The case for truth

Fearless journalism in Elena Kostyuchenko’s I Love Russia.

Surya Gowda

January 19, 2024

The deadliest school shooting in history occurred in a small town called Beslan in the Russian republic of North Ossetia. On September 1, 2004, terrorists took over School No. 1 and led 1,128 children, parents, and teachers into its gym, which they’d wired with explosives. They proceeded to kill 23 men and kept all others hostage. Two days later, two explosions went off, resulting in a siege of the school by the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation, or the FSB. The Russian forces eventually conducted an offensive, launching grenades and flamethrowers at the school and shooting at it with their tanks. When all was said and done, 310 people had died in the siege. Of them, 186 were children.

In her new book I Love Russia: Reporting from a Lost Country, journalist Elena Kostyuchenko writes that the Beslan school siege revealed the true essence of her country under President Vladimir Putin’s rule—that is, that “you can kill children in order to destroy the enemy, their lives are not too high a price.” Documents from the trial of the lone surviving terrorist and interviews of all of the surviving hostages made clear to Kostyuchenko’s colleagues at the independent Moscow-based newspaper Novaya Gazeta that the purpose of the FSB’s siege had, indeed, not been to rescue the men, women, and children trapped inside the gym. Rather, as the European Court of Human Rights later confirmed, the Russian police, who were most likely ordered to storm the school by Putin himself, had intended only to kill the terrorists. “I remember the images from the siege—Western TV networks broadcast it live,” Kostyuchenko writes. “I remember the children running out of the school, into the cross fire. They would run out and fall over. I remember this and I’ll never forget it.”

The tragedy of Beslan is just one of countless recent historical episodes and personal experiences—both of her own and of her countrymen—that Kostyuchenko recounts in her book to expose the inhumanity of the Putin regime. She tells of the 2020 Norilsk oil spill and how the consequences of that environmental catastrophe were exacerbated by civil authorities’ criminal negligence. She details Russia’s 2014 seizure of Crimea in the aftermath of the Maidan Revolution, in which a popular uprising in Ukraine toppled the country’s pro-Russia leader Viktor Yanukovych. She interviews women sold into sexual slavery and inmates at psychiatric institutions stripped of their agency. She recalls how she and her ex-girlfriend were beaten up and arrested for attending gay pride rallies.

But I Love Russia is more than just a book about the horrors or even the quotidian bleakness of life in a “lost country.” It is also, as its subtitle indicates, a book about what it’s like to report from such a place. Kostyuchenko repeatedly points out that the vast majority of journalism in Russia aims to obfuscate or manufacture public support for the government’s unjust actions rather than investigate or criticize them. Journalists who nevertheless tell harsh truths about their country’s political system are rare and risk being eliminated by the state.

The journalists at Novaya, of course, were among those few who persisted in speaking truth to power against all odds—and, in the end, paid the ultimate price for doing so. The publication, for which Kostyuchenko began working at just seventeen years old, had its media license revoked in the months following Putin’s February 24, 2022, invasion of Ukraine. The Russian Duma passed bills banning “fake news,” which meant Novaya and others who reported the facts of their country’s war crimes were committing criminal acts. Even while Russia’s last free press was still up and running, its journalists were targeted and murdered for conducting their indispensable investigations. Photos of assassinated Novaya reporters Igor Domnikov, Yuri Shchekochikhin, Stanislav Markelov, Anastasia Baburova, Natalia Estemoriva, and Kostyuchenko’s personal idol Anna Politkovskaya hung over the table where editorial and pitch meetings were held.

Kostyuchenko herself did not escape punishment for her investigative journalism. Upon the Russian invasion of Ukraine, she immediately traveled to the country on assignment from Novaya to report from the frontlines. She recorded how Russian soldiers in Kherson were kidnapping and torturing civilians and proceeded to publish an article on the subject and present her findings to the Ukrainian Prosecutor General’s office. Kostyuchenko’s next stop was meant to be the Ukrainian city of Mariupol, which, at the time, was still resisting Russian forces. However, on the eve of her trip, she received news from a colleague that her country’s soldiers possessed knowledge of her plans and had orders to find her once she reached her intended destination. “They’re not planning to hold you. They are going to kill you. That’s been approved,” Kostyuchenko’s coworker informed her.

While she was initially adamant to reach Mariupol one way or another, Kostyuchenko ultimately decided that the journey would be too dangerous for anyone who agreed to travel with her. She left Ukraine altogether, planning to take care of her health, finish her book, and return to Russia. Then she got a call from her editor in chief at Novaya, the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize–winning Dmitry Muratov, who told her, “I know that you want to come home. But you cannot go back to Russia. They will kill you.”

