The journalists at Proekt had expected some sort of state-sanctioned attack. The site, whose name means “project,” launched in 2018 and quickly earned a reputation for detailed investigations into the hidden contours of wealth and power in modern Russia. Its founder and chief editor, Roman Badanin, had been forced out of top positions at several independent newsrooms as a result of political pressure. At Proekt, he told me, “We decided we’ll write about what’s interesting and not worry about the consequences.” Last November, the outlet published a report suggesting that Vladimir Putin might have a seventeen-year-old daughter from an extramarital affair. In June, the site announced an upcoming investigation into the secret holdings of Russia’s interior minister. A day later, police investigators showed up to search the apartments of Badanin and two of his colleagues. “We had no illusions, and from the very beginning knew this could very well end badly,” Badanin said. Even still, he added, “It was impossible to prepare for something akin to a de-facto ban on our entire existence.”
On July 15th, Russia’s justice ministry declared Proekt an “undesirable organization.” In Russia, any coöperation with an outfit rendered “undesirable” is a felony punishable by several years in prison. Proekt was forced to close immediately. The site’s online archive would have to be deleted, too, given that anyone citing or linking to the work of an undesirable organization is committing a crime. Sonya Groysman, a reporter and producer for Proekt, told me of deleting an eight-episode podcast that she had produced during the pandemic, “In the Epicenter,” which told the stories of doctors and nurses working in Russia’s COVID hospitals. The physicians had sent her voice memos during their shifts. “Excuse me, but I think it’s fair to consider this an important document of our time,” she said. “But now it’s some kind of undesirable information that is illegal to distribute.”
At the same time, the justice ministry moved to apply the “foreign agent” label to ten journalists at Proekt, including Badanin and Groysman. First introduced in 2012, the designation is often used to disrupt the work of media outlets and N.G.O.s that touch on sensitive political issues or otherwise aggravate the Kremlin. But this was the first time that individuals, as opposed to organizations, were deemed foreign agents, meaning that they could leave Proekt, or journalism entirely—becoming, say, mushroom pickers in the Siberian taiga—and they’d still be considered foreign agents in the eyes of the Russian state.
Groysman got the news on a trip to Sochi, on the Black Sea. She was watching a storm batter the coast with heavy rain when her phone started buzzing non-stop. The first message read “Fuck, Sonechka.” She called her friend and colleague at Proekt, Olga Churakova, who had been added to the registry a week earlier. As foreign agents, they are now obligated to add to any publication, even a post on Instagram, a clunky twenty-four-word disclaimer: “THIS NEWS MEDIA/MATERIAL WAS CREATED AND/OR DISSEMINATED BY A FOREIGN MASS MEDIA PERFORMING THE FUNCTIONS OF A FOREIGN AGENT AND/OR A RUSSIAN LEGAL ENTITY PERFORMING THE FUNCTIONS OF A FOREIGN AGENT.”
They also have to send a forty-page financial report to the justice ministry four times a year, listing not just all their sources of income but how much they spend and on what. “Why should some official at the ministry of justice know how much I paid for a dress?” Churakova said. “It’s humiliating.”
Since April, ten outlets and twenty journalists have been targeted by the state. In April, Meduza, an online publication founded by journalists who had quit or been fired from other outlets, was named a foreign agent. It has since struggled with a loss of advertiser revenue and a general wariness among many of its sources. VTimes, a new startup made up of journalists from Vedomosti, a once-respected business paper, announced its closure three weeks after being added to the foreign-agent registry, in May. A week after Proekt was named an undesirable organization, in July, the Insider, which specializes in data-driven investigations, was added to the foreign-agent registry; two weeks after that, Open Media, an online resource, announced that it was shutting down after its Web site was blocked and its parent organization, funded by the exiled oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was named undesirable. “Life for Russian journalists has never been calm or all that great, but I’ve never seen things get this bad this fast,” Badanin told me. “We have reached the most dramatic point in the entire history of Russian media.”
