Russian journalist Pavel Kanygin: "Corruption and war – that’s all they offer us to live with"
Russian journalist Pavel Kanygin in an interview with UNIAN said about the Russian authorities' response to his publications, which were not in line with the Kremlin's policy; why the Russian troops who fought in Ukraine should not expect any state assistance; and how the Russian population’s opinion on the events in Ukraine varies.
One hand’s fingers will be enough to count journalists in Russia who dared to write about the invasion of the Russian army in Ukraine. There were really few of them. Former member of the regional legislature Lev Schlosberg reported in the Pskov Province newspaper on a spike in mortality rate among Russian paratroopers during fierce battles for Donbas. Elena Kostyuchenko published an interview in Novaya Gazeta with a guy from Buryatia, one of the Russian tank crewmen. Timur Olevskii has made a lot of reports on Dozhd TV channel about the Russian troops from Kostroma who “got lost.” The soldiers confirmed on camera that they had come to Ukraine to fight.
But the most high profile publications were those by the journalist of Novaya Gazeta Pavel Kanygin. These were the articles and video interviews with the Russian military intelligence officers from the 3rd Special Forces Brigade (Tolyatti). It is only now, after the exchange for Nadia Savchenko, Captain Yerofeyev and Sergeant Alexandrov are known internationally, but there was a time when they were simply the Russian “volunteers” captured near Luhansk. And the world learned about them primarily from the publications of Pavel Kanygin.
Based on his reports related to the MH17 crash, it is clear that both the village of Snizhne, from where the Buk missile was launched, according to the international official investigation, and Zaroshchenske, from where the plane was attacked according to the Russian Defense Ministry, were controlled by Russian militants.
Pavel stars in at least five lists, published by the Myrotvorets (Peacekeeper) website, of journalists working in the occupied Donbas. For his work, he was awarded the Paul Klebnikov Prize for excellence in journalism, established by Columbia University in New York.
Kanygin was twice captured by the militants and both times, it was the Russian passport and the acclaimed media employer which saved him. A year ago, he was detained in Donetsk. After beating the journalist, the militants banned him from entering the territory under their control. The reason was his report from the meeting of a flash rally in Donetsk against the occupation regime and personally against the self-proclaimed militant leader Oleksandr Zakharchenko.
In an interview with UNIAN, Pavel admits that it is difficult to work in the occupied territory for the independent reporters, but for the Ukrainian media, it is simply impossible.
What is it like to live in Russia for a local journalist who – one of the few – stands up against the "party policy," reporting on participation in the Donbas hostilities of professional soldiers of the Russian army?
There’s really just a few of us – Russian journalists who dealt with the issue of the Russian [military] presence in Ukraine, in particular, in Donbas. Of course, none of the official authorities said thank you for this job (Pavel laughs). But, let alone irony, there was some unofficial response of the State. And it was anything but pleasant. However, I believe that we did what journalists had to do – we reported on the things as they are. The public interest must always prevail over the interests of a small group of people in power. The public interest, in this case, is to know and understand what is really happening in the country and beyond.
At the same time, our government has for some reason decided that the war in Ukraine and even military presence in this country, the use of Donbas as a sore spot to hold Ukraine within its sphere of influence - all this is the interest of the Russian Federation. I believe that Russian interests are now lying in the other planes, and they are not related to the war and expansion. I still think that we should think more about the development of our own territories and the wellbeing of our people. It has nothing to do with the war and the troubles in neighboring countries. Guys, we need to build up our own country, the economy… build roads, kindergartens, and this list goes on. In fact, over 16 years, there have been no normal roads built in Russia, and those roads where the Russian president used to drive in a yellow Lada are already falling apart.
If there is a dictatorship, then its only historical justification can be the rapid economy growth and state construction. None of this is happening. Corruption and war – that’s all they offer us to live with. We are trying to open the people's eyes and show that our country is going not exactly the right way.
What was the reaction of the authorities to your publication given that the Russian Federation tries its best to hide the fact of the invasion? Your reports on Yerofeyev and Alexandrov had hundreds of thousands of views…
There were anonymous threats, there were some not very good signals from the people close to the leadership of our country. Of course, the authorities did not want any publicity for such stories, they wanted to hush everything down. Some perceived these publications as unpatriotic or even traitorous. Although, it is absurd. After all, we are told that Russia does not wage the war with anyone. If some of the people in power have decided to conquer Ukraine, it does not mean that they are supported by the entire Russian nation. If they managed, unfortunately, to brainwash a substantial part of the Russian population, it does not mean that the truth is behind them. It is only evident of the fact that the State controls television, that's all.
On the other hand – and you know it – our country’s elites have plenty of sober-minded people who oppose what is happening. They absolutely hate today’s discord with the West and the war with Ukraine. From the outside, it seems that the power structure in Russia is monolithic, but it is not so. In Russia, we are not supposed to be talking about Ukraine once being a huge market for the Russian business. The Russian elite, which is economically tied to Ukraine, of course, has its supporters both in the Kremlin and in the White House. They are saying constantly that the war will lead to nothing good.
It is clear that someone in some of the many towers of the Kremlin loathes our objective journalistic approach, but others see the benefit in the operation of the uncontrolled, non-handheld media. No, we do not work on some of the opposition members of the elite, we're just doing our job. So the answer to the question why our newspaper still exists is simple: in a large part of Russian society (and the elite as well) there is a request for quality objective journalism. At the same time, I realize that there is also a constant struggle inside the Kremlin. And if some type of an ultra-right wing wins, its representatives will try to sweep away all dissent in the state agencies and the remnants of free media.
If we use the vocabulary of the federal media, after your publications about Donbas, you have become a "national traitor"?
