Why independent Russian journalism and the BBC World Service matter more now than ever before
The Head of the BBC News Russian Jenny Norton on her ‘nerve shredding’ weeks as Kremlin clamped down over the Ukraine war.
By Jenny Norton.
After an office clear-out at the end of last summer, two framed letters to the BBC were left on my desk in the Russian service. One was from Boris Yeltsin and the other from Mikhail Gorbachev.
Yeltsin had written in 1992 to congratulate the BBC World Service on its 60th anniversary, and Gorbachev nearly two decades later to defend the Russian service from funding cuts.
Both conveyed the same message. The BBC had been a vital source of information during the dark days of the Cold War, and it continued to be an important voice for the generation now trying to build a democratic Russia.
“Russia has chosen a new life for herself,” Yeltsin wrote. “She has chosen openness, instead of the Iron Curtain… She has chosen democracy which has defeated totalitarianism.”
Thirty years later, and at that time seven months into the invasion of Ukraine, it was an achingly poignant message to read. But as our teams adjusted to the grim new realities of Putin’s war, it was also an important reminder of the power of the BBC World Service, and of why Russian-speaking audiences need us now more than ever.
By the beginning of 2022, the BBC had nearly 60 Russian journalists working in our bureau in Moscow. Young, talented, full of ideas and full of life, they had helped transform BBC Russian from a 20th-century shortwave radio broadcaster, to a 21st-century multi-media operation.
We were reaching around 4 million people per week, we had a million followers on Twitter, over a million subscribers on YouTube, and our podcasts were beginning to attract growing audiences on both Russian and international download platforms.
Our journalists travelled across Russia reporting on real life in a country that was becoming ever more repressive and corrupt. Our stories catalogued small-town murders and big-city corruption, the dark net, drugs, rappers and censorship. All against a relentless drumbeat of arrests, beatings and prison sentences for anyone who dared to speak out. In our team’s shared drive we had a “Citations” folder, where we posted stories from Russian media outlets who had quoted BBC Russian. There were new entries every day.
And then Russia invaded Ukraine, and everything changed.
Overnight, Moscow was plunged into fear and panic. There were rumours of arrests and mass mobilisation. Thousands of people fled the country, among them many of Russia’s brightest and best.
Our audience numbers shot up to 17 million in the first week of the war. Such was the demand for news. But in early March the authorities announced a draconian new law in carrying strict penalties for anyone spreading “fake” news about the “special military operation” in Ukraine. It even outlawed the use of the word “war”.
It was clear that it was no longer safe for BBC staff, who were Russian nationals, to continue doing their jobs inside Russia.
So BBC Russian closed for business in Moscow, and we decamped to Latvia.
It was a big undertaking. Nerve-shredding weeks of passport and visa applications, late-night phone calls, tearful partings, and myriad plane, train and bus journeys as our team, their families, and their cats and dogs, left Russia and finally reassembled in Riga.
For everyone at BBC Russian, life has changed profoundly.
People have had to reinvent their lives and the way they do their journalism, and to come to terms with painful new realities.
It’s hard to lose your home, and not to know when it will be safe to return. It’s hard to be separated from friends and family who had to stay behind.
But as many of our Russian staff acknowledge, it feels absolutely wrong to complain about your problems when it’s your country inflicting pain and suffering on Ukrainians. And when it’s your own colleagues in Ukraine whose lives are being so brutally ripped apart.
“It’s not a good time to be Russian,” as one of my colleagues observed.
But it’s a hugely important time to be an independent Russian journalist.
On a day-to-day basis Russians are now subject to an extraordinary barrage of hate speech and lies in their state-controlled media.
It’s our job to try to counter it, a job made much harder by censorship and exile.
The Russian regulator has blocked our website and almost all our social media accounts, including Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Audiences in Russia now need to use VPNs (virtual private networks) in order to access any BBC content.
But what we’ve lost in readers directly accessing our website, we have gained on other platforms, and we now have a weekly audience of around 5 million.
The messenger app Telegram has become a lifeline. Everyone, from Kremlin propagandists and mercenary groups, to ordinary people’s mums and dads, now have accounts. It’s a valuable source of information, as well as a place to post news.
YouTube is still working in Russia. We now reach more than 2 million on this platform, and our BBC documentaries stream – where David Attenborough and the Royal Family remain hugely popular – had 42 million views in 2022.
It’s a huge loss, of course, that we can no longer travel around Russia and speak to people face to face. Instead, conversations have moved online. It’s a different kind of journalism, and it’s harder to do – especially when many Russians are now too afraid to speak. But there will always be those brave, desperate or defiant enough to share their stories.
This year we’ve heard from soldiers at the frontline and young men fleeing mobilisation, from bereaved families waiting for news, and activists trying to protest against the war, from business people, officials, and experts. Some speak on the record, others prefer to remain anonymous.
In Soviet times it was round the kitchen table that people felt free to say what they really thought. In 2023 WhatsApp group chats serve a similar purpose, offering a glimpse into another Russia where people speak their minds and share information.
Recently a BBC Russian reporter was contacted by a man in prison in a remote part of Russia. He said he had read one of our stories posted on a WhatsApp group he and fellow inmates belonged to.
Social media has also been a vital tool in the most important project we’ve been running – trying to keep count of Russia’s war dead.
Official casualty figures are rarely made public, and deaths, when they are announced, are done so by local rather central authorities.
Finding out how many Russian soldiers are dying in Ukraine is a painstaking process of gathering and cross-checking information gleaned from the local media, from social media posts, and from the names on the thousands of new gravestones appearing in cemeteries across Russia – photographed and sent to us by ordinary people.
Accuracy is essential when dealing with sources like these. Everything must be verified and rigorously checked.
By February 2023, our count reached 12,500 named and confirmed deaths. Because it’s based on reported or acknowledged cases, this number – which continues to be updated – is probably only a fraction of the actual death toll, but it’s an indication none the less of the scale of Russia’s losses.
A crucial part of our work over the past year has been our collaboration with BBC colleagues in Ukraine. Very few Russian media outlets have reporters inside Ukraine. The fact that we do, and that BBC Ukrainian staff are still willing to work with us, to share their stories, and some to explain in Russian, to Russian audiences what it feels like to be on the other side, is hugely important.
Over the years the BBC World Service has always been a place where colleagues from opposite sides of a conflict have continued to work together. It’s not easy, but a shared commitment to impartial journalism and to telling the truth, offers a way to overcome inevitable feelings of anger and hurt.
After a year of war, the sadness at what’s happening in Ukraine, and in Russia, is sometimes hard to bear. But it’s our work, and our continued cooperation with our Ukrainian colleagues that gives us all meaning and the strength to carry on.
A version of this blog was published in the i Newspaper on 18 February.