For Meduza.io, an independent Russian and English language news website, life in Riga, where it was founded in 2014, has been a true rollercoaster. Particularly so since last year, when the popular news outlet was labelled a foreign agent by the Russian authorities. And then on top of that came the war in Ukraine. “We even considered closing at some point,” Katerina Abramova, head of Meduza.io Communications, admits to bne IntelliNews.
How did the Meduza.io operation change over the last couple of years, especially following the decision of the Russian authorities to label it a foreign agent last year? And then after the start of the war?
After annexation of the Crimea and the eastern parts of Ukraine in 2014, it became absolutely clear that independent media in Russia were not welcome anymore. We never [had considered] Riga our exile or even operating from abroad.
During all the previous years, until the war, half of our team was still working and living in Russia. And after the war started, we had to evacuate 25 people with their families to different European locations, including Latvia. Needless to say, the whole thing was very stressful.
The worst thing for Meduza.io operations was last year, when the Russian authorities’ [decided] to label us a foreign agent.
[The Russian foreign agent law requires anyone who receives "support" from outside Russia or is under "influence" from outside Russia to register and declare themselves as "foreign agents". Once registered, they are subject to additional audits and are obliged to mark all their publications with a 24-word disclaimer saying that they are being distributed by a "foreign agent].
Now it’s clear that the Russian authorities were preparing for war, but in April 2021 it was rather shocking. Our business-model based on income from advertising was destroyed immediately. We’ve lost about 70-80 percent of our income.
So what did you do to ensure continuity?
Frankly, it was a very tough moment for us. We even considered closing. With few options in hand, we decided to launch a crowdfunding campaign, hoping that our readers would contribute to it with their donations.
To tell the truth, we had doubts if it could generate enough money to help us get through and last long. But, quite unexpectedly [for] us, we saw a huge wave of support – around 170,000 people from all over participated in the crowdfunding at least once and there were 33,000 people who did it on a monthly basis (30,000 of them were Russians living inside Russia). Thus we received enough money to continue and plan our future.
But soon after the start of war in Ukraine we had to reinvent our business model again. After the sanctions against Russian companies were imposed we couldn’t receive money from our readers inside Russia any more as Visa, Mastercard, PayPal and SWIFT are not working in Russia any more.
And once again we launched a crowdfunding campaign, an international one, asking people from wherever they are to stand up for the 30,000 Russians we lost.
However, this time we were quite uneasy – it is one thing to ask Russians for donations and quite another to ask all the people, who, perhaps, had never heard about us, internationally.
Yet we had a success again – the people who responded to our plea were very understanding and generous. In all, about 20,000 people made monthly donations. A very good result for us, indeed! Interestingly, the average Russian donation was in the range of €2 to €5, meanwhile the average European check was much bigger, averaging €10. To sum up, we are able to continue our operation!
Did you make staff cuts too?
Indeed, we cut our expenses to a minimum after we were listed as a foreign agent. The salaries and the taxes on them constitute around 80% of our budget. So we’ve discussed it with the team and decided that it’s better to cut salaries temporarily than to fire people. We gave up offices and [split off] several projects (for example YouTube projects) that were not our core product and could survive independently.
Have you or any your staffers experienced any harassment by the Russian authorities In Riga? Are the families of your workers in Russia safe?
Fortunately, here in Riga we have not had incidents of the kind. But several times RT correspondents tried to film our co-founders. That was rather unpleasant.
Here in Riga now we have quite a large concentration of Russian opposition media, like Dozdj, Novaja Gazeta, as well as the Russian language affiliates of the very well-known international media houses, like BBC, Deutsche Welle, to mention a few. And it's a relatively small town – you meet somebody you know every time you go out. So of course, you should be careful.
At Meduza, we are preparing for various scenarios. We knew that Meduza may be labelled an undesirable organisation within Russia one day. This will change the situation inside Russia for us completely. In this case, police will even be able to come to our relatives, friends or even ex-partners “looking for us”.
You probably have read that Latvian intelligence has warned that Russian media outlets operating in Latvia now could be infiltrated by Russian intelligence agents. Do you share the concern?
I am not sure I want to comment on the work and warnings of any kind by Latvian intelligence. We fully trust it. Speaking of the 50 Meduza people I work with here, I am sure they are not; just because we’ve known each other for a long time and we’ve been through thin and thick. The media sector is relatively small, so when you hire someone, the probability that your paths had crossed before is big – you’re just not buying a cat in the sack, to say it illustratively. Some of our staffers, like the accountant, for example, are Latvians.
Can you please break down your readership?
As Meduza is blocked now in Russia, it is hard to tell you how many Russian readers we have now. Before the war, we had roughly 20mn unique visitors per month. In terms of visits, Russia was No 1, Ukraine was No 2 – and it remained in that place during the war. Behind them was Germany and the United States and Israel, the countries with large Russian-speaking communities. That Ukraine is still No 2 is especially dear to us – it means that our news resonates well with the Ukrainians.
We started our English language version many years ago; now it has become more important and we are developing it. Since the start of the war, it has seen a several times increase in visitor numbers. Before the war, it was mostly aiming at people deeply interested in international affairs and what is going on in Russia and Ukraine, not at the general foreign population.
What is your reaction to the dismantling of the Soviet-era monuments in Latvia in the wake of the war? Does that sit well with your Russian readers?
In my personal view, this is the decision of the Latvian people, who have right to do whatever they want – with their monuments, too, especially considering the tough history of the 20th century, which was brutal.
The independence of Latvia, as well as that of Lithuania and Estonia, was hard-fought, so understandably the people want to protect and defend it. Yet the topic of historical memory is sensitive to some people in the local Russian community – again, understandably so. To some, it is very fragile and to some, it requires deeper understanding how to reflect it. In that sense, we Russians have failed and, with the war raging, we are failing – again! I feel sad about that.
However, many of the Russian people who were coming here to live and work really love and respect Latvia and want to know more about the local ways, lifestyles, the customs and history. They try to learn the language, etc.
What is your take on the ban on travel for Russian citizens to Latvia and the entire Baltics?
A comparably insignificant number of Russians have foreign passports. And those who have them travel outside the country rarely. I think that those Russians who would have come to Riga before the ban were not the people you’d not like to see in your country. The majority of them were ordinary travellers, many of them were young and without sentiments to the Soviet past. Let’s just face it: many super-rich Russians remain unharmed by the sanctions; just because they have the coveted citizenships of France, Great Britain and other Western countries. My mother visited me on a tourist visa in August. I had not seen her for over a year due the fact that I can’t come back to Russia. Quite sad for me, I won’t be able to see her here in Riga for now.
If a regime change takes place in the Kremlin, will Meduza go back to Russia?
Oh, it is a very difficult question…
Honestly, I do not think a regime change will happen there soon and/or quickly. If it ever happens. To see real change, a lot of complex things must happen. Not just a replacement of the man in the Kremlin. And in the best-case scenario, Russia would need decades – at least a couple of them – to see a change in the people’s mentality, attitudes, in the people’s ability to see what is good and what is bad; what is white and what is black and so on. Alas, for decades, very twisted understandings and values were stuffed into Russians. And then let’s just face it: a change [in the Kremlin] can be for worse.
Frankly, I miss home – it is natural, isn’t it? But even if a regime change happens, I do not think that Meduza will go back to Russia soon…But we tend to joke that we live here in Riga, but still wake up and go to bed in Moscow, as we are so involved in the Russian agenda. It’s difficult, but that’s how it is.
Katerina Abramova, Head of Meduza.io Communications