‘There is a generation at risk’: Exiled Russian journalist shares how he’s keeping stories alive

Dutch media magnate Derk Sauer, the founder of the Moscow Times and Vedomosti and CEO of RBK, fled Russia with his family and colleagues after Russian President Vladimir Putin enacted legislation that banned journalists from spreading “disinformation” —  especially about the invasion of Ukraine.

Sauer spoke with the National Press Club about moving his newsroom to Amsterdam, the dangers faced by reporters still in Moscow, and the media hubs he is building in Europe to help journalists from other independent Russian outlets.

Tell me about the mission of the Moscow Times, especially at this particularly crucial moment in its history.

Sauer: The Moscow Times has a long history because it was founded in 1992 at the very beginning of Russia: perestroika, Gorbachev, Yeltsin, all that. Initially, it was a print newspaper published in Moscow, focused on the expat community that was growing fast.

Times have changed enormously. Ninety percent of the expat community has left Russia, and the Moscow Times has become an international digital brand, with two services — an English-language service, but since the beginning of the year, also a Russian-language service.

And the timing is incidental. We didn’t know that a war would be coming. But of course, the timing could not have been better [for] launching a Russian-language service. We had another Russian-language platform called VTimes, set up by journalists who left the business newspaper Vedomosti, which I also founded, which was taken over by the Kremlin. But we were the second to be declared as a foreign agent in Russia, after Meduza, the second media. And we had to close that down because we lost all our advertising.

But as I said, in January, just before the war, we launched the Russian service of the Moscow Times. And that is now of course, a very important channel to reach people in Russia. And we have a much, much bigger international audience than we ever had when we were a print newspaper.

How much of your staff is able to still work independently and safely in Russia after this new law?

Sauer: Like everyone else, our newspaper was already declared a foreign agent. So we already had to be very careful even before the war because we were under scrutiny of the authorities.

But when the war broke out, of course, all rules went out the window. And basically, it was a choice between following the rules, which meant not being a journalist anymore because you could not say a war is war and you could not publish independent information about the war, or leave the country.

This was a dilemma that every independent platform faced in Russia. We decided that we wanted to continue — and the only way to do that was to leave Russia.

So basically overnight, these were very chaotic days. Two weeks, three weeks into the war, where people — literally in two, three days, with one suitcase — left the country initially not even knowing where to go because it was very difficult to get flights out of the country. So people jumped on the first tickets they could get out of the country. 

But finally, we assembled ourselves in Amsterdam because I’m a native of the Netherlands. So it was logical for me. I have a lot of contacts there and a lot of friends to move back to Amsterdam, where we set up a newsroom.

What about your own move to Amsterdam? Was it smooth just given your citizenship there, or were there complications given how rushed that process was?

Sauer: I have a Dutch passport, so I could go. There were no direct flights anymore. Last minute, we got some tickets on a flight to Istanbul. And so when I was in Istanbul, I didn’t know what to do next. So basically, I picked up the phone and called some friends and colleagues at Dutch media organizations, and I explained the situation.

And the chairman of a company called DPG, which is one of the largest Belgian-Dutch media houses, said immediately, “Derk, be my guest, you’re welcome, come to our office. We’ll facilitate you and your journalists.” So for us, it was actually pretty smooth.

And we were extremely fortunate. We also had very good support from the Dutch embassy in Moscow, who issued visas, like, overnight, to my Russian team. So we were very fortunate. Basically when we arrived, the newsroom was waiting. We literally walked into a ready newsroom with desks and computers and the whole thing. We were off the air for four days, and we immediately could relaunch the website.

Of course, it was hectic. Leaving Moscow meant we left all our equipment, all our bank accounts. Because of the sanction all the bank accounts were frozen. So we had no money, we had no equipment, we had nothing. We just literally came with one suitcase.

And we had no houses. But I had another friend who has a hotel chain in Amsterdam. And I called him and said, “Can we stay for a few nights?” He said, “You know, you can stay for two months. Take your whole team, put them in one of my hotels, I have space.” So even there, we had tremendous support.

Talk to me about the degree to which you’re able to do independent journalism on Russia without physically being in the country?

Sauer: I must say, of course, the last thing you want is to report about your country while being in another country. I mean, in Moscow, we just walked on the street or took the train to other cities and reported.

