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. 

When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, Albats was one of the very few independent Russian journalists who chose to stay and fight. She felt it was her duty to remain in Russia and tell the story of what happened to her country as it waged an unprovoked war. Eventually, she too had to flee. It became clear that staying and doing her job was no longer an option: both her lawyers and her sources in the security services told her that arrest was imminent. For a month, Albats told me, she would wake up before dawn so that she wouldn’t be asleep and confused when they came for her. She cleared out her iCloud drive because, as she learned from two friends who had been arrested over the summer, the Russian authorities had learned to hack Apple’s cloud, too. Last week, she crossed the Estonian border on foot. 

When I caught up with Evgenia Markovna, who has become a cherished friend and mentor to me over the years, she was in New York, but still living on Moscow time. She still couldn’t quite get used to the idea that it was all over. She had left behind a twin sister and her family in Moscow, as well as a whole, rich life, one that would never return, even if she eventually did. “I’m still not ready to accept this,” she told me with great sadness in her voice, “even though I understand that old life will never exist again, never. It has ended forever.”

Our conversation has been translated, edited and condensed for clarity. I hope you found it as remarkable, provocative, and moving as I did.

Julia Ioffe: When the war started, why did you stay when so many people left?

Evgenia Albats: It was awful. I tried to stop them. I remember it so well, I was driving back from the penal colony where Navalny is being held and I was still on crutches [after knee-replacement surgery] and I got a call from TV Rain. So I stop the car and they say, Evgenia Markovna, this is likely our last broadcast. And I said, Guys, have you lost your minds? Nothing has even happened yet! This is a war that we, as Russian journalists, are obligated to cover. What are you doing? If they shut you down, then we’ll have to start distributing leaflets. We’ve already been through this! Where are you going? Who needs you in all these countries?! Just think about it. And if you do decide to fuck off from Russia, then go to Ukraine! Go to Ukraine and tell the story of how your soldiers, your army, your country is killing people. Why are you going instead to comfortable Tbilisi or Vilnius or Riga, and talking about the war from there? 

Why do you think they did this?

Because this is a completely spoiled generation. Because they’re afraid. Because they don’t have the experience. Because they’re cowards. It’s stunning. 

What kind of experience are they lacking?

Probably the experience of Soviet struggle. The Kremlin very artfully bought this young generation of what everyone calls hipsters. It was an absolutely conscious decision by the government, after the pro-democracy protests of 2011-2012, to transform Moscow, the most protest-prone city in Russia, into the most comfortable—and conformist—city in Russia. Here you go, the best restaurants and bike lanes and sidewalks and new theaters and overhauled, modernized museums and libraries, and here’s work and you can do whatever you want. You shouldn’t criticize Putin, of course, but anything else, go for it. 

Yes, it’s like the satirists KermlinRussia once wrote, “Why does everyone keep talking about a stick? We can fuck you up with a carrot, too!”

Absolutely right. I was talking the other day to [liberal cultural guru] Yuri Saprykin, and I said, Yuri, didn’t you understand that they were buying you off? And he said, Yes, but you always think you’re smarter than they are. I think that also played a role. And it’s true, Moscow was a wildly comfortable city. An incredible banking system. Everything you need is accessible with the push of a button on your phone. Everything you need, everything you want, you can have delivered. Everything is comfortable, everything is good. 

And you think this is why they weren’t ready to resist?

They weren’t ready to lose this comfort.

Or they weren’t ready to go to jail?

No one is ready to go to jail. I’m not ready to go to jail. Physical freedom is one of the few things a person has… Some [that fled] were afraid that a national draft would be announced, for example. But the profession of journalism is about more than going to receptions. The profession of a journalist in an authoritarian country entails the risk of getting in trouble. You might get arrested. And when your country is at war, you have to cover it. What can you do?

Why are there so few Russian journalists covering the war on the ground in Ukraine right now?

There are none there right now, if you haven’t noticed. I’ve also had this question. Some have gone in temporarily and left, but I’ve mostly read English-language journalists from Ukraine, or French or German ones, but not Russian ones. 

