Teresa Cherfas reviews ‘I Love Russia’ by Elena Kostyuchenko

29 March 2024

By Teresa Cherfas

Teresa Cherfas reviews I Love Russia: Reporting from a Lost Country, by Elena Kostyuchenko. Translated by Bela Shayevich and Ilona Yazhbin Chavasse [hardback, £22, 384pp, ISBN-9781847927699, Bodley Head, London, 2023]

In October 2022, Elena Kostyuchenko fell ill whilst on a train travelling from Munich to Berlin. At roughly the same time, two other exiled Russian journalists were also struck down. In all three cases, their symptoms were compatible with those of deliberate poisoning. Kostyuchenko made the news last year when German prosecutors in Berlin announced that they would be investigating her case and treating it as attempted murder.  

For Kostyuchenko, physical attacks on her person for doing her job were neither new nor unique to her; Anna Politkovskaya may have been the most famous, but the walls of Novaya Gazeta’s editorial meeting room, where Kostyuchenko was a reporter, were adorned with portraits of colleagues who had paid the ultimate price for their work. Reporting from Beslan in 2016, on the twelfth anniversary of the terrorist attack at School No 1 in the Russian Caucasus town, Kostyuchenko was doused in green paint and suffered such head injuries that she couldn’t work for almost a year.  A neurologist suggested that she go to the United States to study because, he told her, speaking and writing in another language could reformat her brain’s neural pathways to aid rehabilitation in her native tongue.  If this superb account of her life as a journalist is anything to go by, her neurologist’s advice was spot on. 

Novaya Gazeta ceased publication in the Russian Federation as a result of draconian new laws curtailing press freedom introduced in the wake of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Just months before, Dmitry Muratov, Kostyuchenko’s editor at the newspaper, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 2021.

I Love Russia came out in English last October, having made its debut in German.  Each chapter begins with a thought-provoking introduction to one of the long-form articles she wrote for Novaya Gazeta; it could be an autobiographical reminiscence, a contextualization of the article to follow, impressions and reactions written with hindsight.  Her writing in both is luminescent, radiant with observation, bursting with compassion, and yet her reportage is of such integrity and objectivity. 

Kostyuchenko fell in love with the idea of becoming a journalist at the age of fourteen in her hometown of Yaroslavl.  At home, where she lived with her mother and sister, their television was getting more and more clapped out, white snow distorting the pictures on the screen and making it impossible to watch.  With no money to replace it, Elena decides to read newspapers in the school library instead and stumbles across a story about Chechnya in Novaya Gazeta.  It was signed: Anna Politkovskaya.  She describes reading Politkovskaya’s articles: “I’d feel like I was getting a fever, I’d put my hand on my forehead, but it was just clammy and dead. It turned out I didn’t know anything about my country. TV had lied to me. (…) I walked around with this realisation for several weeks. I’d read, go pace in the park, and then read more. I wanted to talk to a grown-up about it, but as it turned out, there weren’t any around – all of them believed television.”  She decided she had to work at Novaya Gazeta. to follow in Politkovskaya’s footsteps.  It took her three years.  This book is the story of how she did it.

Kostyuchenko was formed by her experience of the 1990s in Russia, when the media under Yeltsin had never been freer but life for the vast majority of Russians had never seemed so precarious. Yaroslavl, where she was grew up, is less than 300 kilometres from Moscow, but it could have been light years away. Her assessment of the ‘90s is harsh: her mother worked three jobs just to put food on the table, even though she had been a qualified chemist in the Soviet Union. At the age of eight, Elena witnessed a gangland murder in her own courtyard; the death rate of neighbours from “alcohol poisoning, hanging, shooting, being murdered during a robbery, dying in a hospital that didn’t have any drugs or doctors,” was alarming.  

At fifteen, she moved to a student hostel in Moscow, studying journalism at Moscow State University: “The existence of skirts that cost $300 – three times the monthly salary of my mother, a PhD – amazed me like rose-coloured whales or elephants who could paint.”   As an intern at Novaya Gazeta, it was her job to report from beyond the MKAD (the Moscow ring road), because, as that chapter heading tells us “Moscow isn’t Russia”:  “It really was scary out there, beyond the ring road. Life was threadbare. A lot of violence.  A lot of Russian roulette – you could end up in jail if a cop didn’t like you.”  Moscow’s luxuries were paid for by money that came from the provinces. Putin reformed the tax system so that the provinces had to pay Moscow first and only then did Moscow decide how much to give back.  Her mother paid for the fancy tiles she walked on in Moscow.

