“By Talking About High-Profile Cases — We Are Unwittingly Helping the State Scare People”
December 22, 2023
  • Ekaterina Gorbunova

    Editor-in-Chief of Lawyer Street (Advokatskaya Ulitsa)
  • Xenia Loutchenko


Ksenia Luchenko speaks with Ekaterina Gorbunova, Editor-in-Chief of the small independent source Lawyer Street (Advokatskaya Ulitsa), within the framework of a project Journalism: An Overhaul (Журналистика: Ревизия).
The first conversation took place in August, when the media company was still operational. The second occurred at the end of September, when Lawyer Street was forced to cease its activities.
The original text in Russian was published in Colta.
A shortened version of it is republished here with their permission.
Why did you decide to open a new media publication in 2019, when things were already difficult? What was your mission?

— Before Lawyer Street, I worked as chief editor of the site Lawyer News (Advokatskaya Gazeta) — the official publication of the Federal Chamber of Lawyers. But I was forced to leave due to disagreements with the founder related to the editorial independence of the site. About six months after this, I decided to launch “Lawyer Street,” a platform where lawyers could speak out, regardless of how the Federal Chamber treats them. It was supposed to be a media outlet that would be financed by lawyers, but they would not be able to interfere with editorial policy. We placed our hopes in the lawyers’ belief that the community would be a better place with an independent media outlet.

And we’re already in our fourth year of operation.

You also educate the readers on legal matters…

— Since the beginning of the war, and even a little earlier, our priorities have shifted. We began to think more about our readers who are not lawyers by profession. The Duma began to churn out laws that affected everyone with terrible speed. They had to be analyzed very quickly so that people could somehow orient themselves in a collapsing world—so that they know what actions that were yesterday seen as innocent could lead to jail time today, what things should be hidden, what should be deleted, etc. Therefore, we began to make operational analysis of laws and spent a lot of effort on making them simple, understandable and concise.

But we continue to write about the situation within the legal profession as well: about the attitude of lawyers towards the war; about the lawyers who are now being tried under “censorship” laws—this is all still content we produce. It's just that now, we’re giving more consideration to those who don’t have a legal education.

The fact that these analysis are helpful was confirmed by a sharp increase in the number of subscribers to our Telegram channel, initially in the first months of the war, then during the period of mobilization.

But now, even the most dangerous bills don’t arouse much interest among the populace. People in Russia are tired of being afraid of everything and trying to control everything, of endlessly making decisions. It seems easier for them not to read and hope for the best.

So the audience is slowly starting to dwindle?

— Not a lot, but there certainly hasn’t been any growth. People in Russia are trying to isolate themselves from at least some of the negativity. Just so as not to go crazy, and to maintain their ability to survive. Colleagues from other publications also told me about a decrease in reader interest. People cannot live in a constant state of anxiety.

How many people are on your editorial team?

— We work out of Russia, so I’d like to talk as little as possible about my team and how everything works. I can only say that we have a very small backbone. Most pieces are written by freelancers.

Lawyer Street employs professionals who are well known in both the journalistic and legal communities. We got some of them after the war began, when they were forced to leave Russian big media. Overall, journalists who want to continue working in Russia don’t have much choice. There are very few independent media sources left inside the country.

When you talk about possible article topics during meetings, do you feel like there are “red lines,” where you can go and where you can’t?

— Right before the adoption of the censorship laws, we were in shock. It seemed like we wouldn’t be able to write about anything anymore. We even took down some of the articles we had published prior to that day.

But then we realized that assessing risks based on these “rubbery” laws was pointless. As a result, we made decisions intuitively, went with our gut. Yes, of course, we had to change the word “war” to “special operation,” and “occupied territories” to “annexed.”

At first it was awkward and even shameful. But you can’t be all that ashamed of the desire to protect yourself and your team. And moreover, we still managed to continue our work with dignity.

We talked about how the International Criminal Court in The Hague works, monitored the prosecution of lawyers under “censorship” articles, interviewed anti-war and pro-war advocates, were able to find out how lawyers live and work in the “annexed territories,” etc. We stayed within the censorship laws, but we wrote about almost everything we were inclined to.

