Russia’s elite wants to f*** the West. This journalist is chronicling it
Interview: Political journalist Farida Rustamova discusses her reporting on Putin’s inner circle, which has caught the attention of many in Russia
What do the Russian elite think about the invasion of Ukraine? Today, this is one of the main questions facing the international community as it seeks to respond to Russian aggression.
But as paranoia, patriotism and repression grip the Russian ruling class and society, it’s a question many Russians are asking themselves, too.
This has also been asked by Farida Rustamova, one of Russia’s leading political journalists, who has reported for media outlets including the BBC, Meduza, RBK and Dozhd. Rustamova recently went out on her own as a freelance journalist with her own Substack. And in the month since the invasion of Ukraine, two of Rustamova’s articles, concerning the mood in the Russian elite, have drawn significant attention in the country.
The first dealt with the shock that Vladimir Putin’s entourage felt in response to the invasion of Ukraine, the second – titled “‘Now we're going to f*** them all’ What’s happening in Russia’s elites after a month of war” – reported how Putin’s entourage moved away from the shock and consolidated around the Russian president.
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openDemocracy spoke to Rustamova about what it’s like to chronicle the Russian ruling class and the role of political journalism in the country.
What are the specifics of working with the Russian political elite as a journalist?
Morally, it is difficult to continue talking to people who work for the authorities. It’s very hard to separate yourself from what is happening. It’s clear emotions within Russian society are running high now, but this is not a new problem. But this skill [of talking to sources] is something I do automatically: after all, you need to talk with a number of unpleasant people. The paradox is that these people, bastards and criminals are completely fine when it comes to personal communication. They don’t bite, they don’t want to kill you.
[Talking to Russian elite sources] is, psychologically, a special skill that needs to be developed. But not all of them are that bad. I know many conscientious and adequate people. That’s life.
How long did it take you to develop this skill?
I’m lucky. I started working more or less actively, and following standards of high-quality journalism, in 2014 at RBK’s politics team under Maxim Glikin.
Editors teach you how to work: no matter what, you have to talk to everyone. That’s our job. It can be difficult to retain your individuality in this situation, but what can you do?
Why do you think members of the Russian elite need to talk to journalists?
To communicate [with journalists] is not a goal for them. They aren’t sitting around and waiting for a journalist to call them. You’re often able to speak to [a member of the elite] thanks to a journalist’s pre-existing relationship with the person or newsmaker. These are people who, in terms of social interactions, don’t always perceive us as journalists. They are aware of who we are, but if the interaction is long-term, the relationship is likely to be much more complex.
For example, today you can only work using your old social ties. It’s now clear that the situation is getting worse. There will be traitors, extremists, exemplary punishments for [Russian] government officials. But for now, it’s still possible to work.
"It’s clear that there’s always a choice. They can walk out in protest, but it will have consequences. They are not ready to pay this price. They’re unwilling to risk their lives [e.g. assassination] by making this choice"
And we can assume that they have goals (not necessarily selfish ones) and use you as a platform and a way to draw attention to some problem.
The task of a journalist is to filter out all these layers [motivations] and reasons that grant them access to a source. There won’t necessarily be deceit, or manipulation or distortion. This is what our work is about, and why we use techniques that have been tested over years. In an ideal world, they would all work but in the real world, it’s not always the case. In reality, there is no perfect objectivity but this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t strive for it. You must make every effort to make what you write as close to reality as possible.
If we take the situation until 24 February, who were Russia’s elite and the groups of influence?
I won’t talk about the ‘Kremlin towers’ [a common metaphor for Russia’s main political power players], it’s too simplistic. The Russian establishment, given that it has been painstakingly filtered and managed for the past 20 years, consists of the same people. There is the Russian business sector, which is close to the state and its leaders, there is big business that has to cooperate with the Russian authorities (for example, the Russian mining sector). A large stratum of state corporations and banks and their leadership. Then a huge layer of officials from different areas [of the state], people who make decisions and influence them.
To have a rough idea of who the Russian elite is, you need to look at the photographs from the annual address to the Federal Assembly [a state of the nation address given by the Russian president]. Everyone who holds any kind of high position is invited, including the directors of the largest media companies and religious communities.
Given the complex nature of Putin’s state, how do you decide what information can be published and what is not worth publishing – because it could damage personal relationships or, for example, your security?
I have always worked for uncensored media outlets. I have not encountered situations where there was a conversation about whether we could publish a certain story or not, or situations where I have received threats, but this is the specifics of my work. I don’t write about the army, security services or crime. I’ve never had threats. I only felt really physically threatened after I disclosed that I was harassed by Russian MP Leonid Slutsky.
"Political journalism in Russia is now even more important than before. Internal politics, in the strict sense of the word, has disappeared, and there isn’t much of it left"
Your new Substack project, Faridaily, was launched as a one-woman show. Tell us, how do you see its future?
I don’t have a clear vision for the future of the project. I’m experimenting right now. In recent years, I’ve come to understand how media should work. I had some thoughts about doing something of my own. It’s clear that in the context of the late 2010s in Russia [starting my own project] was impossible. So, in a sense, I’m putting my desire to start an individual media project into action.
Do you think a journalist can be successful on their own? Today’s technology allows it.
It depends on what you mean. If we are talking about an audience that can be gathered and monetised, for example, by polarising it. Or about creating a media brand around a journalist. You can see that people tend to trust some media personalities. On Instagram, people may get the impression that they can know and trust a person they follow.
On the other hand, I cannot rid myself of the idea that media were invented as a collective endeavour on purpose. This is a division of responsibility and obligations [inside a media outlet], it’s also a question of quality. I trust teamwork more. You know that if a media outlet published an article, several people behind the scenes checked it. As an institution, this kind of media is, in my opinion, more effective, and is capable of forcing people in power to respond. This is a stronger construct than individual media projects and personas.
