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‘So to Speak’ podcast transcript: What Russians don’t know about the war in Ukraine
Note: This is an unedited rush transcript. Please check any quotations against the audio recording.
Nico Perrino: Welcome back to So To Speak, the free speech podcast, where every other week, we take an uncensored look at the world of free expression through personal stories and candid conversations. I am, as always, your host, Nico Perrino. And today, we’re going to be talking about something that I know a lot of you have been curious about – I know I have – we’re going to be talking about the war in Ukraine and the censorship that has been going on in Russia.
And to join us, we’ve got an expert who actually comes recommended by one of our previous guests, Cynthia Martin. You’ll recall she was on the show a couple of years ago to talk about censorship in the Soviet Union. Ksenia Turkova is originally from Russia.
Ksenia Turkova: Yes.
Nico Perrino: You have over 20 years of experience reporting. You reported for a number of stations in Russia, also in Ukraine, which is going to be helpful for this conversation.
Ksenia Turkova: Yes, correct.
Nico Perrino: And now you’re at Voice of America.
Ksenia Turkova: Yes. Now I’m at Voice of America.
Nico Perrino: So, thanks for coming on the show.
Ksenia Turkova: Thanks for inviting me.
Nico Perrino: One of the things that I’ve been trying to get my hands around – or wrap my mind around, I should say, is what the information environment is like in Russia right now. I just read before we started recording this that a court in Russia called Meta – which is the parent company for Facebook and Instagram – an enemy of the state and effectively shut down any of their operations in Russia. So, where are people getting their information in Russia, and what sort of information are they getting? Are they seeing the world from the same perspective that you and I are?
Ksenia Turkova: No. I don’t think unfortunately, they don’t see the world from the same perspective that we see it. Because Russia – now in Russia, the state media and all media in Russia are basically state media. Since the war started, they started creating absolutely different reality.
Nico Perrino: Different narrative.
Ksenia Turkova: Like a different narrative, different world. Like you know in Harry Potter or in Stranger Things they have this upside-down reality, like a different – like a portal to a different world. That’s what, from I see, Russia media is doing now. So, they use absolutely different narratives from what world media is saying or Ukrainian media is saying. They use this expression, Special Military Operation.
Nico Perrino: You can’t call it a war or an invasion.
Ksenia Turkova: You can’t call it a war or invasion, right. And when you see the Ukrainian cities bombarded by Russian missiles, they say to people that was Ukrainian missile or Ukrainians are bombarding their own cities – Kiev and Kharkiv and other places. And when people are asking them, “Why are civilians dying?” They say, “Oh, it’s because of Ukrainian – because Ukrainian people are killing their own population.” And Russian people are targeting only military objects. So, and they don’t show, for example, the video from Mariupol with people dying in the streets. So, in Russia, it’s very difficult to reach this information and to see it. So, they give absolutely alternative reality to the people.
Nico Perrino: But does anyone buy that? I mean, they’ve been seeing all these independent news stations shut down over the years. The question that I would have if I’m an American and all of our independent news was being shut down is like, “Why? And what are they trying to hide from me?” right. Or are Russians just so apathetic about it at this point that they don’t know what to believe? Like how does disinformation play into it as well?
Ksenia Turkova: Actually, a lot of people in Russia do believe that.
Nico Perrino: Do believe that the war is a Special Military Operation?
Ksenia Turkova: Yes, yes.
Nico Perrino: So, the Ukrainians are bombing their own cities.
Ksenia Turkova: Yes, yes. First, according to the polls, about 60% of Russian people, they support this Special Military Operation. And also, according to the polls, not recent polls, but also maybe they were publishing in like 2020, according to those polls, the majority of Russian people trust State TV. So, the State TV is the main source of information and the main source of news for Russian people. And that’s why I can tell that a lot of people in Russia really believe in this, what State channels tell them.