Do you feel a difference in attitudes towards the war between journalists and lawyers?

— If we’re talking about public reaction to the war, then the journalists’ response was harsher and faster. But I was surprised to see two statements given by different members of the council of the Federal Chamber of Lawyers (FPA), a couple of days apart. The first, an anti-war letter, was published on the chamber’s website, and then later, a pro-war letter appeared. There was even one person who managed to sign both. This surprised me, because the FPA has consistently distanced itself from any political statements and tried not to spoil relations with the authorities. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the anti-war letter. I think for the then FPA president Yuriy Pilipenko this was a big, bold step — one which may have cost him his position.

But if we’re talking about attitudes towards the war, essentially the same thing is happening in the legal profession as is happening in the rest of Russian society. There are people who sign contracts and go off to fight. Some of them have already died. There are lawyers who go to the “annexed” territories and participate in trials for prisoners of war. I’ve interviewed two of them.
Mikhail Benyash, a lawyer who left Russia in Spring 2024 after months spent in fear of arrest. Source: Wiki Commons
But there are also many who publicly opposed the war, and suffered for it. The president of the Udmurtia Bar Association is currently in a pre-trial detention center because of this. Some lost their license to practice — Ilya Novikov, for instance. Many were punished under censorship articles, like Mikhail Benyash. Many are defending clients in cases related to freedom of speech, trying to help Ukrainian prisoners of war in some way, etc.

But, of course, lawyers are more careful than journalists: unlike us, they cannot continue to operate fully abroad.

Did many lawyers and jurists leave because of the war?

— I personally know around 30 who did. I repeat, the work of a journalist is very different from the work of a lawyer. Before the war, maybe a journalist worked at one desk in one country, and now after the outbreak of the war, he works at a different desk in a different country. He doesn't lose his profession when he leaves.

But for lawyers and legal scholars, their profession is very much tied to national legislation — that is, to their home country. How are they going to make a living in another country?

Of course, lawyers can find remote work, but it is unlikely that there will be enough for everyone. (On October 16, a government commission proposed revoking the licenses of all lawyers who left the country. — Colta.)

And then, someone has to go to the courts, pre-trial detention centers, colonies and police stations. Not all lawyers are ready to abandon their clients and run to a safe place. Many speak of a moral duty to people in Russia. After all, they will be left completely without protection if professionals who are still ready to fight the system and pull people from its clutches all leave the country.

Does the publicity help lawyers?

— To be honest, I don’t think it does anymore. Lawyers are increasingly choosing not to inflate the story, but, on the contrary, to hush it up. And publishing in media sources run by “foreign agents” causes problems.

The state, in the form of law enforcement officers, is permitted to do anything, and nothing will happen to it. And you don’t bring a knife to a gunfight, as they say — publicity is simply no match. I cannot blame lawyers for not wanting to air out all the chaos they face in the public sphere — 2023 was a record year for attacks on lawyers and jurists.
Vladimir Kara-Murza sentenced to 25 years in prison. Source: X
But now, by talking about high-profile cases — where people get 7, 9, 20 years — we’re unwittingly helping the state scare people. After all, that’s the purpose of these demonstrative trials with unimaginable sentences. When they tell you that you can get 25 years for your words, like [Vladimir] Kara-Murza, you get scared and choose to keep your mouth shut, just in case. Although there are not many criminal trials prosecuting people for their words yet, who wants to become a defendant in the next trial for show?

True, lawyers have told me that judges in metropolitan areas are very different from their colleagues in the regions. In big cities, judges are extremely busy; cases pass through the court like a conveyor belt. It is probably easier in such circumstances not to see the accused as real people.

In the regions there are fewer cases, and judges are closer to the townspeople. Therefore, publicity there can be more helpful.

In general, I don’t think that all Russian judges enjoy handing down these monstrous sentences. I don't want to justify the judges and their inhumane decisions. But I understand that they have reasons to be afraid. I'm afraid too.

You’re afraid, but you’re staying here.

— If I start to feel like my safety is under threat, then I will probably leave. But at this point, I don’t want to leave — this is my country, you know, my home. I don’t want to leave my home behind.

