‘We Work In Russia, And That’s A Privilege’
September 8, 2023
Yevgenia Volunkova, the chief editor of Takie Dela, talks about how much harder it has become for charitable NGOs to operate in wartime Russia and how her media outlet still manages to help them, as well as Russian people in need.
The original text in Russian was published in Colta. A shortened version is republished here with their permission.

Takie Dela was a project of the Nuzhna Pomosh Foundation, you collected donations from crowdfunding and from donors. Has this changed now?

The Nuzhna Pomosh Foundation collects money for various charitable organizations, including those funded by Takie Dela. They always got our budget up to the amount that we needed to continue operating. So it was in the good years, it was quite a lot of money, we had a decent existence. But when the war began, it became clear that the foundation simply could not cope. They started cutting projects. We agreed that it was time for us to go on our own.

The time for this was, of course, not the best. Donations began to dry up. People began to leave the country and withdraw their rubles. There was a very big drop in donations.

Before the war, you applied for state grants, didn’t you?

Yes, we got, for example, money from the Presidential Grant Foundation and with it made reports about life in the regions and stories about charitable foundations. But these grants are not given out anymore.

We also had various, rather large, monthly donations from business, which also fell through: people wrote that they could no longer support us, their priorities had changed, they themselves were barely getting by and could not afford donations. Or they simply closed their businesses and took them abroad.

And there was nothing left.
Now, we are actually surviving thanks to people from different cities Russia who donate RUB 50-3,000 a month.
The situation is such that I myself may not receive a salary in September.

Still, do you see some sense in Takie Dela operating now in Russia, in 2023? What does the Russian media landscape look like now, and what is the place of Takie Dela in it?

I can say that we are almost the only major media that covers the regional and social agenda in Russia. We used to be the flagship in the social sphere, but now we are one of the few who have remained inside.

Colleagues who have left ask me: “why are you sitting there? You can do everything remotely.” But it seems to me that if I live abroad, I will lose my feel for Russia. I do not sit in Moscow all the time – we just traveled through a bunch of villages and settled in Karelia. I talked to a lot of people, and such trips are very important for understanding what is happening. We sometimes chat with friends and colleagues who have left on Zoom, and they say: “we already feel like we’re on Mars.”

Now, as to the place of Takie Dela. Previously, no one besides us really needed all these NGOs in Russia that help different people, but now no one has time for them at all. Many media, and I don’t say this as a reproach, have repurposed themselves to cover the military agenda from different angles. And we, in my opinion, are the only ones now who continue to cover what NGOs are doing and how to help them.

Every day my mail is bursting with letters from various NGOs across the country that say: “help us, tell about what we are doing…” There are now many more people who need help. They are lost, they are terrified. But the foundations are barely getting by. Like us, they have lost a large part of their donations and are simply shutting down.

Here is an example of the recent news. The Live Now Foundation has announced that it is closing its service to help people with ALS, they don’t have any more money. The service helped with doctors, from [getting] a neurologist to a palliative doctor, with equipment in the regions, medical consumables, and with obtaining disability status. They advised people with ALS and their families across the country on any issue. Now, all these people will be left on their own – without consultations and without normal treatment. And this is a disaster! This is just one example, but there are dozens of cases.
Alexandra Shchetkina, head of the Alzrus Foundation, which helps people with dementia and their families. Since the Russian invasion in Ukraine, Alzrus has been very short on resources.
Source: Youtube
And the foundations that do not close are floundering and working without pay. Take Alzrus, the largest dementia foundation in the country; we recently filmed a story about them. They have only two employees, no resources, the workload is huge.

Such foundations really need us. But we too are barely making ends meet and cannot cover the same amount of work as before. We make one material a week about the work of a foundation, appealing for donations, but before we had been doing three or four a week.

Our hallmark has always been long, quality reporting – about people from the middle of nowhere – and we continue that. And now this is especially important, as we are also writing history. Everything that is happening in the country now has changed, and this needs to be recorded.