And I can tell by just reading comments in social media, by talking to some of my former colleagues or even relatives that they do believe in that. And also, they use – now they don’t use only TV propaganda to create this alternative world, they also use new technologies and social media. For example, I recently saw a video, I think on TikTok or some other social media –
Nico Perrino: Yeah. I’ve been getting a lot of my information – maybe this is a bad thing to say on camera – but a lot of my information about the war from TikTok. They show a lot of videos and –
Ksenia Turkova: Yes. So, they show the video with people from Mariupol saying that those people were just saved by Russian Army. And when you see this video – they say something like, “Oh, we are so thankful to Russian Army. They saved us.” And you can tell by their lips if you see up close that the lips and words are not synchronized. So, you can see by the background, by some little details, that that video was probably staged or created – I don’t know. So, they use social media to create those – they create different reality. That’s a thing.
And also, I would like to mention that case about two pregnant women in Mariupol in maternity hospital when they shelled the maternity hospital. And there were two women on the pictures of all news world agencies – Associated Press and other different agencies – and one woman was – there was one woman who survived, and she had a daughter. And another woman unfortunately died with her unborn child, but in Russia, they were trying to say – to sell people that there was only one woman. She was an actress, and she played both women in those pictures.
Although, it’s very hard to understand how you can stage stuff like that. Maybe only Steven Spielberg can stage a different – if he goes to Mariupol and create all this because it’s just difficult. But people believe that, and that was one of the main narratives in social media. Under the pictures of those pregnant women, people were writing, “She’s an actress. It’s fake. Fake news.” So, they turned reality into fake.
Nico Perrino: Well, you sometimes see that, for example, with school shootings here in the United States. Conspiracy theorists will say all the children were just actors or the shooter was just an actor. I think that happened with Sandy Hook, for example. So, if I’m hearing you correctly, most Russians, it sounds like, support the war. But you do see acts of disobedience or dissent, right? I’ve seen on social media and elsewhere, that people go in the squares holding up blank signs and getting whisked away and put in the paddy wagon. And Russia just passed, I think it’s a new law, that says this sort of dissent can be punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
Ksenia Turkova: Right.
Nico Perrino: You saw the woman on that television station – one of Russia’s biggest news shows – holding up the sign in protest saying, “No to the war. They’re lying to you.” So, there is some dissent, but it sounds like it’s minority dissent, and those messages are being quickly quashed.
Ksenia Turkova: I would say that there are three groups of people. One group, they really protest against war, and they want to protest. But they have been protesting all those years since Crimea, since the war in [inaudible] [00:09:02], since Boris Nemtsov was killed in Moscow. So, they’ve been protesting all this time. There is one – and I would say it’s like the major group, they’re just passive. They say, “We’re not into politics. We want to stay neutral” or something like that.
And there is the third group, they’re patriots, and they call themselves Russian Patriots, and they do believe in what State Television says. And also, now a lot of experts say that – it’s hard to believe – I mentioned the polls, but the experts say that it’s hard to believe in polls now – I mean right now, when the operation is ongoing, because people are scared –
Nico Perrino: Yeah. Would they answer the polls truthfully?
Ksenia Turkova: Right, right. So, it’s questionable whether we should believe, but still, it’s a very big group. People in Russia are brainwashed, and they do believe in propaganda. And it started – it didn’t happen overnight, it was gradually. Putin and Russian officials, they were doing it gradually with media and now with social media.
Nico Perrino: If we go back to the 1990’s, after the wall fell, after the iron curtain went up, under the Boris Yeltsin regime, was there kind of an outgrowth of independent media in the way that we kind of envision it here in the west, kind of free from censorship? And if so, how has it kind of gotten to where it is now? It sounds like it was more or less gradual.
Ksenia Turkova: Yes. I can’t talk about my own experience because –
Nico Perrino: Please do. Yeah.
Ksenia Turkova: I was too small. I was in middle school or high school. But I can tell that yes, in the mid-‘90s in Russia, there was that spark of freedom when NTV channel was launched.
Nico Perrino: Yeah. MTV, that was popular here in the ‘90s too.
Ksenia Turkova: NTV.
Nico Perrino: NTV. Oh, okay.
Ksenia Turkova: The news channel, yes.
Nico Perrino: You worked there, right?
Ksenia Turkova: Yes. And it was the most popular news channel in the late ‘90s. It was the symbol of high standards of journalism. And yes, it was a very promising period for Russian media. But then, I would say that, already in early 2000s, censorship started gradually.
Nico Perrino: NTV, not to be confused with America’s MTV –
Ksenia Turkova: But we had MTV, as well.
