When she opened her eyes seconds later, crowds of young protesters were screaming “OMON!” as Russia’s special riot police dragged a teenage girl by her hair. Another group of officers, from a unit commonly nicknamed “cosmonauts” for their huge black helmets, were shoving a sick-looking old man with silver hair.
Symbols of shocking violence were all around Polukeeva, who had been taking photographs for Rosbalt, a Russian federal information agency, before everything went black. Now she realized the back of her head was injured, and swelling. She is young and slight and was carrying a camera, so the police had clubbed her. At the hospital later that day doctors said she had a concussion.
On Sunday, units of OMON and the Russian National Guard beat three reporters and arrested 14 more journalists during protests against the Kremlin’s corruption and pension reform. The authorities were putting on a demonstration of their own about the way they treat what they consider enemies of the regime of Vladimir Putin, or, as authoritarian rulers in Russia and elsewhere like to say, “Enemies of the people.”
Among journalists and intellectuals a sense of vulnerability is running high, but so is the sense of defiance. When activist Pyotr Verzilov of “Mediazony” fell seriously ill on Tuesday night his friends immediately suspected poisoning. Verzilov is a Canadian-Russian who sometimes served as an unofficial spokesman for Pussy Riot, who invaded the pitch during the World Cup final last summer. He fell ill soon after a court appearance in that case.
Media experts have monitored an increasing number of attacks on journalists all over Russia. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 38 reporters have been targeted for murder in Russia since 1992, and in 33 of those cases the killers acted with impunity. Just speak with any independent reporter in Russia today and you will hear stories of death threats and violence.
After three years of covering anti-Putin rallies, 22-year-old Polukeeva had plenty of experience as an “enemy of people” and has no patience with those, like U.S. President Donald Trump, who try to inspire hatred for journalists with phrases like that.
“Journalists should feel safe to be able to do their job—that is what the president should understand and explain to the nation, that we reporters work for the society,” Polukeeva told The Daily Beast. “We have to be in the field to prove that this is not fake news, that OMON is being more violent—than ever.”
Before the beatings began she managed to take a photograph: rows of giants carrying shields; OMON forces with clubs in hands closing in on the crowd of teenage protesters locked hand in hand in a human chain.
Back in 2001, in the early years of Vladimir Putin’s rule, he branded one of the leading Russian journalists, Echo of Moscow editor in chief Alexei Venediktov, as his “enemy,” albeit with a bit of nuance.
In a frank interview with Venediktov, Putin compared “enemies” and “betrayers,” those who first pretended to be his friends and then stabbed him in the back. “No mercy to betrayers,” Putin told Venediktov. And when the radio editor asked how Putin defined him, the Russian President was direct: “You are an enemy.” Venediktov told The Daily Beast, that he never forgot that conversation.
Valery Nechai, a professor at the National Research University, believes that if people in the United States do not protect their reporters today, in a few years they will see hundreds of violent attacks on journalists all over the country, as we have seen here in Russia.
“As a result of President Putin referring to journalists as ‘enemies’ or ‘the fifth column’ the entire profession of journalism has been degraded, especially in the regions,” Nechai told The Daily Beast. “At my recent lecture in Saint Petersburg, some of my listeners said that by telling the truth about the Kremlin and Putin, the Echo of Moscow radio station is destructive for young minds. This is the direct result of power attacking reporters publicly.”
Nechai used to be a senior journalist and editor himself. “For as long as Putin has been in power, he did not believe in freedom of speech. In his view all journalists work for two types of propaganda: pro- and anti-Putin.”
There is no red line Russian regional officials fear to cross when it comes to shutting up a reporter. A few years ago Irina Gordiyenko, a journalist with the Novaya Gazeta newspaper, was abducted by so-called Center E in Dagestan. “I was snatched right after my interview with a village administrator; first local police questioned me and then a couple of shadowy officials from Center-E put me in a car at midnight and took me in some unknown direction, which was a classical abduction,” Gordiyenko remembered.
Luckily, Gordiyenko’s husband, journalist Orkhan Dzhemal was in Dagestan looking for her, speaking with officials, spreading the word. “That night I managed to make a call to my editors in Moscow,” Gordiyenko recalls. “Otherwise I would have been dead, as a result of the example set up by the Kremlin, that journalists can be just eliminated.”
A few weeks ago Dzhemal and two other Russian journalists were shot dead in Central African Republic. They were investigating a Russian private army. But reporters who go to war zones or dig into sensitive stories are not the only ones who get killed—all independent journalists who tell stories different from the state-controlled media are under attack.
Last October a well-known Russian radio journalist, Tatyana Felgenhauer, was stabbed in the neck right in the newsroom. Her attacker was coming to kill her in what may or may not have been a deranged attempt at homicide. The attack did not stop Felgenhauer from speaking on weekly shows, from criticizing the government, as that is how she sees her profession.
“Trump should realize that it is a crime to be calling journalists ‘enemies of the people,’ since freedom of speech is the foundation for democracy,” Felgenhauer told The Daily Beast. “If America does not protect their press today, like we did not after Putin closed down our independent television channels, American society will fall ill, its mind will grow corrupt.”