“It’s a strange way to be,” Kate Abramova said. “You live in the city you are living in, but you are living in Russia in your head.” Kate is part of the Russian independent news organization Meduza, which was recently declared an “undesirable organization” by the Kremlin. We were introduced shortly after Putin’s troops began rolling toward Kiev—Meduza published an antiwar editorial that day—and on the anniversary of that invasion we sat in a coffee shop in Palo Alto and talked about what it’s like to keep uncensored journalism alive.
Kate and two of her colleagues were in Silicon Valley looking for tech expertise. They wanted to learn how to protect their journalists on the ground in Russia, and how to circumvent the “sovereign internet,” a set of laws that aim to bring Russians’ online communication fully under the Kremlin’s control. Those laws have already been used against Meduza, which in addition to being branded an “undesirable organization” has been deemed a “foreign agent,” making it virtually impossible for Russians to support their work.
When I first learned about Meduza, they were in the middle of a wild scramble. Sanctions in response to Putin’s war had shut off the support of 30,000 readers who donated to keep their work alive. That challenge resonated with us at Mother Jones, since support from readers is the lifeline for our reporting as well. So for a few frantic weeks, we got to be part of mobilizing a global solidarity campaign to try to sign up new supporters for Meduza. (MoJo readers stepped up in amazing ways, with donations between $1 and $100,000 to keep Meduza going.) It was powerful to know that each of us could do something concrete to stand up to authoritarianism and aggression. (You can find Meduza’s English-language reporting here. Another vital reader-supported newsroom in the region is the Kyiv Independent, which has powerful on-the-ground coverage from Ukraine and Belarus.)
Kate’s colleague, editor-in-chief Ivan Kolpakov, had asked if I could take them to a real American diner for breakfast, and over pancakes we compared notes about working with whistleblowers, the future of advertising (not good), and the power of tech platforms. But the thing that stuck with me was when they reflected about their biggest struggle today: Remaining relevant for their Russian audience. It’s not easy being a newsroom for exiles, they said—but it’s even harder to serve the country that you left behind.
There are still millions of people in Russia circumventing the censors by reading Meduza online, and Kate and Ivan’s allegiance to those readers was palpable. They grasped for metaphors to explain how odd it feels when “it’s like the place you live in is a picture,” as Kate put it. “When I go outside I’m in Berlin or wherever. But when I’m in my apartment, I’m in Russia. All day every day I immerse myself in Russian media, Russian headlines, Russian channels, because I need to feel what our readers are feeling.”
I thought about those readers, and what a lifeline Meduza must be for them in a world where many are probably wondering if they’re alone in opposing Putin and his war. And I thought about the MoJo readers who have said our reporting helps them feel connected to a broader community, when friends and neighbors seem in thrall to an alternate reality. “I feel confident that I can trust what I read in Mother Jones, and it reminds me that I’m not crazy” is something that we often hear.
We are fortunate in this country that our homegrown authoritarians have not managed to restrict what we can read and say. (Though they are certainly making inroads in the classroom.) But the Trump years taught us that we can’t assume men like Putin could never come to power here. “If you ever need information about working from exile, let us know!” Kate told me. “We’re experts now,” and we laughed with only a hint of gallows humor.
Then Kate pulled out a small paper bag holding a coffee mug (always the perfect present for me). It was black with a silhouette of mountains edged in the slightest shade of gray. “It’s the darkness before the dawn,” her colleague said. Stamped on the bottom of the mug were a few words that I struggled to decipher with my long-neglected high-school Russian. “Don’t fear…” I mumbled. “Anything,” Kate completed. “Don’t be afraid of anything.”