There was a time when the degree of tension in Russian society has reached such heights that even the journalists started black-marking and labeling each other. But, in fact, there is no such thing as "national traitors" and "patriots." These terms emerged due to the political situation, there are the consequences of propaganda. When society calms down and the government no longer consciously divides people, these labels will be gone. Journalism does not mean being at the service of the authorities. It’s about servicing the community by providing it with the factual and important information. If anyone wants to see the media serving the authorities, you can switch on Lifenews, VGTRK and NTV.
Do you think anyone twitched a bit – in the Kremlin, or behind the TV screens in Russia – when Yerofeyev and Aleksandrov admitted on camera that they were Russian military servicemen?
At that time, many have already understood what was happening. Russian presence in Donbas was no longer a secret. The graves of the Russian troops have already been found, the Russian paratroopers were found constantly “wandering” across the Ukrainian east claiming they “got lost” during military exercises.
Anyone who followed the information agenda understood what was happening and took the story of Alexandrov and Yerofeyev as another link in the series of "strange coincidences." Meanwhile, those who watched TV, have learned nothing about these two guys. There was minimum information: two Russians were detained near Luhansk, they were accused of being Russian soldiers, but their families immediately denied allegations. Later, they were exchanged for Savchenko, the "killer." That's all the Russian audience learned. Full stop.
In your opinion, what awaits them? Will they be forgiven their testimony? Disclosing that you are a GRU military is almost like treason...
I think everything will be fine with them. Hopefully, they will not be accused of anything like this. Moreover, they have already denied their earlier statements on being soldiers on active military service during the trial in Kyiv. Had it been the official war, they could expect to be welcomed back like heroes, but as long as it’s a semi-classified war, there were no honors. Of course, I would like to meet both Alexandrov and Yerofeyev after they were freed, but I'm afraid, it’s possible at the moment. Their parents do not return my calls. Most likely, a kind of a quarantine will be created around these guys, and for some time, they will not be available for communication. I hope, they won’t be deployed in Donbas for the second time.
Can it be that the Russians are aware of everything and simply support the war against Ukraine, justifying the aggression with the Ukrainian fascism, or, say, with the idea that “there has never been a Ukrainian State"?
In Moscow and other large Russian cities, people have not such a linear thinking as the television wants them to have. Moscow is the most liberal and advanced city. Here, millions do not support the war against Ukraine. You see, the people here, thank God, have access to information and have a desire to look into the details.
In general, the population is tired of this rampant hysteria, militarism, permanent building up of tension and violence on TV. People are tired of "fascists" and "punishers" behind every corner. When such terminology is used too often, everyone’s sensitivity at some point begins to dull the "alarm" receptors. Overuse of highly emotional messages leads to the opposite effect – people no longer perceive them. In Russia, it happened at the end of 2015. Closed polls conducted for the government showed a sharp drop of public interest in geopolitical issues.
If you turn on the Russian television, there is noticeably less geopolitics now...
That's right, but as soon as they stop talking about the adventures of Russian representatives in Syria or Ukraine, the attention is immediately switched to the internal problems and the economic crisis. The authorities just can’t let it happen. There is much less Ukraine now, but there is this thing with the spies of the U.S. State Department, who seek to capture, destroy and enslave everyone. Turkey has added up and the migration crisis in Europe. In Russia, state-run media continue to cook this cake layered with invented threats. Ukraine alone is not enough anymore, we need more enemies! They’re trying to drive this trend, but it has become ridiculous and sad at the same time.
You're one of the few Russian journalists who worked both in the occupied territory and the territory of a free Ukraine. What is your impression of the "Russian world" in parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions?
The experiment is not over yet; no one is able to show anything good now. Judging by the complaints of local residents, the level of desolation and economic decline is very serious. The population is below poor, average salaries decreased three-four times as compared with the prewar period. The economy is the most important criterion of whether there is any progress in building an independent life. Now, in many aspects, financing parts of Luhansk and Donetsk regions is a Russian burden. There are no jobs, while the best pay is only in the “armies of ‘LDNR’." Moreover, the entire middle class has left at the very beginning of the war, and the sectors associated with a highly qualified and intellectual labor are in the ruins.
What can the Russian veterans of Donbas hostilities expect upon their return home?
There are several funds that intend to deal with humanitarian aid. But these are NGOs, which means that there will be no state support. Given the economic situation and the budget deficit, I’m terrified to predict what awaits these people. Probably, it will be the legendary "You hold on there! Stay healthy! Be well!" If there is no money for pensions in Crimea, then how can we talk about any assistance to the veterans of the unrecognized war in Donbas?
At the moment, the veterans can only count on the understanding and sympathy because many perceive them as fighters for the "Russian world." But after some time, the situation in Russia is likely to change. Everyone knows how soldiers returning from Afghanistan were told: "We have not sent you there." History could repeat. Therefore, the Russians who intend to make some money and engage in some fighting should weigh all the risks. I have met different people there from our country, there were those who came to fight "for the idea" after watching the horrors shown on television. At the first phase, back in 2014, most also hoped to make money. This was the first disappointment. They were paid little, but the war was real. Now the situation has changed, and the money for the salaries is being injected in a centralized way.
What is your opinion regarding the publication of a list of foreign journalists working in the occupied territories of Donbas by on a Peacemaker website?
It’s not the publication of my phone number and e-mail address that’s disturbing. Please, you are welcome to call me or write me, I will be happy. It hurt me what comments of the initiators of this doxing accompanied the publication of these lists: "accomplices of terrorists," "people, collaborating with the thugs." It’s just plain garbage. Among the 4,000 names, most of them are foreign journalists who came to do their job: to get information and to channel it to their audience. Including to make this mad war stop. That’s all. If this required taking a piece of paper from the “DNR,” we went there and got it. This has nothing to do with anyone’s legitimization or recognition.
Roman Tsymbaliuk, Moscow