Nico Perrino: You had MTV, too, right?
Ksenia Turkova: Yes, and it was also popular.
Nico Perrino: It was taken over by Gazprom in 2001?
Ksenia Turkova: Right. Right.
Nico Perrino: Now, how is – that’s an energy company, right?
Ksenia Turkova: Yes.
Nico Perrino: And did that result in sort of – and is Gazprom a state affiliated –
Ksenia Turkova: State, yes. They already – before that happened, they already had some media assets. And when Putin became president, NTV criticized Putin a lot. And he wanted – so he started some pressure on NTV. And in April 2001, yes, Gazprom took over.
Nico Perrino: If I’m recalling my Russian history correctly, and I’m not a Russian historian at all, but it was in the early 2000s right, when Vladimir Putin had some PR issues surrounding a submarine sinking. Is that correct?
Ksenia Turkova: Yes, in 2000.
Nico Perrino: He received a lot of criticism for that. I guess he went on vacation while it was happening. And I read –
Ksenia Turkova: And that was the time when he said in this interview to Larry King about this boat –
Nico Perrino: Yeah, what did he say again?
Ksenia Turkova: He said, “It sank.”
Nico Perrino: Yeah, Larry King asked him, “What happened to the submarine?” And he just said, “It sank,” right.
Ksenia Turkova: Yes. It became a meme after that.
Nico Perrino: Yeah. But it was after that – and I watched a documentary recently called Citizen K about – what’s his name – Mikhail Khodorkovsky. And they talk a little bit about that, and how it was after the submarine controversy that he started going after a lot of independent media. Now when I think about Russia, I don’t think of just straight censorship, kind of like what you’re seeing right now which is shutting down Facebook and Instagram, taking over independent media, nationalizing them, pulling dissenters off the square and putting them into police cars. But I also think of, in some cases, more violent forms, like the murdering of dissenters or throwing them in jail, like Alexei Navalny.
But I also think of more harder to pin down forms like disinformation, right. I think Peter Pomerantsev wrote about this in his book, Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible. It’s just like when there are so many claims and so many disputed facts, nobody really believes anything, and as a result, you don’t need to censor things because nobody knows what to believe.
Ksenia Turkova: Right.
Nico Perrino: Right.
Ksenia Turkova: It’s post-truth.
Nico Perrino: Post-truth, yeah.
Ksenia Turkova: Yes, post-truth.
Nico Perrino: Well, now they’re using the language of fake news, for example, to describe some of the reporting about what’s happening in Ukraine. I want to talk a little bit about your experience because you started at NTV, and then it was taken over by Gazprom, right. And then you went and started your own? Or what –?
Ksenia Turkova: I was very young. I was 21. And naturally, I was an intern when I started working for NTV. I was still studying at Moscow University at that time, and it was a great opportunity for me to have an internship on NTV. So, for me, it was – as a young person, young journalist, it was very traumatic, what happened, because I just entered the profession. I just tasted the profession, real TV journalism. And I actually became a host very early. It happened accidentally because they didn’t have a morning host, and they asked me to – they realized they don’t have a morning host on Friday, and they asked me to go on there on Monday. And so, that’s how I became a morning host when I was 21.
Nico Perrino: Oh, wow!
Ksenia Turkova: And so, I just started my new chapter, actually first chapter, in my profession. And then it happened, and I realized what was going on with the Russian media, with the media in my country. And I decided to leave the channel with the majority of journalists, with the team. And we started a new channel called TV-6, and it was shut down. And then we started TVS, and it was shut down.
Nico Perrino: Why was TV-6 shut down? Why were they shut down?
Ksenia Turkova: They always found some pretext.
Nico Perrino: And when you say “they”, you say –
Ksenia Turkova: Some economical reasons or something like that, but it was very obvious to the audience and to everyone that the real reason was just to shut down the channel.
Nico Perrino: And when you say “they”, you mean – you’re talking about the government?
Ksenia Turkova: Government, yes.
Nico Perrino: They didn’t like your reporting?
Ksenia Turkova: Yes, yes. Especially reporting in some difficult situations and sensitive topics. For example, you mentioned the submarine, but after that, I think it was already TV-6 or TVS, I don’t remember well now, when we covered the hostage siege in the theater. And I was covering it as well, it was like day and night, 24 hours, and I do remember that already – it was 2002, but even then, they already tried to put some pressure on us. Because they tried to make us tell people that Special Operation – they used those words even that time – the Special Operation of saving people from the theater was brilliant.
