Yelena Trifonova: ‘In Siberia, calling someone “Muscovite” is almost an insult’

Photo fron Yelena Trifonova's archive, used with permission.

Global Voices interviewed the publisher of independent regional opposition media Baikal People, Yelena Trifonova,  on email, where she spoke about opposition media, life in the Russian regions and the future of Russian journalism. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Global Voices (GV): How did your project begin?

Yelena Trifonova (YT): Journalist Olya Mutovina and I initiated “People of Baikal” in 2019 as a small project. We created a website to share our articles, which were also republished by the regional Irkutsk newspaper where we worked at the time. Later on, two other journalists, Natasha Sokolnikova and Karina Pronina, joined our team.

Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we maintained an anti-war perspective and did not censor our content. The newspaper then stopped its collaboration with us. We thus became an entirely independent publication.

Our website was later blocked by Roskomnadzor [the Russian media watchdog which executes censorship laws]. This occurred after our interview with Ayuna Morozova, a Kharkiv resident originally from Buryatia, who had narrowly escaped death during a Russian bombing in Kharkiv.  Such narratives are taboo in Russia.

We continued working on a blocked website and a Telegram channel, especially since Facebook and Instagram are also now blocked in Russia. In September 2022, during a military draft campaign, Olya and I were detained during an anti-draft rally, handcuffed, and brought to a police station. There, we faced an interrogation and an administrative case accusing us of defaming the army. Even before that, the police detained Karina at a war victim's funeral.

Soon afterwards, FSB agents [the FSB is the descendant of the KGB] visited our former newspaper office. Realizing the increasing risks, we fled from Russia. However, most of our editorial team remains in the country, working anonymously.

GV: What do you mainly write about?

YT: From the very beginning, our focus has been on the Siberian regions and the problems that they face. Russia is structured in such a way that life is concentrated in big cities. Hospitals and schools are located in cities, roads and houses are built there, thus money and people move to big cities.  If you were born in a village, then you are automatically less likely to receive a good education or assistance, because hospitals and schools in villages are closing and there is not enough work.

There are no journalists in these regions either. They almost never write about villages and small towns unless some kind of disaster occurs there, such as a flood or a terrible fire. So these huge territories in Russia are like a white spot. Often people from the regions have no one to talk to about their problems. But it shouldn't be like that.

In 2020, I wrote about a big flood in an Irkutsk village. Hundreds of houses were flooded and it was impossible to live in them. Affected residents struggled to reclaim their legal rights, and, during my visit, everyone wanted to tell their story. Because a journalist is the last hope for justice and publicity.

At the same time, these regions are rich in traditions. For instance, Pikhtinsk in the Irkutsk region is home to Siberian descendants of Dutch immigrants who maintain their cultural heritage. Their descendants still cook according to old national recipes and wear traditional clothes. 

A guy from a small village created a throat singing group “Cheno;” they perform songs in the Buryat language and not long ago could tour Europe. They have amazing music.

Recently, our coverage has heavily revolved around the consequences of the war [Russian invasion of Ukraine], how those killed in the war with Ukraine are buried. We have been documenting the casualties from the Irkutsk region and Buryatia. Authorities are not releasing casualty figures. We had to collect them bit by bit, from obituaries that are published on social media by relatives, sometimes by schools, universities, heads of villages and cities. We have documented 1,800 casualties in our list.

GV: What's the origin of the title “People of Baikal”?

YT: We mostly write about the regions surrounding Lake Baikal, which is our home. This means the Irkutsk region, Buryatia, and the Transbaikal region. Eventually, we hope to expand our stories to include regions like Tyva

We wanted our title to emphasize our human-centric narratives. “People of Baikal” represents those whom we write about, our audience, and anyone connected to or interested in the Baikal region.

 GV: How does your media compare with other opposition Russian media outlets?

YT: We are unique because we focus on the regions of Russia, our on-ground reporting continues. Only the editorial team works from abroad, with identities disclosed, and on the ground we work with anonymous authors. This hybrid approach to journalism, born out of necessity, is currently unparalleled.

