Brooke Gladstone This is On the Media, I’m Brooke Gladstone. The day before Evan Gershkovich was arrested, I was in Berlin where I interviewed a 27-year-old exiled Russian reporter named Nikita Kondratyev. At least a thousand Russian journalists have left the country in the year since Russia invaded Berlin, according to a legal aid group called the Net Freedoms Project. In large part because, as we just heard, it's pretty much impossible to do journalism there.
Novaya Gazeta Europe is a new outlet formed by former staffers at the now suspended Moscow-based Novaya Gazeta, one of Russia’s most prominent and courageous, independent publications. Kondratyev, who once worked for Novaya Gazeta, now works for the European version in Berlin.
When we met up, it seemed he really didn’t want to be there, he was visibly tense, as we moved from one noisy coffee house to another and then finally outside, where he relaxed a little - and could smoke.
He talked about what he was reporting on, like the illegal divisions the mercenary Wagner group had stocked with Russian prisoners, about the state of Russia’s air defense, and more. Mostly, I was after how he worked and how he felt about it. He started his story in Moscow.
NIKITA KONDRATYEV The war broke out on the 24th of February. We kept on working for a month under military censorship, of course, under all the threats. I mean, if if you are writing something that is not going along the line of the Kremlin, you'll be in prison. So as a young Russian citizen who can be mobilized to the armed forces, of course, I had just two choices, if not imprisonment, then frontline. Yeah. So we fled.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What sorts of stories are you reporting and for whom are you reporting them?
NIKITA KONDRATYEV For Russian citizens, obviously.
BROOKE GLADSTONE How do you reach them.
NIKITA KONDRATYEV As we did before? You know, Russia is not some kind of a valley of silence. Yeah, people still use VPN. Youtube isn't blocked yet, so you can reach them for retelling your stories saw in videos and podcasts.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I know that you're covering stories about the war. I wonder how you're getting that information.
NIKITA KONDRATYEV There are different types of stories. I mean, if we are talking about stories from the battlefield, we do not have any reporters in Ukraine because it's risky for Russian journalists to work in Ukraine because how shall I put it, Russian citizens are not welcome in Ukraine. Russian journalists are not welcome in Ukraine. Russian male journalists are not welcome in Ukraine because they can be spies. Russia has an obligatory military service, so lots of Russian male journalists have military experience. And that is, of course, a problem for Ukraine. So female Russian journalists can enter Ukraine in [unintelligible]. But it's risky because frontline can change any day. And if you get killed by the Russian military, they want imprison you, they will just kill you and torture a bit.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I hear you. So. So how are you getting your information?
NIKITA KONDRATYEV The biggest part of that work is open source intelligence using sources among Russian so-called siloviki. If you know the term, that means anyone involved in the law enforcement forces, military forces. Obviously, you need some sources in Russia and some stringers to cover some topics because there are some security issues about people who are working for us in Russia.
BROOKE GLADSTONE For Novaya Gazeta Europe, not Novaya Gazeta for both.
NIKITA KONDRATYEV Yeah, there are people working for Novaya Gazeta and for an old I guess it's a Europe. They're in Russia, they are not interconnected. I must say that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Yes, I understand. I wonder whether the Russian authorities will make the same distinction you're so careful to make here. They want can you give me an example of some of the challenges of the work here in Berlin?
NIKITA KONDRATYEV It could be unethical for Western journalists, but, you know, in Russia, personal information is sold for a dime.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It's easy to purchase information. Russians put it up for sale.
NIKITA KONDRATYEV You know. Before the war, we tried to speak to all those internationally recognized principles of clear and transparent journalism. But since the war started, I'm speaking for myself. But I personally think that the Russian state can go [censored] itself and I can purchase any information that can help me investigate what those morons are doing. So I feel free to do whatever I can to find this information, to analyze this information, and to publish this information if it helps to document war crimes that my not my government, but the government that's basically occupying Russia is doing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What sorts of stories are you focused on? Give me a few examples, if you can, on.
NIKITA KONDRATYEV I interviewed Russian deserter who fled the war. He was serving as a person who deactivates explosives in the Chechen Republic, deactivated all the explosives left in the Republic after two Chechen wars. But then he was recruited to the war in Ukraine. Of course, he couldn't say no because he would be put in prison. So here knows more than his flag. Of course, I had to fact check everything he told me, and I purchased some leaked information about the mobile phone. So those commanding officers of his regiment, I called them, asked them some questions.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So what's the most important story that you think you've done since you came here?
NIKITA KONDRATYEV That was last summer, because that was a big investigation. Now, what illegal divisions Russia has on the frontline, the Wagner Group, they had just entered the war and there were other groups of insurgents such as Role Sich, the neo-Nazi battalion in Donetsk region, Russian neo-Nazi battalion such as Aamodt, that the special task force formed by Cardinal Films on the heads of the Chechen Republic, and that's basically his personal guard. But they didn't have any legal status.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Do you intend on going back to Russia at some point?
