Ekaterina Fomina lived her whole life in Moscow. And although the investigative journalist studied for a year abroad, leaving Russia was never her plan.
But when Moscow invaded Ukraine, the pressure on Fomina and her news outlet, iStories, ratcheted up.
IStories, which is registered outside Russia, was designated a foreign agent in 2021. But in March, she and her team learned that just a few days before the war, Russian authorities had also declared their media outlet an “undesirable organization.”
The media team’s reaction was unanimous. They needed to leave.
Fomina is one of hundreds to have fled increased repression on media as Russia tightly controls coverage of the war, including imposing hefty sentences for “false news” of the conflict.
Galina Arapova, a senior media lawyer and director at the nonprofit Mass Media Defence Centre, says at least 12 journalists are currently facing charges in Russia related to their war coverage.
Arapova, who also left Russia, believes Moscow’s aim with such legal actions “is not necessarily to jail everyone but certainly to intimidate.” And in many ways, the Russian authorities succeeded: entire editorial teams have left.
The European Fund for Journalism in Exile this year has assisted 21 media organizations and their teams — around 400 people in all — to settle in eight European countries.
Reporting on Russia from exile
But even from exile, journalists like Fomina continue to investigate.
Before joining iStories in 2020, Fomina worked for the renowned Russian news outlet Novaya Gazeta, traveling to the provinces and poorer cities.
“I have always considered my strong side [is] that I can talk with ordinary Russians,” she said.
When she first left Russia, Fomina was uneasy about her media outlet being labeled a “foreign agent” and “undesirable.” But that soon changed.
“Bucha became the turning point for me,” she told VOA. “I understood that the enemies of the people, the criminals, extremists and some unwanted elements of society are not us.”
The United Nations has called for an independent inquiry into the atrocities carried out in the Ukrainian town of Bucha in March. Researchers from Human Rights Watch who visited the city a few days after Russian soldiers retreated found evidence of torture and extrajudicial killings.
Now, Fomina said, “I don’t care how the Russian Federation labels me, because I know that the Russian government and authorities are the real terrorists and enemies of the people, not us.”
Mikhail Rubin, deputy editor-in-chief of the investigative media outlet Proekt (The Project) holds a similar view.
Rubin weathered years of threats over Proekt’s coverage of President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle before leaving in 2021.
His media outlet was declared undesirable, and Russia named Rubin a foreign agent.
The designation means Rubin must provide detailed financial reports and add a warning to all social media posts that says the content is produced by a foreign agent — requirements that Rubin finds humiliating.
But when Russia invaded Ukraine, he stopped complying.
“[The war] put things in perspective. It became clear that there was no way back. The evil became clear,” Rubin said. “At some point, I understood that nothing would change in my life. I do not care what criminal cases will be open against me in Russia.”
Still, Rubin concedes the authorities succeeded at some level, saying, “They wanted to force [me] out, and they did.”
Danger before the war began
Pressure on Rubin’s team, however, had been ramping up before the war.
Proekt made a name for itself with high-profile investigations of corruption, and high-ranking officials had warned Rubin that what he was doing was dangerous.
Then, Proekt looked into Putin’s illegitimate daughter.
“This was an interference in [Putin’s] private life, which is prohibited,” Rubin told VOA.
As Proekt continued to investigate high-level officials, it became clear that the journalists would no longer be able to work in Russia.
Police raided Rubin’s apartment in June 2021 and placed his passport in front of the journalist.
“This was the last thing they did. I think they gave me a hint,” Rubin said.
On July 15, 2021, authorities designated Proekt an undesirable organization.
“The next morning, I was already in the airplane,” Rubin said.
The team moved to Georgia.
Rubin is quick to praise the country that hosted him for a year, but he says even there, life was hard.
“For those who do not like Russians, you are Russian. For those who like Russians, you are a member of the opposition. But I am not an oppositional figure. I am a journalist. In the end, everyone is not happy with you,” Rubin said.
In late August, Rubin left for the United States after being accepted as a fellow at The George Washington University in Washington. He continues investigating stories from Russia, but says it is a challenge to stay connected with sources.
Russian organizations and individuals seen to cooperate with undesirable organizations may be subject to administrative and criminal charges. And what counts as cooperation is not clear.
The devil is in the details, Arapova said.
Arapova, who has twice been labeled a foreign agent, says the laws are purposely vague.
“The laws are being changed to be applicable to anyone whenever needed. In our country, laws are interpreted ambiguously. The scope of laws is wide, and the terms are obscure. This deprives us, lawyers, of the opportunity to help our clients,” Arapova told VOA.
Russians reaching out
Even with those difficulties, Rubin — who was once a Kremlin pool reporter — says at least outside of Russia, journalists can work.
Proekt has covered chaos in the military, the Kremlin’s control of most public opinion polls inside Russia and details of the medical teams who accompany Putin — all from exile.
Fomina has also not let exile stop her.
“The least we can do now for Ukraine, considering that the country of my citizenship began the war, is to investigate all crimes that our fellow citizens committed,” she said.
The results of that reporting, including assignments inside Ukraine to investigate atrocities, have been surprising. A Russian soldier confessed to a war crime in a phone interview with Fomina.
After she reported on events in the Ukraine village of Andriivka, other soldiers contacted iStories saying they wanted to speak out.
“No one ‘heard’ them in the country,” Fomina said.
People can be persecuted for speaking with media labeled undesirable, but Russians are reaching out to the team.
Fomina plans to keep reporting on Ukraine, telling VOA, “I did not doubt that I needed to go and look for all those who committed evil deeds, those who killed, raped [and] bit-by-bit put together the puzzle.”
This story originated in VOA’s Russian Service.