Collaborating in such circumstances is both challenging and dangerous. For safety, our contributors use pseudonyms, which reduces the risk of criminal prosecution.

The protagonists of our stories are also afraid to give comments to our publication because it was censored and blocked; we often have to change their names for safety. Some people  think we are enemies, traitors to the homeland and they refuse to communicate. This is very difficult psychologically; journalists are constantly on the verge of burnout. But they continue to work because it is important to do everything possible to ensure that the war ends quickly. Moreover, we are constantly offered help by volunteers who want to work for free and provide information from Russia. 

I think we cannot yet fully grasp what journalists are doing in Russia today. Each article from the ground is a real historical testimony. If it weren't for them, we would completely lose touch with reality.

GV:  Do you feel like you are losing contact with those inside Russia?

YT: We don't feel that way. We always talk to our writers, experts, and regular folks. We have more online meetings, but it's key to stay connected to what's real and relevant.

GV: People now discuss Russia's decolonization. What does this mean to you, and how do you view it?

YT: Talk about decolonization is getting popular. The war sped this up. People see that Russia's move into Ukraine is tied to big changes and that the war has colonial roots.

We spoke of such issues in our country before the war. It's not just about seeing national areas as colonies but also about unfair treatment due to where someone is from. This issue is big and deep. 

In Siberia, calling someone “Muscovite” is almost an insult. Siberia feels like it just serves Moscow's money needs. It's a wealthy area with lots of oil and gas, but locals don't benefit much. It feels like we have a gold mine, but others benefit from it.

For instance, gas from the big Kovykta field is sold cheaply to China, but places like Irkutsk and Buryatia don't get this gas. Building a system here doesn't make money for Gazprom [Russia's state gas organization], even though the gas is from our land. In a year, Irkutsk increased its taxes a lot, from RUB 214 billion [about 2.2 billion USD] to RUB 1.7 trillion [about 23.2 billion USD]. But this cash went to the main government, leaving the area without money to fix schools. In Slyudyanka, a town of 18,000, there are only two ambulances and one main doctor. People often die without getting help in time.

Buryatia is among the poorest regions. Power costs RUB 3.1 [0.03 USD] per unit there, but only 1.4 [0.01 USD] in Irkutsk. These are neighboring regions.  Is that fair?

 Earlier, regions gave money to the center. Now, they also give lives. Buryatia saw many soldiers die early in the war. Many men from there joined the army due to low living standards and many army bases being there. Now, over a thousand from Buryatia have died in the war. That's a big number for a place with under a million people.

The researchers calculated that a man from Buryatia is approximately 75 times more likely to die in Ukraine than a Muscovite. This is a huge disproportion that speaks of institutional discrimination. And almost all of this applies to any national republic [The Russian Federation comprises of republics, krais, oblasts, cities of federal importance, an autonomous oblast, and autonomous okrugs. There are currently 21 republics in Russia, which are  nominally autonomous, each with its own constitution, language, and legislature, but represented by the federal government in international affairs. Most republics are designated as the home to a specific ethnic minority as their titular nation or nations and are legacy of the USSR nationalities policies].

We do not have real federalism; regions and especially national republics now cannot manage their wealth or decide their own fate. They should have such a right. How this will be implemented no one can say for sure. But this will be a long and painful process. We must admit: now anti-colonial voices are heard mainly from emigrants, because it is dangerous to talk about it inside the country and people are forced to remain silent. Therefore, it is impossible to assess how great the anti-colonial demand is within the country.

GV: Do you have the feeling that people in the regions are tired of the war? Or do they support it?

YT: Everyone feels drained, but not the same way. Russia has diverse parts. Big cities felt little war impact. They see fewer draftees, no arriving coffins, and stocked shops. The war is like a hovering cloud that doesn't rain. It's there, but you might choose to overlook it, knowing you can't push it away. This feeling isn't agreement or endorsement — folks are weary. Yet, life goes on.

