“No kind of politics is ever too small”

Interview with Leonid Spirin
January 20, 2023
  • Leonid Spirin
    Groza editor and co-founder
  • Mack Tubridy
Mack Tubridy talked with the editor and co-founder of Groza, Leonid Spirin, about why independent student-led media is needed in Russia today.
Higher education has for long been one of the many sites of creeping repression and ideological struggle in Russia. But since the outbreak of war in Ukraine in February of last year, the state has taken extra steps to assert its control over universities. Scholars who have openly criticized the war have been fired or forced to resign from their positions, and some have fled the country out of concern for their own safety as a climate of fear reigns over those opposed to the Russian government’s actions. So, too, have universities expelled students for attending anti-war protests or for making posts critical of the war on social media. And this year an “ideological discipline” will be introduced into course curriculums, with students expected to learn "where Russia is going and why,” all according to the Kremlin, of course. Supposedly, authorities plan to use the new discipline to weed out “liberal professors” from universities.

Closely following the impacts of the war on universities and student life in Russia is the online student news magazine Groza. The magazine appeared in 2019 and was first based in Kazan, the capital city of Tatarstan. However, last year Groza launched two offshoot magazines in Novosibirsk and Yekaterinburg, as well as a publication that covers national news. These days, the magazine mostly reports on issues related to the war, mobilization, and increased political crackdowns on university instructors and students. For instance, after academics across Russia signed open letters in support of Vladimir Putin’s decision to launch a “special operation,” journalists from Groza contacted several of the pro-war signatories to see if they planned to volunteer to go fight on the frontlines in Ukraine. Unsurprisingly, few did.

In an interview for Russia.Post, Mack Tubridy spoke with Groza’s editor and co-founder, Leonid Spirin, who like so many other independent Russian journalists is now based in Tbilisi, Georgia.

Russia.Post: How did Groza get its start?

As with a lot of student publications, we started Groza just for fun. I wanted my city Kazan, in the Republic of Tatarstan, to have its own student magazine. But I didn’t want to just cover events organized by university administrators, like so many student publications already do. Nobody would want to read that. I wanted to write about issues that are important to students. But I also wanted to do proper journalism. The first publication we launched was focused just on Kazan. And over the past two years, Groza has turned into a kind of centerpiece of student, academic, and social life in the city.

Russia.Post: Are you still studying at university?

My co-founder Marina Bezmaternykh and I launched Groza after I had already dropped out of Kazan Federal University, where I studied mathematics for just one year. At the moment, I don’t have plans to continue my studies. I want to keep working in journalism.

Russia.Post: Given your background in mathematics, where did the interest in journalism come from?

It was somewhat by happenstance that I went into journalism. At first, I wanted to be an editor, to basically sit in an office all day and work on texts. For about a year, I worked as a reporter for a local lifestyle magazine in Kazan. It wasn’t anything special, but I did gain some experience, which was enough for me to feel that I could launch my own publication.

Russia.Post: How much of the work is done by students?

Probably about half. The oldest staff members at Groza are me and my co-editor Marina. Both of us are just 23-years-old. But all of our designers are students, and so are many people who write for us. In general, we try to make the following distinction: there are publications made by students, and then there are publications for students. We’re a publication for students.

Russia.Post: And that way, students interested in journalism, like you were, can take their first steps down that career path, right?

Yes, we present ourselves as a place where people can try out journalism. It’s one thing to write for students, but it’s also important that we offer a platform for young and aspiring journalists to grow. Each week we receive messages from people telling us that they want to go into journalism, that they've written to publications like Meduza, Mediazona, or Novaya Gazeta, but of course, these publications turn them down since they lack experience. So what are their options? Go work for state-controlled media like Russia Today or Komsomolskaya Pravda? Who wants to do that? There’s nowhere to work! But, if you gain just a bit of experience, then maybe you can start writing for larger, independent news outlets. Therefore, we never turn down requests to write for us. We understand the situation. People write for us, they get experience, and we even pay them what we can.

Russia.Post: How have things changed at Groza since the start of the war?

Things got more serious. During our first year, we were thinking “Wow, it’s so cool that people are reading our articles and talking about us!” By the second year, we realized that we might actually have some influence. The authorities also realized this. Around that time, the FSB started taking an interest in us. We began receiving strange calls and hearing rumors that we were doing something that we shouldn’t be doing. After the war started, some of our staff, including myself, left Russia. Then we launched three more publications, which added to our work and responsibilities.

