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An Interview with Anna Nemtsova About Being a Russian Journalist

Anna Nemtsova is a Russian journalist based in Moscow and a correspondent for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. She reports not only about Russia, but also on other former Soviet republics. Anna has worked for the Washington Post, Pulitzer Center, Russia Now, NBC News, and many others. 

Anna Nemtsova. Used with permission.

Anna Nemtsova. Used with permission.

After the assassination of Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov in February 2015, condolence messages from around the world poured to Anna Nemtsova's Facebook page because of the assumption that she and the Russian politician were somehow related. The common family name, however, was just a coincidence, although she and Nemtsov were born and raised in the same hometown of Nizhny Novgorod, a city which was closed for foreign visitors during Soviet times. Anna remembers Nemtsov as a curly-haired, charismatic scholar during her teenage years. She calls him the “first democrat” she had ever seen. 

Today, Nemtsova works as an independent journalist in two directions: she reports on events in Russia for the West, and on the West for a Russian-speaking audience. In this exclusive interview for Global Voices, Nemtsova elaborates on the importance of Nemtsov's political activities for Russia, the recent sudden and temporary absence of Putin that had the world talking, and censorship in Russia.

 Global Voices: How would you comment on the various hypotheses about Nemtsov’s death?

Anna Nemtsova: Honestly, I have no idea. It all depends on who ordered the murder. I cannot speculate about the reasons. Judging by assumptions published in [the newspaper] Novaya Gazeta, his murder was ordered by Chechen senators. [The newspaper] even mentions the name Ruslan. If it comes from the Chechen community, there might be different reasons. The first may be related to the cartoons of Mohammed published in France. Nemtsov said that journalists have the right to publish sarcastic cartoons. Novaya Gazeta even suggests that there was a list of people to be executed in connection with the [Charlie Hebdo] incident. This could be why he was killed, but Nemtsov's family, [including] his daughter, does not believe in this version of events. They have reasons to suspect direct intervention by the Federal Security Service. We can only speculate, [but] I suggest we don’t.

As for me, I've seen many contract killings, including of my friends. Back in the day, there were many assassinations that involved Chechens. So [Nemtsov's] assassination may be associated with [the Chechens]. However, it may [also] be associated with the fighting in Ukraine. I think both versions are possible, but I cannot strongly support any particular theory.

GV: What about the conspiracy theories that American interests are involved?

AN: I consider them the most unlikely possibility. For me, [this idea] is a conspiracy.

 GV: How will the killing affect the Russian government?

AN: I do not think that the killing of Nemtsov would affect the government in any significant way. However, they are worried about the Chechen aspects of the story. For the first time in the Putin era, we supposedly have a conflict between Kadyrov and the federal security forces. Meanwhile, different versions arose, [and] a key suspect emerged. Among those who are arrested is Zaur Dadayev, who has served as a ranking officer in Kadyrov's defense forces. And Kadyrov twice praised Dadayev's patriotism. And anyone [else] who's been arrested is either related to or a friend of Dadayev. The whole process of arrests and all the special operations against Kadyrov’s people are very humiliating for him, for which he blamed the US and Europe. He says that no matter what happens, they know that Kadyrov is always with the president of Russia—he did not say Putin, but “the president of Russia.”

I would say that at this moment the law enforcement forces are looking for a solution that would be lasting for Putin, who can not choose between the Federal Security Service and Kadyrov; he values both sides. And a few days ago they came up with a solution. They found a man [Adam Osmaev], later identified as the commander of the Ukrainian volunteer battalion “Dzhokhar Dudayev.” This option is a relevant one, but there are people among the Russian liberals who do not believe in this version. This also reminds of the case in which they accused Boris Berezovsky as a possible connection to the murder of Anna Politkovskaya. Berezovsky was out of the country at the time and it is always easy to blame someone on the other side of the front, not in the country and known as a Russian enemy. Nobody believes in this version.

 GV: What are the consequences of Nemtsov’s death for the opposition?

