Secret soldier burials scandal shows heroic journalism is still alive in Russia

No room for dissent? EPA/Sergei Ilnitsky

If you are a Russian journalist on a trip abroad, the first question you’re asked once your companion finds out about your profession is: “How come you’re still alive?”

Then comes something about how all media in Russia is totally under state control anyway – and you quickly find yourself automatically pigeon-holed as a government lackey.

This is a great disservice to the respectable number of independent journalists still at work in the country. Given the fate that can befall journalists who cross the Putin regime, stories of successful investigative journalism in Russia are indeed fairly rare – but those that exist are very powerful indeed, and dispel the myth that all Russian journalists are working in the pay (or terror) of the Kremlin.

Even as international criticism of Putin’s Russia reaches an all-time high, efforts like these on the part of Russian journalists are still not being recognised worldwide.

Hard graft

When they examine the Russian media landscape from afar, European and US commentators tend to concentrate on the admittedly propagandistic role of Russian television. The hard work of the few independent news outlets or concrete journalists still doing quality investigations and balanced reporting rarely gets much credit.

But even as good-quality independent reporting is becoming harder in Russia, a number of media titles still pursue it, while newer titles are appearing even under today’s tight conditions.

In one important recent example, independent Russian journalists have done sterling investigative work exposing the secret burials across the country of Russian solders killed in Ukraine. This reporting has contributed to a striking trend: support at home for Russia’s actions in Ukraine has noticeably declined for the first time since the crisis started.

Out in the open

The burials story was discovered by a number of bloggers and journalists who analysed the social media pages of a few Russian troops from the Pskov division, compared those facts against recent awards presented to the division, and finally found out about the upcoming funerals.

When a few journalists from Moscow, St Petersburg and Pskov tried to visit the secret funerals, they were attacked – Lev Shlosberg, a local newspaper editor and member of the Pskov parliament from an opposition party, was severely beaten.

The case was picked up by a prominent Russian journalist, Oleg Kashin, who wrote an opinion piece for the website Colta.ru entitled “Five questions to the Defence Ministry” (a rough translation is available here). His article provoked a number of official inquiries to the Defense Ministry from NGO groups and opposition members of parliament.

For a number of days, only select independent media reported the story. The Russian media research and monitoring company Mediaologia calculated that 66% of “the most quoted Russian media” didn´t report the story at all.

It was only after Russia’s officials, including Putin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov, had commented on the matter (still denying any military presence in Ukraine), that more online and print outlets picked up on the story.

Breaking through

Until now, many state-controlled news outlets presented the official version of Russian troops either getting lost in Ukraine, accidentally crossing the border or taking a vacation and going to fight in Ukraine on their own.

Yet the burial story provoked a storm of outrage in Russia, especially on social networks. Various friends, until recently rather supportive of Russia`s actions (including the annexation of Crimean) have posted surprisingly critical and perplexed remarks, asking about the lack of official clarification.

This reaction chimes with research, such as a recent poll carried out by Levada center, that shows diminishing domestic support for Russia’s policy in Ukraine – with the decline apparently stretching back to the very start of the conflict.

Erosion of support

According to the Levada poll, conducted at the end of August, support for direct military action in Ukraine has fallen noticeably. More Russians than ever now oppose an open military conflict with their neighbouring country: whereas in March, 74% said they would support Russia’s leaders in the event of war with Ukraine, by the summer that figure had declined to 41%.

The same poll also found that the sending Russian troops to Ukraine is now only supported by 16% of respondents, down from 28% in April – though approximately half the poll’s respondents still think Russia should actively support pro-Russian forces in South-Eastern Ukraine.

This is not, of course, simply down to the fact that the secret burials had actually been widely reported – but it would be wrong to underestimate the reports’ impact at this hugely sensitive time.

As political analyst Boris Makarenko argued in an interview with RBC Daily: “Unlike the bloodless ‘taking’ of Crimea, the conflict in the south-east of Ukraine has grown into active military action, while Russian mothers do not want to get death notices and see the coffins of their boys.”

And to remind the Russian people of this reality, there are still independent Russian journalists working both within the country and at the site of the conflict, often under harsh and dangerous conditions. Their efforts to inform the Russian people and the wider world about the realities of the Ukrainian conflict deserve to be recognised and valued.

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