The first report in I Love Russia (they are not in strict chronological order) is in a chapter called “The End of Childhood”.  It’s from a hospital complex that was begun in 1980 but abandoned when the money ran out in 1985.  It comprised  three ten-story buildings in the shape of a star.  All it needed for completion was lifts and railings.  The site was under guard until the beginning of the 1990s, but then that ceased too, and it “became the neighbourhood construction depot. People took literally everything.”  Health and safety is an alien concept in Russia, and at the time of writing in 2011, it was “just sinking into the ground. (…) full of stairs without railings, yawning lift shafts, and holes in the floor.”  The building filled up with people with nowhere else to go, most of them just children because home was even worse.  She writes of a sixteen-year-old girl: “Her eyes are filled with extraordinary, radiant emptiness.”  They run wild, in their gangs and hierarchies, dodging police raids, drug runners, and death, as they tear through the unguarded stairwells and narrowly escape plunging down the open lift shafts. Her report reads like a metaphor for the collapse of the Soviet Union: a wild vision of dystopian disjunction in this microcosm universe of an abandoned hospital.  And as you read it, you know that it is one of many all across the vast expanse of Russia.  

Another report, filed in 2010, is a modern-day version of Radishchev’s Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow, in which the radical eighteenth-century Russian writer makes an imaginary journey through the Russia of Catherine the Great, pointing up the failings of her state and the hardships inflicted on her subjects.  Kostyuchenko’s  “Life on the Sapsan Wayside”,  recounts her journey along the high-speed Sapsan railway that began operation in 2009 and links Moscow with St. Petersburg. It’s about the people and places on the line now cut off from the world; a place like Shlyuz, for example, where there is just one commuter train a day in only one direction, whilst twenty-two commuter trains, sixteen high-speed Sapsans and a dozen express trains rush past the station every day.  It’s about fatalities on the track, bodies turned to mincemeat, haphazard burials and funerals in places where there is no transport and the last time a doctor visited was two years ago.  The characters she describes, their situations, the flotsam and jetsam of life thrown up by the old mobility of the USSR, is all there in her unforgettable descriptions: in one small town, a guy tried to sell the statue of Lenin in the square for scrap. “He tried to saw off the top half of the statue and it fell down on him,” a tipsy woman explains. “Lenin tore open his stomach and spleen. He’s still in Tver, in the hospital. (…) The youth of Kalashnikova have (…) another amusement. It’s called cards of fire. That’s when somebody who loses at cards has to set a building on fire. (…)  There are sixty-five houses in Bukhalovo. It is hard to believe, but there used to be a livestock-breeding collective farm here, a school, a shop, a club, and a medical centre. Back then, there was also a road of course.”  Things go unrepaired. The only “grocery” sold in the village is moonshine: diluted antifreeze.  “If someone gets sick in the village, they’re loaded on to the ‘cow cart’ – a wheelbarrow usually used for manure – and taken down to the station. There, they are put on to the first passing train, where they ask the engineer to call over the intercom for an ambulance at the next major station.” 

A report titled “The Highway,” datelined October 2010, finds Kostyuchenko, aged twenty-two, writing about the casual prostitution of young girls and women in a truckers’ layby on the highway four miles out of town.  It could be the town of ‘N’ – any one of the towns that pockmark the Russian landscape. Her assignment is to spend the night from 18.30 to 06.20 on the job with them. Her description of the punters, including local cops, is like something out of The Decameron.  But the portraits of the girls and women are drawn with affection and compassion: Leila, one of the girls in Sveta’s (the Madame’s) trailer, tells Elena that she is the sole breadwinner in the family. While she is fucking the punters, she is divvying up in her head the 500 roubles she will get paid after Sveta and the market manager have taken their cuts: “that much for Papa in prison, that much for Mama, who’s just had a stroke and is in hospital, this much for the house, that much for clothes,” (she has a little brother and sister as well).  It passes the time: “I’m on number twelve for the night (it’s 03.30). But I can do more. I can. I can do seventeen. I am just tired.”