Nico Perrino: How would you get that information, the talking points, so to speak? Was that your producer who would tell you to do that?
Ksenia Turkova: Because we have like different bosses, different bosses who came to the control room, and I just noticed when people were trying to tell other hosts what to say. So, it was already like gradually happening. And that time was one of the important points for me when I realized something bad is going on with my profession. So, yes – those situations like with the hostages, the submarine, they are always turning points. And after each of the situations, they put more and more pressure on independent media.
Nico Perrino: Yeah. And then, you worked at Echo of Moscow for four years, right?
Ksenia Turkova: Yes, and actually –
Nico Perrino: Isn’t that bigger – it’s a publication, right?
Ksenia Turkova: It’s a radio station. It’s a news radio station, and actually, it was the –
Nico Perrino: I’ve heard the name before.
Ksenia Turkova: –I would say the main radio station – news radio station – in Russia.
Nico Perrino: Yeah. It’s a pretty big – yeah.
Ksenia Turkova: But they just closed it as well.
Nico Perrino: Why?
Ksenia Turkova: Also because –
Nico Perrino: For the same reason?
Ksenia Turkova: For the same reason – because they called war war. Yes, and so the TV Rain channel, independent private channel in Russia and Al Maskari, they had to just stop working. Because now in Russia, you have a choice – you actually don’t have a choice. You can continue working as media, but you have certain restrictions. You can’t say war, you can’t say invasion. You can publish only quotes from officials. So, you can’t quote, for example, some Ukrainian side, like Ukrainian militaries – you can quote only the Russian military. So, you have certain amount of – list of sources you can quote.
So, you are very, very limited as a journalist. You can’t actually be a journalist. You can’t stay in your profession – you need to lie. And that’s why you don’t have a choice. If you rather stay on the air and tell people that it’s a military operation and Ukrainian officials bombard their own cities, or you have to close your media.
Nico Perrino: Now, is Russia monitoring what people say or do on social media channels, like Telegram, for example? I was not familiar with Telegram before this war, but now it seems like that’s very popular.
Ksenia Turkova: Yes, it’s very popular.
Nico Perrino: I don’t even know what it – what is it? It’s just a social media?
Ksenia Turkova: It’s some kind of messenger.
Nico Perrino: It’s like a What’s App or something?
Ksenia Turkova: Yes, but now you can run your own channel on Telegram. And yes, it’s becoming very, very popular in Russia and in the Ukraine. I see that there are a lot of Ukrainian Telegram channels and Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the president of Ukraine, has a Telegram channel, and his wife has a Telegram channel, and a lot of Ukrainian officials do. I think it’s popular also in Ukraine, but also there is a – one more point is that they want to give more information to Russian people in the Ukraine.
Now on one of the tv channels in Ukraine, they started Russian speaking broadcasting because they still want to – they’re still not losing hope to tell Russian people the truth. So, they are writing in Russian about it in Telegram channels. They’re launching Russian broadcasting, so they’re still trying to persuade people.
Nico Perrino: And correct me if I’m wrong on the history of Voice of America, wasn’t that kind of one of the animating ideas about it, that you could broadcast radio behind the iron curtain. You know, because anyone can pick up a radio frequency, right?
Ksenia Turkova: Under the blanket.
Nico Perrino: Yeah. So, it’s almost impossible to censor, unless you, you know, hear people listening to it under the blanket. I mean, are we really back at that essentially for a lot of Russians in order to get information from elsewhere in the world?
Ksenia Turkova: Actually, yes. Because I think a couple weeks ago, BBC announced that they are launching – they are going back to shortwaves again. So, yes, we are going back to the Cold War.
Nico Perrino: Yeah. Now, you eventually went to Ukraine, right, after you left Moscow, Echo of Moscow? And what brought you there?