A friend on Facebook recently wrote: I don’t need livestreams, I want to go and read an article about what happened, what it means and what to do about it. I understand what she means.
Some of your colleagues in the Russian media had their big moment recently: the interview with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyi on 27 March. Perhaps one of the biggest issues raised by the interview is the gender balance in the Russian journalist community, as the interview was conducted by four men. Is there a problem here, in your view?
I think the gender bias happened unintentionally in the Zelenskyi interview. But this incident is very telling. We always end up with a bunch of men. I know that if there had been any women [conducting the interview with Zelenskyi], there would have been other questions and other topics to discuss. Not that women have their own special topics. It’s that the more varied people you have [asking questions], the more diverse the topics and points of view...
During my career I’ve noticed there are more women than men in Russian newsrooms. This is partly because for a man this is a thankless job, they cannot earn [enough] money from it, so they leave. Until recently, women have always earned less than men, while being on the same level or even better professionals.
There is one point that characterises the difference in approach between a female boss and a male boss. Male bosses, in an attempt to improve the quality of the work and access to information, may sometimes resort to bad methods. I was told: why are you dressing so plainly? Put on a dress, those ghouls that you have to speak to will like that, you’ll have them distracted. And why are you being so plain and stern? I’ve always found this disgusting, because I think this is not the right way to work. It’s clear that sometimes we need to mimic the environment [we are working in] in order to get information, so as not to be perceived as an outsider. But the idea that a woman has to wear a miniskirt in order to speak to a man doesn’t make sense to me.
"What about high-ranking officials who are literally trying to pick up the pieces after what has happened? We are talking about people like the head of the Russian Central Bank, government, ministries. Where can they go if they don’t agree [with the invasion]?"
I can’t help but ask about your recent article on the Russian elite. It prompted a lot of reactions on Russian social media. For me, on the one hand, it echoed the idea that the Russian elite are ‘rallying around the flag’ in response to the war against Ukraine. Others argued that the reaction is more about ‘defensive consolidation’. How did you write this article? How did you manage to break through the Russian elite’s armour?
This article wasn’t written in a vacuum. It’s a continuation of the piece that I published in early March, where I reported that Putin’s inner circle did not know about the start of the war. People [at the top] were not ready and experienced the same feeling as other normal people. A month has passed and people are adapting. There’s been an evolution. I don’t pretend that this is the ultimate truth, I’m not conducting an opinion poll.
My defence against manipulation [by sources] was that I tried to talk to as many people as possible, with as many people as possible who had no personal interest in manipulating me. Who is most interested in manipulating people? PR people. I didn’t talk to them. I spoke to first-hand sources. Plus I had ways of checking. The main thing is relying on your old connections and established relationships. And cross-validation.
Russian analyst Konstantin Gaaze said that your text, together with that of Meduza journalist Andrey Pertsev, should be read as a single article that shows the schizophrenia of the Russian ruling class: in the morning they think about unity, and in the evening they cry, call each other and think about how they can get their money out of the country. To what extent do you agree with this analysis?
I think it’s partially true. But our articles are about different things. I spoke to a different cross section of people. I have a different selection [of sources]. My article is about taking the elite’s temperature at a given moment, and Andrey’s article is about their plans, and how they should deal with [state] propaganda. I didn’t write about propaganda, or about the consequences [of the invasion]. As I wrote: I’m not sure if this person really believes or believed in this, because what they are saying is a defensive reaction, and in a month they will think differently.
There are also many people who do not accept that this is happening, who, internally, don’t agree [with the decision to invade] and are suffering because of what is happening. But they have no way of influencing the situation. They feel like hostages. They can quit, but it depends on the boss. They ask themselves: will the FSB let me leave the country? The level of paranoia is very high, and this paranoia has a reason. And what about high-ranking officials who are literally trying to pick up the pieces after what has happened? We are talking about people like the head of the Russian Central Bank, government, ministries. Where can they go if they don’t agree [with the invasion]?
It’s clear that there’s always a choice. They can walk out in protest, but it will have consequences. They are not ready to pay this price. They’re unwilling to risk their lives [e.g. assassination] by making this choice.
What needs to happen for them to be ready to do it?
Nothing. I do not expect a split in the Russian elite. I’m not talking about law enforcement and the security services, I have no connections there. Something could happen [in the security services], but all other elite circles have been filtered out for years. If they are not soldiers of the regime, then they likely don’t have the strength inside them to risk everything to do what they think is right.
The idea that there are people who can bring others together, influence Putin or overthrow him is nonsense. I will believe it if it really happens, but I won’t make predictions. It’s very unlikely.
What is the future of Russian political journalism in this context?
If there are no hellish repressions, then it will be possible to remain in touch with sources on the ground: it will be possible to probe what is happening.
It’s now very difficult to make predictions based on information from sources. I try not to do this, because in the current situation you can’t be 100% sure that someone actually knows something.
How can a political journalist work in these conditions? Publicly available information, even what’s broadcast by [state] propaganda, allows us to draw conclusions. You can’t be an expert on the basis of this information. But we need to pay more attention to decisions taken at a semi-public level, such as [Russian government] laws and projects. These are also reasons to go and find out what is happening. This work can be done and needs doing, but it’s very difficult given that we’re not physically there.
First of all, this is needed so that people inside and outside Russia have an idea of the real situation in the country, which can help them make some decisions. Political journalism in Russia is now even more important than before. Internal politics, in the strict sense of the word, has disappeared, and there isn’t much of it left. Everyone is busy with the war, and those who are not directly involved in the war try to keep their heads down.
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