TRUTH TO POWER
She Was Stabbed in the Throat and Almost Died. Weeks Later, She Was Asking Tough Questions Again.
Journalist Tanya Felgenhauer was known for her lively morning show on Echo of Moscow. Then she was stabbed. Then, her scars still visible, she went to Putin’s big press conference.
Heroines celebrates women across a variety of fields who are breaking barriers and creating change. This is the second profile in a five-part series.
MOSCOW—News that a listener had broken into the independent radio station Echo of Moscow and stabbed its deputy editor in chief, Tanya Felgenhauer, sent tremors through the most remote corners of Russia last October. Many wondered if the 32-year-old Felgenhauer’s voice, so familiar on Echo’s incisive morning broadcasts, would be silenced forever. The vision of a knife cutting into the throat of the slight young woman with a warm smile and boyishly short red hair was painful even for the most conservative critics of Russia’s leading liberal radio station.
But that was not the end of the news about Tanya, and, no, she was not silenced.
A few weeks after she was released from intensive care at a Moscow hospital, Felgenhauer pulled on an elegant red dress, put on her glasses with red frames, and surprised Vladimir Putin and millions of Russians watching the annual presidential press conference with a brief but powerful speech about the Kremlin’s selective application of justice.
Felgenhauer, who loves to host live talk shows, believes that real journalism is a serious calling, and this was her unique chance to be heard all over the country on state television. She was not going to miss it.
At first, the atmosphere at Putin’s press conference shocked Felgenhauer, who had never attended the traditional event in the past: People accredited as journalists clapped their hands and cheered in approval of the president’s words and screamed in fury to drown out questions from independent journalists.
Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, knew that Felgenhauer was present, and decided to give her a chance to ask a question, but only at the end of the four-hour long press conference.
“At that moment I was so nervous, I think I was close to having a stroke, as all these people around me, who’d been applauding for Putin for hours, started screaming to silence me,” Felgenhauer told The Daily Beast. “I did not hear what Putin and Peskov were telling me, all I knew was that now, when I had the microphone in my hands, I should not let it go, I should speak, because the entire country could hear me.”
It was so noisy in the audience, in fact, that Felgenhauer did not hear when Putin asked her how she was feeling after the attack. Bright red scars across Tanya’s bare neck were testimony to the severity of the stabbing.
Looking from under her glasses straight into President Putin’s eyes, Felgenhauer described to millions of Russian TV viewers the discrepancies in the way the courts handle public figures. Independents like theater director Kirill Serebrennikov and the key opposition leader, Aleksei Navalny, face one kind of justice, while people like Putin’s close ally and “de facto deputy,” Igor Sechin, could ignore several invitations to appear in court, as he did in the case of former Economy Minister Alexei Ulyukayev, even though Sechin had orchestrated the bribery “sting” that sent Ulyukayev to jail for eight years. “Any other man [besides Sechin] would have been brought to court,” Felgenhauer told the Russian president.
Putin did not like her little statement. In Moscow many believed that Sechin had framed former Minister Ulyukayev, but most Russians were not aware of the allegations. And Felgenhauer’s negative message about Putin’s close ally would never have passed censorship on state TV.
Journalists sitting in the first rows noticed that the president’s face turned red. “I disagree that there are two parallel realities,” Putin responded. “The law has not been broken.”
But it was not the answer that Felgenhauer cared about—the answer could be predicted—she was very happy about the question she had managed to ask at the most-viewed press conference in the country, putting forth as much information about the issue of injustice as she could.
At the end of last month, Felgenhauer was smiling a big happy smile at a coffee shop on Arbat Avenue, a few blocks away from her newsroom at Echo of Moscow, remembering how she framed her question for Putin after trying out different ideas on some other talented independent journalists who are close friends.
Felgenhauer said that her mind has been occupied with concerns about the state of journalism in Russia. She remembered, “One reporter from a state news agency noted that Putin’s trip to Syria ‘was by the way very cool.’ I was amazed that one of the key agencies could not stop itself from groveling before Putin.”
Then her big eyes grew serious. “I have been thinking for a long time about the catastrophe that is journalism in Russia—not about the authorities closing media, they will never be able to beat the internet,” Tanya shook her head confidently. “What really makes me sick is to see how people we considered to be professional journalists so recently have stopped being professional and joined the state propaganda.”
Felgenhauer, now 33, came to work at Echo of Moscow when she was a student of sociology at Moscow University, and has never left the radio. She covered terrorist attacks in the Northern Caucasus, opposition protests, arrests. Prison was what really scared her. “The most terrifying thing is that any of our loved ones can be locked in prison, they can die there and we won’t be able to save them.”
One day in 2015 Felgenhauer came across a story about Aminat, a 16-year-old girl from Dagestan who was dying of cancer in Moscow without any painkillers. That day Felgenhauer decided to join a volunteer movement. She organized events at hospices, raised funds for palliative treatment, collected presents for children. “We raised hell to help Aminat, we made the difference: Today no child is tortured by pain, Moscow provides painkillers now.”
Russia has very few independent media outlets surviving the pressure of state censorship in this sensitive time for the Kremlin. Every week Felgenhauer voices her personal opinion on Echo of Moscow, without any self-censorship, expressing views that are not always popular even among her friends in the opposition. Last month Felgenhauer said that Ksenia Sobchak—a presidential candidate also known as Russia’s Paris Hilton—should step down and withdraw her candidacy from the election process, which “Sobchak treats as her own ongoing show that has nothing to do with democracy; she is using people like Navalny, as decorations for that show.”
At a time when Russia’s most-watched political TV shows are full of poisonous propaganda, a sincere reporter like Felgenhauer sticks in the state’s craw, and Tanya’s friends did not believe that the Kremlin’s officials felt sincerely bad about the violent stabbing attack.
“See, in Russia even a reporter like Tanya, who does not go to cover the war but gives a real picture of politics on a live show, is under a deadly attack,” says Pavel Kanygin, an investigative journalist at Novaya Gazeta. Kanygin told The Daily Beast he was not convinced that Felgenhauer’s attacker, 48-year-old Boris Gritz, was crazy, as state investigators claimed. “Too many details of that crime do not add up: For example, everything that the man had written about Tanya in his internet blog had been edited professionally on the eve of the attack.”
Not long before Gritz broke through security at Echo of Moscow’s building and stabbed Tanya, Russian federal TV channels accused Felgenhauer and her colleagues from Echo of Moscow of being “agents of the U.S. State Department.”
Kanygin is convinced that independent journalists like Tanya will never get any protection from the state. “One of the heads of the Kremlin would tell you that they respect and value people like Tanya, the other will be furious that independent journalists do not defend the Kremlin’s line. Tanya’s attacker is a symbol of the stubbed out freedom of speech in Russia.”
As a little girl Tanya saw her father, well-known military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer, being interviewed by TV crews filming at her home and she learned to respect serious journalism. As a teenager she went through a phase where she admired American shock jock Howard Stern. Today, Tanya dreams of turning herself into a Russian version of John Oliver or Stephen Colbert. “I love live shows that nail down the truth,” she says.