Russia.Post: Let's talk about DOXA a bit, another publication that was started by students at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, and whose editors were sentenced to corrective labor last year, but later fled Russia. I would imagine that Groza is compared to DOXA quite often. So, how do these two publications compare, in your view?

My favorite topic! If you take a look at what DOXA writes about these days, then you’ll notice they don’t cover higher education, academia, or youth issues all that much. It’s been like that since the start of the war. DOXA now covers the news like most other outlets. Whereas at Groza, we strive to write for readers who just graduated from high school. We write about what is directly relevant to them.

Russia.Post: All the same, when DOXA was still a full-fledged student publication, was it something you tried to emulate with Groza?

DOXA showed that creating and running independent student media in Russia is possible.
"When I first saw what they were doing, I thought to myself ‘Damn, if they can do this in Moscow, then why can’t we do it in the regions?’"
I know the editor at DOXA, Armen Aramyan, and he offered some advice when we first launched Groza. Later on, DOXA published some of our pieces, and we published some of their pieces. But now, I consider them to be just one publication among other independent publications. In fact, the direction they’ve recently taken, editorially speaking, is one which we at Groza don’t want to take for ourselves. On the one hand, you have their turn toward the radical left.At the same time, I don’t want to grow as a person together with Groza, as it seems some of the people over at DOXAhave done. That is, I want to move on at some point in the future and hand over the editorial reins to someone else.But there’s also the question of activist journalism. Obviously, we draw attention to violations and injustices at universities. However, we don’t call on our readers to take specific actions like DOXA has started doing. We’re not activists – we’re journalists.

Russia.Post: So you take a more balanced position?

Well, not exactly balanced. We just follow objective journalistic standards. There’s a fine line between informative journalism and activism that one needs to follow.

Russia.Post: What would you say the purpose of student journalism in Russia is today? What role does it play?

For university students, there’s nothing closer to home than, let’s say, a cockroach infestation or a leaky roof in the dorms. We write about these problems at Groza. Obviously, the readership for those kinds of stories is quite small. But an interesting thing happens when we do write about them – students begin reading the news. Reading the news, as some kind of leisurely activity, is somewhat odd to a person who’s just graduated from high school. Young people can watch TikTok videos and all sorts of other media content in endless amounts. So why read the news? Our goal is to show students that there is such a thing as reading and discussing the news. Universities have student councils, with their own elections. There are clubs and organizations, with members and leaders. Of course, there’s a university administration as well. University life is like an incubator for life as a citizen of your own country. In order to become a good citizen, you need good, independent media. The same is true of universities. So, going back to the cockroach example: when we do write stories on these issues, both students and university administrators take notice. Scandals arise, and the university is forced to act.

Russia.Post: When I was reading through articles on Groza’s website, I came across an interesting op-ed that you penned. In the piece, you write “Among the opposition-minded older generation, one can encounter the narrative: ‘Well, we didn’t succeed, but you – the young and daring – will succeed.’” Basically, you’re saying there’s this assumption that the younger generation of Russians will be able to change the country for the better, as though it’s destined to happen. Why do you think this narrative is popular?

Taking responsibility is difficult. There’s always this desire to pass it on to someone else. The fact of the matter is the opposition did try to make Russian society more open and democratic. But, as we know, that didn’t work out so well. I don’t think the narrative itself is a serious problem. However, it’s important that we don’t take it for granted, especially young people, who love to hear from older generations that they’ll be able to fix all the world’s problems. This leads to a kind of a passive complacency.
"Unfortunately, there are many young people who do support Putin. It’s a myth that state propaganda doesn’t work on young people. It does work."
Today, I read in the news that the Young Army Cadets National Movement (Yunarmiya) has around 1.2 million members. Obviously, these numbers could be fudged a little, but in either case, even tens of thousands of members is a frightening figure. So, at Groza we try to write about these uncomfortable realities.

Russia.Post: And so what can young people who are opposed to what’s happening in Russia right now do?

In the op-ed, I wrote that, although we might not be able to completely change all of Russia, at least for now, we might be able to change something in one specific university, or in several. No kind of politics is ever too small. So, if we can accomplish that, then in a way, that’s changing Russia. Period.
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