My mother shouted: "Russian soldiers couldn't do such a thing.
Elena Kostyuchenko is 35, 17 of them having worked as a journalist for Novaya Gazeta, an independent newspaper published in Russia from 1993 until the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. In March 2022, after a second warning from Roskomnadzor, the newspaper suspended publication. In September, its license was revoked. "Including for my reporting from Ukraine," the journalist believes. Elena Kostyuchenko talks about propaganda, which "surpasses Goebbels" and about a regime that is like a sect, in the "Eyewitnesses" project: "I say - Mom, I saw dead children today, killed... She says - Russian soldiers could not do this, they just could not! When Bucha happened, she just yelled at me into the phone.
Tell us about yourself.
- My name is Elena Kostyuchenko, I am 35 years old, a journalist, born in the city of Yaroslavl.
How did the war change your life?
- I worked at Novaya Gazeta for 17 years, and now it doesn't exist - its license has been taken away. Including, I think, for my reports from Ukraine. I can't go home to Russia. I can't see my mother, my sister, my cat. The main thing that has changed is that my country is killing Ukrainians in my name. This is not the first time my country has done this: the same thing happened in Chechnya, the same thing happened in Georgia, in Syria. There have never been so many victims in recent history. The war has been going on for a year now. It is indecent to talk about such things, people from all sides get hit for this, but I don't know if there is any nation or country that would be closer to me than Ukraine. I have relatives living there, I have a Ukrainian surname, but that doesn't make me Ukrainian. All my acquaintances have relatives in Ukraine, and my Ukrainian acquaintances have relatives in Russia. And this is something unimaginable... I wanted to say "crime", but it's worse than a crime. There is a word "war," but it doesn't really describe anything. It's just that every day there are people killing people in my name. It's very hard to live with.
Do you feel personally guilty or responsible for this war?
- Of course. I worked as a journalist, I traveled a lot, I saw a lot. I knew that there was fascism in Russia. I finally realized it in 2015, when they passed the law against LGBT propaganda - then for the first time LGBT people were called a socially unequal group. These are already fascist categories, when we divide the population into groups and say who is socially equal and who is not. Then I worked inside the PNI, a psycho-neurological boarding school. It's a system of concentration camps where people with mental and neurological diagnoses are held. They are deprived of all rights and kept there all their lives. I understood that we have fascism in our country, but at the same time I thought it was enough to do my journalistic work. I really tried hard, but a text can't resist fascism. To some extent it can on a semantic level, but it doesn't change the regime. For some reason I felt the illusion that a journalist should not participate in anything was true. That is, I participated in some protest actions, of course. But, first of all, it was not as often as I could. Secondly, I think that it has become more or less obvious to everyone by 2022 that it makes no sense to take to the streets with placards either. Yes, of course I feel responsible. And of course I know that I could have done a lot more, but for some reason my comfort was more important to me. It seemed to me that there would be no catastrophe. That there couldn't be such a war. Even when Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014. Even when February 24 happened. I mean, when I packed a bag for a business trip to Ukraine, I put one sweater, underwear, socks, a spare pair of jeans, an armor suit, and a supply of medication that I take all the time, for a week. To my girlfriend I said: "It can't last longer than a few days."
Why do so many people in Russia support the war?
- I don't know people who support the war in Russia. I know people who believe that it is a just and inevitable war, but these people do not want war. What was our optimism based on, other than a biological sense that everything would work out, everything would be okay? Nobody wanted war. It's impossible to actually want war, to become murderers or to die. It's just that some people believe that we don't know the whole truth, and if our government goes along with such heinous crimes, then it must have a very important reason for doing so. And some people just don't feel empowered to resist war. To live in Russia is to feel helpless all the time.
Why do people believe Putin?
- A lot of effort by very smart, talented, dedicated people and a gigantic budget is spent on this. Our propaganda is a phenomenon that I don't even know what to compare it to. When I was at university, I was writing a research paper on the internal propaganda of the Third Reich and I thought I was writing a history paper. I thought it was all terribly interesting and would never be useful to me. Our propaganda outdid Goebbels. Goebbels only had a radio and a newspaper. As for us, we have radio, newspapers, internet, social networks, television - it's a gigantic and most powerful instrument of influence. Completely new technologies, completely new narratives. It really makes me laugh when people, especially intellectuals, say: "We are not influenced by propaganda. Everyone is affected by propaganda. It's just that propaganda has different goals. Of course, the main goal of propaganda is to convince everyone that Putin is right. But if it doesn't work, then you can try to convince that not everything is so unambiguous - in some ways he's right and in some ways he's wrong. We do not know the whole truth. If that fails too, then you can try to convince them that if you disagree, then your life will be destroyed. This is where the repressive apparatus comes in, which in Russia is quite monstrous, and gets worse and worse every day. Just now, a man was jailed for seven years for two comments on the Internet. If that doesn't work, you have to be convinced that you are alone, that only you think that way, no one else. If that doesn't work either, you have to be convinced that you can't do anything. And this all works. It's just that everyone ends up on different levels.
