don’t have money. The majority of people in Donbass region, which is millions and millions of people, live on less than $100 per month.

"I foresee a huge crisis in Ukraine. Ukraine is growing really, really poor, and it’s right in the middle of Europe. It is the biggest European country [after Russia]. And, of course, they count on the West very much, because the revolution was pro-Western. People think: Well, we chose to embrace Europe, we chose to sacrifice some peaceful stability to the struggle for values. How about helping us after all that? And they often feel abandoned. They often feel torn, because some of the region has embraced Russian help, and Russia is sending humanitarian help to Donbass. Those who chose Russia for their new home, they ran east. Those who chose Ukraine, they ran west.

"They all have relatives in both places. So families are torn, friends are split, many friendships just broke. People broke up over this conflict. And that continues. It is not just a conflict that is local in Ukraine. It is a conflict that is spread around the globe."
Photo: Courtesy of Anna Nemtsova.
Nemtsova reported from the trenches of the Ukrainian army on the frontline outside Mariupol, in eastern Ukraine.
What do you think the best chance of resolving the conflict is?
"It’s really time. Now with Syria, Ukraine will be forgotten... War doesn’t make any sense. No wars make sense. I hope the sooner people feel ready to speak with each other, the better. But in Ukraine, I think, it will be decades before the president of Ukraine will go to Moscow... People are so hurt, they are so much in pain from all of the destruction and devastation and the annexation of Crimea, they can’t even think when they will be able to negotiate peace."

Have you ever been persecuted or faced repression for the reporting you have done, and what has made you continue this work even in the face of struggle?
"No institutions ever persecuted me. I suffered a few times as a reporter from some nasty, armed people on the road, who caused us trouble. They stopped us, dragged us to some unknown place, took our phones from us, and that was a problem. But that’s what you choose to do when you go to a war zone where nobody is going to protect you. So this is my personal choice.

"When I started, there was a war in Chechnya... It was a terribly scary conflict. There were so many refugees, and hundreds and hundreds killed for years. I kept coming back to the North Caucasus. We still have unrest there, insurgencies. We have a fundamental Islam that is a sort of underground community. And many of them go to Syria today to fight. There are thousands, maybe over 3,000, [of] Russian citizens who are fighting in Syria today. And many of them die from Russian bombs. So it is another open wound, a fresh one, that is important to talk about. Probably this year, I will be thinking about that wound more."

What is your advice for young women who want to do this kind of work?
"I would not distinguish men and women. I think there is no difference, honestly. We are all the same. We — by which I mean, writers — just believe [in] and are devoted to telling a story. To delivering nuance and detail to their readers, to trying to bring the reader to the scene [with] the story, and open the reader's mind, hopefully.

"I must admit, I am impressed by how interested American readers are in international stories. Our stories are very well-read, and we receive feedback. We know people think of other places in the world. But we need to work harder to attract more people to thinking. The next generation could have an even broader view of things and cover global news by building bridges from country to country.

"I tell women and men, ‘Hit the road. Get on the road and travel.’ The only way to find a good story, to tell a good story, is by going places. You cannot sit in New York and write about Russia."
Video: Courtesy of International Women's Media Foundation.


Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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