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RIGA, Latvia — Russia has opened a criminal case against the prominent Russian American writer and journalist Masha Gessen, accusing them of spreading “false information” about the actions of the Russian army in Ukraine — part of a continuing crackdown by the Kremlin on voices critical of its war.
Russian authorities have charged Gessen, a staff writer for the New Yorker who holds dual Russian and U.S. citizenship but lives in the United States, with spreading “knowingly false information” about atrocities committed by the Russian soldiers in the Ukrainian city of Bucha.
Gessen made the remarks in an interview with popular Russian YouTuber and journalist Yury Dud, in which they discussed a reporting trip to several Ukrainian cities to document potential war crimes in the first months of the war.
Soon after reports of horrendous killings and brutalization of civilians in Bucha emerged in March 2022, Russian authorities launched a false counternarrative claiming that all accounts and photographic and video evidence provided by Bucha residents, Ukrainian officials and journalists were staged and fake.
“According to the information from the Russian General Staff, the information about the mass murder of civilians by the service-members, accompanied by cases of looting, kidnappings and torture in March of 2022 in the town of Bucha during the special military operation is not true,” the decree initiating the case states, according to a copy provided by Gessen to The Post.
The Russian-language television channel Rain first reported the details of Gessen’s case.
“The possibility of that is zero,” Gessen said when Dud asked in the interview whether they thought the claims about Bucha spread by Russian state propaganda outlets had any basis.
Gessen, a nonbinary and trans person, lived and worked in Russia for two decades before returning to the United States in 2013, when Russia started imposing restrictive laws against the LGBTQ+ community.
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In 2017, Gessen won the National Book Award in nonfiction for “The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia.” Gessen is also the author of a 2013 book about the Russian president: “The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin.”
While Russian authorities do not have any immediate reach to Gessen, the criminal case limits the writer’s international travel to countries that have mutual extradition treaties with Moscow and hinders their ability to report on Russia, they said in an interview.
“The chances that I will ever be able to go back to Russia — I’m 56 years old — are pretty slim,” Gessen said. “That has a significant impact on my life and at some point, my journalism.”
“But there are also a whole bunch of countries it would be unsafe for me to go to — they’re going to issue a search warrant in the next week or so and that means that all the countries that have extradition treaties with Russia become risky places,” they added.
Russia has extradition treaties with nearly all former Soviet states, as well as Indonesia, India, Thailand and other countries.
Russian authorities have severely cracked down on independent journalists since the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, using an array of draconian “fake news” and “discreditation of the army” laws adopted in the first weeks of the war.
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A Russian opposition politician, Ilya Yashin, was sentenced to eight and a half years in prison for making remarks about the discovery of mass killings in Bucha to Dud in an interview published in April last year. Yashin was an outspoken critic of the Kremlin for many years before the Dud interview. But Gessen suggested that Dud’s large Russian-language audience may have triggered the authorities to take action in both cases.
Dud has over 10 million subscribers on YouTube, which remains effectively the last major Western platform easily accessible to Russians. Instagram, Twitter and Facebook have been all blocked.
“[Yashin] was out and about and making the kind of statements that he was making until Dud because so many people watch Dud,” Gessen said.
Gessen added, however, that the Russian government’s designations of foreign agents, undesirable organizations and extremists were often imposed on journalists with “no rhyme or reason.”
Even after Yashin was imprisoned, Russian authorities brought another charge against him for failing to include a “foreign agent” label on posts he shared on the Telegram messaging app via his supporters. A hearing in that case is scheduled for Dec. 1.
Previously, Yashin said he expected authorities to initiate a criminal case against him for evading rules that oblige all foreign agents — mostly Russian activists, journalists, scientists and government critics — to label all their publications with a large banner warning readers about their status.
Yashin repeatedly said he would not “voluntarily brand” himself and considers the Russian foreign agent law to be “fascist.”
“If there are true foreign agents in our country, we should be looking for them in the Kremlin,” Yashin said, adding that he’s “loyal to Russia and remains a patriot even from behind bars.”
Alsu Kurmasheva, a Russian American journalist, has recently marked a month in prison after Russian authorities accused her of failing to self-report and register as a foreign agent and detained her at the airport in Kazan, Russia, as she was about to board a flight to Prague, where she lives with her family.
Kurmasheva is an editor with the Tatar-Bashkir service of U.S. Congress-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and also a dual U.S.-Russian citizen. The charge marked the first such case initiated against a reporter in Russia. If convicted, she faces up to five years in prison.
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Last month, a Russian court upheld the detention of Wall Street Journal reporter and U.S. citizen Evan Gershkovich, who is the first American journalist charged with espionage in Russia since the end of the Cold War and has been behind bars for nine months.
His employer and the U.S. government have denied all charges, and the State Department has designated him as wrongfully detained, a label that unlocks wider government support to secure his release.
Some journalists have been targeted for the second time under the same charges. Denis Kamalyagin, the editor in chief of Pskovskaya Guberniya, an independent outlet in the western Russian region of Pskov, was summoned for questioning on Monday by the local police on charges of “repeated discrimination of the Russian army.”
Kamalyagin and some of his staff left Russia in March last year, just a day before their office was raided as part of a separate case.
A few weeks later, a local court pronounced Kamalyagin guilty and fined him for “discriminating” against the Russian forces. The first offense under the discrimination law is an administrative violation, while a repeated offense can result in a prison sentence.