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Putin’s Russia: How propaganda bolsters corruption


09 December 2022

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Interview with Russian journalist Elena Romanova 

To mark International Anti-Corruption Day, we interviewed Elena Romanova, an investigative journalist who has focused on corruption cases for more than 22 years from her basis in Rostov-on-Don. Among other outlets, she has written for Novaya Gazeta, one of the last major Russian newspapers to openly criticise the Kremlin. 


For an investigation around Thallium intoxications in an aircraft building site, Elena was awarded the Redkollegia* media prize for outstanding independent journalism. But while visibility of her work increased, she also found herself on the radar of people who would rather have left things covered up. While unravelling a network of bribery and corruption around incidents of land theft, committed by a company run by a close confidant of Putin, new dangers to her security arose. After the adoption of the so-called “Anti-Fake-News-Law” in 2019, an arrest warrant was issued against her. Due to her work with foreign media, among them NY Times, CNN, Bild, and Spiegel, authorities accused her of espionage. It was then that she had to leave her country and join the Journalist-in-Residence programme in Leipzig, where she is currently residing. 


The interview was conducted in Russian and translated into English by Margarita Lipatova. 

As a starting question: What is corruption for you? How would you characterise and define it? And what would you identify as the main dangers of corruption?

During the years, I came to the conclusion that corruption is an infectious disease. The words corruption and corrosion have the same root. It is a disease that is disrupting society. The same way states can be sick and contaminated by fascism, they can be sick by corruption. 


What is dangerous about corruption is that it is invisible, hidden. The state becomes uncontrollable by its citizens and the authorities can do anything they want without fearing consequences. If we speak about Russia particularly, there is this bad myth that corruption is the mentality of the Russians and this led to the establishment of the Putin Regime and Russian fascism. But actually it is exactly the other way around. The whole situation we are in now, the war, the propaganda machine, all this hatred, is mainly led by corruption and not by Russian mentality. 

Are there different types of corruption in Russia? Can you give us an explanation on why Russia is so inherently “infected” by corruption?

It’s truly difficult to explain this to the Europeans. In a functioning democratic state, at the centre of governance and power, there are human beings – the citizens – with their values and their freedom of choice. With fair and transparent elections, people vote for a government which promises to bring better life quality accompanied by security and development. In Russia, it is different. It is written in the constitution that the most important thing is the Russian land, not the people. 


Putin understood early on what the Russian people wanted and made use of it. In the beginning of the 2000s, he offered his specific form of government and made people believe in his state-centred governance.


Putin offered a social contract. He provided security and economic and social stability. In exchange, people had to pledge loyalty. Putin expected not to be interrupted in state affairs and his decisions. And as the oil market was booming and prices were high, Putin managed it all. People had work, had money, were able to obtain credits, went to Europe, bought iPhones and cars. 


Nevertheless, this system is one just a moment before collapse. Parallel to this, this form of government led to the establishment of corruption, that is the base and origin of the Russian power elite. 


This Russian high-level corruption is based on networks of nepotism and clientelism. When Putin came into power, he gave the country’s most important branches to his like-minded elite. They are now the richest people in Russia – there are more than one hundred billionaires in the country. 90% of this money was not gathered by the skills, abilities, or the cognition of the people, but was grabbed through the connection to Putin. 


Eventually, corruption made its way to the regions. The circle of Putin people got parts of the land and the ability to rule the land according to their own wishes. Here, it’s about clientele. 


But mid-level corruption and corruption on the ground has always existed. It exists in many countries as well as in Russia. It does not make a state dysfunctional when you pay bribes to the policemen or to the doctors. But it creates insecurity. And Russians became accustomed to corruption, they became able to tolerate it. That’s a part of Russian culture: if you speak about the specifics of Russian mentality, it is about being able to endure, it is about acceptance of the status quo, which also implies acceptance of dealing with this low-level corruption. Exactly that has put danger and risk to future developments.


Hence, with his social contract Putin guaranteed some kind of welfare to the Russian population by establishing a strong rule of men dominated by his corrupt system instead of the rule of law. Was there any kind of rebellion or opposition in society being worried about this power cumulation?

In 2009 was the first time the Russian people started to question this social contract. The financial crisis hit and the Russians felt it strongly. Big parts of the local industry and businesses were shut down. People were losing their jobs, unemployment rates were high – this was the start. Some internal tensions started to emerge and the situation was very tense. 


Before that era, people had the impression they were living in a liberal state, that they were in control and that they actually could have an impact. But in 2011, with Medvedev leaving Putin came back which provoked the most massive, the most attended protest in modern Russia. In December 2011,more than 100,000 people marched in Moscow. But the problem is that Moscow and the rest of the country are two separate entities, they are not the same state. 


While the people in Moscow were lacking liberty, the right of self definition and development, the people in the regions were saying “we never lived as well as now with the Putin regime”. And this was the truth. Those ten years in the early 2000, there was no war as the Chechen war was over, salaries were growing, and the villagers could buy cars and open small businesses. For the first time in 100 years they felt like they had a future.


In this context, there is a saying about a dinosaur: it has a small head and a super long body. When it is eating a tree leaf, it sometimes does not even realise another dinosaur is gnawing on its tail. The signals from the tail to the head travel for a long time. The same thing happened to Russia. Moscow is the head: the progressive people, the intelligence. They understood that the country is going in the wrong direction, that you can’t give the authority this power solely. Whereas the people in the tail said: “Stop it, everything is fine”. This is a problem of the big territory. If you are asking average people from the region: “What is more important for you? To have freedom or food?” They would always say “food is more important”. But it also has to do with the low level of education.