Ksenia Turkova: I just got a job offer. I was working for the Russian radio station, a private radio station called Kommersant FM, and I was a news host. And I got a job offer from one of my former bosses, in Russia, I mean, that there was a new news and talk radio station in Ukraine – I mean, they wanted to create a news and talk radio station in Ukraine. And in Ukraine, there is an interesting situation on the radio market, there. Because they have a lot of musical radio station, but at that time, I think they had only one news radio station, and it was not very popular. Although in Russia, they have a lot of news radio stations. So, this part of the radio market was not developed at all.
And that’s why they invited Russian radio professionals to help them to create this new news radio station. And we created this news radio station. Actually, I moved to Ukraine and lived for one year, and I wanted to go back but then the Revolution of Dignity started in Maidan, and I lived in Maidan right on the central square. So, it was –
Nico Perrino: What is the Revolution of Dignity for our listeners, and myself, who isn’t as familiar with it.
Ksenia Turkova: Revolution of Dignity – Ukrainians call this Revolution of Dignity, the events happened from November 2013 to February 2014, when the former president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, escaped and now –
Nico Perrino: And went to Russia, right?
Ksenia Turkova: Yes, and went to Russia. And actually, Ukrainian people made him go to Russia because they were protesting against his presidency, but it started actually as a protest against his lying. Because he lied to people about signing the association with the European union. He promised people to sign it, but then at the last moment, he told people he would sign another association with Russia, another union with Russia.
And people felt lied to, and so they were angry, and they went on the streets, and then the students who were protesting, they were beaten. And that brought a lot of people to the streets, and that’s actually how that revolution started. And people wouldn’t go from the streets until February until Yanukovych fled, until he escaped from there.
Nico Perrino: And so, that led you to stay longer?
Ksenia Turkova: Yes. Because I – first, it was very interesting for me as a journalist, and second, I just felt that I support Ukraine more and I want to work in Ukraine. Because I saw what was going on in Russia, especially with media, and I wanted to work in Ukraine and for Ukrainian media more.
Nico Perrino: You have in your notes that you sent me that one of your colleagues was killed in a car explosion.
Ksenia Turkova: Yes.
Nico Perrino: How did that happen? Was that a result of the reporting, or was that an attack on them? What happened there?
Ksenia Turkova: He was – his name is Pavel Sheremet. He was very popular Belarusian and Russian – he is Belarusian originally – Belarusian, Russian, and then Ukrainian journalist. He moved to Ukraine at some point, and that’s actually a very long story – maybe it’s for another podcast. Yes, but the thing is that he was killed in the center of Kiev. He was in his wife’s car when he was going to radio station – the same radio station I worked for. He had a morning show, and I had an afternoon show. And I was in US at the time was how I knew what happened. And the Ukrainians are still investigating that. There was a long investigation –
Nico Perrino: So, they don’t know what happened?
Ksenia Turkova: But they actually didn’t figure out finally who killed him.
Nico Perrino: Yeah. Did you end up staying in the United States or coming to the United States because of the media environment and the safety concerns overseas in the Ukraine?
Ksenia Turkova: No. I actually wanted to stay in Kiev. I love Kiev; I love Ukraine. And I love people – Ukrainian people. And my life in Kiev was very happy in spite of all this dramatic experience with revolution and covering the war. But I fell in love with Ukraine, and I wanted to stay. But when I got the job offer from Voice of America, I decided that maybe I should think about it. And I was thinking for about a year, and only after that I finally decided to move because I just wanted to use this opportunity since I had it, and it seemed interesting to me.
Nico Perrino: So, you kind of have your foot spanning the border. You know, you grew up in Russia, but you also spent time in Ukraine. Can you explain for us Americans the dynamic between Russia and Ukraine? We get the message that Russians almost view Ukraine as a part of Russia, and there’s portions of the population within Ukraine that speak Russian as opposed to Ukrainian. So, talk a little bit about how they view each other and their relationship with each other.
Ksenia Turkova: So, you’re right Russia was always seeing Ukraine as a, I would say, younger brother. They actually – they always this expression – a brother nation. I would say they misuse it – a brother nation.
Nico Perrino: Is it reciprocated though? Do you Ukrainians use that with Russia too?
