A Russian journalist left behind

The invasion of Ukraine is a crime committed by a kleptocratic despot who has declared it illegal to call a war a war. On Wednesday, Russian forces in Ukraine continued their “special military operation” with an airstrike on a maternity hospital in the city of Mariupol. Few people in Russia will hear of the event. Vladimir Putin’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was dismissive in the usual way: “This is not the first time that we have seen pathetic cries about the so-called atrocities perpetrated by the Russian military.”

Putin’s ability to wage this hideous war at home depends on his ability to sell his fables about Moscow’s valiant “denazification” of Ukraine. To create the complete information vacuum he needs, he imprisoned his most vocal political rival, Alexey Navalny; intimidated other opponents of exile or silence; declared street protests or dissident social media posts crimes punishable by lengthy prison terms; and shut down the last of Moscow’s independent media. Many journalists from these outlets – Echo of Moscow, TV Rain and others – have rightly left the Russian capital for the safety of Yerevan, Baku, Tbilisi and points to the west.

Yevgenia Albats is the one who dared to stay. For years I listened to his Monday night radio show on Echo of Moscow, and I read The new times, the independent liberal magazine it publishes. His radio show is called “Polniy Albats”, which his daughter skillfully translates as “Absolute Albats”. The title mimics an obscenity that describes a constant state of affairs: polny pizdets, or “all screwed up”. Two days after Echo of Moscow was accused of sharing “deliberately false information about the actions of Russian military personnel in Ukraine”, its board of directors shut down the station.

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When I joined Albats in her apartment in Moscow, she told me that the closure of her two long-standing outlets, as well as Google’s suspension of monetization of YouTube videos by Russian content creators, had deprived of any income. But she wasn’t complaining. “I have fought this diet all my life,” she said. “But I failed. We failed. Ukrainians die every day and Putin remains, after twenty-two years. So what income do I deserve? »

When news arrived on Thursday that talks in Turkey between Lavrov and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba had failed, Albats told me: “The negotiations were doomed. They are all pretending. The totality goal to have them was for them to fail and Putin might say, “You see? You cannot negotiate with the Nazis. ”

More than any Russian journalist I have ever met, Albats studied the KGB (now the FSB) tirelessly, interviewing dozens of former agents and officers for his articles and his book, “The State in a state: the KGB and its influence”. about Russia – past, present and future. Albats was a visionary, arguing since the early 1990s that despite all the predictions of economic and political transformation in Russia, secret service officers were not emerging as shameful losers of the old regime but as wise survivors who would become the overlords. of a new Russia. That Putin, a KGB lieutenant-colonel in his day, filled the ranks of the regime with his former cronies, many of whom hail from his hometown of St. Petersburg, is now commonplace. Albats saw it happen from the start.

Despite Putin’s intensified repression, Albats persists. She did her usual Monday show, with an interview with Gleb Pavlovsky, a former adviser to the Russian leader. It was released live on YouTube. Albats knew that this represented a lot less listeners. And yet, she was always at work, funny, talkative, always so intense. When I asked her if she was afraid to stay in Moscow, she showed no bravado.

“I’m scared of going to jail,” she said, with a characteristic smirk. “I had knee replacement surgery three weeks ago, and I’m afraid a Russian prison cell isn’t the best place to recover. But I have to go all the way. I did my show today, so we’ll see if I get arrested or not. So if you ask if I’m okay, I’m do not so good. If it weren’t for my knee, I would bring it from Ukraine, of course.

Russians who have a working knowledge of VPNs and an urge to seek the truth online can always learn what’s going on in Ukraine. Albats said she had just read an article about the vicious assault on Mykolaiv, a city in southern Ukraine known in Russia as Nikolaev.

“When I saw these images of Nikolaev, my mind went to Mark Albats, my father, who on September 5, 1941 was parachuted into Nazi-occupied Ukraine. So when I see the images , it hurts. I know this place! she said. “I went there because my father was there as a Soviet spy under Nazi occupation trying to help save Ukraine. His safe house was in Nikolaev. Now the Ukrainians are receiving anti-tank missiles from Germany. And who is attacking Nikolaev? Russia! It is beyond madness.

Albats has been studying Putin for a long time. And while she notes that much of her decision-making and motivations remain hidden, the subject of the rumor mill, her geopolitical ambitions have come to light. And, in order to demonstrate his singular power, he made a point of going on television to humiliate any collaborator who had the temerity to issue even a note of doubt or objection.

“The idea that he could go down in history as a tsar who recreated the pan-Slavic state is what drives him,” she said. “I watched his Security Council meeting on TV, and Putin pissed off some of his relatives, like Sergei Naryshkin, the head of foreign intelligence. Naryshkin was from the KGB, he was at the embassy in Brussels – and Putin completely ridiculed him. He demonstrated at the base that he was capable of doing what he wanted.

“The talk of the town,” she added, is that there was also a closed-door meeting in the Kremlin where German Gref, the CEO of Sberbank, and Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin reportedly spoken out against the war. “But that’s just gossip,” she said, explaining that the possibility of getting real information was higher in the days of Gorbachev and Yeltsin than it is today. . “There were factions within the Communist Party Central Committee and other interest groups afterwards. Not anymore. We just don’t know.

Albats believes Putin set the preconditions for invading Ukraine for years, tightening the noose on dissent and then, in 2020, changing the constitution so he could remain president for many years to come. “And to become a god-powered, unchallenged tsar, he had to create external enemies,” Albats said. “The old slogan: ‘The fatherland is in danger!’ It makes everything possible. When there is an enemy and a war going on, you can cut off the hands of everyone you don’t like.