All Quiet on the Eastern Front All Quiet on the Eastern Front
Elena Kostyuchenko. Photo by Lene Christensen/Amnesty International

All Quiet on the Eastern Front

An Interview with Elena Kostyuchenko
Paulina Wilk
time 20 minutes

Some say the things we cherish the most are those that can cause us the greatest pain. Journalist Elena Kostyuchenko feels so wounded by Russia that her country is the only thing she can ever write about. Now the author of the acclaimed book Нам здесь жить [We Are to Live Here] explains why even those who criticize the situation in Russia are unable to live anywhere else.

Aged 15, she read Anna Politkovskaya’s investigative article and decided she wanted to write just like her. Two years later, she left her hometown Yaroslavl for Moscow and applied for an apprenticeship at the independent daily Novaya Gazeta. She was the youngest journalist on the team and she still works there today. Elena Kostyuchenko is only 34 years old and yet she’s already spent half of that time working as a reporter. She was the first to write about Pussy Riot, and it was her article that revealed the Russian army’s actions in Crimea in 2014. Her exceptional investigative pieces are unfailingly broad and detailed, always written from a close distance. Subjected to numerous attacks and arrests, Kostyuchenko has the opinion of a fearless journalist. When asked about it, she says that she is biologically unable to feel fear, she simply does not know it. She was an LGBTQ+ activist and has organized protests against minority discrimination. She studied in the US and has worked in several other countries. She likes Berlin and Tbilisi, but she cannot even begin to imagine her life anywhere other than Russia. Her turquoise eyes are beautiful and filled with sorrow.

Paulina Wilk: They say of you that you can squeeze into any nook and cranny in Russia. You have written about bribery among traffic police, Moscow cleaners, homeless teenagers, the destruction of nature, and everyday life in villages cut off from the world. Every case takes you months, sometimes years to investigate. How do you choose your topics?

Elena Kostyuchenko: I have been working in Novaya Gazeta for 17 years now. Half of my texts are commissioned by the newspaper; as for the other half, I choose them myself. People come to me, write, call, tell me their stories, and I follow some of them up. Sometimes, I look for ideas deep inside, in myself. I’m a regular person, so when I feel there is some blank spot within me, a space that lacks knowledge, it means others feel the same. And so it’s worth investigating. There are also stories I think about for a long time, but don’t know how to approach. It takes years to get there. In Russia, it’s not so easy.


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You were a teenager when you realized those blank spots existed. When reading investigative reports, it dawned on you that you dont know the truth about your country, just like most Russians. Do you feel much has changed since then, for better or worse?

Once Putin gained power, he began building a manually-operated system. It was based on, among other things, putting direct pressure on journalists. Putin set up the process of suffocating regional and local media. They were not closed down, but stripped of their independence. Russia is a giant country and it’s not possible to examine every topic thoroughly without journalists who work far from Moscow. Over time, a new label began to circulate: ‘foreign agent’. It was a special category for stigmatizing newspapers and TV channels accused of working for some foreign contractors. There were, however, some changes for the better: in the more distant regions, as well as on the federal level, journalists are appearing ready to fight the status quo. Because in Russia, it is always the people wanting to say the truth who have to fight against the authorities who don’t want to hear it.

How does the internet affect the relationship with the truth? Does it provide a safe space for more outspoken claims? Or perhaps the Kremlin uses it as a tool for creating new dimensions of falsehoods?

The authorities try very hard to use the internet for manipulation. It is where they find most of the alleged ‘foreign agents’. It’s also where troll factories operate: there are hosts of people paid to publish fake news useful for the authorities. But despite it all, the online space remains a priceless source of information for journalists. It is also where we can find topics met with so much interest all over social media that they soon reach nationwide publicity. The trouble is, however, that on the Russian web, not all subjects are open for discussion.

What are the things people wont talk about?

It’s an unspoken rule that nobody has ever expressed out loud. For example, the village Kushchyovskaya, which I described in one of my investigative pieces, was governed by criminals for 20 years, but nobody spoke about it out loud. The crimes that happened there came to daylight almost accidentally. [In her article, Kostyuchenko describes the murder of 12 people involved with the mafia that operated in the town after two decades of violence, murders and rape – ed. note]. All that time, there were radio stations there, as well as local newspapers and the internet. But the people were too afraid to say out loud what was happening to them. It’s a kind of split mentality that we inherited from the Soviet Union: what you say in your kitchen is very different from what you might say on the street. The internet is considered a public area, a marketplace one enters to make speeches and statements. The people from Kushchyovskaya village could not go there. They were afraid.