Now there are two things that are important. One is we just had the COVID experience and in Russia, there was a very strict lockdown. So for basically over a year, we did not report from our newsroom, but we reported from home because we were not allowed to be in our newsroom. So looking back, that was a tremendous experience, in a way, to learn how to operate when you’re not all together. And the Moscow Times actually had wonderful scoops the whole time in the COVID period. We were probably the best newspaper reporting the COVID crisis in Russia, where over one million people lost their lives. We already forgot all these huge numbers, but in Russia, COVID was like an incredible drama. And we did report it very well while not being on the street.

Second is we left people behind in Moscow because we have a team of about 25 people. We took 10 people to Amsterdam. And the rest for several reasons – some had to take care of their parents, had small children that they did not want to relocate, or other personal reasons – people stayed behind.

And from day one we decided, when the war started, that we would not mention any bylines, any names of our staff in the newspaper. People did not report from the newsroom anymore, they basically went underground because they were breaking the law. But they are still there. They’re still reporting.

So I would say our editing team is in Amsterdam. But some of our reporters and many of our freelancers – because we also, like all media, use freelancers – are still in Russia at the moment. And for them, it’s quite dangerous.

Can you talk about their safety? Are they able to maintain their anonymity and still do their job and talk to sources and get the information that your readers need?

Sauer: Well, officially, they don’t work because they cannot work. The nature of how we operate has dramatically changed. One is the journalists cannot identify themselves [by their] bylines.

But they also have to be very careful to present themselves to sources, so they can only talk to trusted sources. They cannot go to press conferences, and so on. One of our reporters was recently arrested near the border with Ukraine. Thank God, he was released and basically kicked out of the country. So he’s now in Yerevan. So you have to be extremely careful.

And normally we are extremely strict at the Moscow Times with quoting sources: always names, always check and double check. But unfortunately, that’s impossible now. If you talk with someone in the government, this person is never, ever going to agree to use his or her name because it would be the end of their careers. We have a very good reporter, he is one of the best Kremlin-connected reporters. So he still has a lot of sources inside. But he cannot name any of the sources he quotes.

That’s interesting, so he can talk to people in the Kremlin but couldn’t go to a spokesperson to get an official comment like you would in a more formal setting?

Sauer: You cannot do that, no, no. So he speaks to them privately, through Telegram, Signal, and other safe apps or just in a car in a park. Just like during the Stalin days. It’s that type of journalism. It’s totally different from what we were used to when we were operating in the Yeltsin [era] and the first, I would say, eight Putin years.

A lot of our focus obviously has been on Evan Gershkovich, the American journalist who the U.S. government and the National Press Club has said was wrongfully detained by Russia on charges of espionage.

Sauer: He started his career at the Moscow Times. When he worked in the U.S. and wanted to come to Moscow, he wrote me a letter saying that he passionately wanted to be a journalist. And Moscow Times is a great starting place for young, ambitious reporters.

And so he worked for us for four years. And then together with my son Pjotr Sauer – who also was a young reporter at the Moscow Times – they worked closely together, and they are best friends. And they wrote all these scoops about COVID and some other very good stories.

And they were picked up, Evan by The Wall Street Journal and Pjotr went to The Guardian. And that’s the interesting thing about the Moscow Times, if you look at the alumni list of the Moscow Times, these people are all over the place. FT, New York Times, Boston Globe, Guardian, you name it. Everywhere, you find former Moscow Times reporters, and Evan is of the last generation of this group of people.

What has been your reaction, seeing what Evan has been going through?

Sauer: Obviously, we were very shocked. A few weeks, actually, before he was arrested, he was with us on holiday because he’s almost part of our family. And he was with us in Thailand and Vietnam. So just a few weeks before we were partying together.

And to see him arrested, it’s a scandal, and these made up charges of him being a spy are completely ridiculous. He was just taken hostage by the Russian government. Thank God, you know, we are extremely happy with all the support he gets internationally and all the outcry worldwide.

But let’s not forget that more than 20 Russian journalists are now in jail, many serving jail terms nine years and more. And, of course, we need to keep Evan very much into the limelight. But let’s also not forget those Russian journalists and activists who are serving years and years and years in hard labor and will never be exchanged for anyone. They just have to serve their full term. And their fate deserves as much attention as that of Evan.

What do you think can be done to help those Russian journalists who are imprisoned?

Sauer: Keep the limelight on them. We just had a big story in the Moscow Times with profiles of many of them. Very often they’re from regional outlets, so they’re not famous. But they are as brave as Evan is. And their suffering is at the same level.

