I grew up trying to learn to speak Russian. The Cold War was at its height in the early ’80s, and my school in Germany offered English as a second language in fifth grade and Russian in ninth. Just in case, you know? We were caught—though I didn’t fully realize it as a bookish punk-rock teen—between two massive powers that might just conclude that a little nuclear war in Europe was the price to pay for global dominance.
So, in my overalls and with bangs down to my nose, I marched against NATO, its nuclear missiles, and the superpower leaders who seemed determined to rob my generation of any kind of future. As our editor-in-chief, Clara Jeffery, noted in compiling an amazing playlist of ’80s “doom you can dance to,” the music of that era is all about nuclear apocalypse. If you had told me that I would make it to middle age, I would not have believed you.
I would also not have believed it if you had told me that three-plus decades later, the Cold War would be long gone but a hot war would be raging in the former Soviet Union; that nuclear plants would start to look like the lesser energy evil; or that a violent conflict between pro-democracy forces and a global authoritarian movement would be threatening the United States’ own system of governance.
In fact, just typing this all out feels surreal. How the hell did we get here? And where do we go from here?
I can’t tell you, exactly, right now. The world is upside down. But one thing is crystal clear: There is a direct line from what’s happening in Odesa, Ukraine, to what’s happening in Odessa, Texas. Their fight is our fight—just not in the way that warmongers think.
Oligarchy, corruption, disinformation, attacks on those who dare tell the truth; these are all challenges we are confronting here at home. They are different, in degree and in substance, from what people in Ukraine and Russia are experiencing, but they are connected.
That was brought home to me in an unexpected way a few weeks ago when we were getting ready to kick off Mother Jones’ spring fundraising campaign (and then didn’t, for a reason I’ll explain in a minute). The fight for democracy and an independent, fearless press is intensifying across the globe. So as we finally do kick off that spring campaign and ask for the donations that are critical to keep MoJo’s own journalism going, I’m hoping you’ll join me in trying to figure out this unexpected series of events, and the scary—but also inspiring—implications.
Despots go after the press first
Putin’s military bombed broadcast towers in Kyiv and kidnapped, tortured, or killed reporters because he knew any resistance movement relies on journalists to stay informed and strong. He brutally cracked down on what remained of his country’s independent media for the same reason. The feisty Echo of Moscow radio station was blocked and its FM signal, in a true middle-finger move, taken over by the propaganda outfit Sputnik. Mediazona, the independent site founded by members of Pussy Riot, was blocked by the censors for calling the war a war. The venerable Novaya Gazeta self-censored “with terrible shame” by removing its war coverage from the internet, then suspended publication.
A few weeks ago, I got an emergency message from one of these brave, independent newsrooms. My sister, who happens to be working for a reader-supported news organization in Germany, had been in touch with Meduza, the largest independent Russian newsroom that was still able to report the truth about Russia, for Russians. When Putin brought the hammer down, Meduza’s team grabbed their go bags and left the country. But their reporting didn’t stop, because they had planned for this. They were set up on servers outside Russia, and had taught their readers about how to get around the censors.
That week, though, Meduza did lose its lifeblood: the 30,000 readers who made their journalism possible. (Yes, reader-supported journalism is a global movement, and as a Mother Jones reader, you are part of it.) Because of Putin’s crackdown and the Western sanctions, they could no longer send Meduza money.
I got to meet Meduza’s editor-in-chief, Ivan Kolpakov, and some of his colleagues on an early morning video call. “People are surrounded by propaganda narratives,” he said. “A lot of people believe that the Russian military is destroying military infrastructure and not bombing cities. They don’t know about the refugees. Our role is to bring this war to our readers. We need to destroy this wall between the war and Russians.”
Destroying the wall between people and the truth sounded exactly like Mother Jones’ mission. So after five days of frantic emails and Zoom calls across time zones, dozens of independent newsrooms in the EU and US joined hands to get Meduza’s message out. So far, some 3,500 people have stepped up.
My high school Russian is gone now except for odd bits like the singular and plural of “comrade.” But one phrase that did pop back to mind lately is loosely translated as “to give friendship.” It was inspiring seeing friendship given, and received, amid chaos and war.
The Great Information War
Putin’s war didn’t start with the invasion, and it’s not just against Ukraine. It began at least eight years ago, when he launched both his assault on Crimea and his first big offensive in what the British journalist Carole Cadwalladr calls the Great Information War. That offensive was directed against the West, including the United States.
