In Putin’s Russia, a journalist by day and an activist by night

For Ilya Azar, writing stories isn't enough. He believes that when freedoms are under threat, activism and journalism aren’t mutually exclusive – they’re natural allies.

Maria Danilova
22 May 2020, 11.21am
Ilya Azar stands outside a metro station in central Moscow in February. Azar has helped organise one-person pickets like these, held across the country weekly in support of political prisoners. Photo (c): Maria Danilova

One cold December evening in Moscow, a sullen, bearded man stood next to a busy subway station, a green hood pulled over his head, wearing mittens. He held a poster which read “Freedom to political prisoners.”

The man was Ilya Azar, an award-winning Russian journalist with the independent Novaya Gazeta newspaper, who in recent months had added another line to his resume: activism.

Azar is not the first journalist, in Russia or elsewhere, to walk the fine line between reporting, advocacy, and politics, but he has taken that balancing act to a whole new level. Azar helped organise the protest rallies which shook the Russian capital last summer, campaigned for the release of jailed activists, and raised money to help other activists pay fines.

As political and civic freedoms continue to shrink in Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the voices of independent journalists are drowned out by government propaganda, Azar says he feels compelled to advocate for the subjects of his stories both on the pages of his newspaper and beyond.

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“At some point, I realised that I am ready to do this,” the 35-year-old Azar told me in Moscow in February. “I think it is important. It’s more important than the pure, formal definition of objective journalism.”

From writing to campaigning

After studying international relations at university in Moscow, he worked as a political reporter for Russia’s pioneering online publications such as Gazeta.ru, Lenta.ru and later Meduza, the news and investigative outlet headquartered in Riga, Latvia. He became known for hard-hitting interviews and longform reportage from far-away corners of Russia and the former Soviet Union.

In 2014, Azar was named journalist of the year by the Russian edition of GQ magazine for his coverage of the Maidan protests in Kyiv, the annexation of Crimea and the conflict in eastern Ukraine. He joined Novaya Gazeta as a staff reporter in 2017.

Azar can be grumpy, colleagues say, but those qualities make him a good interviewer, somebody who will needle a state official with questions until they explode in an unscripted tirade that makes for colourful quotes.

“When someone is dodging his question, he will ask again, twice, three, four, five times, if necessary,” said Alexandr Gorbachev, Azar’s former editor at Meduza, who has since left the publication. “And that is very valuable. Not everybody has enough stamina for that.”

Azar’s foray into activism began in 2017 when he decided to try his luck running for a seat in the 15-member municipal council in Khamovniki the traditionally liberal district in central Moscow where he grew up and went to school. It was a voluntary position, responsible for apartment building renovations, playgrounds, and other local amenities.

Back then, Azar said, some of his colleagues questioned his decision and his ability to remain impartial as a reporter. Azar vowed that, if elected, he wouldn’t cover the Moscow city government or join any political party.

Azar took time off work and went campaigning door to door. His main selling point was his independence from Moscow city officialdom, and a promise to take the residents’ interests to heart, or at least try.

He won.

When he was elected, Novaya Gazeta ran an interview in which Azar the journalist interrogated Azar the lawmaker

When he was elected, Novaya Gazeta ran an interview in which Azar, the journalist, interrogated Azar, the municipal lawmaker.

“There is something schizophrenic about it,” Azar said about juggling the two roles. “But I treat it with humour.”

“If not me, then who?”

That balancing act got even trickier for Azar last summer, when Moscow was engulfed in anti-government protests.

First Azar’s colleague, a prominent investigative journalist at Meduza, was arrested on bogus drug-dealing charges widely viewed as retaliation for his work exposing corruption in Moscow. The journalist, Ivan Golunov, was released after a public outcry and days of protests and cleared of all the charges.

Several weeks later, a handful of independent candidates running for seats on the Moscow city council were stricken off the ballot, a tactic the government has used in recent years to shut the opposition out of national politics. The city erupted in protests. Hundreds were arrested, many of them beaten violently by police. Opposition leaders were picked off one by one and kept in jail in order to quell the demonstrations.

As a journalist concerned about Russia’s future and as a municipal lawmaker representing Muscovites who were being deprived of political representation, Azar felt he had to step up. He helped organise rallies, monitored arrests and coordinated aid for the detained. When a host due to emcee before a large opposition rally cancelled at the last minute, Azar got on stage and led the event, even though, he told me, he is uncomfortable speaking in public.

“You couldn’t just stand on the sidelines and say that I am just going to report on this,” Azar told me.

Konstantin Yankauskas, one of the independent candidates who wasn’t allowed to run in the election and who spent several weeks under arrest for organising protest rallies, remembers listening to radio broadcasts of the rally from his jail cell with a fellow activist, feeling grateful to Azar and his colleagues for gathering a crowd of tens of thousands of people.

“It gave us hope that we wouldn’t be stuck here in detention forever,” Yankauskas recalls.

