Elena Chernenko is special correspondent at the Kommersant daily newspaper in Moscow. Shortly after the invasion, she organized an open letter against Russia’s war in Ukraine that was signed by more than 400 journalists. She is member of the Munich Young Leaders network.
How has your life changed since the 24th of February?
A lot has changed. Most people did not expect such a turn of events, and neither did I personally. In mid-February, the moderator of a journalists’ panel discussion asked me what I thought the odds were of there NOT being a war. I said: “9 out of 10”. At the time, the events of the previous few months had seemed to me rather like a diplomatic chess game in which Russia also appeared to be gaining quite a lot from the West – especially in terms of arms control. But on the 24th of February, just like that, Russia flipped the chessboard and now we find ourselves part of a geopolitical process where no one knows the rules.
How are people reacting around you?
Many people around me are just as surprised and shocked by all of this as I am. But there are also people who support the government’s policy because they believe the West backed Russia into a corner and provoked the war with its ill-conceived Ukraine policy. However, even many of those supporting the government do not know the way forward.
How has work changed for journalists?
Journalists from independent media who have stayed in Russia find it a lot more difficult to do their job. Especially since the new law “against fake news” was introduced, which makes it practically impossible to criticise the Russian military. More than 30 media outlets have either been blocked or shut down since then.
How much do the sanctions imposed by the West affect people’s everyday lives? In Moscow, but also in rural regions?
I can only comment on the situation in Moscow. Food and other goods (including medication) have become more expensive, some international companies have left the country and their shops are closed. A lot of cinema premieres and concerts have been cancelled. I think, though, that we will only really feel the full effect of the sanctions later on. Not that much has changed at this point.
What is the public’s understanding of the sanctions and Russia’s isolation by the international community when state-run Russian media conceal the background and developments surrounding Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine?
On TV, they say that the West is trying to bring Russia to its knees and that they are using sanctions as a tool to do so. That’s why one needs to tolerate everything patiently, and after a while, the economy will somehow find its ways, also with help from the government. They say that this is the price of a sovereign foreign policy. And many people believe that, too.
Do you think there is a chance that, as a result of the sanctions, the population could exert such pressure on the regime that might actually pose a threat to Putin?
I hardly ever write about the situation in the country, but at the moment I don’t see any signs of such a development. The state media skilfully direct the people’s discontent towards the West, saying that the West is to blame for everything. Part of the population even seems to be happy that oligarchs are losing their wealth, there is a lot of spite.
What kind of influence do protests have, or actions as that of Marina Ovsyannikova, who stood behind the Channel 1 newsreader with a “No War” sign? What did the Russian public say about this incident?
Of course, the event was widely discussed, but by far not only in a positive sense. One Channel 1 editor, Kirill Kleimenov, called her a “traitor” in his commentary. And that is now also the definition used against anyone who disagrees with what is happening. Vladimir Putin has even spoken about a self-purification of society, which has frightened many because no one really knows just how far such a process could go. In one month, more than 15,000 demonstrators have been arrested, some got off with a fine, but there have also been prison sentences.
What is your outlook on the future of Russia?
Quite grim at the moment. My Russia is that of the 2018 World Cup, an open, friendly, warm and creative country where everyone feels welcome and safe.
How do you view the German government’s reaction to the Russian war of aggression?
As for Chancellor Scholz’s efforts to appeal to President Putin, I hardly think they will be successful. I think it is important and right that the German government speaks out firmly against the agitation against Russians and Russian culture in Germany. In my opinion, there is no justification for such hostility in everyday life or the “cancelling” of cultural heritage. In that sense, I found it meaningful that Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier organised a concert “For Peace and Freedom”, where artists from Germany, Ukraine, Russia and Belarus participated and among others Russian music was played.
What else would you like to share with the people in Germany?
That many people in Russia are also following the dramatic situation in Ukraine with great concern and bewilderment. That they are mourning the victims (and this on all sides) and are longing for peace.
This interview had been conducted before the Bucha massacre was discovered and therefore does not include any questions related to it.