Ksenia Turkova: No. No. Ukrainians use the opposite. They say we’re not brothers. And especially after what happened with Crimea and then [inaudible] [00:29:36]. It became also like their motto – we are not brothers; we are not brothers. But Russia is doing the opposite. They always say Ukrainians are brother nation, like a younger brother, and there is an older brother who is wiser and who knows more, who is more educated because Russian people were always seeing Ukrainian people and Ukrainian language as like – Russian language was always dominating in Soviet Union and after that. And they were seen as a language, as especially Slavic languages – Ukrainian and Belarusian – as like second source languages. So, they were looking superior on the Ukrainians.
Nico Perrino: I should also mention for our listeners, you’re a linguist, too.
Ksenia Turkova: Yes.
Nico Perrino: So, you have some expertise in this.
Ksenia Turkova: Yes. So, this attitude, it was developing throughout the years, and it was getting worse because, for example, like 10 years ago, of course, there was no such attention between Russia and Ukraine. Ukraine was already independent. They were already trying to say, “We are independent people. We have our own language. We have our own way of developing our own politics,” and stuff like that, but there was not big tension between them.
Nico Perrino: Was that because Ukraine has a head of its president – what was his name? Yanukovych.
Ksenia Turkova: He was pro-Russian. Yes.
Nico Perrino: Pro-Russian. So, Russia didn’t feel like they were much threat, right, because they had a puppet president in charge. Or maybe he was democratically elected.
Ksenia Turkova: So, my point was that Russia – since Ukraine became independent 30 years ago after Soviet Union collapsed, Russia actually has never seen Ukraine as a really independent country. They are being very stubborn still in recognizing that it’s a separate country. It’s not a younger brother from the same family – no, it’s an independent country. They have their own language. They don’t want this brother love, especially now when brotherly love is associated with bombs and missiles. And they even have a joke now – I saw it on the internet – luckily, we have only two brother nations, Belarus and Russia.
Nico Perrino: Does Russia view other former Soviet block states the same way, like Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Moldova? I mean, or is there something special between Ukraine and Russia?
Ksenia Turkova: I think it’s very special between Ukraine and Russia. I would say maybe Belarus is in the same boat. But other nations, especially those ones who have their own alphabet, their own completely different language, like Georgia, for example. In the Baltic countries, they were always very independent. So, it depends on country. They have their own relationship with every country.
And I explored – I’m not a political analyst, so I can’t talk about this a lot – but I explored the situation in each post-Soviet country language-wise. Because when I worked in the Ukraine for one TV channel, we had a big project called language independence. And I went to different countries – I went to Belarus, to Moldova, to Lithuania, to Estonia. So, I was writing like long reads about the situation with language in each country – what happened to the national language after Soviet Union collapsed. And I came to the conclusion that in each country, the situation is very, very individual.
Nico Perrino: Now moving forward in Russia, do you see any scenario where there might be more press freedom? Where there might be more allowed for more independent voices, more dissent? Or has pretty much everything since the iron curtain went up, gone the opposite direction slowly over time?
Ksenia Turkova: You know, several years ago, I came up with a metaphor that a lot of my colleagues liked very much. I compare the situation with press in Russia with – independent press – with one high school contest we had when I was in high school. It was a popular contest – it’s called Dancing on the Newspaper. So, you put a newspaper on the floor, and you dance – the couple dancing on those newspapers. Then you fold it, and you dance on the half newspaper. Then you fold it again, and you dance on the quarter newspaper. Then you fold it again 1/8, so until someone just fall down. And those who survive dancing like on their toes, they are the winners.
That was the situation with independent press and Russia. We were all dancing on the newspaper. We were dancing on the newspaper working for NTV. Then we moved from TV to radio, they shut down radio. We moved to newspaper, so it was a situation like that. But now, I talked to one of my colleagues from one of the independent outlets in Russia, and they still work by the way. And she told me that now it’s not dancing on the newspaper, it’s just shooting people. So, now you’re not dancing on the newspaper anymore. And now, people can survive as journalists only outside the country, unfortunately.
And I also talked to many journalists from Russia and Belarus. On Voice of America, we stopped it because of the war, but we had a program called endangered species. And that program endangered species was dedicated to independent media in Russia and in Belarus. And all journalists I talked to from Russia and Belarus, they told me the same thing – that now you can be a real journalist, you can follow your standards only being outside. You can be Russian journalist outside Russia. You can be Belarusan journalist outside Belarus.
