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.