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.