In Poland, the internet has led to a cacophony of voices, a rapid torrent of content. Its hard to fish out true and important information among the mass of content. Everyone is broadcasting, everyone feels like a journalist. Dont you struggle with the same problem?

We do, but when it comes to the mechanisms of propaganda, our authorities already made a civilizational leap. During World War II and the Cold War, the Soviet authorities needed propaganda to cement their point of view and their version of historical events, which were the only acceptable points of view. In 2014, when the Russo-Ukrainian War started over the annexation of Crimea, our authorities designed a new method. The TV broadcasts the main stream of propaganda, the official version. Meanwhile, conflicting information begins to appear online so that the regular person feels tired with it very quickly, soon becoming confused and giving up altogether. This method turned out to be very effective. Nowadays, the authorities do the same with every debate on any important and uncomfortable topic. We also have a mutation of traditional and social media in Russia, such as the Telegram messaging service. There was a chance for it to become an independent medium, but when a journalist I know investigated it further, she established that a lot of messages appearing there are cooked up by the government. Of course, we cannot say that the Kremlin controls all of the internet, but it’s very active within that space. It also introduced a new bill that makes it illegal to spread fake news online – those who do so face a criminal sentence. What it does is make people more anxious, and so whenever given a choice between speaking up loudly or not at all, they choose silence.

You mentioned the kitchen, a place where Russians used to feel safe in being honest with each other. Does it still work like this, or is the kitchen no longer a safe space, either?

The only people to whom you can talk honestly are your family. But after the annexation of Crimea, even those closest-knit relationships have changed. Many families experienced a generational split: disagreements about the war with Ukraine led to deep internal conflicts. To the older generations who remember the USSR, Crimea is an important and very beautiful part of Russia, and they are happy to see it annexed. But to the younger people, the war is nothing short of a mistake. Some of my friends avoid any conversations about Putin and politics with their families. They know there is no common ground to be found there. I don’t want to sound too dramatic, since our current reality is far from how it was during the Soviet times, but still, people are much more reserved than 10 years ago.

If those two generations dont talk to each other, does it mean they live in two different Russias?

No, it’s still the same country, albeit a diverse one. Not long ago, I wrote an article from the Taymyr Peninsula where, near Norilsk [a city in Krasnoyarsk Krai, in the north-eastern part of Siberia – ed. note], the mining company Nornickel is dumping toxic waste into rivers and land, poisoning the environment. While I was there, I met some of the Nganasan people who live in that area. There are only 700 natives left, the nation is going extinct. They live very far from any cities. To meet them, I got aboard a boat near Norilsk and took a three-hour trip to their village. They are fishermen. After a day’s work, they come back home, lay down on the floor and tap the buttons on the remote, channel-surfing, wordlessly. Here’s some news from Moscow, there’s an episode of some TV series, a talk show with models. It’s all science-fiction to them, it just doesn’t apply to their lives at all. During my entire stay, not one of them thought to ask me: “So, what are you people up to in Moscow?” Russia is made of such distant spaces in which Putin, the Kremlin and all the rest are just some abstract concepts.

But at the same time, state-controlled television remains the only source of storytelling.

That’s right, but those stories don’t affect people’s lives at all. There are great numbers of people in Russia who have perfected the art of surviving without maintaining any link to the government and the state.

So how do people live in Taymyr?

While investigating the Norilsk toxic spills, I went with a group of ecologists to collect samples of polluted water and soil. There, on the boat, we met representatives of the Nganasan people. I realized their fate deserved separate material. This nation is disappearing right before our eyes. 30 years from now, they will be gone. Everything I saw there is frightening. There is no dignity to a nation’s death, no beauty to it. Many Nganasans drink, many take their own lives. Only 250 people live in the tiny Ust’-Avam village, and each year, three of them commit suicide. They no longer speak their language, some of them remember bits and pieces of their nation’s legends about the afterlife. I wanted to write down those stories, too. I feel immense responsibility for my nation’s destruction of their nation. I had a chance to register the last moments of their lives. It was a very difficult experience.

Why are they dying? The Soviet Union was systemically destroying any cultural diversity. Is it a continuation of that policy, or rather a consequence of mining industry-related violence?

