BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. Independent journalist Anastasiia Carrier was born and raised in Yoshkar-Ola in what she says is a poorer province in western Russia. She spent the last few years in the U.S. working as a reporter and actively wrenching herself away from the propaganda she'd imbibed all her life about Russia's unequaled prominence, probity and purity that she took on as articles of faith and fact. For most of her childhood, though, news and politics were just faint voices in the background from adult conversations overheard or brief flickers on her grandma's TV tuned to the evening news. Her grandma, a professor of German, was an avid news consumer.
ANASTASIIA CARRIER She was a very easygoing, cheerful person who loved and loved Soviet Union.
BROOKE GLADSTONE In 1999, Carrier's grandma finally found a new leader in which to instill her trust. Carrier was still in kindergarten then, but she remembers the catastrophe that rocked her world in September of 99. Over 300 people died in three separate bombings of apartment buildings. Carrier avoided tall apartment buildings on the way to school for weeks afterwards in fear. That was when Putin, then director of the KGB, spoke out to the people.
ANASTASIIA CARRIER This confident and young person who said that he's going to hold Chechen people accountable.
BROOKE GLADSTONE In 2000, riding a wave of popularity after the bombings, Putin ran for president, much to the delight of Carrier's family. On Election Day, she and her grandma stood in line outside the voting booths a few blocks from their home.
ANASTASIIA CARRIER And then she took me in the in the booth with a curtain and she lifted me up and showed me where to mark for Putin. I was so excited.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So were the Chechens ultimately to blame for those apartment bombings?
ANASTASIIA CARRIER Later, I learned that there is a group of historians and journalists who blame Putin directly or indirectly for orchestrating those bombings.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Is there proof of that?
ANASTASIIA CARRIER Yes. They caught some of the KGB agents, I think, delivering the bombs and the buildings. And Putin around this time was the director of KGB or he just stepped down. I remember this is what Litvinenko was working on when he was poisoned.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Ah, Litvinenko, who was poisoned by people associated with Putin.
ANASTASIIA CARRIER Yes. And another reporter –.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Anna Politkovskaya.
ANASTASIIA CARRIER Yes. She was also working on that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And she was killed as well. All right. Now let's jump ahead to 2011, 2012, when you changed high schools.
ANASTASIIA CARRIER I had teachers who were more encouraging of real critical thinking. We would talk about different kind of governments, economic issues, history. The topic of the Soviet Union and Stalin's repressions came up and she spoke about the repressions that left millions of Russians dead. And this was new to me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You said that the moral clarity felt alien.
ANASTASIIA CARRIER It really did. But at the same time, my family became interested in so-called alternative history.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Alternative history as determined by Putin.
ANASTASIIA CARRIER Yes. One of the big ideas is that Stalin is this misunderstood genius who saved Russia and the people who died. It's just necessary sacrifice. And probably because of the teacher who pushed back in such a casual way, I never really became interested in this alternative history.
BROOKE GLADSTONE In 2014, Russia invaded and subsequently annexed Crimea. And that's when you became staunchly pro-Putin.
ANASTASIIA CARRIER The coverage in Russia was that the new Ukrainian government was Nazi government, and anything Nazi connected is a very sensitive topic for Russians because victory in the Second World War is a huge point of pride. So the idea of Nazis is triggering in any shape or form. This was my sense of what was happening when I came to the U.S. for the first time for half a year as an exchange student. So I was removed from Russian propaganda and I got to see the snippets of the Western coverage of what's happening. And I remember feeling that this was bizarre and wrong. And then I went back to Russia. This was after Putin actually annexed Crimea. And this was where it became more of an issue for me. I started to feel like this is such an important thing that Russians done were saved, brothers and sisters from Nazi regime. We help them to get back to Russia that they allegedly missed. So I become more pro-Putin. But I also realized that the West is really unhappy with this. So the stakes are higher to have a strong leader. That is Putin.
BROOKE GLADSTONE How was the West presented in the U.S. in particular when you were back in Russia?
ANASTASIIA CARRIER The West couldn't stand the idea that Russia was so big and so strong and that the sanctions that was happening, it was just the US couldn't bear the idea of Russia doing good around the world.
BROOKE GLADSTONE 2016 you moved to the U.S. to attend university and in West Virginia, and for a whole year you were in contention with a lot of your classmates?
ANASTASIIA CARRIER Yes, I moved to the U.S. for a second bachelor's degree and I became more outspoken politically. In journalism class conversations, whenever I felt like somebody was saying something wrong. I would insert my so-called fact check. But I don't think anyone around me was particularly invested on trying to get me to see the reality. There was definitely a lot of I'm going to let you finish this statement and we're going to move on from this topic.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Did you feel patronized?
ANASTASIIA CARRIER No, I didn't. If anything, I felt a little more special for having this opposite point of view to the popular narrative. I have the truth. Sounds a lot like people who believe conspiracy theories and realize it now.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Did you write anything?
