Russian journalists challenge Putin to report on Ukrainian casualties



Soldiers from Buryatia, a small republic in Siberian Russia, were among the first to be sent to the front lines in Ukraine. And they were among the first to die there.

When journalist Yelana Trifonova heard of a memorial service for the dead, she immediately bought a ticket for the eight-hour trip from her home in Irkutsk to Ulan-Ude, the capital of Buryatia. “I wanted to know what was going on there,” said the 46-year-old who works for the online platform Lyudi Baykal. “I wanted to feel the atmosphere, and I wanted to watch the faces of loved ones.”

Trifonova and fellow journalist Olga Mutinova, 44, reported the burial story; Trifonova wrote it, and it was posted on April 28 on Lyudi Baikala’s homepage, along with photos and a video.

Trifonova said she had to make history no matter the consequences. But the consequences of challenging the Russian government can be dire.

A third of the approximately 1 million inhabitants of Buryatia, which shares a border with Mongolia, are ethnic Buryats and for the most part of the Buddhist faith. The average monthly salary in Buryatia is about a third of what people earn in Moscow, and the Russian army is an attractive employer for young people.

In early March, mourning ceremonies for soldiers who died in Russia’s war against Ukraine were held in the main hall of the Lukodrome, a sports complex in central Ulan-Ude. When Trifonova arrived, the traffic police had already blocked the entrance for cars.

A Buddhist funeral service is held for a Russian soldier in the city of Ulan-Ude in Eastern Siberia, Russia.

(Lyudi Baykal)

Inside, instead of the single coffin originally advertised, there were four. The first held Naidal Zyrenow, 24, local student of the year in 2016, who served in the Russian army as a paramedic. Naidal’s hands were crossed over his gray uniform jacket. One hand was bandaged.

The second coffin held the remains of Bulat Odoev, 35, who served in the 5th Armored Brigade and is survived by a pregnant wife and daughter. The body of Shargal Dashiev, 38, who left behind a pregnant wife and two daughters, was in the third. Vladislav Kokorin, 20, who grew up in a children’s home and then was placed in foster care, was to be buried in the fourth.

Three of the dead were Buddhists and were buried according to traditions associated with the religion. In her story, Trifonova wrote that three Buddhist lamas got up and started walking around the coffins – just like relatives. Not a single crying sound could be heard.

Buddhists, wrote Trifonova, are not supposed to cry loudly. After death, the soul must make its way to heaven and then return – after 49 days – in a new body. The tears would block the journey of the deceased and prevent him from letting go.

The ceremony brought clarity for Trifonova. “It became so clear to me why Russia was sending the Buryats first,” she said. “They belong to a small people in Russia, they are poor, they are humble, they are not Slavic – and they don’t complain.”

Many families, she added, did not want to blame the government even at the time of their greatest grief.

“But it’s not fair,” Trifonova said. “They don’t dare to take people from Moscow or St. Petersburg, so they turn to those who show the least resistance like Buryats, Tuvans or Dagestans.”

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia began to enjoy a vibrant and pluralistic media landscape. New newspapers and dailies sprang up, and some of the more established were shedding their role as government mouthpieces. Even a government newspaper like Izvestia became informative and readable in the 90s.

But when Vladimir Putin came to power, expressing dissenting opinions became increasingly difficult. Pressure on the media to comply with government regulations has intensified. A number of journalists have been killed in Russia, the most prominent of which was Anna Politkovskaya, who reported on the Chechnya war for Novaya Gazeta and died in 2006.

A woman places flowers in front of a large portrait of another woman.

A woman places flowers in front of a portrait of slain Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya in Moscow.

(Pavel Golovkin / Associated Press)

Eventually, the Russian government revoked the licenses of the few remaining independent media outlets, and they had to shut down. A relatively new law prohibits contradicting the Kremlin language ruleswhich prohibit the use of certain words (“war”, “invasion”) to describe the fighting in Ukraine.

Before joining Lyudi Baykal, Trifonova and Mutinova worked for more than 10 years at Vostochno-Sibirskaya Pravda, a newspaper founded shortly after the October 1917 Russian Revolution and based in Irkutsk. But in recent years, he had increasingly toed the local government line.