That’s a phenomenon we have now, but maybe it’s a future. Because now we have a global world, and especially after the pandemic, we see that everybody can walk on a line, and we can be connected on a line. So, people can even be more effective.
Nico Perrino: Well, I wanted to ask you about this. Because when I knew I wanted to cover this topic on the show, I was doing some research and there were some people who I found to be experts, but they were in Russia. And I was like, a friend of a friend, living in Russia, he left – he was an American citizen – so he took a bus to a neighboring country and managed to get out. But there was a lot of concern that Russian officials were checking people’s phones, right. so, I worried that if I reached out to someone in Russia for an interview – but I don’t know, are they going through people’s emails? Like if I asked to talk with them about censorship, might that put them in danger? I have no idea.
Ksenia Turkova: Yes, you can put them in danger. It’s very difficult for me, for example. I have everyday show, so it’s difficult for me to call someone in Russia, and for example, ask them, “What are the main narratives of Russian propaganda now? Tell us please.” Because I can put this person in danger. He or she, they can’t say what. They can’t say like – they cover war, this or that – they just can’t pronounce it. So, the information from Russia now is obviously limited.
Nico Perrino: Do Russians view themselves as distinct from the west, in a certain sense? Or do they view themselves, maybe in the western part of Russia as Europeans, right. And so, I asked that to kind of get an understanding for how they might view the sanctions and their inability to travel to places that I know are popular, like London or Paris.
And might those sort of sanctions and restrictions end up working against the Putin regime, the inability to access certain western media, movies, and television shows. It’s almost like Russia is becoming a China or a North Korea where a lot of the media environment is no longer available, but people have seen or taste what it was like when it was open, and now they can’t watch The Office for example, on Netflix or – I don’t know.
Ksenia Turkova: You know, I think it also depends on the group of people. Because in [inaudible] [00:39:29], it can affect certain people. In big cities, for example, people are like a little bit richer than others, but the majority of Russian people, unfortunately I don’t see them being affected by sanctions a lot. Because, for example, you take like some Russian village where very, very poor people live, and they’ve never had iPhones. They never watched Netflix. They watch Channel First and the Channel Russia, the second channel. That’s all they have, and they’re very poor.
Nico Perrino: So, it’s different than a – I’m putting an American lens on it, when I think rural, I still think iPhones. I still think internet access. I still think, you know, a level of wealth that keeps you connected to the rest of the world, but Russia is not –
Ksenia Turkova: Yeah. A lot of Russian people are beyond poor, and so they can’t even feel it. Maybe they will feel that there is some lack of food in the supermarket, grocery store, but that’s it. I think that part of society, it can’t be affected. Maybe in the long term, but not right now.
Nico Perrino: So, kind of by way of closing here – there are multiple ways to get information. One is through news media. One is just through opposition political parties, right, challenging the narrative of those in power. Is there true democracy in Russia at the moment? Do you have true opposition parties? Or was kind of the downfall the imprisonment of Alexei Navalny kind of the last – the true opposition that wasn’t put in place just to give the appearance of political opposition?
Ksenia Turkova: Not even appearance, I would say. No, I think they don’t care anymore even about appearance. That’s my opinion.
Nico Perrino: So, was there a time in Russia, though, where they did care about the appearance of democracy. We were going to have these liberalizing institutions like free and fair democratic elections, and open media, and now it’s –
Ksenia Turkova: Yeah. They created some pocket political parties at some point, representing them as opposition parties, but I think last year’s all the opposition is like underground opposition. So, some of them are arrested or under some restrictions or in prison like Alexei Navalny. So, there is no – there are some independent oppositions politicians, but there are only like a few of them. Like Ilya Yashin, for example, he was a friend of Boris Nemtsov. But still, they’re very, very limited in what they can do.
Nico Perrino: It’s interesting. I’ve been checking the news, the New York Times does live updates almost throughout every day, and they do a really good job of tracking it as it’s coming in. But it seems like everyday there is some sort of new crackdown on what people can say or how they can say it or where they can access news. And like I said, just before we came on here, they said that Meta, the parent company for Facebook and Instagram is now an enemy of the state.
Ksenia Turkova: Yes. And they labeled them as extremists.
Nico Perrino: Yeah, yeah. Extremists, enemies of the state.