Groysman and Churakova, who are twenty-seven and thirty-two, respectively, have already lived through successive waves of state-led crackdowns against independent media, with top editors being fired or publishers being forced to sell to Kremlin-friendly owners. “Earlier, there was this feeling that as journalists we had our own way to fight back,” Groysman said. “O.K., so they break up one outlet, so people go to another one or create their own.” That’s how Proekt itself was created. “Our iceberg is shrinking,” she said. “It’s been breaking apart slowly over the years, and we hopped from one chunk of ice to another. But now it doesn’t seem there’s any place left to jump, and so we’re all left to drown.”
In many ways, the Kremlin’s current crackdown can be traced to the case of Alexey Navalny, the country’s leading opposition figure. Last August, Navalny was poisoned on a trip to Siberia and evacuated to Germany for medical care. In January, he flew back to Russia and was detained at the airport, which led to large-scale protests in more than a hundred Russian cities. “I remember the weeks before Alexey was poisoned,” Ivan Zhdanov, the C.E.O. of Navalny’s organization, said. “It felt like some kind of idyll, relatively speaking: we weren’t being constantly investigated, the regular searches of our offices had quieted down, our accounts had been unfrozen, Alexey was travelling around the country.” But the state’s attack on Navalny sent a clear signal. “The decision to kill him was more important than all the others that followed,” Zhdanov said. “Everything else was just the consequence of this one decision.”
Since Navalny was handed a nearly three-year sentence, in February, a number of his close associates have been charged with politically motivated offenses, such as violating pandemic-era restrictions on public gatherings. (In March, on the same day that a court extended the house arrest of four defendants in the case, Putin held a rally at a Moscow stadium attended by tens of thousands.) Many of the regional heads and local coördinators of Navalny’s onetime nationwide network gave up politics or fled Russia entirely. Among those who have ended up abroad is Zhdanov, who was on vacation with his wife in Turkey when Navalny was arrested. He decided to stay out of the country and led the coördination of protests this winter. After a number of court decisions targeting Zhdanov and Navalny’s organization, including an order to delete a widely viewed investigation into the illicit wealth of former Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, he was charged in absentia with financing an “extremist” organization. “It was clear that if I came back I would face this charge, and then another, and I wouldn’t be looking at one or two years in prison but much longer,” Zhdanov told me. “To return in such conditions struck me as irrational.”
But the rules kept changing. To a great extent, authorities had previously left alone the relatives of opposition figures. (One notable exception was the three-and-a-half-year prison term that Navalny’s younger brother, Oleg, received in 2015.) But, on March 29th, police arrested Zhdanov’s sixty-six-year-old father. He was formally charged with abuse of office, stemming from his time as a small-town official in Russia’s northern Nenets region. Since then, he has been held in pretrial detention. This summer, a COVID outbreak tore through the cellblocks of the facility where he’s being held. In a letter from mid-August, Zhdanov’s father complained of guards taking away his pain medication. “There’s a dull, endless pain throughout my body,” he wrote. If found guilty, he could be sentenced to prison for up to ten years.
Zhdanov, who has temporarily resettled in Europe, said, of his father’s detention, “This was a blow I wasn’t expecting.” His father was always sanguine, even supportive, of his political work, except for a moment, in 2014, when Zhdanov first told him that he was joining Navalny’s anti-corruption foundation. “He told me they would put me in prison,” Zhdanov said. “But, in the end, it happened to him instead of me.”
Meanwhile, the Kremlin has sought to outlaw the entire movement. In April, prosecutors demanded that Navalny’s political organization be considered “extremist,” effectively equating it with a terrorist group. A few weeks later, police showed up at the hotel room of Ivan Pavlov, a prominent lawyer who had agreed to defend Navalny’s organization against the designation. At the time, Pavlov was also defending a journalist named Ivan Safronov, who was charged by the F.S.B. with treason and has been held in jail for more than a year without any evidence being made public. Formal charges filed against Pavlov allege that he shared secret information from Safronov’s case. But, to most observers, the targeting of an attorney was another sign that the Kremlin had expanded the circle of those whom it considers eligible for repressions.