ANASTASIIA CARRIER Yes. When the conversation about the Russians hacking the election started, I strongly did not believe it. And I was trying to find a proof that this didn't happen. And I did find a piece that said that it's nearly impossible to hack the certain kind of voting machines at the moment. So I was pretty sad on this. And at the same time we had an opinion writing class and they wrote about the US and the Western media treating Russia unfairly and misunderstanding all the great things we do in the world and annexing Crimea, to my shame, made appearance in this piece and they used and this photo found online of allegedly building in Crimea, showing a lot of Russian flags from the windows as a proof that Ukrainians really wanted to join Russia.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You brought your piece to the editor at the local paper, right?
ANASTASIIA CARRIER Yes. And he and the other editor pushed back and they pushed back. And I edited and edited and edited until it becomes a different piece. Because when I tried to fact check all the anecdotes I used in the story, I couldn't really find the sources. And I couldn't really understand where some of this facts even appeared from. But I still stood pro-Putin, and I still felt that the West somehow misinterprets Russia. And I couldn't figure out where the media went wrong because as a journalist, I was trained to fact check, to collect information and evidence. And then there was the coverage of Russia, which I didn't agree with, and they really couldn't understand at what point of the news organization somebody would give an order to start lying. And I started to sense that it was possible that no one really gave this order.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So this process of unraveling your own beliefs and, you know, our beliefs are part of us. You experienced an acute sense of political homelessness.
ANASTASIIA CARRIER Yes, I think that me being proud of being Russian became one of the cornerstones of my identity. I didn't realize how big it was for me until it was pulled out from under me. And I didn't really realize who I was or what was true about the world for some time afterwards. It took a long time and a lot of work to just educate myself enough on history and the current affairs to start to form an opinion.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You told our producer that you couldn't really accept that one thing is false and that everything else is true, that it's not how the world works. What did you mean?
ANASTASIIA CARRIER When I was trying to make sense of what happened to me. All the lies were connected to each other. I would accept that this was a lie. And then that would pull two more lies from the past that I learned. And the best way to sort through this was just to stop believing everything. Everything I was raised with was a lie. It is truly fascinating, looking back of how many small things that I thought were common knowledge were based on some kind of misinformation, propaganda, something very small that added up to something toxic, in the end. The biggest part of it is that I believe that Russia could do nothing wrong, that Russia was the power for good. And I had evidence that proved that Russia wasn't the power for good, and that cast a long shadow of doubt on everything else I ever knew about Russia. And the more I started to learn about the Russian history, the more I started to realize that there were a lot of half truths that I was taught in school, especially about the darker times of the Soviet Union.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Tell me about how you learned that stuff.
ANASTASIIA CARRIER Yes, I had a wonderful teacher. She was my politics professor. Sally and I took her international relations class and they showed up at her office almost every day. She would recommend me books, and she was really a key person in helping me pull through this very dark and lonely time of not knowing what was true.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So six months ago, Russia invaded Ukraine. Things shifted again. Did this have an impact on your own ideological shift.
ANASTASIIA CARRIER Before the war in Ukraine, this disagreements with my parents, this realization that they are under influence of propaganda, was just something that inconvenienced my ability to be honest and freely talk about what was happening or what I believed. There was this conversation I recently had with my parents, and I don't remember what exactly I was saying, but at this point, I'm already writing about the war in Ukraine, for Politico magazine. And I already interviewed refugees from Ukraine. And there was this one woman who told me about her neighbor being shot by Russians for nothing. About the starvation of people who sit in the basements, about their car wrecks. And you can see that the scores were shot. So I have all this information as a journalist, I collected and fact checked and I'm trying every now and then to bring it up to my parents. And I'm not credible enough just because I'm in the US. I think my parents pity me for being brainwashed. I brought up this information I collected and my my dad asked me not to call him. And it sounds like a small thing, but the only time my dad raised his voice in me in such a way, it was when I cursed at him when I was a five year old kid to make him stop tickling me. So this was huge. This was a big moment.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Yeah. As if you're cursing at him again by bringing up these things.
ANASTASIIA CARRIER He got very defensive. Their beliefs just don't really make sense in the context of their character. They were supposed to be spared because, again, they're educators and there are so many Russians who do not have the same level of education. They do not have the same financial safety. They didn't travel around the world. My parents did. They travel every year. So they were supposed to just keep this thing and they didn't.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You've reported on groups like QAnon. You've talked to your parents. They all are forced to live or choose to live in pretty impermeable media bubbles. You say essentially you have to get them to trust you, but how do you do that?
ANASTASIIA CARRIER I think you should be poking in their beliefs and providing them with facts that would hopefully get them to doubt their beliefs, but not push it on them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Well, that really worked well with your dad.
ANASTASIIA CARRIER Right? Yes. Yes. No, you're right. You can just hope it's going to work. I know that from my time there is nothing anyone could have said or done to change my point of view. So I think what we can do with anyone who has beliefs based on conspiracies is to just keep talking without trying to humiliate them or enrage them and hope that whenever they have doubts, they're going to come to you with questions and you will have a productive discussion. It's a little bit trickier with Russians now because there is such a moral duty to try to help Ukraine and to get people believe that what is happening is wrong. Maybe just because you don't want your family and friends to support the bloodshed. So I think there is a responsibility to have this conversations and hope that something is going to come out of them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Anastasiia, thank you very much.
ANASTASIIA CARRIER Thank you for having me. This was this was fun.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Anastasia Carrier is an independent journalist who reports on business, politics, misinformation and online radicalization.