It’s a continuation of the policy that has been in place since the times of the Tsar. Today, it’s hard to tell which elements of systemic violence come directly from the state and which have been introduced by capitalists. In our country, it’s impossible to tell the authorities apart from capital. Back in the Soviet times, the nomadic Nganasans were forced into a settled lifestyle. This, in turn, had a drastic impact on their conditions of living and caused a catastrophic decline in the reindeer herds. First, farm reindeer died out, then the wild ones changed the routes of their migrations. Meanwhile, a lot of Nganasan activity depended on animals they used as beasts of burden, but also bred and hunted for meat and skins. Their native language was eradicated: children were sent to faraway boarding schools, where they learned everything in Russian. The nation’s entire life had to be, per Soviet values, subjected to the needs and happiness of the whole global population. So it was destroyed. These people were expected to sacrifice their values in exchange for a different, greater goal. But in the 1990s, the Soviet Union collapsed and it all came to an end. The Nganasan people were left with nothing. No future. Now they have to deal with an ecological disaster on top of it, caused by the container failure in Norilsk. Everything is contaminated, there are no fish left in the rivers. On top of that, climate change is affecting the tundra and taiga.

The fall of the Soviet Union was also the fall of its high ideals. After its collapse, the only thing left was a void with no symbolic values left. Do Russians still find it painful that the authoritarian state and oligarchs give them nothing to feed their souls?

I can feel this void very acutely. I think others do, too: my mother, my friends. By working at Novaya Gazeta, I try to fill it with something. Nowadays, Russians are split in two: on the one hand, they wish for a good and comfortable life, but on the other, they miss some greater things in life. We all want to feel a sense of purpose. When speaking on the war with Ukraine, the authorities are spinning all sorts of narratives about our greatness, they speak of the material support we send to less-developed countries. It’s simply an attempt to fill this symbolic space and prove that we don’t live just for our own sake. We help the needy.

Does it work? Does it make people believe in the great Russia?

No, propaganda is now much less effective than it used to be during Soviet times. People can pick up on those falsehoods. Of course, there was a lot of lying and cynicism out there back then, but nobody questioned the ideals as such. Now, it doesn’t matter how those in power call their actions: everyone can see they are usurpers and that they’re robbing the country. Even Putin and his people struggle to define the great Russia they speak of. They seek support in the Russian Orthodox Church and conservative values, but they’re just running in circles. The search for the great Russia has led them nowhere so far, all they do is cover up the thefts and abuses of power.

You said once that modern-day rule in Russian is an imitation of a state and that this system has to fall, but you dont expect it to happen in your lifetime. How does it feel to live with such a thought? After all, writing about the world is usually founded on the belief it can change.

I’m a journalist, and journalists tend to be short-sighted. We operate in a narrow field and can only see clearly what is right in front of us. When we look into the distance, into the future or the past, everything goes blurry. Most of my predictions never come true. Maybe except for the war in Ukraine, that one prognosis was accurate. Still, I am happy with my life. I’m very lucky that I can be here during this exceptionally hard time in the history of my nation; I can participate in events and take action. Even though on the most pragmatic level, I need some comfort. My girlfriend is now moving to me from the US and I wish more than anything that we could live in normal conditions, in a normal country. If I knew a way of effectively bringing on change in Russia, I would do it. But I was an LGBTQ+ activist, I took to the streets, I organized protests. Nothing good ever came out of it. One thing I can do is write about what is happening.

I find it hard to imagine how it must feel to be a young person growing up without the perspective of a better tomorrow. Im a little older than you, I grew up in the times of the Polish transformation [when Poland transitioned from communism to the free market and liberal democracy in the early 1990s – ed. note]. It was a time of great hopes, and only now, were awakening from the hopeful dream of that era. I wonder what state of mind it must be when one is unable to dream of a better life.

There is a reason why most Russians are fatalists. Our everyday life is so complicated that there is no point to make any plans at all. In this country, the law sometimes works for everyone, and sometimes just against some individuals. Our penitentiary system is unforgiving: once it gets a hold of you, you end up in prison. Only 0.13% of all defendants are deemed not guilty. So there are plenty of unwritten rules people follow to have any grasp over the everyday chaos. This strategy works best. Planning anything even just for five years ahead is simply impossible.

What are those unwritten rules?

