Ilgin Yorulmaz interviews Pavel Kangyin, contributing editor at Novaya Gazeta, an independent Russian newspaper recognised at the recent FCCJ Freedom of the Press Awards.
“Common sense is at rest in Russia these days. As Russian journalists, we should work to make the Russian public’s moment of realization of the importance of democracy and common sense arrive sooner than later.” – Pavel Kanygin
Number 1 Shimbun: The media situation has been affected by the war in Ukraine and Putin's general paranoia. How are Novaya Gazeta and other independent media dealing with this?
Pavel Kangyin: Due to the legislation forbidding the use of the word ‘war with Ukraine’, among other things, many independent outlets have suspended operations or closed down. Some media like Novaya Gazeta moved abroad to Latvia, Lithuania and Germany. The government is obviously happy that almost no independent media remains now in the country.
As for Novaya Gazeta, we don’t think we’ll continue forever. The Novaya Gazeta audience is deserted. The website is no longer operational and the only material appearing there is old news and articles. YouTube and Telegram filled the vacuum [that respectable independent media such as] TV Rain, Radio Echo of Moscow … and Novaya Gazeta left when they closed. There’s a big decline in views on these media. This is a reality that we have to face.
I don’t know why people don’t follow their favorite journalists and columnists. Many people prefer to visit YouTube and Telegram instead. But YouTube puts every egg in one basket. The Russian government also uses it and does so to spread disinformation. They’ve also been trying to promote a Russian substitute called ‘RuTube’, but it has no workable algorithm and is unsafe. It was recently hacked and the code was broken by the anonymous hackers, though, there were rumors that the hackers were employees of the Rutube itself subverting the organization.
NOS: Can you mention an example of that disinformation?
PG: In the first few months of the war, Russian authorities claimed those inside the Azov Steel Plant were not Ukrainian soldiers but Ukrainian Nazis, who torture and use women and children sheltering there as human shields. Now, they call all the people [there] Nazis and even argue that we should drop chemical weapons on them.
You can’t trust Russian state media; their narrative always changes. They’re not after real coverage. They shape and reshape the narrative. It’s like pure Goebbels propaganda.
NOS: And how does the Russian public react to hearing conflicting versions of the same story? Do they not use their common sense to judge what the truth is?
PG: Common sense is at rest now in Russia. The Russian people have never been good at figuring out the truth. They are unprepared at best and poisoned by the state media propaganda at worst. They believe they’re on the right side and have to fight for their spot in history.
People are actually facing a dilemma: They lack basic understanding of why we need fact-based journalism and what the causes and effects are in its absence. These things are so far away from their everyday struggles and they are so distant to these concepts.
NOS: I want to ask you about the Putin regime’s promotion of the “full-fridge-in-exchange-for-freedom” deal after the Soviet Union’s collapse. You recently wrote that “money, regardless of its origins, became an end in itself, promoted the unrestrained enrichment of oligarchs and a new middle class in exchange for political indifference. Why do you think the Russian public wasn’t interested in anything besides consumption?
PG: The 1990s and 2000s were an era of economic prosperity. As such, the government had a consumerist agenda – no talk of democracy, or the rights of society.
Putin’s rhetoric has visibly changed after 2000 and shifted towards ‘The West wants to destroy our country. In the 2007 Munich Conference, he declared pivoting away from the West towards an independent path. People were told to continue to have a happy life, have a steady job, and enjoy economic prosperity. Their main fear was to be hungry again so they didn’t understand why they needed democracy.
With democracy comes responsibility. There are economic rights and civil rights. They should inevitably affect each other.
NOS: How is the Russian economy now after the ruble tumbled to low levels, inflation rose, and Western companies have left due to the war with Ukraine as international sanctions start to take effect?
PG: Things are not that bad, actually. The economy is going to survive. It somehow finds its way out.
Honestly, sanctions are not working. As long as the West continues to buy Russian gas and oil, it helps the Russian regime pump money and navigate itself out of the crisis. Russia is too big to turn into a version of North Korea or Iran, for example.”
NOS: What could the West have done differently to put pressure on the Russian regime?
PG: The West should find ways to sustain its economy without Russian gas or oil. You can’t wave Ukrainian flags and declare solidarity with them and at the same time depend on Russia.
NOS: Do you have a message for the Japanese government and the Japanese public?
PG: The war won’t be over any time soon. The earliest estimate is the end of the year. They should step up their efforts to force the Russian regime to back down from this war. I know Japan has a Far Eastern agenda such as the island problem with Russia, but they should put some kind of pressure on the Russian side.
Having said that, I ask the public not to confuse the people of the country with the elites. Ordinary Russian people may have been negligent and even ignorant by not seeking truth in facts, or not demanding democracy and freedom when presented with the choice of a full fridge and economic prosperity instead. The moment of realization of the importance of democracy and common sense has not come yet. But as Russian journalists, we should work to make this moment arrive sooner than later.
Ilgın Yorulmaz is a reporter for BBC World Turkish. She is the Second Vice President of FCCJ and also serves as the co-chair of its Freedom of the Press Committee.