I’ve heard some Russian journalists, especially the men, say that it’s not safe for them to be there, going through Ukrainian army checkpoints with a Russian passport. What do you think of that?

Maybe, but it wasn’t a problem at the beginning of the war. When the war was just in the Donbas [between 2014 and February 24], there were several Russian journalists working there, including the BBC’s Ilya Barabanov, without a problem… This wasn’t at all an issue at the beginning of the war, in March and April. Zelensky was giving interviews to Russian journalists. Maybe it became an issue later on. But you know, Julia, you can find lots of excuses… 

How did you personally make the decision to leave?

My lawyers told me that I would be arrested. In June, I was slapped with a civil conviction for intentionally spreading information that discredited the Russian army by writing that the Russian army bombed Kharkiv and Odessa and that there were civilian casualties. How did this discredit the Russian army? This was right in the verdict, by the way. Because this information is not on the website of the Ministry of Defense. And why is this information not on the website of the Ministry of Defense? Because the Commander in Chief said that the special military operation was to prevent an invasion of Russia. 

Basically, we now live in a country where there are no longer any rules. So in late July, when I got three civil indictments simultaneously, which is what happened to everyone right before they were arrested and sent to jail, I called an old source of mine, a retired K.G.B. general. I thought, I’m older, I’m a pretty well-known person, they wouldn’t arrest me. I asked his opinion and he agreed, so for a week, I slept well. Then, a week later, I was labeled a foreign agent by the Ministry of Justice and the source said, You know, looks like it’s time for you to go. I knew, given how long it took the others to be arrested, that I had about three weeks. So I tied up loose ends and left 25 days later, crossing the Estonian border on foot. 


What could I do? I said right away that I would not be going to jail. I understand that I would die in jail. I’m a horrible germaphobe. I have a bad knee. I’m in my 60s. [Opposition politician] Ilya Yashin is writing me letters from the Butyrka prison. He’s in a cell that is 96 square feet that has four people in it. And he says, It’s so interesting here. But prison is definitely not for you, Zhenya. You won’t make it here. And Navalny wrote to me, If they arrest you, it’ll just create more problems. We’ll have to raise money for lawyers, you won’t be able to work. Go and work. That’s what he wrote to me. I adore him. 

Were you waiting for Navalny’s approval to leave?

Of course. If Lesha had said, You have to stand firm and not leave, I wouldn’t have left. You have to understand, people are afraid. They’re very afraid, especially people of my generation, who remember the K.G.B. and the Soviet Union. It’s very important that someone stands up and calls a war a war and an invasion an invasion. That’s a very important function of the opposition, to show that you’re not afraid. But there’s nothing left. There’s nothing left. Everything has been closed. All the national independent press, all the regional independent press, it’s all gone. So I just got in my car and drove to see what was happening in the rest of the country because we no longer had any idea. 

And this is another very important thing: I understand that, unlike a lot of people, I can leave Russia and find a way to feed myself. But these people cannot, you understand? That’s why I begged all these democrats and liberals who ran faster than the wind not to go. Because in leaving, their message to the people who had followed them was: You can all go screw yourselves. We don’t want to live here so you can stay here and eat shit without us. 

What are things like in Moscow?

Moscow is unbearable. I couldn’t stand being there. In the square where I live, I saw the PriceWaterhouseCoopers sign come down and the Starbucks close and the office towers empty out. Even the faces have changed. They’re completely different. You suddenly see these fat men with beer bellies and t-shirts with Z’s on them. It’s astonishing the speed with which the public has changed. Some people still recognize me on the streets and thank me, while others literally spit at me. 

There’s this absolute generational divide. There is, for example, the 35-year-old couple I met in Pskov. They are horrified by what’s happening but their parents are for the war and think they are being paid by the American government to be against it. Meanwhile, their children are being taught in school that the way to differentiate real information from fake information is to go on the website of the Ministry of Defense and if the information is on there, then it’s real. If it’s not, it’s fake. I can understand why they would want to save their children from the Russian school system.

What about the older generation? Why do they support the war?

