Bard Creates Repository of Journalism Under Putin
Photo by Francesco Bandarin, Wikimedia Commons

Bard Creates Repository of Journalism Under Putin

Bard College in Annandale-On-Hudson, N.Y., and PEN America have launched an archive of Russian journalism published since 2000 when Vladimir Putin took office as Russia’s president.

The aim is to preserve independent journalism in a secure, searchable archive available to reporters, historians, political scientists, and the global public at large.

The archive, called the Russian Independent Media Archives (RIMA) was launched on April 11. It includes over 519,000 documents from thirteen independent national, regional, investigative, and cultural news outlets; ultimately, RIMA hopes to include the archives of more than 70 such institutions.

As the buildup of Russian forces on the Ukrainian border began in earnest in the spring of 2021, so did the state’s pressure on its own independent media, particularly on those outlets critical of Putin’s agenda.

Across the country, the state raided and shuttered newsrooms; equipment was destroyed and forcibly abandoned; editors, publishers and journalists were arrested or forced into exile under increasingly draconian laws against spreading “false information” about the war.

“A horrible transition was going inside the country,” recalled TV Rain broadcaster Anna Nemzer of the period. “All the opposition politicians were in prison or in exile, Boris Nemtsov was killed, they tried to poison Nevalny. [Independent media offices] were being closed or demolished, and my colleagues declared foreign agents.”

By December of 2021, Russia was in position for a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and TV Rain was Russia’s only remaining independent tv channel.

In Moscow, Nemzer and her colleague, the information technology specialist Serob Khachatryan, found themselves discussing the idea of an archive that might preserve the opposition journalism that was fast disappearing in the state’s campaign against freedom of information. They envisioned, said Nemzer, “a record of testimony,” evidence of the lived reality of “Putin’s era.”

On Feb. 24, 2022, Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. On March 1, TV Rain’s studio was raided by Russian police, its website blocked, and the staff told to leave the country immediately. Nemzer, who happened to be in Tel Aviv at the time, found herself in exile.

The next day, Nemzer sent a proposal to Bard outlining an actionable plan for a living archive, one that would preserve and make accessible the last 24 years of independent Russian journalism.

Nemzer had chosen Bard on the advice of her friend Masha Gessen, a Russian-American writer and activist, who is a faculty member at Bard and a trustee of PEN America, the organization that champions freedom of expression in the U.S. and around the world.

Gessen and their fellow PEN board member, Peter Barbey, whose own work had instilled in him the importance of archiving digital journalism, had also been discussing the pressing need for a safe repository of the independent Russian journalism under threat.

PEN America and Bard’s Gagarin Center formally convened RIMA in the summer of 2022, relying largely on funding from the Edwin Barbey Charitable Trust. PEN provided technical management while Bard offered an academic home for the initiative — and, critically, visas, made possible by Bard’s Threatened Scholars Integration Initiative.

“Journalists say their work is the ‘first draft of history,’” said Gessen in a statement for PEN. “My fear was — and remains — that in Russia, this draft is being deleted.” Noting that historians and  archivists are only now beginning to understand the story of the Soviet period, they said, “We know just how hard the historical record is to restore.”

After their exile, TV Rain’s staff had regrouped in Riga, Amsterdam, and Tbilisi, Georgia, and returned to work, reporting and broadcasting, mostly via YouTube, to those few audience members they could still reach.

In Tbilisi, while Nemzer continued her work as an anchor for TV Rain, she began assembling RIMA as well. Nemzer coordinated with Russian journalists and news platforms — some long defunct, some in various stages of closure and disarray, and some, like TV Rain, still struggling.

Together, journalists, editors, and investigators began recovering the archives they could, using burner phones and encrypted messaging, and even passing messages to and from an editor currently imprisoned for his dissent.

For now, said Nemzer, the job is to recover as much material as possible. But once the work is preserved, she said, the next step will be to learn how to work in and with it, “to make the archive not silent. To make it speak.”

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