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Journalist and activist Elena Kostyuchenko discusses political unrest in Russia

April 26, 2024

On Tuesday, Russian journalist and LGBTQ+ activist Elena Kostyuchenko visited campus to read a segment of her book, “I Love Russia: Reporting from a Lost Country,” and talked about finding the balance  between journalism and activism and her experience with being exiled from her home.

Kostyuchenko is currently an investigative reporter for independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta and began writing from the United States after she was targeted by the Russian government during her time in Europe. Both in Russia and since her exile, Kostyuchenko has reported on wars, participated in protests and has been both assaulted and arrested for her work.

Kostyuchenko read a chapter of her book in Russian, and Senior Lecturer in Russian Reed Johnson read the same sections translated in English. The Russian-to-English translation highlighted the beauty and nuance of the Russian language, while the chapter depicted the experience of growing up in Russia and being constantly surrounded by the shadow of past violence or the realities of the current war. Kostyuchenko describes realizing how flawed her country is when she was studying journalism and reporting on the war in Ukraine from the front lines.

The Q&A session that followed the reading prompted students and community members to ask about how Russian citizens feel about the war in Ukraine, the death of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, the imprisonment of journalists like Evan Gershkovich ’14 and the increasing threat of fascism in Russia.

“It’s really hard to understand what Russians think and feel because we have legislation against freedom of expression,” Kostyuchenko said. “There are measurements saying that 15 percent of Russians support the war, 15 percent of Russians are strongly against the war and 70 percent of Russians are tolerating the war. They don’t like it, but they see no way to resist it…. It all depends on the silent majority, so we need to keep them informed.”

Kostyuchenko discussed the current efforts to free Gershkovich and believes Russia will continue to hold him hostage for as long as possible. However, she encouraged the Bowdoin community to keep finding ways to support Gershkovich from afar.

“Some of my friends did prison terms, and they said that the worst feeling is the loneliness…. You’re constantly told by prison guards that no one cares about you, that no one is interested in you, that you’re going to die here,” Kostyuchenko said. “I know there was a campaign to send [Gershkovich] letters, so if you feel like you can, keep doing that. For him, it would be good to know there is a world outside of his prison cell and that people care about him.”

An audience member asked about what kind of protests, if any, may be effective in Russia, given that many activists are met with violence when showing any opposition to the government.

“I believe this regime cannot evolve. I think only a revolution [can change it], unfortunately,” Kostyuchenko said. “I say unfortunately because I saw some revolutions as a journalist, and it’s bloody hell. I would never wish my country something like that, but we are already in bloody hell.”

In an interview with the Orient, Kostyuchenko described how she used to view her two identities as an activist and a journalist as separate from one another. While objectivity is important, she also stressed how vital it is for journalists to use their own political power.

“The two identities weren’t easy to hold at the same time for me. In Russia, and here in the United States, journalists believe they shouldn’t get involved into life—they should just describe it,” Kostyuchenko said to the Orient. “Now, I think that our professional duty doesn’t decline our civic duty. It’s not enough just to beautifully write about how your country turned into a fascist one. You need to resist as a citizen with all of your powers.”

Kostyuchenko also touched on how Navalny’s death has shaped the opposition movement, explaining that many activists now feel orphaned. However, Kostyuchenko mentioned how other revolutionary groups are growing stronger and taking on more responsibility in the movement.

“Revolution is not something you can predict when it starts, but you can create the conditions. I think one of the main conditions is to have chains and circles of trust, people who can unite people who believe in each other and love each other,” Kostyuchenko said.

Ultimately, Kostyuchenko hopes her readers feel her anxiety about the rise of fascism. She worries about a world where both Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin are in power and told attendees that they should be alarmed about the state of democracy in the U.S.

“I couldn’t imagine my country could turn into a fascist one…. But no one is immune. It can grow on any soil, any culture, any nation. The life you knew before, the rights you had before, the values you had before, it all can disappear very fast,”  Kostyuchenko said. “I believe right now, [the U.S.] is in a very dangerous moment in history.”

The Department of Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies (REEES) sponsored Kostyuchenko’s visit to campus. Johnson was connected with Kostyuchenko through a colleague at Dartmouth College.

“As a department, we’re in a very strange position vis a vis Russia because we all feel a deep connection to this place,” Professor of History and Chair of REEES Page Herrlinger said. “We’ve spent our lives going to Russia and loving it there, and now we feel cut off. We’re naturally going to gravitate towards welcoming people who share [that sense of loss] but who also still harbor some hope.”

Attendees thought Kostyuchenko’s comments about fascism were insightful.

“I had read Kostyuchenko’s book, and a lot of my familial relations are similar. I can relate to her,” Volodymyr Zadorojny ’27 said. “In the reading, she voiced something I had never thought of before. I was raised where the enemy was always the fascist, and we were immune to it. It’s a scary change of identity over the past few years.”

Kostyuchenko explained her thoughts on journalism to the Orient and why she has chosen to make personal sacrifices for the sake of reporting.

“I don’t believe that journalism is the fourth pillar, as you’ve probably been taught…. At least that’s not true in Russia. But if I believe in some high mission of journalism, I think that it’s creating invisible connections between people, making people less strangers to each other,” Kostyuchenko said. “I believe those invisible connections are the actual things that hold the world together—not the politicians or the United Nations or the Red Cross or borders or maps, but those connections.”


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