I’ll use an example. Let’s take a positive rule. There is a small village on the route of the super fast Sapsan train. There are no roads in the village, so if someone in the village needs help, no ambulance will reach them. Doctors advise the ill on the phone, and if they decide the patient needs to go to the hospital, the only option is to put them on the train. Since there is no road connecting the village to the train station either, the only means of transport is a manure cart. So the whole village pushes the shit cart to the train station. The rule is simple: you help to push your neighbour today, and someone will push you on the shit cart tomorrow. It doesn’t matter whether you are on good or bad terms with other people in the village, it’s your duty to push the cart. It’s a matter of survival and your only chance that you make it to the train, too, should you ever need it. It’s nothing beautiful, but it works. Or here’s another rule, a negative one. When I was writing my piece on the traffic police, I often heard policemen say people should be honest. It’s more of a play on words than anything else – in their dictionary, an honest man is not someone who respects universal values, but rather someone who follows the agreed-upon order. When stopped by the traffic police, an honest man bribes the officer. If someone starts asking questions and threatens to press charges, it means they are dishonest.

You speak of the parallel Russia that exists among people and is independent of state structures. Can it be a good place to live?

It’s a post-apocalyptic construct that emerged in place of the void generated by the fall of the giant that was the Soviet Union. On its ruins, there is now something we grew used to calling Russia. Is living in ruins comfortable? Not really. But it’s doable. Humans can adapt to pretty much anything. When I watch science-fiction movies that take place after the apocalypse, it feels to me like I’m staring out of the window. The landscape looks the same.

People often speak of Russia as if it was a phenomenon, a planet in its own right, the heart of the uncanny. Isnt it convenient? It lets you assume your country will never change.

In Russia, we like to say that here, everything can change in just five minutes, but 100 years won’t be enough time for anything to change at all. And it’s true, sometimes we undergo sudden and very brutal changes, but the vast mental and geographic space that is Russia has something to it, something that makes it easy to get stuck in there. Those unwritten rules of living I mentioned before hardly ever change. When I read satires by Gogol or Saltykov-Shchedrin, I don’t see them as historical texts. To me, they are happening here and now. In Saltykov-Shchedrin’s novel The Golovlyov Family [a family tale of greed and hypocrisy, sometimes compared to Molière’s Tartuffe – ed. note] I found descriptions of frightening phenomena. The evil shown in The Golovlyov Family is inseparable from its characters, but the story itself feels so familiar that I cannot separate it from myself. Nowadays, when classic texts are staged in theatres, actors perform in contemporary clothing. Critics accept it not as an artistic choice, but as realistic minimalism. Historical decorations are superfluous; after all, the way characters speak and behave is perfectly modern. Of course, in some ways, Russia is changing – LGBTQ+ and feminist movements are now stronger than they used to be – but our unwritten rules remain unchanged because they are pro-social: we live like a pack of wolves that, led by instinct, know where to go, where and how to hunt.

Help me understand this: why did the opposition leader Alexei Navalny come back to Russia? Why is it so important that he is there with you, even in prison?

He belongs to our country and wants to live here. Even in such a dark time, even in confinement. It’s hard to explain, his decision was not a rational one. I don’t really believe in rationality, I feel more in touch with existential philosophy that says we don’t make choices ourselves. Our entire life is like a stream, with its twists and turns. We follow the current and only later can we attach some sensible explanations to our actions. Navalny couldn’t not come back. Nobody would have blamed him had he stayed in the West – but that’s just the kind of man he is, and he’s always lived this way.

You can relate to him. You also could have lived in another part of the world. There were opportunities.

A few years ago, when I was working on a project in Beslan, I was attacked and suffered from a severe brain injury. I couldn’t write, I underwent a lengthy rehabilitation. A year later, my doctors said it was unsuccessful and my only chance to get better was to move abroad. Working and communicating in another language could help rebuild the destroyed neural paths. I moved to New York and got two scholarships, at New York University and Columbia. My life there was amazing. I got to live in a gorgeous building, I had my own room. For the first time, I didn’t have to watch my spending. I could buy whatever groceries I wanted without counting how much money I would have left. I studied at the best universities in the world, learning fascinating new things. I was surrounded by interesting people, and, of course, there was New York. Yet I felt empty inside. I thought to myself: another day has passed, and so what? I realized there was more to life than comfort. I missed having some greater goal. After that, I lived and worked in other countries, in Mexico and Venezuela, and I wrote about those places, but nothing touched me and moved me like the events taking place in Russia. Like every writer, my relationship with my mother tongue is very special. It’s not even about whether I like Russian or not, but rather that I depend on it, I am subordinate to it. Of course, I can imagine having to leave Russia and living elsewhere, but I dread this thought and I hope it doesn’t happen for a long, long time.