Ksenia Turkova: And also, one woman, I just heard that, one woman was arrested for holding the poster saying two words.
Nico Perrino: And that’s all they said?
Ksenia Turkova: That’s all.
Nico Perrino: Two words.
Ksenia Turkova: Two words. Stop the war.
Nico Perrino: Yeah, and then blank signs. It’s like even the appearance that someone might be thinking about protesting or suggesting that they disagree with it, they’re getting arrested. I found it interesting that Marina – and I’m not going to even try to –
Ksenia Turkova: Ovsyannikova. Ovsyannikova, yes.
Nico Perrino: She interrupted this live news bulletin on Russia’s State TV Channel One.
Ksenia Turkova: Yes, the main state channel in Russia, First Channel.
Nico Perrino: And they came down relatively softly on her, I thought. I mean, they could have put her in prison under their law for 15 years, but she just got a small fine and a slap on the wrist. And so you think they did that for public relations optics reasons because her protest was so visible, it kind of protected her from the worst consequences of –?
Ksenia Turkova: It’s actually – it’s hard to say what is in their minds, so I don’t know, and I wouldn’t guess. But we don’t know what can happen to her in the future, so the situation might be developed. You never know. A lot of people thought that it was like staged, and it was fake because people especially in Ukraine, they don’t believe that Russian people can be free. They don’t believe in Russian media. And that’s why a lot of people in Ukraine, they were saying, “Oh, it was fake – it was staged, and she was not real.” But she is a real person. She’s a mother of two, and yes, it was just a brave act from her.
Nico Perrino: And they said that she hadn’t been overtly political much in her past. Like most of the stuff she had posted was about being a mother or vacations, and there was no suggestion that she might become an anti-war protester or anything of that sort, which I found to be kind of interesting. There was another woman, Veronica, she was a – I’m not going to even try again to pronounce her last name, but she had an anti-war Instagram post that she was arrested for because they discredited the state authorities and armed forces of the Russian federation.
Stories like that, I’m sure, are just innumerable at this point – thousands of people arrested in the squares. What are you keeping your eye on as a journalist right now, moving forward, as far as kind of access to information in Russia and Ukraine goes? Is there anything that we in America should keep our eye on that you think might happen? Or do you think most of the stuff that they were going to do to crack down on dissent is already happened, there’s no more levers to pull?
Ksenia Turkova: I don’t know. It’s hard to say. I know that a lot of people are now leaving State Channels in Russia. But interesting thing is that a lot of them are not the faces of those channels. They are editors, they are videographers, animators – so, those people who are behind –
Nico Perrino: Behind the scenes.
Ksenia Turkova: Yeah, behind the scenes.
Nico Perrino: But they make everything run, right guys? You need them.
Ksenia Turkova: Yes, but those people feel that something wrong is going on. They are done with it, and they are leaving.
Nico Perrino: Well, I wonder if Russia will get – and it’s kind of already gotten to this point – the same point as China which has its great firewall where it’s really hard to access information from outside of China. But I guess we will see. And I think we will leave it there. Ksenia, I appreciate you coming on the show and sharing this information with us, and the backstory which is just amazing. You’ve kind of experienced everything that we’ve talked about in real time over the past 20 years. So, thanks again.
Ksenia Turkova: Yeah. I hope Russian people will be able to dance on the full newspaper.
Nico Perrino: The full newspaper, sometime soon.
Ksenia Turkova: Thanks for having me.
Nico Perrino: I appreciate it. Again, that was Ksenia Turkova. She is a journalist at Voice of America, has 20 plus years’ experience reporting out of Russia and Ukraine. This podcast is hosted and produced by me, Nico Perrino, recorded by my colleagues, Tyler MacQueen and Chris Maltby, and edited by Aaron Reese. If you want to find out more information about the show or learn more about So To Speak, you can visit us on Twitter at Twitter.com/freespeechtalk or like us on facebook at facebook.com/sotospeakpodcast. We always take email feedback at SoToSpeak@thefire.org, and if you enjoyed this show, please consider leaving us a review wherever you get your podcast, whether that’s Apple Podcasts or Google Play – they do help us track listeners of the show. Until next time, I thank you all for listening, and Ksenia, thank you for coming.
Ksenia Turkova: Thank you.
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