It sounds like all these developments were completely out of control of the population when Putin and his elite started to gain more and more power. What role can you as an investigative journalist play to combat corruption, especially political corruption in Russia? Is it a David against Goliath play?

I know my responsibility as a journalist, and during the years I have been living in Russia I did my best. But at some point people stopped being interested in other alternative sources of information. They got spiked with propaganda.


Would you say that propaganda is supporting political corruption in Russia?

Without propaganda and pressure on independent media Putin would never be able to hold on to his legitimacy, his corrupted system would crack. Particularly after the sanctions in 2014, questions and doubts arose. However, the propaganda machine blamed the USA and Europe for the worsening living conditions. Not Putin who had led the country to that point. It’s very artificial. It’s very made up.


Just to show you the extent of propaganda nowadays: In 2000 when the Kursk submarine disaster happened, Putin visited the mothers and relatives of the dead sailors. The people were crying and screaming and blaming him for the death of their husbands and sons. The mothers of soldiers who died during the Chechen War also went to the streets and protested. 


But now it is different. Now we are in a situation where the mothers of men, who were mobilised for war, are buying ammunition and life vests for their sons. And if their men die in the war, they are claiming: “Yes, my son died, but he died as a hero.”


There you can see the level of infiltration – nothing but horror. This is the fact of propaganda – it’s a massive anaesthetic for the whole population. They don’t feel pain, they aren’t able to think, they are sedated. 


I remember a different Russia. And I look at it and see what is happening now, it is the fact of propaganda. The absence of free speech strengthens political corruption and its powerful elite.  


While the propaganda works well, there are still forms of resistance, for example through independent journalists such as you. What role can the public play in supporting investigative journalists?

Political subjectivity has been taken away from Russian society, people don’t have this political establishment. Officially more than 90% voted for Putin. But the electoral system is corrupted and broken to such an extent that society cannot make a real choice and change, they don’t have the necessary tools. They don’t go to the streets, because the degree of state security intervention and number of policemen are so high – everybody is under total surveillance.


There is no point in waiting for the Russian people to go on the street and fight the Putin regime. In my opinion, a great chaos is awaiting Russia. Since the country is sinking in this economic recession, life in Russia will get worse and it will cause aggression. Everybody is waiting for a civil war. But it won’t be a war for power, but a war for survival. And life will become more and more difficult and there are groups who have weapons and their willingness to fight for resources is rising. It will be crucial to resist.


That’s why the media and social media are very important in order to preserve humanity in these moments of hatred. You can’t allow people to lose their minds and ultimately kill each other. Chaos, this happens fast.


We journalists keep saying: The first victim is the truth. And in war, the first thing that dies is humanity. If it is a civil war, then even more. I see my permission as a journalist to retain humanity in people, to show them examples of a humane attitude towards each other. To remind them that they are humans, that they are not guards of the system, but civilians.


How can you be supported in your work? Which resources are the most valuable to you?

I am very grateful for organisations such as  ECPMF, because they help to maintain Russian journalists as a biological species. If we would have stayed there, we would disappear! So the work of those organisations supporting journalists is a tremendous support! That’s how we can still work. But what’s the biggest sadness for me? I have many friends and colleagues who are still in Russia, they help to get information to me. But unfortunately it is very difficult for me to actually pay for their help and transfer money.


The most important thing you and everybody can do is to simply believe in us.


Is it possible to do further investigative research on corruption from exile? How do you work from here?

It is definitely more difficult, because I was a field investigator all my life. I went on field trips meeting people in person, I went to crime scenes and I collected interviews with witnesses. You need to convince people to talk to you. But people are often more open than expected. Even state officials with the percentage 50/50 are sometimes open to communicate and share information. There was even a judge who openly admitted that she took bribes for example. The need for justice sometimes exceeds the fear. 


My journal is now operating from Berlin, so I can continue publishing. But investigations about corruption are now second place in Russia, in the background. We must write about what our colleagues in Russia cannot write. About the war, about the consequences of war and we must form some kind of vision of the future for our readership and to maintain humanity in their minds.  


Our colleagues in Russia are prohibited from doing this. That’s what makes our work so important. 


What were the repercussions of your investigative work?

It’s difficult to answer. It really depends on the case. But the last good news: I was writing about a young man who was brutally raped in prison. This was done by the prison guards with the help of a wooden tool and this person became handicaped. And the accused prison guards and the authorities rejected all the claims that they did that. I made a report about it then finally, the prison authorities admitted the crime and the victim got financially compensated. I am still in contact with him and his life seems to be going in a better way. But such “happy endings” happen unfortunately very rarely.


Any concluding words?

Yes. The Russian people are not any different from Europeans. We Russians, the citizens, just managed to get ourselves into a very difficult situation. We were lied to and we remained too passive until the point we did not have it in our hands anymore. I am asking you not to judge all Russians. We are not all the same. Not everyone of us supports the corrupt system, supports Putin, or supports war. Without the ability to stand up, many of us suffer. For what are we fighting in this war?

*Redkollegia is an independent media award established by the Sreda Foundation headed by Boris Zimin to support free professional journalism in Russia.

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Interview conducted by Jessica Jana Dutz, Press and Communications Intern, and Lukas Malek, Policy and Programme Support at ECPMF. Lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

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