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‘Is this the end of Meduza?’ Hobbled by sanctions, Russian journalists seek Western donors.

A feisty independent news site, Meduza survived past Kremlin crackdowns. Now it has to look beyond its loyal Russian readers for financial support.

A protester holds a sign demanding the release of Ivan Golunov, a Meduza journalist arrested in 2019 by Russian authorities. (Dmitri Lovetsky/AP)
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A university employee said he doesn’t know how to “morally” remain in Russia but doesn’t want to leave his daughter behind with his ex-wife. An auto mechanic says he is staying because “the only way we’ll be able to overcome these criminals in power is by uniting.” And an engineer thought about leaving but, as he shared with a popular Russian news site, “What’s the point of going somewhere we can’t stay?”

Even as the Kremlin moved to stifle independent reporting on the war in Ukraine, the Russian news site Meduza managed to publish these candid accounts of how their readers are grappling with their horror over the growing conflict.

Meduza’s reporters have fled the country, and the government has attempted to block access to its website, and yet the eight-year-old news site has managed to keep publishing — thanks in part to a headquarters across the border in Latvia — and estimates that it has retained roughly three-quarters of its old Russia-based readership.

But now the international sanctions designed to cripple Russia’s economy have also destroyed Meduza’s ability to collect the donations it had come to rely upon from its readers — prompting it to try to seek funds from benefactors in Western countries.

“There was definitely a moment of are we dead in the water? Is this the end of Meduza?” said Kevin Rothrock, the U.S.-based managing editor for Meduza’s English-language site. “But once the dust settled, we explored our options.”

Fleeing Putin’s wartime crackdown, Russian journalists build media hubs in exile

At a time when other Russian independent media organizations have been forced to shutter or censor their own reports — a new law approved by Russian President Vladimir Putin prohibits journalists from calling the war in Ukraine a “war” — Meduza has continued to publish a constantly updating live blog with details about the assault on Ukraine.

In one recent scoop, Meduza reported that employees at a Russian state-run television channel are constantly monitoring Western news broadcasts about the war and “panicking” over their mandate to present Putin’s brutal invasion as merely a limited military operation.

“Everyone, without exception, knows that they’re lying,” Meduza quoted a station insider as saying.

That kind of vivid reporting from within a closed-off country makes Meduza “the first thing I check in the morning and the last thing I check at night for news about the war,” said Julia Ioffe, a Washington-based journalist for the digital newsletter start-up Puck who was born in the former Soviet Union and has written extensively about Russia.

“In a sense, it’s nothing spectacular,” said Rothrock. “It is what journalism is supposed to be. But within the Russian context, it almost feels like you’re wearing a cape when you do it.”

Meduza was created in 2014 by a group of journalists who left a much larger news site, Lenta.ru, after a Kremlin-friendly oligarch forced out its independent-minded editor, Galina Timchenko. “Over the past couple of years, the space for free journalism in Russia has drastically shrunk,” a group of Lenta journalists wrote in a protest note to readers. “The trouble is not that we have nowhere to work. The trouble is, you don’t seem to have anything else to read.”

Timchenko and her partners decided to base Meduza in Latvia because, she said at the time, independent reporting in Russia had become impossible. Ivan Kolpakov, who is now the site’s editor in chief, said Meduza started with three journalists in Russia and grew to employ dozens.

Kolpakov said the Kremlin spent many years making a show of tolerating a free press while quietly doing its best to starve it. Meduza’s advertisers in Russia often got intimidating calls from government officials, he said, informing them that they were supporting what officials considered an opposition publication.

Over time, the intimidation grew more explicit. One of Meduza’s journalists was arrested in 2019 for what many Russians considered trumped-up drug possession charges. (He was later released after large protests.) Then in April 2021, the Kremlin labeled Meduza a “foreign agent,” a designation other independent outlets would also receive.

Meduza’s business model collapsed within a week, according to Kolpakov. Government sources stopped talking to its reporters, and even civilians grew wary. Russian companies tried to ask Meduza to scrub their names from old news stories and advertising in the site’s archives.

“We told them, ‘No, you are adults,’ ” Timchenko recalled in an interview.

Most damaging, though, was the exodus of advertisers. That’s when Meduza turned to a crowdfunding model as a last resort. “We are Russians, and it is not our custom to complain or ask for help,” Timchenko said. “But we had to say to our readers, ‘We have nothing but you.’ ”

Meduza’s editors thought they could survive a month or two on reader charity, but over the next year it built a roster of 30,000 recurring donors — “our core supporters,” Kolpakov said.

The Russian people “didn’t want us to shut down,” he said.

Russia’s independent media, long under siege, teeters under new Putin crackdown

After Russia invaded Ukraine last month, Meduza once again needed to scramble to survive. A new law banned many accurate descriptions of Russia’s aggression, effectively criminalizing honest war reporting with punishments of up to 15 years in prison. Meduza evacuated its journalists from Russia almost immediately, but they have continued reporting from outside the country — with staff in five nearby cities providing analysis, explanatory journalism and investigative pieces. Meduza also uses anonymous sources in Russian-controlled areas, or what Kolpakov called “guerrilla journalists.”

Yet the severe financial sanctions imposed on Russia by the United States and other Western allies threw up another new challenge when a ban on money transfers in and out of the country cut off Meduza’s access to its donor base.

With an assist from a German publication, Krautreporter, Meduza began soliciting donations from readers in North America, Europe and other countries, where it doesn’t yet command the name recognition it does in Russia. “Now, we need to explain everything from scratch,” Kolpakov said.

There are signs Meduza is gaining traction abroad. Its English-language content is attracting a much higher readership. And Kolpakov said it signed up about 1,000 new contributors within 24 hours of launching the new crowdfunding campaign.

Even assuming Meduza finds the cash to keep operating, it faces increasing difficulty fulfilling its founding purpose: getting news to Russians. Many inside the country get news about the war exclusively from state-run television.

But Meduza’s editors had anticipated a Russian media blackout for months before the invasion. So they urged readers to download its mobile apps or use other workarounds such as VPNs, in case access to their website would be blocked by government censors — which it was, days after the invasion, along with those of many other independent news outlets. Kolpakov said he expected the publication to lose 70 to 80 percent of its readers after the site was blocked, but it lost only about a quarter of them.

Kolpakov recalled how his parents, in Soviet times, listened to illicit broadcasts of Voice of America and the BBC over shortwave radio. “They got a much more truthful picture of what was happening in the U.S.S.R. than from normal local papers,” he said. “The media has to work from the outside again. It is surreal to think we are returning to that.”

What are the challenges for reporters in Ukraine and Russia? Send your questions.

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