Life history of a political journalist who fled Russia after the attack on Ukraine

Maksim Kournikov/Echo of Moscow

The Russia-Ukraine war caused if not the end of Russian journalism, but at least its global transformation. According to the “fake news” law, everybody who calls the Russian attack “the war” or “the invasion”, could be sentenced of up to 15 years.

While some editorial offices move to Europe or the Caucasus, some journalists take a risk to continue reporting from the country with the veil of military censorship. However, since the beginning of the Russian invasion, hundreds of correspondents labelled as “foreign agents” have already left Russia in order to work in neighboring states, where they could not fear for their lives.

Maksim Kournikov, the liberal radio station Echo of Moscow deputy editor-in-chief, was one of those people who moved to Berlin at the beginning of March 2022; when it has already become clear that there was almost no availability to work as an honest journalist without a daily menace to you and your family.

We met in person with Maksim and asked him about his new life in Germany, the difficulties with his new place of work, homesickness, the probability of coming back after the war and the future of Russian journalism.

“At the beginning of the war I covered the events from Russia. But then they [Federal Supervision Agency for Information, Technologies and Communications] deleted the official website of our radio station and, moreover, blocked our channel on YouTube. It was simply evident that I needed to leave the country if I wanted to continue reporting about Ukraine”, Maksim starts.

Moreover, Maksim is a reserve officer, a lieutenant. He is 30 now, which means he could be recruited and transferred to the active combat zone at every moment. And the problem is not in the banal fear in the face of the enemy but in the absolute blame of the war itself and unwillingness to kill. “It doesn’t matter who to kill. I served in the army (when I was a student) to protect people, but not to destroy them. And I can’t use another word to describe the actions of Russian army in Ukraine now”, he says.

Therefore, Maksim went to Berlin where a few of his colleagues moved as well. One of the most influential German newspapers Bild hired him at once. “I’m not an “official member of stuff there,” Kournikov explains. They [Bild] just asked the ex-editor of the radio station to consult them as soon as they launched the YouTube channel and other social media networks in Russian. It was a sign of protest after the blocking of the Bild on the territory of Russia this March.

Maksim Kournikov and a “foreign agent” Ekaterina Schulmann in the editorial office of the Bild
Bild/April 2022

For now, he plans to apply for asylum in Germany. In order to have a right to work here, he nothing else but has to do it. But a real pitfall here is his family that stayed in Moscow even after the Russian invasion.

The reporter has a wife; she also used to work on Echo of Moscow. His daughter is six now, and, undoubtedly, she has never dreamt of fleeing the country with parents who were labelled as the “enemies of the state.” “She has just recently started to live. Why must she start over her life, school, seek new friends once again because of her dad?” he asks. And there is no answer to this question as she must not do that. At all.

But however, the decision to leave the family in the country without a right to speak aloud was tough. So was the perception that probably Maksim would never come back to Russia.

Maksim Kournikov with his wife Irina Babloyan/Echo of Moscow

He always wanted to live and work where he was born. That’s why Kournikov did not settle down in Wien after his student exchange. That’s why he did not get out of Russia after Crimea annexation in 2014 when thousands of journalists fled a country without a hope to return.

It is not about the doughty love of the country. As Maksim admits, he can’t imagine he will write not about Russia and its problems. “To be a good journalist, you need to feel the internal life of the country and identify yourself with this nation. Otherwise, you do not belong to these people and, therefore, you can’t “catch” the society’s problems,” he adds.

A former Russian political journalist utters a sigh. I see a harrowing, sincere sadness in his eyes even via the screen of my laptop.

Kournikov tries to convince me that journalism in Russia is not dead; it is undergoing a boom and a transformation now. And it is namely the reason why he wants to go home one day.

“But to come back, you need to know “the laws of the game”. In Russia do not they exist for now”.

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