And we also write about how the so-called special operation is affecting people. For example, we write about mobilized men, about their families. How a mobilized young man escaped from his unit because he had a sick mother and he needed to help her. Or how an ordinary guy from Kalmykia died in Ukraine and what is now happening to his family, to those who knew and loved him.
“An endless number of materials from us about how people are getting poorer, how they are being deprived of vitally important drugs, how specialists are leaving the country.”
Priest Mikhail Goncharov serves in a remote village in Krasnoyarsk Territory, where it is impossible to get around for a big part of the year due to poor roads. He decided to assemble an ATV and turned to the editors of Takie Dela with a request for money to buy spare parts. Photo by Daria Aslanyan. Published with the kind permission of Takie Dela.
So now we are writing more about those who stayed and are floundering. We started a section “Takie Lyudi” (“Such People”) about those who are changing things around them for the better.

How one woman in Yakutia opened a canteen for the poor at her own expense and feeds them. Or how people are trying to restore their village, though they are given no budget whatsoever, and even contribute to the salary of the head of the administration so he will do something. Or how the priest for whom our readers raised money for an ATV serves and helps people in an impassable village. It is important to give people hope so that they can see that not everyone has given up yet.

We give people the opportunity to participate in charity and join some initiatives – to donate money, help materially, share advice and find each other.

We have created several private chats for our subscribers. People write to us how scared they are, share personal things, we talk to them, we accept stories from them, we ask them what they would like to read, what is important to them now.

Readers began to donate to us for work trips. I came up with this out of desperation and did not particularly believe that it would work. We now have RUB 150,000 a month for the work of the editorial board – this is money for both travel and fees. And one trip is at best RUB 50,000, if the tickets are cheap and the fees small. That is, we can make a maximum of three materials per month with this money.

We made a landing page where we collect stories we would like to write about – readers choose which trip to send a journalist on and donate. As soon as the amount is collected, we go.

Do you not feel hate from the outside? Because the picture from the outside seems like: you are trying to help Russians, and Russians are supporting the war.

I feel it a little, but I really don’t give a damn, to be honest. There is an idea that only poorly educated people remain in Russia who do not need help; you should not talk about them, like they are to blame.

[But] I see that Russians are just scared, shocked and silent. I just returned from the middle of nowhere, where I spent ten days and talked to different people.

Now, we published a material about a foundation that all its life had helped people with cancer in Belgorod but now has suddenly changed its profile and helps Shebekino residents (the city of Shebekino in Belgorod Region has been shelled by Ukraine – RP) and refugees. They saved sick children, and now they are collecting humanitarian aid throughout the city.

They began to write to me: “how do you even publish Takie Dela when there is such hell going on in Ukraine?” And the Shebekino people are not people, or what? They do not need help?

The deeper you are inside, the farther you are from Moscow and St Petersburg, the less likely it is that someone will stand up for you if you talk. You blurted out something – they turn you in, kick you out of school, and the school is the lone one, and you have been a teacher all your life, and they won’t take you anywhere else. This is the best case. The worst – you go to jail.

Naturally, people are lost and they are silent. But that does not mean they support it. But, again,
“Even if they support our government, that does not mean that we should not write about them and help them.
A temporary center for refugees from Shebekino, Belgorod Region, who suffered from shelling by the Ukrainian army. Photo by Svetlana Lomakina. Published with the kind permission of Takie Dela.
I do not write anti-war posts on Facebook. Firstly, I do not see any practical sense in this, as it is my crowd of a hundred people like me and read me. And secondly, OK, they’ll put me in prison… I do not want to go to jail...

Here is our last hero – a lady in a village goes to help a bedridden grandmother, whose child is also bedridden, for pennies. They would not have survived without this neighbor, and they cannot pay her decently. She feeds them, washes them, cleans the house. On her own. Or here is another future hero of ours – a man from the middle of nowhere who, at his own expense, takes care of the resting places for 118 people who perished during the forced-labor construction of a railway. Using the archives, he restores names, puts up plaques, fences, brings flowers. I don’t care what his [political] position is, I think that we should talk about such people.

What is happening with your audience now? Has it gone down? What is the ratio of readers from Russia and outside?