NIKITA KONDRATYEV Of course. As fast as possible. Yeah. Mobilization is still ongoing and I do not know what will happen next. But even if our regime will collapse one way or another, it won't be peaceful, democratic Russia at once. There will be some. Tough period, and I do not know if I want to partake. So, yeah, a lot of militant groups. They are not connected to government in any way they can conduct their own violent policy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Can you tell me a little bit about life in Berlin for journalists like you exiled from their country?
NIKITA KONDRATYEV There is a tremendous sense of displacement, of course. And considering the fact that the war is ongoing and it isn't just a war with some distant country, that's war against a country that's lots of false, consider it our motherland as well. Before the war, before 2014, I guess Ukraine has never been an enemy to anybody in Russia. I'm not talking about here. We are the same nation. We are the same country that's built that my relatives, lots of other people's relatives are Ukrainian. We all in some extent have some connection. Yeah, and lots of friends. There are so, of course, of kids here. If you realize what kind of war it is, everyone is frustrated. Every journalist, every Russian refugee, I guess. I want to think so, because if they are not, I don't know where their feelings are or are they hurt? Is he? Of course, as it's all started, we were frustrated, but we kept on working. We worked a lot and it helped us not to realize what's going on with ourselves. We are. Yeah. When you're writing about it, when you try to analyze some things, try to investigate something, you're in the work with your head. But so as you stop working and alone with yourself, with your faults and your things, then you understand how awful it is, what is happening and who is doing this. Your neighbor. Everyone from your hometowns. Yeah. Those people who were who were near you all the time. They are doing it. That's it. I'll think about it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Are you in touch with other refugee journalists here?
NIKITA KONDRATYEV Of course there is a diaspora, I would say in Berlin. There are lots of places where we can gather to communicate.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I guess I shouldn't ask where.
NIKITA KONDRATYEV That's common knowledge. I won't specify, but if FSB officers would want to find us, they would find us. But why would they want to?
BROOKE GLADSTONE But when you hang out with other exiled journalists, what's the most common cause of complaint or distress?
NIKITA KONDRATYEV There are three main topics, of course. The first one is depression. Everyone is depressed and struggling. The second one is German authorities, German immigration laws because the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Annalena Baerbock. If I'm not mistaken, she publicly told that Russian journalists and dissidents in exile are welcome here and that the entire process of legalization will be easier for them. But it took some time to simplify the procedure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And what's the third thing?
NIKITA KONDRATYEV And the third thing is how to work, because, uh, now there is some kind of a stalemate on the frontline, and the main topic we are covering nowadays is what's going on in Russia, what's going on between elites in the government, what's going on with the mobilization, what's going on with the armed forces, I mean, with shipments from China and so on, with the entire anti-missile defense system in Russia. And of course, what's going on in prisons.
BROOKE GLADSTONE They are emptying out the prisons to throw them into the battles.
NIKITA KONDRATYEV There is 666 panel colonists in Russia and yeah, six, six, six and a half million of prisoners, almost half a million. So they're not acting in their mouth.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I exaggerated.
NIKITA KONDRATYEV Yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It's still they have been a presence on the front lines reportedly used as cannon fodder.
NIKITA KONDRATYEV They are indeed used as cannon fodder. But the Wagner group, stop doing it. We are trying to figure out why.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Maybe too many of them are just running away.
NIKITA KONDRATYEV No. They're not running away. They're being shot. If they try to run away, that's almost impossible to run away from the front line nowadays. There were rumors that the defense ministry had started to do that instead of the Wagner group, and they indeed started to do that. I've got some sources among prisoners. There are cell phones and their calendars as well.
BROOKE GLADSTONE One last question How sustainable is this for you? Can I be frank? You seem a little bit stressed out.
NIKITA KONDRATYEV My country has waged war. Why wouldn't I be stressed out? I don't know. Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE How long do you think you can do this?
NIKITA KONDRATYEV I don't know. No idea. Uh, I cannot foresee he future. I can plan my life for next 10 hours, I guess, or or a week at least. I don't know what will happen next month if there will be a second massive wave of mobilization if in Russia, if Russian towns will be attacked. Russia is losing this war. And my greatest concern nowadays is that Russian cities will be under a massive attack. They realized that that's a logical outcome.
BROOKE GLADSTONE That Russian cities would be put under attack.
NIKITA KONDRATYEV 2 hours ago, a Ukrainian unmanned UAV crashed in Moscow. Ukrainian UVAs are crashing in Russian towns once or twice a week Now they are mocking Russian military, but any they can turn into a real UAV war.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I'm so grateful that you talked to me. Thank you so much.
NIKITA KONDRATYEV Thanks a lot. Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Nikita Kondratyev is a reporter for Novaya Gazeta Europe. Thanks to the American Academy in Berlin for their support in producing this conversation. Coming up, public radio stations fly the coop. This is On the Media.
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