Fear and Loathing in Moscow

Russian opposition activist and journalist Yevgenia Albats
Russian opposition activist and journalist Yevgenia Albats. Photo by Sasha Mordovets
Julia Ioffe
September 13, 2022

Evgenia Markovna Albats, who is always addressed by her stately patronymic, is the doyenne of independent Russian journalism. At 64, she has the stripes to prove it. Back in the 1980s, she was one of the first Soviet journalists to actually report on the K.G.B. (Her story about tracking down the former N.K.V.D. interrogator who sent a legendary Soviet scientist to his death in the Gulag absolutely floored me.) She has also written vividly about being a woman in the late Soviet era, and what it was like to give birth in a perestroika-era hospital plagued by shortages of everything from clean needles to running water. 

In the years since, she has covered the wars in Chechnya, gotten a Ph.D. in political science from Harvard, and founded and run an independent Russian news magazine called The New Times (since shuttered by the authorities) that was an absolutely crucial outlet for investigative reporting on the corruption of Vladimir Putin’s regime. 

She also became the queen mother of the Russian opposition, fusing, as is common in Russia, the roles of journalist and activist. She kept up a dedicated correspondence with oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky while he was in jail for a decade. She became extremely close with former prime minister and opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, whom she referred to simply as “Borya” before his 2015 assassination. She also fostered a younger generation of opposition activists, chief among them Alexey Navalny, whom she took under her wing back in 2005 when he was still a stoop-shouldered, beer-bellied, awkward young man from the outskirts of Moscow. She helped him grow as a politician and become a more sophisticated thinker, and became a sort of Jewish mother to him, watching over the entire Navalny clan. Since Navalny’s imprisonment in January 2021, she has kept up a brisk correspondence with him—“Lesha,” as she affectionately calls him—and has even visited him in prison.