After the Russian authorities launched criminal investigations in the aftermath of the protests and scores of people faced prison terms, Azar covered their cases for Novaya Gazeta while also organising one-man protests outside subway stations in Moscow in their defence. Today, only one-person pickets do not require official permission in Russia. Larger rallies need prior authorisation from the authorities, which is rarely given.

“Some people are ready to sign an open letter, some people are ready to write a post (on social media), but few people were ready to go beyond that,” Azar told me. “That is why someone had to do it.”

Anna Kachkayeva, a professor of media studies at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, said that Azar’s work is part of a global trend of journalism taking on a more activist role. And in Azar’s case, his sense of urgency is amplified by the government’s crackdown on dissent. Genuine opposition forces have been shut out of national politics for years, the mainstream media is under government control, and even staging a protest that involves more than one person can lead to an arrest.

Azar’s work is part of a global trend of journalism taking on a more activist role, his sense of urgency amplified by the government’s crackdown on dissent

“When civil society is not doing well, then people pick up a megaphone and assume some of those duties,” Kachkayeva said of Azar. “In the absence of competitive politics, he fills this gap.”

Dmitry Muratov, the editor in chief of Novaya Gazeta, isn’t thrilled about Azar’s activism, but says he respects it.

“I believe that for a journalist engaging in activism is unnecessary. He should be covering it, rather than participating in it. But it is his civic right and I cannot restrict it,” Muratov said in an interview.

Some colleagues are on the fence about Azar’s metamorphosis.

“You can do enough for society and for the common good with your articles,” said Ilya Zhegulev, who used to work alongside Azar at Meduza. At the same time, Zhegulev said he commends Azar for his dedication and his sense of moral duty.

“He was sucked into this. ‘Who if not me?’,” Zhegulev said. “Injured soldiers have fallen, so he picked up the banner and marched on.”

Ilya Azar speaks during an interview in his office at Novaya Gazeta in Moscow, February 2020. Photo (c): Maria Danilova

That work has come at a cost to Azar and his family.

One evening last September, Azar put his then 19-month-old daughter Tamara to bed and stepped outside of his apartment for a smoke. His wife, Ekaterina Kuznetsova, was meeting a friend in a café, a rare evening out for the young mother.

As Azar stood on the balcony in his apartment building, wearing lounge pants and slippers, three police officers appeared on the stairwell. They had come to detain them.

Azar explained that his toddler daughter was alone in the apartment, called his wife and pleaded with the officers to wait until she returned. But they ignored his pleas and led him away, leaving the child alone in the apartment until Kuznetsova came home.

She was deeply shaken by that incident.

Tamara “lives the life of a normal child... In my mind, this was an island of safety,” Kuznetsova told me. “So whatever would happen to Ilya, I felt that it would be somewhere far away. But here, these two worlds collided. I realised that danger can come to our home.”

Azar spent several hours in a police station that night and was released with a charge of participating in an unauthorised rally. A court later fined him 300,000 rubles (around £3,460), a sum that the family doesn’t have.

“We have to speak up now.”

I caught Azar during a busy week in Moscow this February. He was working on several articles for Novaya Gazeta and also editing stories for Lenivka, the monthly district newspaper that he publishes as part of his municipal council work.

Azar smoked one electronic cigarette after another as we spoke in his small office at Novaya Gazeta. He then rushed to a court hearing where a 21-year-old Moscow aviation student was on trial following the summer’s protests. In a rare victory for Azar and his colleagues, the student received a suspended sentence of three years. More than ten other protesters are in prison with sentences ranging from one to five years.

Several days later Azar himself appeared in front of a judge to appeal the 300,000 ruble fine. The fine was eventually upheld.

In the evening, Azar attended a session of his municipal council, where with the zest of a professional interviewer he interrogated the council chief about problems with the council’s web site.

Before that meeting, I met Azar in a cafe inside a popular grocery store. As he ate Japanese rice balls, Azar reflected on his advocacy work.

Some colleagues think that [activism] is not very good for our profession... but I changed my mind. I’ve grown up

“Some colleagues think that it’s not very good for our profession,” he said. “I used to think that way, but I changed my mind. I’ve grown up.”

The following day, Azar worked on a long-form piece for Novaya Gazeta about a small town where two jailed protesters are serving time. He then stood with a poster outside a subway station, denouncing another high-profile trial of a group of young people on extremism charges as fabricated. “Can't solve a crime? Invent it!” the big black and red letters read.

As he rode the subway home to put his daughter to bed, he got word that two activists had been arrested during a small protest in central Moscow. As a journalist, Azar was entitled to a quiet evening with his family, but he was more than a reporter now. As soon as he put Tamara to sleep, he rushed to the police station to help the activists.

“I don’t want to sound melodramatic, but if we all close ourselves away in our little domestic worlds, very soon the government will get so big that they will be coming to our homes,” Azar told me.

“We have to speak up now while we can still change something.”

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