As Russian missiles, bombs and snipers devastate Ukraine, back in Russia, the government has cracked down on independent news. It is now a crime — punishable by up to 15 years in prison — to publish “fake” information about the all-out attack on Ukraine.
The government has blocked Facebook, Twitter and news websites aimed at Russians, such as Latvia-based Meduza.
It is a crime for the average citizen to publicly post information that contradicts the government line.
To help us understand what Russians can read and watch, we texted with Alexey, a 30-something millennial in Saint Petersburg. Alexey painted a picture where much can be learned, but little can be shared. As he argues with older family members, he is the lone voice with accurate information.
Perhaps most surprising? Sometimes, he gets through.
We lightly edited our exchange with Alexey and added context from studies and researchers. (We found Alexey through our international networks. To protect him from legal repercussions in Russia, we agreed not to use his last name.)
This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
Alexey: So, my name is Alexey, I live in Saint Petersburg in Russia Regarding ground rules, I have to say that there are some new Russian laws, that basically introduce Newspeak, so I can’t publicly describe current events in Ukraine other than “special military operation” and stand against Russian actions there.
But I’ll try to do my best to answer your questions as thoroughly as I can.
Jon Greenberg: Thanks, Alexey. For people your age, what alternatives do you have to state media? What news have you recently gotten from those?
Alexey: Yeah, I can talk about 20-30-years-old people, which use Internet-based information sources rather than TV-based media.
There were some independent media before these new laws, but almost all of them were either closed or suspended by their owners or blocked by state service
There was independent TV channel — TV Rain. They suspended their own activity because of being unable to do their job properly.
There was radio station — Echo Moskvy (Echo of Moscow). It was closed right after state prosecutor’s office had opened a case.
There is Novaya Gazeta — independent paper whose editorial office received Nobel prize recently — but their coverage of events has been changed to abide by the law.
There are dozen or so of smaller blocked media also and you can’t access them in Russia without using a virtual private network.
That’s basically it.
Main source of information today in Russia is Telegram.
Many journalists have created their own channels there and post every day all information they can get and validate online.
Jon Greenberg: Do you feel any risk in accessing those sources?
Alexey: As for 14th of March here in Russia — there is no danger in reading these sources. We as citizens are restricted to publicly share (like, repost even to any private or public chat room) these news, which are different from official Russian Ministry of Defense information. But it’s still not forbidden to get this information. For now.
Jon Greenberg: So you can read, but you can’t share what you read, at least, not online. Would you share something with a single friend on Telegram, or would you not even do that?
Alexey: I share some news in Telegram with people who I trust. No fear of that. Also, we can share or express our own opinions about the situation in person.
Jon Greenberg: [As we were texting, the tweets about a Russian television protester popped up, and my next question included this screenshot.] Did you see or hear of this?
Alexey: Yes, two minutes ago. That woman prerecorded a video where she calls not to believe propaganda and not to fear a prison.
Jon Greenberg: I saw that Alexey Venediktov (former Echo of Moscow chief editor) had that woman in his Telegram feed about half an hour before you saw it. But basically, you’re getting that kind of news through the Telegram channels of those journalists, correct?
Alexey: Yes. I was busy writing to you and I would’ve seen it sooner in other case. =)
Jon Greenberg: Sorry that I messed you up.
Alexey: Also I want to mention an independent team of military experts that provide some reports on daily basis. They try to provide information on fights and validate all photo and video materials that Russian or Ukrainian soldiers or civilians film. https://t.me/CITeam
Jon Greenberg: How did you find out about them? And why do you trust them?
Alexey: They were invited to the channels I mentioned.
I’m not a military expert in any way, but I can read their posts, watch videos with their reports, and their information makes sense.
I’ve tried to watch Russian official briefings myself for first three to four days of conflict but provided information was mainly propaganda and it was really hard not to “facepalm.”
Jon Greenberg: Facepalm? (My emoji game is weak. He meant this: 🤦♂️)
Alexey: Sorry, that phrase is not that common in America as it is in Russia probably? I meant that Russian official briefings were full of nonsense.
MORE FROM POYNTER: Alexey is a thoughtful person and we wanted readers to be able to see his wide-ranging observations about Russians and the media landscape in which they live. We also heard from a number of experts, including Russian journalists who recently fled the country. For that perspective, read our report on PolitiFact.com.