One evening this summer, I met up with Pavlov in Moscow. While he awaits trial, the court has barred him from using the Internet or a phone—a minor annoyance for arranging an interview with a journalist, but a giant pain for a lawyer trying to oversee several complicated political cases at once. He can’t look up basic information or order a taxi; his colleagues and his wife field messages and arrange meetings. “Let’s just say the effectiveness of my work has been lowered pretty dramatically,” he told me.
Pavlov, too, felt the shift in mood. “I can’t say I ever felt any great love from those on the other side, whether investigators or prosecutors, but they treated me with patience and a kind of wary respect—I was for them, let’s say, a procedural opponent,” he said. But, beginning with the Safronov case, that attitude changed. He noticed that he was being followed, with agents trailing his car and conspicuously stalking him around town. Taking on the Navalny case seems to have been the final straw. “If we are defending people who are outright enemies,” Pavlov said, “then that makes us collaborators, which is akin to being enemies ourselves.”
On July 18th, Pavlov’s legal-aid organization, Team 29, disbanded. The authorities had blocked its Web site after claiming that it had published information provided by a Czech N.G.O. previously labelled an undesirable organization. As for Pavlov himself, if found guilty, he will automatically lose his license to practice law. When we spoke, he projected an air of matter-of-fact stoicism, and seemed committed to continuing his work as an attorney in Russia. “It’s like being a doctor,” he said. “Until your patient is out of danger, you can’t get up and leave the operating table.” But, on September 7th, Pavlov posted on Telegram that he had arranged for “reliable lawyers” to take over his cases, and fled to Georgia. “The restrictions that were imposed on me in connection with the criminal case gradually made my work impossible,” he explained. “The restrictions did not concern only one thing—the ability to leave the country. This was the sign pointing to the exit.”
As far as the Kremlin is concerned, outlets that veer from the official narrative must inherently be part of the same Western-led conspiracy that Navalny and his supporters are seen as carrying out or at least enabling. According to this logic, once the Kremlin set out to destroy Navalny, it was inevitable that journalists would become targets, too. “When you’re at war, you don’t fight your enemy only, but also his allies, mercilessly and indiscriminately,” Tatiana Stanovaya, head of the analysis firm R. Politik, said.
The columnist Ivan Davydov recently argued in Republic, a news-and-politics site, that, although Putin and those around him are indeed concerned with day-to-day politics—the pro-Kremlin United Russia party is polling at historic lows—they are engaged in a much broader struggle against a changing society and information space. “This is a war waged against time, against the world as it is now,” Davydov wrote. “This new transparent world is too uncomfortable, and its shortcomings must be corrected.”
Badanin was out of the country when Proekt shut down. He ended up in California, where, as Ben Smith reported in the Times, he is planning to relaunch the site under a new name, Agentstvo, an ironic reference to the foreign-agent status forced upon him and other Proekt journalists. Some of Proekt’s former staff members and contributors are considering leaving Russia to join up, but just as many are wary of throwing themselves into uncertain exile. The essential dilemma, for all of them, is choosing between their work and their home. “You can talk about journalism as a calling or mission, but it’s just as simple as the fact that I like this work,” Groysman said. Not long after she found herself branded a foreign agent, she and Churakova started a podcast about their predicament. “O.K., so you’ve taken away my job, closed down the media where I worked, and forced me to erase my stories,” Groysman said. With a podcast, “We can create our own media and tell our own story.”
Their podcast, “Hi, You’re a Foreign Agent,” is at once group therapy and a gripping journalistic project. Churakova said, “We’re working through the trauma in our own way.” Groysman told me, “It’s a survival method, a way for us to make this reality not just bearable but interesting. Suddenly you’re not simply living your new terrible life but you’re on journalistic assignment—you have to record everything, to find out as much as you can.”