In her confessional prefaces, Kostyuchenko reveals details from her own life.  In a chapter called, “My Love (Invisible and True),” she writes about her realisation that she is a lesbian. Her writing is forthright, personal and original: “… like somebody in a wheelchair or with diabetes or HIV, I had to learn to be a lesbian.”   The report that this piece introduces, written in February 2019, tells the story of an old gay couple murdered in a small village in Krasnodar region the previous month – seventy-year-old Vladimir Dubentsov and sixty-four-year-old Nikolai Galdin. Elena talks to the villagers and finds that: “… what they feel ashamed of and reluctant to talk about is not that the old men were bullied, or that they were murdered, but that old men ‘like that’ lived in their village at all, right on their street.”

To travel through the Russia that she loves with Kostyuchenko is to traverse an unbearably sad landscape of physical destruction, damaged people and dashed hopes.  The chapter “The Last Helicopter” is devoted to the Nganasan people in a settlement called Ust’-Avam in the far north of Russia.  The only transport in or out of the settlement is by helicopter.  Their numbers decimated by vodka and suicide, their livelihood threatened by poisoned rivers, their language all but eroded, Kostyuchenko’s writing affords them an incredible dignity, citing their poetry and shamanic spells, giving each one their name and story beyond the devastating detailing of the ravages that have been meted out to them over the entire period of Russian imperialist expansion.  Their rivers polluted by lethal spills from Norilsk’s mining complex, she accompanies a couple of Nganasan fishermen on a night-time fishing expedition: “Softly, the sky is extinguished, joining the pitch-black land. Igor sets a course along the riverbank. He unfurls the net over the dark water.  The net envelops a piece of the river. The men clamber back onto the bank and, flicking their headlamps on, grab either side of the net. Slowly, slowly they come together. It’s as though somebody’s tossed a handful of coins into the tightly stitched netting. They heave the little fishies onto the bank. You can hear their fins crunch as they break.”

But don’t be fooled; there is no romance to the Nganasan way of life now, threatened by Putin’s Russia.  Looking for reassurance, a local boy comes up to Elena and asks: “We’ve got a big village, right? If you count the graveyard, I mean.”  

It prompts her to ask a rhetorical question: What does death look like in Ust’-Avam, this settlement of 359 people, with only 59 jobs?

Of the six people who die here each year, only one will die from natural causes. Two or three will have frozen to death or die of drinking some other way. The rest will be suicides. Two suicides annually in a population of three hundred people. The circumstances defy understanding. The head of a family. Has breakfast, has lunch, hangs himself. A husband goes off to town without telling his wife, she hangs herself. A father and son are drinking together, then they go to separate rooms. At some point, the father notices that the son is sitting too upright. He comes closer and sees that the son is not sitting, he’s hanging. (…) The suicides around here do not provoke reflection or feeling. There’s suicide in every family. It is quotidian.

Another story, Rust, from 2020 describes a journey to Norilsk to investigate another major spill from one of the largest fuel containers at the plant. Kostyuchenko discovers that Nornickel, the nickel and palladium mining conglomerate owned by Vladimir Potanin, runs the show, truly a state within a state.  She joins forces with local environmental activists and lawyers, as well as officials from Moscow, to take water samples from the most polluted natural water resources, to get them out of Norilsk for independent testing for toxic pollution, but their efforts are stymied at every turn by officials who take their orders from Nornickel.  It’s personally threatening, it’s deadly to the people living there, and as sad a picture as you can get of a cynical lack of structural investment, people’s livelihoods and health sacrificed on the altar of profit-mongering.  

In a chapter called “The Darkness Has No Heart,” Kostyuchenko remembers all the journalists at Novaya Gazeta who were killed on the job:

Photos [of them] hang over the table where we hold our editorial and pitch meetings. Every time a new portrait goes up, we try to hang it so that there is no more room on the wall. When you can’t protect yourself or your people, you get superstitious. But then, with every new murder, the black-and-white faces crowd closer to one another, and there is always room for one more.