Is it possible to change the mind of people "irradiated" by television?
- Of course. You have to. My mom watches TV, for example. Am I going to give my mother to Putin? That will never happen. I love her, she loves me. We talk to her every day, although we don't always manage to. Sometimes we talk for five minutes and then she says, "I can't talk anymore." And we don't talk about the war for two days. And then, "Let's talk." And we talk again for five minutes. Somehow, little by little, we move toward each other. You also have to understand that what we want people to realize is very scary. My mother is 75 years old. First she was a chemist. Then in the '90s, when science had no money, she became a teacher. She's really kind and smart. She really loves her country, I love my country too - it runs in our family. And I want her to believe that her beloved country is a murderer. That there is fascism in her country. Fascism that her father defeated. That for years she was lied to and she believed. And that murders were being committed in her name. How can one realize that at the age of 75? But any reality, the scariest reality, is better than a lie. Because lies are used to cover up the murders. We are all accomplices to these murders, silent or not. We must break out of this construct at all costs, even though it is very painful.
Many people compare Putin's regime to a sect from which it is impossible to escape. How valid is this comparison?
- They have some things in common. First of all, the so-called principle of narcissistic seduction. This is what people are recruited into totalitarian sects. They say to the person, "You are really good. You are very good. You're not a loser, you're not weak, you're not weak, you're not weak, you're not stupid. But you have a hard life, don't you? You do, don't you? You know why your life is hard? Because the people around you are hurting you. They're the enemy. But how good it is that you have found your own, who will love you, support you, take care of you, tell you what to do, how to live. That's what propaganda does. Russia is sinless. Russia can do nothing wrong. When I worked in Ukraine, I went to the Nikolaev Bureau of Forensic Medicine, where the bodies were taken, and I spent a lot of time there. The bodies were lying on top of each other, because morgues in Ukraine are not designed for so many bodies. The bodies were lying on the ground in a garage that had been vacated for this purpose, lying in layers in one of the refrigerators, one on top of the other. There were the bodies of two sisters aged seventeen and three - Arina Butym and Veronika... I forgot the older girl's last name. They were killed by shrapnel, because something didn't make it to Nikolaev. My mother kept calling me and trying to explain what was going on, what I was really seeing. I told her: "Don't, please." Once again she calls me and starts telling me that it's not like that. I say, "Mom, I saw dead children today. Dead murdered children." And she says, "Russian soldiers couldn't do that. They couldn't. You what? How?" When the events in Bucha became known, she just yelled at me into the phone: "No. No, impossible." It's very scary to admit that Russian soldiers could have done such a thing. And they did the same thing in Chechnya, in Syria. And for many years the idea that Russia is sinless, that we were always right, that we have no historical war, that our country has never made mistakes, was just hammered into our heads. It's a very pleasant thought. Just imagine: to live and feel that you're in an absolutely just state, which has never, throughout its history, done anything wrong. I mean, that's just great. I was amazed that some of the points of propaganda contradicted even the school history course. There is a point that Russia does not start wars, it ends them. But that's not true, we've started wars many times, as have other countries. But no, on one side is a dry textbook, which, by the way, is now being rewritten, and on the other side are perfectly prepared analytical programs, very colorful and beautiful films about what a sinless country we are, what an amazing people we are, not at all like everyone else. It all took a very long time to prepare. You can't say that February 24th happened all of a sudden. It happened all of a sudden for us, because we were... I'll speak for myself: I was a stupid, lazy optimist.
What are you most afraid of?
- That Russia will win this war. It will be the death of my country. There is nothing more monstrous than an unrighteous war won. If Russia wins this war, it will be the total destruction of our national identity. And how many people will die while Russia wins this war? This will allow fascism to flourish even more. And this war will be followed by the next one, because fascism is always expansive. More people will die, and there will be no end to this horror.
How do you see the future of Russia?
- I believe it is there, and we will not disappear. There is no way to undo what has happened, what has been done. Nothing will raise the dead. But we will have the opportunity to understand what we have done, and to live with it somehow. It is clear that we, too, will be different when we understand this, and life will be different. Otherwise, it's just disappearance. I think that all of us will have to work very hard, both now and later. There's no time for self-pity. I'm 35 years old, and I wonder if my life will be enough to somehow, even partially fix what happened? I'm not sure. Probably not. But I think we all have to work very hard and live very long lives now. And it's not going to be an easy life. But it will be a life.