Viacheslav Dvornikov is a journalist, correspondent for “The Bell”. / Jose Vargas – The Spectator
Photo: JOSE VARGAS ESGUERRA; The… – JOSE VARGAS ESGUERRA
Viacheslav Dvornikov is Russian and is a journalist. He currently works as a correspondent for The Bell, an independent Russian outlet specializing in economics.
He moved to Ukraine in 2014, when it became clear that the country was “starting to move in a pro-European direction and towards democracy”. Russia, meanwhile, annexed Crimea, a maneuver to which the United Nations General Assembly reacted by defending Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
There, Slava (her short name) started a project related to her other great interest, apart from journalism: education. “It was inspiring to do my political activities there instead of in Russia,” he says.
In 2017, he returned to Russia to work as an editor for InLiberty. In 2021, the year he entered The Bell, Russia issued the law on foreign agents, a label that was placed on the medium in which today, from exile, he works as a correspondent.
He was in Colombia thanks to emergency support offered by the Swedish NGO Civil Rights Defenders, with a presence in more than 20 countries, on four continents, where there are human rights violations, anti-democratic governments, the closure of civic spaces and the persecution of protest demonstrations. civil society.
Slava fled Russia in March this year, just after the invasion of Ukraine. He was among the citizens who took to the streets to protest against the offensive. The exposure put him at risk, while access to sources is increasingly difficult because of the fear that he, he says, people have to express themselves. In this interview he tells us more about freedoms and access to information in Russia.
Why did you leave Russia?
The independent media have been in a new level of danger since the beginning of the invasion because in March a new law came into force, supposedly against fake news, which says that you can only quote the official position of the Russian government in relation to the war. In fact, you can’t say “war”, but “special operation”. The minimum sentence under this law is 15 years in prison, which is a lot. Many journalists and activists have left, others have stayed, but are in danger and usually do not sign their articles.
And he lived in Ukraine for a while…
In 2014 I went to Ukraine, in January, while the Maidan revolution was taking place. We started an educational project on classic liberal ideas. We wanted to cover Ukraine, Russia and Belarus with this project, but kyiv seemed like the least dangerous place to be compared to Moscow. With the project we published books, we held conferences. I lived there for four years and came back to Russia to work on educational projects and then went back to the media.
Between 2018, when you had already returned to Russia, and today, how have the conditions for the enjoyment of individual freedoms in the country been transformed?
In 2021, the law on foreign agents was issued, which implies putting a label on the media, journalists and NGOs, not only with the negative connotation it had in the Soviet Union, since it was the label for Western collaborators, but it means for media that larger advertisers won’t want to advertise. It is an instrument of pressure for the media, and there is a second label that is worse, because it can imply being put in prison directly.
After February 24 (the day of the invasion) we took to the streets to protest for three days. We felt that we could influence or at least we should try to do something, but the street protests in Russia are a dangerous thing, because there are not only freedom of expression problems for journalists, but for the whole world. The trend was bad, 10 years ago you went out to protest and you could spend 15 days in prison or they would give you a fine; It wasn’t a big deal, but at the moment it seemed like it. People are afraid to go out on the streets in Russia, that’s why we don’t see big protests, now there aren’t.
Why did you come to Colombia?
I was also in Georgia. Many activists and journalists have gone there because it is close (to Russia), but the situation is getting worse. There was a war between Georgia and Russia in 2008. Society in general is not pro-Russian, but for the current government, Russia is a great commercial ally, so they want to balance economic interest and social pressure that does not want there to be a significant connection with Russia. The government doesn’t let some journalists and activists go because they don’t want the Russian government to come and ask them to send them back.
What do you say to people who believe that Russia has reasons to justify the invasion of Ukraine?
I would start by showing the global indices of perception of democracies: the countries most favorable to Russia are China, India and countries with non-democratic regimes. I could also say that being a Russian and living in Ukraine I have never seen nationalist vibes, because the first thing in the Russian narrative is that Ukraine is a nationalist state. Only one nationalist power came to have representation in parliament; nationalists have no influence on Ukrainian politics. The second is “demilitarization.” In Ukraine, a conflict started in 2014 in Donbas. Before Russia got involved there was no military conflict. On the other hand, Sergei Lavrov (Russian Foreign Minister), in interviews he has given, does not know how to explain what “demilitarization” means. Russian propaganda since before the war, also with that of “denazification”, has tried to build a narrative that is not well known what it means.
We have seen polls in Russia showing public support for the invasion. How reliable would you say those measurements are?
Today in Russia you have to say your position on it. Before we could not express opinions on sensitive issues, now you need to express that you support it or you would have problems. People who do not support (the government) would prefer not to express it because they could be persecuted, and the pollsters are generally seen as representatives of the State, who will know my number and could give that information to the State, I could be persecuted, lose my job, etc. I wouldn’t take those results seriously. In Russia we have three polling firms: two are from the state, they are not really independent; the third is a “foreign agent”. There have been activists trying to do polls and they come to the conclusion that many people don’t want to talk; I think that indirectly shows that people are afraid to express themselves.
What are the conditions for access to information in Russia?
Independent media, like Meduza, have been blocked. My friends, family, and people I know in big cities know how to use a VPN, so they have access to information and understand what’s going on, but I’m not that optimistic about people in Russia in general. Many people outside of Moscow usually watch television, which is full of propaganda, since the beginning of the war they increased the time of political programs full of propaganda. That came from a long time ago, but now it is more direct.
You say that Russia does not know how to explain the reasons for the invasion…
Yes, they need to build a narrative around this, they have difficulty explaining it. The problem is that a third of Russians have families in Ukraine. I know many stories of people who told their relatives on the phone that they were being bombed, but the propaganda says that it is Ukraine bombing Ukraine itself, and people do not believe their relatives, that they are living it on their own soil, believe the propaganda. I think in the future it will be an interesting case study.
But I asked because it is also said that not even Parliament itself knows what Putin’s plans are. Do you know where this is going?
I don’t think so, there are investigations with insider sources saying that Putin’s inner circle has gotten smaller and smaller. He has few people that he talks to, they are mainly from the military, people from the Ministry of Defense, people who can report to him on the battlefield. But no one knows what his plan is; he thinks about the war and not about the consequences of the war for the people and for the economy. It is unpredictable to say what is in a man’s head. It is a system that was built many years ago, because all the people who disagreed with it were removed.
How is Putin different today than he was 10 years ago, when he was re-elected?
12 years ago he was prime minister, but everyone thought that Putin was the one who made the decisions. In 2011 there was hope that Medvedev would stay in power, as he was seen as more democratic at the time, but then he said that he was not going to be president and that Putin was going to be a candidate. Everyone understood that Russia would become a less democratic state. Since then, Putin, according to what people say, believes that he is a historical figure for Russia, that there was a time when we lost territory and it is time for us to recover it. He wants to go down in history as the person who is taking back that territory. The economic growth of the 2000s allowed him to rebuild the Army. When he annexed Crimea, the West imposed sanctions, but they weren’t as big as they could have been. Putin understood that he could do more to annex territories. As he ages he thinks how he will be remembered; all this with a 19th century mentality: the more territory, the better for the country.
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