In smaller places, it's a stark contrast. War is an ever-present reality there. Most who enlist or volunteer come from these spots. Often, they enlist due to hopelessness or powerty. Here's an illustration. I learned today that the Slyudyansky district in Irkutsk had a goal to get 270 volunteers. They got 50. From these, 30 hail from Slyudyanka, a city of 18,000; 5 from Baikalsk, a 13,000-people city; the rest are from rural areas. Why just 5 from Baikalsk? The reason is clear — they're cleaning rivers near Baikal, paying RUB 100,000 [about 1100 USD] per season. People have the opportunity to earn money at home and they do not want to go to slaughter for the RUB 200,000 [about 2200 USD] they are paid to enlist.

In recent regional elections, some parliamentary candidates tried to use patriotic aggressive rhetoric. None of them received any significant number of votes. Most candidates stuck to common promises — building more schools and childcare centers. Broad backing for the war is absent, and the authorities see that. Pre-election, they conduct sociological polls that are not fake for themselves and understand which topic  is popular or not. Clearly, the war topic doesn’t resonate.

GV: What do you think about the elections in 2024? Would you start providing your platform for campaigning to a protest candidate or some idea from the opposition, as Navalny suggested?

YT: I don’t think that a change of power in Russia is possible through elections right now. Most likely, Putin will secure a legal majority. This is simply because “they don’t change horses in midstream,” and during a war, changing the president for most people in Russia is too unpredictable and even worse than staying with the current leader. People feel they have no choice.

But this doesn't mean that action isn't needed. On the contrary, we should do everything possible. We would provide a platform to any candidate whose values align with ours. One of our principles is to give a voice to everyone, especially those who are less likely to be heard. I see no reason to deviate from this principle.

GV: How do opposition media in exile work, and on what means do they survive?

YT: The authorities have done everything to stigmatize independent Russian media, suggesting that associating with them is dangerous. As a result, we are practically cut off from advertisers. Our only means of survival is through fundraising and grants. Thus, the support of our readers is especially vital and valuable to us.

GV: What article are you especially proud of that came out over the past year?

YT: We managed to locate a cemetery of former prisoners from the Wagner PMC near Irkutsk. Volunteers on-site assisted us with this discovery, and they continue to support our efforts to this day. Their help is invaluable to us and profoundly significant, because it demonstrates that people prioritize truth over personal safety.

We conducted a data study and found that in some rural areas of the Irkutsk region, 20 percent of children attend correction classes, with the majority diagnosed with “mild mental retardation.” This statistic alone paints a stark picture of the state of the Russian village, more so than many others, yet it has never been highlighted in any official report.

We published an appeal from those mobilized from the Irkutsk region, who asked for help and said that they were being driven to slaughter. The governor was forced to admit that this was true and even went to “understand the situation” in Donbass, although he did not understand anything. But people saw the power of journalistic words, even in the face of media restrictions.  And they saw that we were telling the truth.

Following our publication of the story, a seriously ill patient received life-saving medication, and the prosecutor's office identified a breach in the operations of the Ministry of Health. Additionally, a woman from a small town had a lift installed in her building's entrance for her wheelchair. These might seem like small victories, but they reinforce our belief that we can make a difference in Russia, against all odds. 

GV:  How do you see the future of Russian opposition journalism and journalists?

Journalists both in Russia and in exile work under extreme conditions. In Russia, they risk their personal safety. Those in emigration grapple with a lot of everyday and financial challenges, including issues of legalization, loss of identity, and professional hurdles.

Every morning I fear waking up, as each day brings its own set of dangers. While in Russia, the mere rustle of a branch tapping the window made me jolt, imagining a potential raid. Now, when I message our team in Russia, asking, “How are you?” I hold my breath, only exhaling in relief when the reply is, “Everything is fine.” I constantly fear for their safety, dreading that they might face a raid or detention.

However, I believe that independent journalism will persist as long as there's a demand for it in Russia. We cannot abandon people; because it’s the same as abandoning hostages who find themselves on a plane where terrorists have seized the controls. And even after leaving, we still remain the same hostages. Because we are part of the country, and we will work as long as readers need us.

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