The New Cold War

11.29.14 11:49 AM ET

Russia’s Freest Website Now Lives in Latvia

Moscow-based Editor in Chief Galina Timchenko was fired for ‘extremism’ after running an article on Ukraine. So she and her staff packed up shop and moved west.

The team of Russian journalists at Meduza, a newly created Internet news portal, no longer live in fear of the authorities shutting down their project. Finally, nobody is trying to fire their editor-in-chief, Galina Timchenko, for posting a story about Ukraine on their website. The Kremlin is far away—almost 1,000 kilometers away, in fact.

In order "to feel free and independent," the Meduza team members tell The Daily Beast, they left their home country and chose a European city, the Latvian capital of Riga, to be their new base of operations.

The name “Meduza” might not sound so cheery, Timchenko admits. But then Russia is going through a dark period. It seemed like time for “something a bit more stinging.” In Greek mythology, the Gorgon Medusa had the face of a woman and poisonous snakes for hair; her glance could turn men to stone. The journalists had their reasons for picking a name that evoked revenge; but instead of vengeance, they have provided a brave example to the entire Russian free media.

Last March, the owners of the Moscow-based news site Lenta—one of the most popular news websites in the Russian blogosphere—fired Timchenko, then the site's editor-in-chief. The official reason? Extremism. Under Timchenko's leadership, Lenta had published a link to an interview with the Ukrainian ultranationalist leader Dmitro Yarosh, whose Far Right Sector had played a critical role in the Euromaidan revolution.

"I did not have any option. I was fired, so I took a break from work and went abroad," Timchenko said in an interview to The Daily Beast. "Nobody could have predicted what would happen next—that most of our reporters would get up and leave, too."

Over the next two days, 73 of the 81 journalists on staff quit their jobs at Lenta. "I just could not stay in that stuffy and stinky atmosphere of censored news," Ivan Kolpakov, one of Meduza's editors, told The Daily Beast at the Meduza office in Riga. By April, Timchenko and her colleagues had thought up a new concept for their media project. By October, the self-exiled reporters moved abroad to Latvia.

Starting from scratch is never easy—and the team of journalists had serious competitors in Russia's state-owned media. Before leaving for Riga in late October, Kolpakov watched state television in his hometown of Perm along with his parents, who, like millions of Russians, were regular state television viewers.  "Propaganda actually works, I realized that in a few days of watching television. My own views began to slide," Kolpakov admitted. "But closing down independent media is a dead end strategy—the Kremlin wants to close five media outlets? They should be prepared that 10 more will open inside and outside of Russia."

In the month since the project's launch, one million readers have visited Meduza's website. The audience is still much smaller than that of Lenta, which is visited by about 12 million readers every month. Yet the Meduza office was full of hope and what the journalists described as a fundamental change—they felt free in Riga.

On a recent late evening, the Meduza team brainstormed coverage of Russia's tanking ruble, Putin's visit with G-20 leaders, the case of the house arrest of the Russian oligarch Vladimir Yevtushenkov, and how economic woes have caused Russia's authorities to become more repressive. The buzz of phone calls and Skype conversations with sources back in Russia and Ukraine seemed to be warming up Meduza's spacious and modern newsroom, which is located in a red-brick building in downtown Riga. The media team worked in two shifts, aggregating news from Russia and the world and publishing features by three special correspondents who sent files from the field. The first news came out on Meduza’s website by the time Moscow woke up, at 8 a.m.

Timchenko's biggest worry now? That the Baltic free air and Riga's welcoming vibe could make her colleagues "too relaxed." Still, was it possible that Russian authorities could censor the Internet and make Meduza inaccessible for Russian readers? "I don't believe, not for a single second, that the Kremlin is able to throw their little cages over the huge Russian Internet," Timchenko said. "Unlike the Chinese, Russian Internet users are used to freedom and never experienced real censorship."