Where West No Longer Meets East: The Dilemmas of Russian Journalism in Exile
November 30, 2023
  • Matthew Blackburn

    Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, Oslo

Researcher Matthew Blackburn writes about the bravery and professional commitment of exiled Russian journalists, but also points out the ethical questions about “journalism in exile,” as well as the hypocrisy of the West’s treatment of anti-war Russians.
This November I escaped the murky wetness of Oslo to visit crisp and snowy Kirkenes. Located close to the Russian border, deep transborder contacts have been cultivated in the town since the fall of the Iron Curtain and Russia’s opening to the West. However, the event I was attending, “EXILE: Strategies and Methods of Knowledge Production on Russia in Times of War, Repression and Propaganda,” reflected new transborder realities. Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Norwegian government has frozen all official transborder initiatives. Nonetheless, Kirkenes has accepted many Russians who have fled their homeland since February 2022.
The Soviet Liberators Monument in Kirkenes, erected by Norwegians in honor of the Red Army soldiers who liberated Kirkenes in 1944 after four years of German occupation. Source: Wiki Commons
The Soviet Liberators Monument controversy

The organizers – the Barents Institute – made their position clear on the role exiled Russians should play. With a Ukraine flag projected on the background, department head Bjarge Schwenke Fors called for action to fight the information war: “as Europeans we have a responsibility to oppose a war based on lies and disinformation… Russian exile independent journalism is the best vaccine against the virus of Russian propaganda.”

The Barents Observer newspaper is at forefront of this struggle and has welcomed several exiled Russian journalists into its ranks. Its chief editor Atle Staalesen argues that its reporting represents “a threat to the repressive Russian regime” because it shines a light on lies and corruption. The crusading spirit to struggle against Russian propaganda has spread organically.

Triggered by pro-Kremlin comments on social media written by Russians living in Kirkenes, the mayor Magnus Mæland entered the fray to counteract “disinformation trolls.” Just before my visit, on the October 25 commemoration of the Red Army’s liberation of the region in 1944, he demonstratively placed a wreath of flowers wrapped in a Ukrainian flag on the town’s Soviet Liberators Monument, erected by Norwegians in 1944 as a sign of gratitude to the Soviet soldiers who ended the German occupation. The situation escalated when the Russian consulate, which had been disinvited to the commemorative events by the local authorities, broke protocol and placed an even larger bouquet with an even larger Russian flag. This, in turn, led to a diplomatic incident between Norway and Russia back in Oslo.
Thus, even a border region with relatively harmonious relations with Russia has been engulfed in an antagonistic information war
and its notions of good and evil, light and darkness, and true faith and heresy.

Geopolitical factors and Russian journalists’ ethical dilemmas

But at the end of my day in Kirkenes, as the exiled Russian journalists related their experiences of working from Europe, the picture began to look more complicated than this controversy over historical memory. Not only do these journalists take on many risks and often experience a fall in living standards by moving abroad, but they are not welcomed by many EU member states, with some even trying to push them out. This is a curious reversal in policy compared to the last Cold War, when most Soviet defectors were accepted by the West, their defection seen as evidence that the Western “free world” was more attractive than the communist bloc.

Another issue is that the calls for exiled Russian journalists to side with Ukrainian and Western narratives clearly clash with their objective of maintaining ties with their target audience: Russian society. Unfortunately, this is only one of the dilemmas exiled journalists are facing.

Russian journalists’ ethical dilemmas

The first dilemma facing journalists is to flee their homeland, which almost all did out of fear that they might be arrested. In fact, very few journalists have been imprisoned in Russia, and the ethical choice was: should they stay in Russia, resist, break new censorship laws and become prisoners of conscience? Should they compromise, play by the new rules and continue doing their reporting while avoiding anti-war activism? Or should they flee the country and continue their struggle by reporting from abroad?

Had I found myself in this situation, I would likely have also chosen the third option – just like those Russian journalists I met in Kirkenes. Who would want to spend years wasting away in a Russian prison? On the other hand, I also thought about the optimal outcome from the Kremlin’s point of view. They were clearly glad to see them go, seeing them as “foreign agents” advocating and fomenting “regime change” in Russia. In this sense, the Kremlin tends to tar all exiled journalists with the same brush without differentiating between those maintaining professional standards and trying to remain neutral and those engaging in anti-regime activism.