“Censorship didn’t come overnight, it came gradually,” Mutinova recalls. “Ten years ago, it was still possible to criticize the governor. Five years ago, it was already banned. »
Reporting limits tightened each year as the newspaper became more dependent on state funding. “If we wanted to write about the conditions in the local prison or even mention the name of Alexei Navalny, we crossed a red line,” Mutinova said, referring to Russia’s best-known dissident. “The same was true if we just wanted to report on the protests that were taking place in Irkutsk’s main square.” What remained to be written were innocuous stories about nature or the local hospital, she said. “It’s not journalism we stand for.”

A man appears on a television screen in a courtroom.

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny appears on a screen at the Moscow City Court on May 24, 2022.

(Alexander Zemlianichenko/Associated Press)

Shortly after the start of the Russian war in Ukraine, Mutinova and Trifonova assumed editorial responsibility from Lyudi Baikala. The website was owned by Vostochno-Sibirskaya Pravda but became independent thanks to a private investor. There they reported and wrote stories – focusing their reporting on the Irkutsk/Baikal region – on the dead and injured, on the tragedies of war, on the mobilization of soldiers and on cases of corruption.

“In the past, journalists were there to control people in power,” Mutinova said. “This is what we are supposed TO DO.”

Now, however, journalists must publish behind an invisible curtain.

On April 16, Roskomnadzor, Russia’s federal media regulator, said, without giving a reason, that it would block access to the media. The website is only accessible through a virtual private network, or VPN, which connects users to a private server that encrypts internet traffic and allows them to bypass restrictions. According to Trifonova and Mutinova, Russians are increasingly turn to VPNs for independent information.

After Lyudi Baikala was officially blocked, Mutinova and Trifonova said donations increased and messages of encouragement and gratitude poured in. “The story of the funeral in Ulan-Ude has been read about 80,000 times,” Mutinova said. “Some of our videos have been viewed hundreds of thousands of times.”

Trifonova added: “People have been brainwashed for months by official propaganda and repeated their version of why we are at war with Ukraine” – that the operation was necessary to clean up the Ukraine from the Nazis, to liberate the oppressed people of Donbass and to show the West that Russians cannot be intimidated. “But now that war is drawing near, and the casualties and suffering can no longer be concealed, more and more are waking up.”

Since the start of the war in Ukraine, thousands of Russian journalists have paid the price for reporting “false” information about the military. Penalties varied fines to sentences of five days in prison to years in prison.

Journalists who attended the funeral in Ulan-Ude were questioned by police and ordered to stop reporting on them. On September 23, Mutinova and Trifonova were handcuffed and arrested by local police in Irkutsk, then released after three hours of questioning.. No charges have been filed. A case is currently pending against them for allegedly distributing leaflets saying “No to war”.

Mutinova and Trifonova were arrested only two days after the announcement of the partial mobilization of 300,000 Russian military reservists. This measure led several thousand young Russians to flee the country to escape conscription.

A man in a coffin.

A Buddhist funeral service is held for a Russian soldier in the city of Ulan-Ude in Eastern Siberia, Russia.

(Lyudi Baykal)

“Mobilization is a game-changer,” says Olga. “Now no one can pretend that the war is not their business. The war has come to every house, to every apartment.

Lyudi Baikala publishes a running list of the dead. So far, 336 Buryats and 78 soldiers from Irkutsk Oblast have returned to wooden coffins. The Russian authorities have long ceased to publish figures.

In March, as the funeral ceremony at the Lukodrome in Ulan-Ude drew to a close, officials took the microphone. Bair Tsyrenov, Deputy Chairman of the Government of the Republic of Buryatia, said fallen soldiers. “They died for the greatness of Russia, for the end of bloodshed in Ukraine.”

Ulan-Ude Mayor Igor Shutenkov said: “They fell to defend the future of our country.”

Lieutenant Colonel Vitaly Laskov, commander of the 11th Airborne Assault Brigade, added: “The paratroopers made their last jump into the sky.”

“There were no sobs,” recalls Trifonova. “Only a silence filled with pain.”

Markus Ziener is special envoy.

Source link


Comments are closed.