What does an information war look like? Look around. It’s about disrupting the infrastructure of conversation and poisoning the way people relate to each other.
For the past 10 years, Putin and his government have been using propaganda, especially on social media and TV, to stoke division, anger, and fear. In Russia, Kremlin-friendly media is full of stories about how refugees turned Western Europe into a hellhole, and how LGBTQ+ people are destroying traditional values. (Here’s a great thread from our friends at CODA Story, another reader-supported newsroom based in Eastern Europe.) Whiteness, Christianity, and traditional gender roles are under attack, the narrative goes, and need to defend themselves with violence if necessary.
Ring a bell at all? Those are, to a tee, also the themes of right-wing media in America and, therefore, of the Republican Party. (Check out Republican Senatorial Committee chair Rick Scott’s American “rescue plan”: The “militant left” controls the government and most of corporate America, he says—without a hint of irony—and it wants to change or destroy “American history, patriotism, the nuclear family, gender, traditional morality, capitalism…” and the list goes on.) And like the Kremlin’s lies, homegrown disinformation is growing ever more brazen, as we saw over and over in the Ketanji Brown Jackson hearings.
When I heard the heartbreaking stories of Ukrainians trying to convince their parents in Russia that the war is real, it reminded me of trying to reason with a loved one who gets their news from Fox News. That’s propaganda at work.
Which, probably, is why Tucker Carlson is such a fan of Putin’s—and vice versa. As my colleague David Corn revealed:
On March 3, as Russian military forces bombed Ukrainian cities as part of Vladimir Putin’s illegal invasion of his neighbor, the Kremlin sent out talking points to state-friendly media outlets with a request: Use more Tucker Carlson.
‘It is essential to use as much as possible fragments of broadcasts of the popular Fox News host Tucker Carlson,” advises the 12-page document written in Russian.
David’s big scoop made a huge splash—it landed on the home pages of dozens of major news outlets and ended up on TV shows from ABC’s The View to The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.
One person who didn’t miss the story was former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, though we can’t be sure he actually read it: “Okay, so the first question that comes to mind: Why would they leak a memo like that to an obscure publication, which nobody reads and very few have even heard of, Mother Jones? Why wouldn’t they leak that to the Washington Post or the New York Times or a big publication?”
I can tell you why: Because the memo wasn’t “leaked” in the sense of being handed over to a journalist to place a strategic news story. It was the result of David’s years of hard work as he dug into Russia’s attempts to subvert American democracy. He literally wrote the book about it. Likewise, MoJo’s Kiera Butler was able to expose how the Kremlin’s lies are infiltrating online wellness culture because she has been watching and reporting on these spaces for years.
And I can tell you why Kiera and David were able to do that work: Because we are supported by readers, who give us the independence and spine to pursue and publish stories others don’t. And whether in Odesa, Ukraine, or Odessa, Texas, reporting like that matters—especially right now.
You can’t shut the truth down for good
The last few weeks have really driven this home for me. Independent journalism is a threat to autocrats everywhere. But journalism can only stay independent when it is not at the mercy of anyone—an advertiser, a deep-pocketed owner, or a corporate overlord. That’s what is keeping Meduza going despite the enormous odds, and it’s what has always fueled Mother Jones. As long as we can scrape together enough support from readers like you who value fearless journalism, we cannot be muzzled.
About that scraping together part: Before Putin started bombing Ukraine, we had been planning on a March fundraising campaign that was key to our annual budget. But those plans went out the window when Meduza reached out—helping them was more important (plus the world had changed overnight and it was time to process what that meant).
So here we are now, in April, needing to raise about $450,000 to hit our online fundraising budget in the next few months when our (yawn) fiscal year ends on June 30. I’m hoping this column has explained why your support of Mother Jones matters so much. Seeing it play out in practice, in wartime, with folks like you rallying together to keep the truth alive in Russia, Ukraine, and here at home—that was powerful for me. And to see our newsroom, after years of building up trust with sources, be able to unearth a direct line between Russian propaganda, Fox News, and online disinformation—that was powerful too.
The truth is kryptonite for corrupt leaders everywhere, and they will keep trying to shut it down. But they will also keep finding out that when the truth has millions of determined people on its side, you can’t shut it down for good. I can’t think of a more powerful argument for your support of Mother Jones right now. Please join with your fellow MoJo readers and our fierce team and help make our independent journalism strong with a donation if you can right now.
Images from left: Malte Ossowski/Sven Simon/dpa/ZUMA; Hyosub Shin/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/AP