When these journalists chose exile after voicing their anti-war (and sometimes pro-Ukraine) positions, the Kremlin could easily claim that they were unpatriotic Russians, a case of “good riddance to bad rubbish.” It was painful to hear several exiled journalists relate that such sentiment has spread across Russian society, effectively smearing their reputations.

On the other hand, it struck me that some exiled journalists had made this dynamic worse by openly calling for Russia’s defeat in the war and claiming that democratic revolution was the only route forward for the country’s redemption. Such stances are not only a gift to Kremlin propagandists; they also risk to further discredit the liberal values professed by exiled journalists among their potential Russian audience.

A second ethical issue is that the work of exiled journalists, much of which is anti-war, has been declared illegal in Russia. While they are in Europe and safe from arrest, colleagues who remain in Russia must work incognito. Even people who give interviews put their safety at risk, since interacting with organizations declared “undesirable” by the Russian state threatens an administrative fine.

This adds more strain to exiled journalists’ work, as they have to live with the knowledge that at any time their colleagues or sources may be picked up by the security organs.
They must balance their journalistic hunger to report a story with the ethical need to protect people from harm.
While these ethical issues played out in my head, they by no means reduced my admiration for the bravery and commitment of these exiled journalists. They repeatedly thanked their hosts for taking them in, though I thought it was them who deserved gratitude. They gave up all they had in their homeland to do free and independent journalism. I have rarely come across people in Western corporate media with this such commitment. Indeed, their professional devotion has been recognized at the Kirkenes event and in Norway. Yet this is not the case across the rest of the EU.

Exiled journalists, like exiled academics, have not been offered an EU-wide solution to their main source of anxiety – gaining residency with the right to work. This is still lacking, despite their clear adherence to European values and their opposition to Putin’s regime.
Whereas Europeans can publicly make anti-Putin statements in safety, exiled Russian journalists live in constant fear that the Russian authorities might target them and issue an arrest warrant.”
The road to the Petsamo/Pechengsky region in Russia behind a gate, close to the Finnish village of Nellim. In November, Finland temporarily closed all of its checkpoints on the border with Russia after provocations by the Russian side. Source: Wiki Commons
Another risk is that Russian embassies might refuse to renew the passports of exiles, which would make it difficult to cross borders even within the Schengen Area. The prospect of being stateless and unemployable haunts exiled Russians, especially those who brought their families with them.

What struck me most of all was that, despite all the talk of being united in the struggle against Kremlin propaganda, there are no clear efforts on the EU level to reward and recognize Russians who seem to share European ideals more strongly than many EU passport holders. Furthermore, unlike Europe’s commentariat, they have put their money where their mouth is and find themselves in the crosshairs of the Russian state.

Instead of offering support to exiled Russians, many EU member states appear to be erecting a new Iron Curtain to cut all ties with Russia. There is a bitter irony in this “deviation” from the original Cold War, when the USSR sealed its borders and the West was welcoming Soviet defectors.

Creating obstacles to Russians wishing to flee a wartime dictatorship is surreal, and it vexed me that this question was not raised at the Kirkenes event. Perhaps one reason it was not discussed is Norway’s more liberal policies to those requesting refugee status when arriving at the border. 

Nonetheless, in private conversations about EU policy at large, several of the exiled Russians told me they also found this disappointing and strange, while – informally – they felt pressure not to complain. Ukrainians, after all, are being killed and bombed out of their homes and are rightly seen as unambiguous victims in need of assistance. Compared to them, the situation of Russian exiles lacks ethical clarity. 

Still, I hope that rather than encouraging a guilt complex, Europeans would appreciate the work of these exiles and pay them the respect they deserve, given their choice to resist the Russian regime. Even if EU politicians and bureaucrats fail to listen or respond, let us on a personal basis not only deliver assistance, but also show the attention their work merits. These exiles have much to tell us, not only about Russia, but also the West and the deeper values we may share.
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