You say that your work is about giving a voice to those who have none. The main characters of your pieces are people, but you also write about nature, animals, forests. Would you say the relationship with nature makes for some new way of speaking truth in Russia, a fresh trend in reportage?

To me, it’s a completely new area. I never considered myself an environmentally conscious person. I was not a vegetarian, I didn’t recycle. First and foremost, I was occupied with human suffering. And nature? Well, it’s good it’s there. That’s what I thought. But when I researched the plant failure in Norilsk, I saw with my very own eyes how Nornickel is destroying everything that lives. That’s where I understood that nature could have its end. I was standing over the Kupets River, talking to a man whose mother remembered seeing herds of reindeer walking along the riverbanks. I listened to his story and all I could see was this. The emptiness. [Elena shows me a picture on her phone: a landscape of black water, blackened land with no greenery in sight, just several blackened stumps of dry trees and a thick rusty pipe sticking out of the rivers main stream.] Awful. There, I finally realized humans’ destructive power can be even greater than nature and its life-giving force. Right now, I’m working on a topic we called ‘Bald Russia’. It will be a piece on deforestation. Just like every Russian citizen, I used to think our country was covered with great swathes of taiga.

Is it not?

I came to Irkutsk Oblast and discovered that there was no forest left there. None. Now, corporations cutting down trees are moving towards Evenkia, north of Siberia. The Evenki people invited me to go hunting with them. I met a family of hunters, joined by a stranger. The man lives with them now because he no longer has his own forest where he can hunt or live. I spoke to the scientists and I am aware that my generation is the last one that gets to see the taiga.

Is writing about the destruction of nature in Russia just as dangerous as speaking out about politics and corruption?

It’s even more dangerous than that. Just take a look at the list of journalists murdered in Russia in recent years – most of them worked locally. While big politics feels abstract, ecology is tangible. There is always a corporation, some player who wants to keep endlessly multiplying their wealth. Never before was I met with as much resistance as in Norilsk. I was followed by a police helicopter, they tapped my phone, kept showing up at interviews to stop me from talking to people, stole the fuel from the boat we were supposed to take to collect samples of contaminated water, and later stopped us from taking the samples on a plane to Moscow…

The more precisely you write, the closer you get to a topic, the more dangerous you are in the eyes of the state. The distance between Putin and I is so great that he could easily ignore my articles about him for the next 20 years. But a CEO of a large gas and oil company cannot afford to ignore me. His company’s image is at stake, and the image is important to the customers buying his resources. Although it would have been better for the company not to interfere with my work. Because of that, I spent much more time over there than I expected and wrote a much longer article than initially planned. Well, they weren’t smart enough to connect those dots. They are driven by this instinct to control everything. They are the bona fide governors of the region – they control the police and special services, they invigilate their own employees. They are not used to having someone come over to their turf and go around it freely.

Do you think young Russians care about the destruction of climate more than about the Kremlin?

It’s hard to tell because my head is currently in a different place. Right now, I’m most interested in Russia’s psycho-neurological institutes. Do you know what they are? They are closed institutions housing 177,000 Russians suffering from neurological or psychiatric disorders who have no family or whose close relatives gave up custody over them. People live there indefinitely, until they die, imprisoned. They have a yard to go for walks and get a statutory cigarette break. Everyone is shaved bald, has to share underwear, and has no rights. They cannot leave. Worst of all, medication and injections are used there as punishment for bad behaviour. I spent two weeks in one of those institutions and met some women there who were forcibly sterilized without their knowledge.

Were those institutions set up during Soviet times?

Stalin set them up after World War II. There were a lot of people with mental and neurological damage in the country. Those people struggled to survive. They had to be removed so that they wouldn’t spoil the image of the new socialist world. It’s fascism in its purest form, and it’s lasted to this day. What’s most horrible, today’s Russia is dividing people into normal and not normal, stripping the second kind of all rights and freedoms. This strategy is now affecting LGBTQ+ individuals, Indigenous peoples, women. The state wants to segregate more groups and make them into internal elements. I cannot live with the knowledge that in my country, there are actual camps for disabled people, camps that are funded with the national budget and with our taxes. It’s hard to bear. That’s why I’m going to write, write, write.

So you do believe that writing can be a motor of change.

Of course, I know my piece will not put this system to an end, but I would like to see it fall. Two Moscow theatres are now staging plays based on one of my articles. I hope that one day, the walls of those institutions crumble and I will dance on their ruins.

Parts of this interview have been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.

Translated from the Polish by Aga Zano

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