About 85% is Russia. Readers from outside have increased, people leave and continue to read us, but in Russia there are still many more. And I’m happy about that, we work for this audience. Views, of course, also went down, like for everyone else – this is another pain.

Our audience is growing wildly only on VK. People are afraid to read Instagram (blocked in Russia in March 2022 – RP).

Previously, we answered every letter [requesting help] in detail. But it’s a huge job. And when you have only three people in the office, you cannot explain to everyone where and how to get through.

So we began to produce more basic materials and instructions to cover the demand for information – for all cases.

Where should I go if I have cancer and the local hospital can’t make a diagnosis, how to help a depressed person, how to avoid falling into the clutches of a scammer.

I know that you collaborate with rural newspapers. What is this about?

I decided to go to small newspapers with approximately the same information. Because, OK, you don’t read the internet, but you read newspapers. We have now published two materials in a Karelian newspaper, which is published in a village, and then it is delivered to small villages.

And I thought: since they read them front-to-back, why not go to the editors of these newspapers, who are desperate for good content, and say: “take it from us.” I write letters to these editors: “hello! We are Takie Dela, we have this and that, would you like to collaborate with us?” They start asking questions: “are you foreign agents? Why do you need to do this in the first place, we do not understand? No way, can you really do it for free?” “We can. Anything you like. If you want, [take this] about how to protect grandmothers from scammers. If you want, about health. If you want, about social stories.”

For example, residents chip in on VK for a newspaper in which we have already published. And there are several people – a collective that puts out this newspaper, local residents write to it about news and problems. And I took a close look at how everything works there. They are ready to pay to do it: you pay for it yourself, you read it yourself. I asked why they need it. They say: “We want to know what is happening in our community, what problems we have, what outstanding people we have, who lives nearby, what they are doing.”

I hope that we will set up collaboration with at least five newspapers in the regions so that something will be published regularly.

How do you discuss whether to take on topics that are somehow related to the war or other risky things? If you only write about how people continue to die from cancer or organize a rural club, then it’s as if nothing is happening...

Why [do you say that], we are not only writing about that.

I’m exaggerating. But any topic related to the war, mobilization, increases the risk of you being closed and getting into big trouble. How do you find a balance here?

You do many things simply at your own peril and risk.
In our country weighing risks is a thankless job. Every day sees a new insane ban.
Whatever you write about, you will discredit something. So balancing is hard, we don’t know how long we can last, for example, without being blocked.

I don’t expect anything good. I just try to live from week to week. We get through the week, Friday passes, and it seems like OK, we are working on.

Our lawyers look at the materials and say: “formally, everything seems to be OK, but we cannot say 100%.” Nobody knows for sure. Let’s put it out and come what may.

How are you doing yourself? You have a lot of colleagues who left and make media while sitting in Europe. You have close friends [among them], you are a member of this community. At the same time, you communicate with people in Karelian villages. Can you feel a gap, where does it lie? And how do you exist in these two worlds? Or is it a fiction that these are two different worlds?

That’s a hard question... We are doing the same thing, it’s just that now we have different possibilities. Those who left are collecting facts remotely. We have the possibility, as they say, to work the old-fashioned way.

I wouldn’t say I feel a gap. You know what I feel? That I want to scream all the time. I envy people who left and can use the word “war” in their media, who can swear, can discredit something ten times in one article and nothing will happen to them, they cannot get to them. In this sense, I feel shackled hand and foot. There is a foot on my throat, but I’m sitting here doing what I can. Probably the gap is that I can’t reach them. But I can go to Karelia and talk to real people.

One media manager told me in the first days of the war: “if you don’t leave, your media will die. If you want Takie Dela to continue to live, you need to look for money abroad.” And I thought: Takie Dela would die if we all left. I want to do normal reporting from the ground.

It will sound funny, but I believe that we are privileged. They say that those who left are privileged, but I believe that those who stayed are as well. We work in Russia, and that is a privilege.

I really appreciate the fact that we can work here. Yes, I get sick of it sometimes, but that’s the most important thing.
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