Kostyuchenko eventually moved to Germany and began working for the news website Meduza. Soon thereafter, in October 2022, she fell into a sudden, unexplainable illness. Her perspiration, which started to smell like rotten fruit, became uncontrollable. Her face, fingers, and feet swelled like balloons. Her entire body felt weak and exhausted. Her head spun. Her stomach hurt. Doctors initially speculated that Kostyuchenko was suffering from long COVID or hepatitis, and some even theorized that her sickness could have been the effect of an autoimmune disease or acute kidney infection. However, medical professionals were ultimately forced to conclude that her body was fighting a beast of an entirely different nature—the real culprit was neither a pathogen nor an immune system malfunction, but the Russian government. Kostyuchenko challenged the state’s lies about the Russo-Ukrainian War by conducting her own fearless, independent reporting and was likely poisoned by its spy agencies as a result.

***

In November 2023, a little over a year after Kostyuchenko survived the assassination attempt against her, the Parrhesia Program for Public Discourse at the University of Chicago granted my Harper Review coeditor in chief Suzanna Murawski and I the opportunity to interview Kostyuchenko and her English-language translator Bela Shayevich. During our discussion, we pondered whether the task of an authentic journalist might be to write the first draft of history. While she may not have access to every fact as current events unfold in real time, a journalist nevertheless aims to approximate the truth to the best of her ability. Her initial telling of any particular story may then be amended as more information is discovered and as certain events are situated within the context of others.

But what happens when the authentic drafts of history that journalists produce are overwritten by the state? Or worse, what happens when the state all but silences any journalist who writes drafts it doesn’t like? As the firsthand experiences of Kostyuchenko and her Novaya colleagues make clear, the Russian people, though they may be unaware of it, have had to find out the answers to these questions the hard way—that is, by having to live through the consequences of such a state of affairs themselves.

I Love Russia’s strength is that it points out at every turn how pernicious it truly is for the state to construct a false reality for its citizens. Kostyuchenko recalls how she witnessed directors, correspondents, camera operators, and editors broadcast a sham inauguration ceremony to the public in 2008, in which a young, curly-haired man played newly elected president Dmitry Medvedev and “a swarthy guy in a raincoat” played newly appointed prime minister Putin. She records how correspondents for Russian government–aligned media outlets turned their cameras away from the mothers of children murdered in Beslan who, on the twelfth anniversary of the tragedy, were protesting the FSB’s actions during the siege. When the people are not given the opportunity to freely access information about the political system under which they live, Kostyuchenko reflects, how can they be expected to notice that there is anything wrong with it, let alone take concrete steps to change it?

As such, Kostyuchenko has no ill will toward her countrymen who, more often than not, believe in the legitimacy of the state’s version of reality, or “commonly held truth,” as she calls it. Instead, she has only deep and unconditional love for them. While it may seem strange that Kostyuchenko named her book “I Love Russia” given her stringent criticism of the country, the apparent contrast between its title and its contents, in fact, speaks to how the author conceives of her own love for her homeland. As Kostyuchenko writes, to love one’s country does not necessitate that its government or people live up to or even approach certain ideals. It does not even demand any special mental faculty or toughness. (When I asked Kostyuchenko how she finds the strength to continue loving her broken homeland, she immediately cast doubt on the premises of my question.) For Kostyuchenko, loving one’s country only requires that one genuinely wishes the best for it and remains willing to criticize in hopes of future betterment.

Kostyuchenko believes that fearless journalism—of the sort she and her former colleagues, mentors, and friends at Novaya practice—can begin to deconstruct reality as the state has contrived it. While she notes that the harsh truths this kind of reporting exposes cannot themselves stand up to armed tyranny, stop a war, or save a country, she believes they certainly can vindicate those individuals who say them, understand them, and allow them to fundamentally alter their worldviews.

Unfortunately, Kostyuchenko in I Love Russia seems unable to determine how exactly we should distinguish intrepid reporting from its less incisive counterparts. Forms of journalism that, like the kind done at Novaya, challenge the state’s narratives as well as the beliefs held by the general public can nevertheless inflict harm on their audiences rather than provide them with a chance at salvation. Just take the reporting that spread vaccine misinformation in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. Whether or not reporters or media outlets are persecuted cannot be our criterion for declaring what constitutes quality journalism either. Should we consider InfoWars a brave distributor of harsh realities about the world, simply due to its being banned from posting content on virtually every major social media platform? Clearly not. So then is fearless journalism just journalism that tells the truth? Kostyuchenko might like to think so, but as someone who is “unphilosophical” and prefers practical questions to theoretical ones, as she remarked during our conversation, she may not have an answer to the question of whether difficult truths about political life can realistically be attained and disseminated to the public.

What is certain, however, is that Kostyuchenko’s own writing and reporting should serve as exemplars of the fearless journalism she holds in the highest regard. For most of those reading her book, myself included, it is almost impossible to imagine how she could have the strength and determination to continue working as an independent journalist after losing her home, her health, and nearly her life due to her commitment to her craft. But Kostyuchenko is apparently one of those rare individuals on whom fear genuinely has little inhibitory effect; indeed, she wears her brushes with death proudly as badges of honor. Perhaps she sums up her attitude best when she writes in I Love Russia, “when it gets frightening, I just keep running forward.”

Surya Gowda is the cofounder and coeditor in chief of The Harper Review and a fourth-year at the University of Chicago studying political theory.