Last year, Elena Kostyuchenko was interviewed by Yury Dud’ on his YouTube Channel. The interview was watched by 5.8 million people.  Asked by Dud’ which piece of journalism she thought was her most important, she replied that it was the one from her two-week stay at one of Russia’s many residential homes (internat) for people with psycho-neurological disorders (known by the initials PNI).  She explained that it was this experience that led her finally to understand that there is fascism in Russia.  She wanted people to see a concentration camp, she tells Dud’, from the inside, and to know how it works: “There are 155,878 adults currently living in PNIs across Russia. And 21,000 children in specialised-care homes, doomed to end up in a PNI. Every 826th Russian citizen will live out their life in a PNI and die within its walls.”  These stark and alarming figures are fleshed out in her report, datelined April 30, 2021, from an unnamed PNI. Considered to be absolutely average and normal by its staff, she was given access to live among the patients for two weeks, on the condition that she doesn’t reveal the identity of the PNI or the names of staff and patients. It defies belief that the management thought this could possibly go well for them.  

In her report, Kostyuchenko lives and breathes the air of the PNI, together with its inmates.  She gives each and every person she encounters a name (albeit not their real name), a backstory, a life.  She shows how their institutionalisation has diminished them, made them worse, cowed them, reduced them, and that each and every one’s fate hangs by the most fragile of threads – a relative who robbed them, a parent who gave up on them, a social net that collapsed through lack of funds, and always drug and alcohol abuse.  She tells of compulsory sedations, of non-consensual sterilisation, of punishments and forced tranquilisation.  Like Dante’s circles of hell, the PNI is an infernal system that sucks its inmates into an inescapable vortex of dehumanisation.  It all begins with the rescinding of a person’s legal competence:

So what happens to a legally incompetent client of a PNI? The internat acts both as guardian and as service provider. The internat is the purchaser of its own product. This can create some truly amazing opportunities. Let’s start with the money. The 404 legally incompetent persons living here hold a combined total of 98,956,665 rubles ($1.14 million) in their bank accounts. As a rule, they each receive a disability pension, and the pensions accrue. The internat retains 75 percent of their pensions for services rendered. The remaining 25 percent can be used to improve a resident’s quality of life, but only with permission from their guardian. So why doesn’t Lyuba have any batteries for her tape player? Why must people scrub floors for an extra cigarette?  It’s simple: it’s the internat that rules on the needs of the people in its care.

People don’t ask questions because asking questions can be interpreted as complaining. Any complaint can and will be viewed as ‘deteriorating mental condition’ and be dealt with by an injection, or transfer to a stricter ward for tearaways and runners, the aggressive and difficult, or worse, to the mental hospital:

And this is a whole other layer of hell: You can never be in a bad mood or be angry or tearful, never call nastiness nastiness or cruelty cruelty. If you want to stay safe, you must put a smile on your face, or at the very least be neutral – indifferent, docile, no matter what they do to you and those around you.

What all the patients have in common is that they have all been given up by their families: “Their relationships and social connections are severed, or else weakened to the point of disappearing entirely. When human connection is lost, all that is left is the state.”  And as Elena Kostyuchenko writes: “My state is the internat. Not the Sputnik V vaccine, not the Olympics, not the space shuttles. The real face of my state is right here, I can see it.”

Soon after February 24, 2022, Kostyuchenko went into Ukraine to report on the Special Military Operation from the other side.  After five weeks, she discovered that her photograph had been circulated to Russian security service operatives in Ukraine with an order to kill on sight. She managed to get out unscathed and just in time. Her fearlessness and bravery is astonishing. But then, so is that of the many people she interviewed and whose stories she shares in this book. It is the one thing that gives reason to hope. Russia is full of astonishingly brave and principled people.

I Love Russia was finally published in Russian – although not in Russia – under its original Russian title, “Moya Lyubimaya Strana”, at the end of 2023. Its Russian title is perhaps  rendered more faithfully as “My Beloved Country. Like Alan Paton’s 1948 novel, Cry, the Beloved Country, set in the prelude to apartheid in South Africa, Elena Kostyuchenko’s I Love Russia will, I’m sure, come to be seen as a seminal account of Russia’s descent into full-fledged fascism under Putin.