We all hope, of course, that Evan will be traded sooner rather than later for some spy. But these girls and guys, there’s no hope to be released early. As long as Putin is there, they will never be released.

Talk to me about these hubs that you’re setting up in Europe. How many do you have, and what are you doing to help Russian journalists in exile?

Sauer: In Europe, there are now at the moment three main hubs. The first, the traditional one, is Riga, where most of the Russian journalists [are]. But there’s a lot of internal political issues in Riga within the government, and that’s why many Russian media now are looking to relocate to other places. 

So that’s why TV Rain decided to join us in Amsterdam. And now the newsroom is not just the Moscow Times, but we built a TV studio for TV Rain, where they broadcast live now. They also have a broadcasting license now in the Netherlands because they were kicked out, their license was taken from them, in Latvia. And we have several other Russian journalists and Russian media are part of our newsroom in Amsterdam. So there’s Latvia, there’s now Amsterdam, which has been growing quite fast, we now have about 60 Russian journalists there working.

And then a third place is not not very much a hub yet – there is no physical place where they work together – but still, they cooperate. That’s in Berlin — there are quite a few Russian journalists in Berlin.

And we’re also looking to establish a hub in Prague for some other media who are already in Prague or want to move there.

So that’s the landscape in Europe. And obviously, Europe is the most logical place to go for Russian journalists because it’s much closer to Russia; it’s more or less the same time zone. The U.S. is much more difficult to operate with the distance and the time zone, and so on. So I think, what you will see is that Amsterdam, Berlin, Riga, and Prague will be the main hubs going forward.

And these are just physical spaces, or are you also providing resources to these journalists, even if they’re competitors?

Sauer: It’s very much bottom up. I don’t believe in sort of merging. All these independent media, they have their own identity, they have their own audiences, they have their own style. And I think it’s very important that pluriformity remains. It’s not like there is one big platform. I don’t think that that is the way to go. So it really goes bottom up.

What I see, when people work together in one space like in Amsterdam, they start cooperating with each other anyway. Because we all have the same questions. Our main challenge is, “how do we reach our audience in Russia because our websites are all blocked.” We are all under huge pressure. We are all either a foreign agent or an undesirable organization. So we all run the same risks with teams in Russia. And we are all looking for ways: How can we reach our audience in the best way?

So we share a lot of technology solutions, like developing apps that cannot be blocked, developing websites that can change very fast – “mirror sites” we call them so that authorities have to catch up. It’s really a game of cat and mouse. To use YouTube more, to use podcasts more. So we have a podcast studio that people can use. We have a TV studio with TV Rain but that is also being used by other Russian journalists. So it’s a natural cooperation, and that’s much more fruitful than something from above.

It sounds expensive. Where do you get the money for all this?

Sauer: This is very expensive. And we all lost our business model. What you have to understand is that we all were profitable, self-sustaining businesses operating in Russia. Meduza had a huge membership. TV Rain had a lot of donors and advertising. Moscow Times had print at conferences and all sorts of event-type businesses that generated good revenues.

So, overnight, we lost everything. So now we work with foundations and donors that want to support us. The Moscow Times is like 5,000 members now, donors. So crowdfunding is getting more and more important.

But this is the biggest struggle that we have. Because we were business people, and now we suddenly have to go around and raise money. It’s as simple as that.

My last question for you is how can we, as reporters in the United States, best support journalists in exile?

Sauer: I think it is extremely important to keep focused on the people who are in jail. They need support. Evan, but also our Russian colleagues.

And also, it’s very important to make people aware, and also the governments, that this is not just a war with arms. This is, in Russia, first and foremost, a propaganda war. The way the Russian population has been brainwashed is unprecedented. And it’s so important that independent journalism survives. There is a generation at risk, because most independent media have been closed anyway. There are maybe 20, 30 platforms left. If they disappear, basically, independent journalism in Russia has disappeared. The know-how that we’ve built up over the last 30 years disappeared. So it’s very important that we keep this flame burning.

We understand that we are the mouse and the Russian state media are the elephant. But still we can have an effect. We see that there is a real appetite for our information in Russia. So it’s very important that despite all the problems, we remain doing our job. And, just from a financial perspective, the Russian government spends over $1.5 billion yearly on state propaganda. We raised this year maybe $20-30 million. So you see the difference. The gap is huge. But nevertheless, we still have a lot of impact. So it’s very important to keep that going.

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments