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Russia: Putin vs. NGOs


Alexandra Poolos

Reporter Alexandra Poolos is a graduate of the journalism school at Columbia University. She has worked for Radio Free Europe, National Public Radio, CNN, The Wall Street Journal, The American Prospect magazine and Newsday. She has covered international stories in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Russia and Central Asia. She is currently based in New York.

Russia's Attack on Independent Voices

I have traveled to Russia three times in the past year to investigate the Kremlin's crackdown on independent voices. I first grew interested in the topic in 2006, when I read about a new NGO (non-governmental organization) law that limited the ability of nonprofit organizations to operate freely in Russia. Just as President Vladimir Putin was finalizing the new law, a documentary about a spy scandal linking several prominent NGOs with British embassy officials was released on Russian state television. Almost overnight, public opinion swung dramatically in favor of restricting the work of human rights activists.

The law was just the latest salvo in Putin's long-running campaign to centralize control of the country. He has managed to eliminate almost all of the independent press, bring big business under government control and compromise regional elections. Despite these moves to consolidate his power, Putin is viewed quite favorably by a public exhausted from the tumult of the early years of transition from communism. And with oil revenues driving the economy forward at a rate of 7 percent a year, Russians are enjoying a higher standard of living than ever. At the same time, for those reporters and activists seeking to uncover state repression and corruption, work has become a matter of life and death. Famed human rights journalist Anna Politkovskaya was gunned down in October, and another Russian reporter, Ivan Safronov, who investigated government corruption, allegedly "fell" out of his window earlier this year.

This unique combination of a booming economy and an increasingly authoritarian state got me interested in reporting about Russia's remaining independent voices. I wanted to know how these courageous actors were dealing with the new law and crackdown on dissent. But I also wanted to know how average Russians felt about their country and their leadership. As Russia has regained its prominence as an international player, concern about what happens on the domestic front seems to have diminished.

Although my following reports uncovered human rights abuses and political intimidation, and paints a pessimistic view of Russia's future, I also met a number of activists, journalists and students determined to fight for democratic reform and human rights. For me, their commitment, passion and drive represent the real story of Russia today.

--Alexandra Poolos

About FRONTLINE/World Fellows
This investigative story from Columbia University Fellow, Alexandra Poolos is the 21st production of the FRONTLINE/World Fellows program, sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The story is part of our ongoing effort to identify and mentor the next generation of video, print and online journalists.

The program, started in 2003, has showcased the work of talented young journalists, who have reported from such countries as Afghanistan, Haiti, Venezuela, Peru, Mexico, Rwanda, India, and Uganda, among many others. You can see all the stories here.

As part of the latest Fellows projects, made possible through our partnership with the U.C. Berkeley, Columbia and Northwestern Graduate Schools of Journalism, we will be bringing you stories from Liberia, China, and Morocco.


Sebastian Abbot - Cairo, Egypt
Very insightful piece! Given that Russia looks poised to take over the world with its oil and gas revenue, we should all pause to learn a little more about the nature of Putin's regime.

Victor Hadlock - Dawonville, Georgia
As a one-time member of the intellegence community (1971-74) during my service, I can say that I had high hopes that Putin was going to make a very positive difference in Russia. As the years have gone by, my attitude has changed until it now is a complete reversal of what it was. The repression, all the way to Stalinesque murders in the night, has made any reform seem little more than a poor attempt at political camouflage. In the critical eye of world history I fear the Russian leader of this era will fare little better than George Bush.

Astoria, NY
This is a very interesting project. I had heard of the death of Anna Politkovskaya, but I had never heard of the Russian Chechen group. It seems to me like the future of Russia depends on the work of groups like this, the ones under the very threat of the government. We don't hear enough about life in Russia. Thank you Frontline for drawing our attention to this important organization and telling the story of what is happening in Russia today.

M. shahjahan Bhatti - Dera Ismail Khan, Pakistan
Russians are very bright people. I read Moscow Times almost everyday. I like its English writers. I wish it a stable democracy. I hate its anti American and anti European attitudes. The planet can be a good place if Russians cooperate with the rest of the world to make it a good place.

John Smith - Bangor, Maine
Remember that Putin was in charge of the KGB before the fall of the Soviet Union.His title may have changed but not his tactics!

Kevin Wand - Allen, TX
I completely agree that this is a very important issue that needs to be addressed. Freedom of the press is one of, if not the most important, factors that keeps government power in check. It bewilders me that one of the major superpowers is going down the deep, dark path towards totalitarianism and no one in the major American media is covering it. Thank you Frontline for bringing issues like this one to where it belongs: the eye of the public.

joseph schottland - Lafayette, California
Excellent piece. Very instructive for understanding the democratization process (or lack of it) in Putin's Russia. I wish you could post the video so I can use it in my high school government class.

This is a work of art, and investigative journalism like this NEEDS to be broadcast to the community, both in the US and overseas. The situations in areas like Russia are more alarming than what most people see--despite such an economically-prospering country, under the advancements is a seriously grave condition of political repression. We Americans take democracy for granted. These people are fighting for their lives, and for the future of Russia, and I applaud you for voicing such an insightful view of this horror to the public.

New York, NY
The articles are most interesting, and accessible to readers who have little background in the area. I am recommending them to my colleagues in the History Dept. of Pace University for use in their courses on Russia.

John Vlissides - Yorktown Heights, NY
There are enough accolades showered on this piece that I will simply acknowledge the professional skills of the reporter. However, the position taken in the report doesn't contribute anything novel to the discourse on the freedom of journalism in Russia. Nothing in this piece ventures beyond the crude ideas in the propaganda issued by the US State Department to advance narrow political goals.

S C - Burlington, VT
Alex's reporting further underscores the imperative for global action against government sponsored torture. Stories like these are purposefully neglected by mainstream media. The preservation of human rights hinges on this type of reporting - careful, compassionate and critical. Thank you Frontline World and thank you Alex.

Eric Dickson - New York, NY
A really well put-together series of reports on a profoundly important, and underreported, issue. As a political science professor, I wish journalism like this could make it to a broader audience than it typically seems to nowadays.

- New York, New York
An incisive, sober and intimate look at the systematic dismantling of democracy and civil society in Russia under Vladimir Putin. Poolos deftly illuminates and catalogues the different strategies being utilized in the Kremlin's multi - pronged attack on dissent. This is a topic of great importance. Besides the daily tragedy visited on Russia's citizenry -- from the horrors of army conscription to the pervasive violence and oppression that continue unabated in the North Caucauses -- there are numerous geopolitical issues of immense gravity affected by Putin's re - centralization of power. These include energy security for the West, co-operation regarding Iran's nuclear program, political intimidation of former Soviet Republics and satellite countries in Europe, secessional issues in international border disputes and independance movements from the Caucauses to Eastern Europe and The Balkans, and the overall climate for political developement in formerly Soviet Central Asia. Ms. Poolos' portraits of the few extremely courageous individuals, and their organizations, that are in the Kremlin's crosshairs are at once inspiring and heartbreaking. These pieces convey the harsh asymetry of this battle and it's protagonists. Perhaps most disturbing is the detailing of the current of complacency and detachment emanating from the masses, a dark testimony to the Kremlin's successful efforts to control public opinion. One can only hope that oustanding and poignant reportage such as this will reach the people of Russia.

laura carroll - new york, ny
This is much needed journalism. The stories are moving and shed much needed light on the cricital role individuals and NGOs in Russia are playing and the risks they face under Putin.

Adrienne Day - New York, New York
I first heard about the NGO situation in Russia a year or so ago, in an article in the Times. And that was it. Kudos to Alexandra for having the courage and talent to keep this story in the public eye. Keep up the excellent work!

I enjoyed reading the report and watching the video. The situation in Russia is really frightening and it deserves more attention than it is curently getting in Western media. Thank you for covering such an important issue. Nice job, Alexandra!

Carla Murphy - Brooklyn, NY
Excellent. I hope Poolos continues to shine a light on Putin's Russia. I'm curious to know now about the involvement of Russian-Americans in politics back home.

Juliette Terzieff - Tampa, FL
Bravo! This is an important story that has been seriously underreported and misunderstood in the mainstream American press.

Alexander Blewett - Great Falls, Montana
Very well done. It's refreshing to see a talented American journalist expose Putin's relentless jihad on Russian civil society.

thomas j - new york, ny
This piece is brilliant and thoughtful, obviously a lot of time and effort put into it - not only in terms of journalistic ability but a deeper sense of personal involvement is apparent.

Ana Enriquez - New York, NY
Thanks for this wonderful reporting, and thanks for this space in which independent journalists share with us how they see the world. Poolos did a very good and extensive job with this story that otherwise we had never found about.

Hilary Galland - Chicago, IL
I think Alex Poolos' stories are terrific, and I really enjoy reading articles that humanize Russia in a manner that helps me to better understand its politics, and to get to know both Russian institutions and individuals.


Red October - NYC, NY
Congratulations Alexandra and thanks to Frontline/World for sending her -- the situation in Russia is frightening and needs attention.

Abe Velez - Brooklyn, NY
Yes! This is a critically important story, I think, for anyone remotely interested in Russia's posture and role in the world. The apparent chill (deep-freeze?) on independent media voices in that country sets a precedent for acceptable behavior by a state, among other things.