'Russia will stay infected with apathy until Putin is gone'
Moldova-born Russian journalist Roman Anin says Ukrainians have the right to point a finger at Russians, even the 'good Russians'
"If you spend all of your time being apathetic, one day they will knock on your door, grab your husband by the collar, and in three days time, throw him into [Ukraine] where he will be killed," says investigative reporter Roman Anin. "This is exactly the price that people pay for being indifferent towards their own fate and the fate of the country."
The Moldova-born Russian is one of this year's recipients of the Free Media Award from Germany's Zeit Foundation. And this is only the latest in a string of accolades and awards for the 36-year-old, who is a member of multiple international investigative networks, including the team behind the Panama Papers investigation.
In Russia, Anin's Important Stories website first made headlines in 2020 by looking into the procurement of ventilation machines during the Covid pandemic. In the same year, it also published a report on one of the most sensitive topics in the country — apparent corruption linked to President Vladimir Putin's family. Anin was forced to leave Russia the following year.
Speaking to DW in Hamburg, Anin says his audience in Russia is still keen to learn about high-level graft. "But as a whole, Russian society cares little about this problem, it's been infected with apathy," he said.
Anin himself shows no sign of apathy. Having moved to Russia as a teenager, he studied journalism in Moscow, and in 2006, began working as a sports reporter with Novaya Gazeta, a publication known for the number of its reporters killed under Putin's regime. In 2008, Novaya Gazeta sent Anin to cover the brief war between Russia and Georgia, when he joined the outlet's investigative unit.
That position allowed him to work on major stories, including a tax fraud uncovered by Sergei Magnitsky and corruption surrounding the 2014 Winter Olympics, and also conduct investigations into the highest echelons of the regime, such as Putin's friend and billionaire cellist Sergey Roldugin and Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin. In 2016, Anin wrote an article about Sechin's wife owning a yacht worth $100 million (about Rs 830 crore). Sechin sued the paper for defamation and won.
Anin is aware that many people find it hard to understand the level of graft among the Russian elite. "Russian society simply lives in colossal misery," he told DW's Andreas Brenner. Stories about Putin's castle or his friends' yachts mean little to rural people living "without flushing toilets in 18th century-like conditions".
This disconnect is "nothing to marvel at — even the (Ukraine) war was only a concern for a few people until the mobilisation began and they started detaining husbands and brothers, sending them to the front with no training, where they simply got killed," he added.
Ending the Ukraine war would only be the first step in waking up Russian society, according to the reporter. He believes it would take decades of working with the populace to reform the country. And it would happen only after the death of Putin and the "collective Putin" — the clique gathered around the long-ruling Russian president.
"It's impossible to break this apathy under the Putin regime," says Anin. "All the truth about the war needs to be made public, so that the people would simply become aware what horror was happening during those 30 years, with them witnessing it in silence. And those horrors were committed with the unconditional approval of the people. And maybe after that, Russia will have some chance to overcome this apathy and start living in a new way."
Anin was detained by Russian authorities in 2021 with his Moscow home raided and many of his belongings seized. The official pretext was his status as a potential witness in a case of privacy invasion. His Novaya Gazeta colleagues described it as delayed payback for his 2016 Sechin story.
Both Anin and his Important Stories were labelled "foreign agents", and he is now continuing his investigative work outside of Russia. Important Stories is still going strong, despite being officially "undesirable" under Russian law — meaning that it is illegal to repost its content or even like its posts online.
He says he is still able to reach his audience in Russia, as shown by the millions of views on his YouTube channel. And if all communication channels are cut off, Anin says it would not be "the greatest tragedy among the tragedies of today".
"Our task is to tell people what is really happening, what the government is really like, what is actually happening in Ukraine, to tell them about this war being criminal, to tell them how Russian authorities don't consider the lives of their own citizens and are simply sending hundreds of thousands to slaughter," Anin says.
"And the future of the people depends on the people themselves. If the people in Russia don't want to live differently, don't want to know the truth… there is nothing we can do."
Commenting on the way Ukrainians and people of other nations view Russians in light of the war, Anin says he has never experienced distrust from his Ukrainian colleagues. But he also says he would not be insulted.
"Ukrainians and the world today have the right to point a finger at Russians, even the 'good Russians'," he says. "We will still be facing it for decades to come, just like Germans were facing it after 1945. Sorry, but we deserve it."