Jon Greenberg: So, let’s do a little A/B comparison. What have you heard on state TV about bioweapon labs in Ukraine compared to what you read on your Telegram channels?
Alexey: I must say that I barely watch state TV, only some excerpts on topics I’m interested in. So regarding this question:
TV: USA and Ukraine were developing some biological weapons with COVID-like viruses or so, which were somehow being programmed to target only Slavic (or Russian, don’t remember) people.
Telegram: Many of journalists and bloggers shared their views on this that all of this is nonsense. Starting from the fact that USA had been warning about what would happen (with false claims about labs) even last year and ending with logical and biological assumption that these weapons can’t be created in that way only to target some specific nations.
Sorry if my answers are too big or vague, but this biological weapons topic is that nonsense I was talking before.
Jon Greenberg: Is it safe to assume that you and your friends 30 and under and living in cities are well plugged into some news you can trust?
Alexey: At least I hope so!
Jon Greenberg: Maybe I shouldn’t be so certain. So, do you see a fair number of young people who are in the dark about this stuff? Or who just don’t care about things that happen far away? Or who are fans of the government?
Alexey: You see, political ground is basically scorched here. So people are not really interested in politics, they are just living their lives totally ignoring what their government does and how it’s elected.
There are fans of the government among 20s and 30s, of course. I can’t say how many though.
Jon Greenberg: Is there a way that what you’re reading and seeing on Telegram gets out to a wider, older audience? Have you had a conversation with someone who isn’t on Telegram about what you’re reading, and if so, what was the reaction?
Alexey: All young people I know had fights and quarreling with their older relatives which watch TV, myself included.
You know, young people were making fun of all this propaganda for almost eight years, because Ukraine literally was the main topic of all prime-time programs on three major federal TV channels. There almost weren’t any pauses in discussing how bad or weak Ukrainian government is, how USA is trying to make Ukraine their military base and invade Russia from there.
And it worked because they have been broadcasting this for eight years.
And what is the worst in this situation is the fact that almost every Russian (or Belarussian) has a brother or sister or uncle or any other relative in Ukraine.
And despite this, they still believe the propaganda and accuse and don’t believe their own relatives in Ukraine.
Jon Greenberg: So who in your family have you had these arguments with, and did you have any allies, or was it just you making the point that what the government is saying isn’t true?
Alexey: I had an argument with my elder sister on some facts of civilian casualties. She denied the evidences that there were dead innocent people there.
She doesn’t deny now.
And I was alone to prove that.
Some of my friends were also able to plant seeds of doubt in propaganda, so this is not pointless.
Jon Greenberg: Intriguing. So, in some small way, you got through to her. What convinced her?
Alexey: I shared some videos and pictures.
[Here are a couple of examples of what he showed her.]
Jon Greenberg: So, what does your sister think now about this operation? What did she say to you?
Alexey: That no side here tells the truth and she doesn’t know who to believe. She is still uncertain about the causes.
You see, it was described as a defensive operation to protect the people of Donetsk and Lugansk. There was a reasonable thought that Russian soldiers will take these regions and stay there to protect from Ukrainian forces.
Jon Greenberg: You have access to your Telegram feeds and they put you at odds with people in your family and others. How do you feel about yourself in all of this?
Alexey: I had an argument not because of some Telegram channels with information, but because many people here refuse to accept the fact that Russian Federation is doing really wrong thing there and we are not good guys as we want to be.
All Russians I know are against any war, it’s like coded in their DNA. That’s the reason of “special military operation” naming.
And I do my best to stop this, even it means to argue with relatives.
Jon Greenberg: Which do you think will move the people you know more: the pain of sanctions, or more conversations with younger family members like you who show them photos that they can’t ignore?
Alexey: Russian people are incredibly patient. They can tolerate unbearable conditions. And they probably will.
The fact that more and more information gets to people, I think this will be the main reason to end this from the Russian side.
And the fact that some Internet providers and some big social media companies are restricting or cutting off Russians — that is a huge mistake, in my opinion. Because the world should not leave common Russians isolated and abandoned. They are hostages in some way.