The outbreak of war in Ukraine left journalists from Russia’s most prominent independent television channel faced with a stark choice: risk arrest over a new government ban on their work; stop reporting; or leave the country.
And so journalists from the TV Rain station joined hundreds of Russian colleagues in exile. They eventually settled in neighboring Latvia, where they continued to contradict the Kremlin’s propaganda and denounce its aggression to millions of home viewers.
But now an unscripted call from a correspondent to provide unspecified aid to Russian soldiers has engulfed TV Rain in the biggest crisis of its turbulent 12-year history, with Latvian and Ukrainian commentators accusing the station of supporting Russia’s war effort. to support. The journalist lost his job; the Latvian government has launched an investigation into the station on suspicion of aiding a sanctioned state; and local regulators have warned the station could lose its license.
The controversy exposes how Russian political exiles struggle to find a role in the conflict sparked by their nation, particularly in Eastern European states such as Latvia, once controlled by Moscow. In these countries, support for Ukraine is driven in part by fear of Russian aggression and mistrust of their own ethnic Russian minorities, and is set against a historical backdrop of hardship in the Soviet Union.
“The team left Russia to continue showing the reality of the Russian war to the Russian people,” said Vera Krichevskaya, co-founder of TV Rain in London. “But we have no territory. We have no rights in Russia and we have no rights in Europe.”
The controversy began after Thursday’s live news show, when a well-known TV Rain correspondent, Aleksey Korostelev, asked viewers to send information about conscripted Russian soldiers to a tip line the station had set up months earlier to report irregularities in the mobilization effort. to announce. .
“We hope we have been able to help many servicemen, including with equipment or just basic facilities at the front,” he added.
The response was quick.
“If ‘good Russians’ help ‘bad Russians’ – can the world finally understand that they are all the same?” Ukrainian Culture Minister Oleksandr Tkachenko wrote.
The government of Latvia, which already had a tense relationship with exiled Russian journalists, announced its investigation into TV Rain on Friday. Separately, the local media regulator fined the channel €10,000 for earlier using a map that placed Crimea in Russia, and for referring to the Russian army as “our army.”
The regulator added that another violation would lead to the suspension of TV Rain’s broadcast license.
Latvia’s Defense Minister Artis Pabriks went further, calling for the expulsion of its journalists.
Kremlin supporters jumped up and called the resistance an example of European hypocrisy.
“The TV Rain drama has shown many anti-Putin émigrés that there is no such thing as freedom,” a former Kremlin adviser Sergey Markov wrote on Telegram.
To limit damage, TV Rain fired Mr Korostelev hours after his remark, adding that the company has never and will never provide aid to military personnel.
In a Telegram post on Friday, Mr. Korostelev accepted management’s decision and apologized for his comment, which he said was taken out of context.
But the backlash has continued. Mr Korostelev’s remark could make the channel’s activities in Latvia unsustainable and destroy a year of painstaking efforts to build trust with the Ukrainians, said Ms Krichevskaya, co-founder of TV Rain.
TV Rain has 3.7 million subscribers on YouTube. Monthly, between 18 and 22 million unique visitors alone watch the YouTube channel, with up to 80 percent of them coming from Russia, said Tikhon Dzyadko, the station’s editor-in-chief. It also has a cable channel in five countries with large Russian-speaking populations.
One topic that has greatly appealed to viewers is President Vladimir V. Putin’s decision to mobilize at least 300,000 Russian men to compensate for his military losses in Ukraine. That decision has confronted millions of Russians with the realities of the war, which many had previously ignored or downplayed.
Since the mobilization began in September, TV Rain’s audience has increased fivefold, Ms Krichevskaya said, pointing out that the silence on state television caused Russians to flock to TV Rain to find out who was being called up and what they were up to. front was waiting.
She added that by covering the mobilization, TV Rain was able to reach beyond the opposition supporters to the apolitical majority of the Russian people. As the channel focused its efforts on documenting increasing cases of conscription irregularities and the inhumane living conditions of the mobilized men, the journalists felt, she said, as if they had begun to contribute to their overarching professional goal: to stop the war. .
In a telephone interview on Sunday, Mr. Korostelev, the correspondent, that in his profession he tried to help conscripted Russian men by collecting information about authorities’ misconduct and then documenting the cases. He did not ask for material for them, he added.
He said the controversy had exposed a fundamental dilemma facing Russian journalists, and anti-war Russian exiles in general: how do they connect with compatriots back home without downplaying their country’s aggression?
“The Ukrainians are undoubtedly the first and most important victims of this war, but the suffering of the Russians is also important,” said Korostelev, who left Russia after the invasion of Ukraine. “If they die in this war, they are also the victims.”
He said he acknowledged the moral ambiguity of that position: Even moral support for Russian conscripts fighting an illegal war in occupied territory may indirectly contribute to Ukrainian deaths, he said.
Nevertheless, he said he would continue to point out the injustices faced by ordinary Russians.
“I am a Russian citizen and I work for a Russian audience,” Korostelev said. “I will not take a position that turns me from a Russian journalist into a person who defends other people’s interests.”
Three journalists from TV Rain have resigned in solidarity with Mr. Korostelev. And his supporters say that portraying all Russian citizens as aggressors only helps to perpetuate Putin’s rule by marginalizing his opponents.
“Aleksej was looking for new allies, trying to destroy the walls of this ghetto into which the Kremlin is trying to drive the liberal opposition,” wrote Abbas Galiamov, a Russian political scientist, referring to Mr. Korostelev. Mr Galiamov was a speechwriter for Mr Putin, but has broken with the Russian president.
In the Baltic States, however, attempts to humanize Russian soldiers are particularly controversial. Many Russian ethnic minorities in those countries support the Kremlin in its claims for the unity of the Russian people, and their ranks have been increased by thousands of new Russians since the start of the war.
In a statement announcing the investigation into TV Rain, the Latvian security service called Russian journalists in the country an “intelligence risk” because they could have ties to Moscow’s intelligence services or could be spied on by the Kremlin.
But some Russian journalists in Latvia say stigmatization of any national group goes against the fundamental values of the European Union and tests the bloc’s commitment to supporting Russians fleeing political persecution.
Latvia’s media regulator did not respond to a request for comment.
TV Rain has run into other problems in Latvia, Ms Krichevskaya said. Although its viewers are predominantly Russian, the channel was fined by Latvian authorities for not including Latvian subtitles in one programme, which she said put further strain on already scarce financial resources.
A separate fine for TV Rain’s reference to the Russian army as “our army” revealed a more fundamental sticking point.
“To be accessible to Russian viewers, to engage with them in a way they respond, we need to speak to them as Russians,” Ms Krichevskaya said. “We should be able to tell them that U.S army is responsible for 40,000 atrocities.”
But the use of this phrase violated the Latvian law on digital media, which the government said led to the false impression that TV Rain may have been referring to the Latvian military.
Exiled Russian dissidents “cannot find the required message that will be accepted simultaneously in Europe and Ukraine and will not alienate the Russian public,” Maria Snegovaya, a Russian political scientist, wrote on Facebook. “Maybe it’s an impossible task.”
“In war you have to choose,” she added. “There is no middle ground.”
Milan Mazeva, Valeria Safronova, Neil MacFarquhar and Andrew Higgins contributed reporting to the story.