That is what’s so extraordinary. I keep having these conversations with these people in regional cities, in the markets, and what I find over and over again is that they have relatives in Ukraine, but that they don’t believe their own brothers and sisters. Instead, they believe what the television tells them. I have only one explanation, that they grew up under Soviet rule and they know how important it is to conform, how important it is not to go against the regime, and that if you do what the regime wants, then you’ll get by more or less okay. You might even get a tasty morsel here and there. But if you resist, then everything will be very bad. That is the memory that still sits in these people’s cerebellums, because the K.G.B. is back in power, everyone understands that. And everyone is very, very scared.

People in the U.S. constantly ask me, is this the thing that finally topples Putin? Is this Ukrainian offensive, for example, that brings Putin down? How would you answer this question? And is it a stupid one?

I don’t think it’s a stupid question, but I do think it’s too early. But if the Ukrainian army continues pushing the Russian army back this successfully and beats them back from Kherson and Melitopol, then they’re well and truly fucked. But here’s the problem: any coup needs a mechanism. You can’t just have one guy among the elites call another guy and say, Hey, let’s go slit VVP’s throat. It doesn’t work like that. When Nikita Khrushchev overthrew Lavrentiy Beria, and when Leonid Brezhnev overthrew Khrushchev, there was a mechanism and it was the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. They could say, Here is our collective decision. No such mechanism exists today. That’s the first thing. 

The second thing is trust. No one in Russia trusts anyone else. Hugo Chavez could walk into his barracks and say, Comrades, let’s go take the presidential palace, and they would follow him. But no such trust exists in Russia today, where public trust is in the single digits. Putin will eventually be ousted, of course, but it will likely be by his closest circle. It will be some kind of junta, which would still be an improvement. 

Why do you think it will be better? And what will the junta be like?

It will be bloody, of course, but it will be completely illegitimate. We can only judge by coups that have happened in other authoritarian regimes, but juntas aren’t very long-lived because they lack legitimacy. But again, I’m just fantasizing here based on what we know about authoritarian regimes. And because I used to teach courses on authoritarian regimes, I’m looking at how these coups happened in African and Latin American countries. 

Last question, and it’s one I’ve been asking everyone. When do you think we’ll return to Moscow?

In the spring, I hope.

Really, that soon? Why?

It’s not that soon! Nine months—children are born in that time. But I think that this situation will continue getting worse quite rapidly. I don’t know if you noticed a small thing that happened in recent days: the deputies of the Moscow and St. Petersburg city councils wrote an open letter to Putin demanding that he resign. Despite all the arrests and criminal cases being opened these days, they took this step. This mute discontent is going to continue growing in spite of it all. Because grocery prices have gone way up. Because people are afraid to spend money. Because it’s already impossible to get your car fixed. Because the things people had gotten used to are no longer in the stores. Because they’ve started taking young men and because people are afraid to lose their sons. And so on. 

And the most important thing: coups d’etat are always the handiwork of the elite, and the elite in Russia are millionaires and billionaires, people who got used to working and earning their money in Russia until Thursday, but on Friday, we’re already off to London or Nice, or wherever. All their kids are there, in the West, getting an education. All their wives are there, and, most importantly, what are they going to do about their young mistresses?

Then there’s the fact that all the crypto markets are closed to them, and all the F.S.B. guys had a ton of money in crypto. There were the domestic mutual funds that had 7 trillion rubles invested in them because in 2019 Putin told everyone to bring their money home and invest in these mutual funds and now they’ve gone tits up. 

All the oligarchs who have been sanctioned, they’re weeping because they have absolutely no idea how they’re going to go on with life. Before they thought, Oh, all the proles can live in dirty Russia, but we’ll live in the big civilized world. That’s over now. After 2014, they still managed to travel on two passports because the British authorities closed their eyes to it. But not anymore. It’s all over for them. One of these oligarchs called me to complain that he literally can’t buy groceries abroad because his accounts are all frozen. Even Putin’s oligarchs—their yachts have been seized, their villas in Italy, too. Viktor Vekselberg is having his American property searched. When I ask them, what percentage [of the oligarchs] support the war? They tell me at most 30 percent support it. That means at least 70 percent are against it. Those are the people who understand their lives are simply over

That’s why I think this can’t last too much longer. This will be a long, hard winter.