AN: Huge. He, as we know, was a key figure for the Russian opposition and Moscow protests. He had all the necessary contacts, he knew whom to call to, how to submit a request in order a public protest to be summoned. And another very sad element is that he was a key communication leader among the opposition leaders, many of whom have conflicts with each other. And everyone immediately felt his absence. He was among the leaders with the highest profile – as a politician he was a former minister, governor, deputy prime minister. And he believed in the electoral process. There was much criticism of his lifestyle, but he remains a true democrat. I knew him since my childhood. The last thing he was organizing was a protest march, called “Spring”, a demonstration planned to carry the Russian flag. And he was sad that the national flag was worn only by Putin's supporters…His dream was to return the flag to the opposition. And it was a poignant moment when protesters, after his murder, carried the flag. It was a very emotional moment for everyone.

 GV: Are there opposition leaders who are strong enough as Nemtsov?

AN: They all have strong democratic believes, and they try different ways of cooperation. I think they are still seeking a better cooperation model. Because the opposition is divided, it is its weakest side. Nemtsov himself did not pretend to be a leading figure. For example, when Alexei Navalny appeared, Nemtsov has clearly demonstrated that he supports him, he said in public and to him: “I will always be your supporter.” He had a very democratic behavior. And he made numerous corruption investigations that were quite impressive. We never heard any official denials of such reports. They were focused on very important things – corruption, construction works in Sochi, on which subsiquent journalistic reports came out. So he was even ahead journalists. For example, he sought to expose corruption at local level. He succeeded in coping with the legal institutions in Russia, he knew how to provide legal services to people, how to fight corruption at a local level. Which in essence is a grass-root democracy.

The problem in Russia is the disillusionment, disappointment in relation to democracy values. And Nemtsov strongly believed in those values. When there were consequences of this disillusionment, Nemtsov knew that, he knew how painful were those times. Therefore he devoted his investigations and worked really hard. He was a governor in very difficult times. And I believe that in Kremlin many people understand his dedication – two deputy prime ministers of Russia came to his funeral.

 GV: Did journalists and activists fear for Nemtsov's life before the attack?

AN: None of us expected this. We heard that he had concerns, especially his mother, that could there could be a kind of retaliation because of criticism, but none of us thought it would happen to him. Of course, he had many problems, he had been stabbed during protests, arrested. But none of us thought he might be in a list of the endangered, a target for this type of… aggression. It was a shock for everyone.

Eight years in a row he had been ignored or blacklisted by mainstream media. The sad irony is that they spoke out about him after his assassination, after preventing his access for years.

GV: After his murder there were people out in the streets with posters saying: “We are not afraid”. Is there an atmosphere of fear in Russian society at the moment?

NV: If you interview people in Russia, many of them are careful in what they say. In the early years of the Putin era, people maybe were more open. But on the other hand, in the 90s there were other fears – the fear of whether they are safe. These are different kind of fears. At the time the crime rate was amazingly high – people were being shot in the streets. And this is no longer the case. At least now it is safe to live in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Well, not absolutely everyone. Russia itself has so many problems. It has always been difficult the terrorism in Russia to be kept under control. Terrorism attacks were huge problems that Kremlin had to deal with. It is difficult to make general conclusions, but I think there is a change since a decade now. At least at present, one can not help but note can travel to Chechnya, you can walk around without fear of abduction.

GV: You are in Sevastopol now, in order to report on the first anniversary of annexation of Crimea. What are the moods here?

AN: Journalists here, as in Russia, have concerns about what they say. In the recent months, there have been many abductions of Muslim Tatar activists. They do not feel safe in Russia. These abductions didn't happen before.

GV: What's the media situation in Russia now?

AN: If I have to be honest, the situation is not dramatically worse because there is Internet freedom, for example, where many things happening in the Internet. Indeed, many media were on the brink of extinction some time ago, there were problems last year, even but now media are back to their feet. There is always a way to find a media time online. The website Meduza, for example, is formed as a very interesting media. When, for example, the editor of Lenta.ru was fired, many journalists, its employees, supported her and decided to leave.

I have many friends who work in state media. They complain some of their articles are never published. I don't judge them because they need to make a living, too. And it is a matter of choice whether one finds funding from the state or otherwise. Either way, if it helps people, that's fine. And if we still talk about the same agenda and if in different ways we can achieve the same, with different instruments. In the same time, the chances to do independent journalism in the province are very low. 

Many young journalists from different regions have come and asked me how to live with the fact that all the media are owned by the government. And I tell them to go out and find a strong story that cannot be stopped by any editor. A very human and true story that no media would censor. This is the way. My father for example was as a reporter for “Pravda,” but nevertheless he managed to publish independent stories.

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