“Lawyer Street” was declared a “foreign agent.” What difference has this made?

— The day I was added to the registry [of foreign agents] was one of the strangest days of my life. We had to tell everyone that everything was fine, that we would come up with something or we wouldn’t, but in any case everything would be fine...

— Do you believe that everything will be fine?

— No, I don’t. But what else can I say? I wouldn't want to get too upset in front of others. I don’t know whether we can weather through or not. We’ve been in operation for four years now, and it will be a shame if we can’t. But I, as a person living in Russia, have low expectations. Our team is still free — and that’s good.

What were the most painful consequences of being declared a “foreign agent?”

— They were all painful. Before the war started, we were finally able to find a financial model that suited us. We had donations, a quarter of the budget was covered by advertising, we began to organize paid events, got legal scholars to attend. The future seemed more or less stable to us.

After the start of the war, we began to advertise more often, and to some extent it saved us. But after being declared foreign agents, there were immediately fewer advertisers. Lawyers are cautious people. They know better than others how quickly the foreign agent legislation is expanding: what is still somewhat permissible today may prove very risky tomorrow.

The number of donations has also fallen, because this could theoretically be considered “financing a foreign agent.” There are difficulties with paying salaries as well, because not all journalists are willing to receive payments from a foreign agent.

As a result, our entire editorial structure broke down. And, of course, communicating with interview subjects has become more complicated: we need to warn everyone about our foreign agent status and calmly accept refusals to comment.

Are you anticipating a scenario where you have to shut down? At what point do you make this decision, what is your point of no return?

— When I understand that it is impossible to continue working in the same format or to restructure safely. Then I will shut down the project.

I think it is important to soberly assess the risks. And I don't think holding on until the last minute is a smart approach.

When you're a leader, you don't have the privilege of thinking only about yourself. You must understand where you are taking people, what risk you’re exposing them to. And at some point, you’ll have to say, “Well, I’m not ready to expose people to such danger, or to bear responsibility for it. You don’t want to cling to a project as the most sacred thing, something for which you would sacrifice another’s freedom.

September 25, 2023

— We spoke to you a month ago. During this time, Lawyer Street has shut down. Is this a consequence of your foreign agent status?

— Yes, of course, that’s the main reason. When we spoke the first time, all the facts and circumstances had already become clear, but we were still trying to overcome them. It didn’t work out. The financial and legal conditions proved too unfavorable. On top of that, it was an issue of the safety of all people involved in Lawyer Street, in one way or another.

Did you make the decision yourself?

— Yes. But I discussed it with some of our donors and the editors. Everyone in the editorial office is very upset. But I stated everything as it is: the situation that we’ve found ourselves in and what awaits us moving forward.

How do you see your personal prospects? It is clear that the publication no longer exists, and you probably experienced a kind of relief that you no longer have to carry the whole burden yourself. So what’s next?

— I don't know if it’s a relief or not. I perceive the decision as inevitable. I accepted it five months after we were declared foreign agents. Maybe someone else who was smarter would have accepted it earlier, and someone with more courage would have accepted it much later.

I don't feel much right now. Probably because shutting down even such a small project as ours means a lot of work and a lot of conversations. Lawyer Street existed thanks to the support of a large number of people. And they have the right to a detailed explanation.

For now, by sheer will power, I am forcing myself to think only of completing the project with dignity: releasing all our pieces, paying everyone royalties, and tying up all the administrative matters. I’ll think about how difficult and tragic it all is later.

I have a clear understanding of the fact that projects come and go, but people must remain. People must preserve things. There will be other projects — not mine, but others will launch some new initiative. When they say that the Russian media is dead, I’m quite skeptical.

Russian independent media is not dead — it has just relocated. Because their leaders organized everything better, foresaw all the risks, and prepared better for them.

And what if you receive some good job offer from a media source that has left. Will you also leave the country, simply for professional reasons?

— Possibly. It will all depend on the offers I get and on how I feel after the month that I’m giving myself. I dedicated four years of my life to Lawyer Street, and sacrificed a lot. This is a loss that I must first overcome.
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