'We would never give someone like Putin a platform, why the fuck should we?

The West has not always been the hero and can also pull shit.

On the same day that Russian opposition leader Navalny was buried, Veto had the opportunity to interview Denis Leven in our editorial office. Leven is the author of three 'unwanted' media sources, one of which is DOXA, the Russian student magazine, of which four journalists were arrested in 2021.

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The first media outlet Denis Leven wrote for is Novaya Gazeta Europe, the European branch of an independent Russian newspaper and an opposition channel for Putin's counterparts. In 2021, its editor-in-chief won the Nobel Peace Prize. 

As a political scientist, Leven analyses international foreign policy and European politics and writes long reads on the topic. This summer, Russia labelled Novaya Gazeta as an 'unwanted' organisation. That is the official status that Russian authorities give to organisations like NGO’s, media, political parties or movements. 

Besides Novaya Gazeta, Denis Leven writes for DOXA Magazine, which was recognised as an 'unwanted' organisation in January. Leven is also a freelance writer for other entities.

How did you end up in DOXA and the other entities? 

Leven: 'I’ve known DOXA since my bachelors degree at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. DOXA started off in 2017 as a magazine about student affairs and science. I started participating in 2018.'

'DOXA wrote an article on how a student got arrested after standing as a candidate for the opposition'

'In 2019, large-scale protest campaigns took place in Moscow in the build-up to municipal elections. DOXA reported on the protests and the police violence. As a result, our university decided to cut off the funding to DOXA. At the time, I was working for someone from Navalny’s team.' 

'DOXA continued to write, even without the status of an official student organisation. As such, DOXA wrote an article on how a student got arrested after standing as a candidate for the opposition party.'

'My laptop is the most secured one in this building'

'When Navalny returned to Russia in 2021 after being poisoned, he was arrested. That sparked more protests. DOXA then released a video with the message that there should be no fear. The Russian authorities considered this video a violation of the law, stating that "children" should not be involved in politics. As a result, four members of DOXA were placed under house arrest for seven months. They managed, like me, to flee Russia when the war with Ukraine began.'

What is DOXA’s position now?

'We no longer have a central headquarters. I'd estimate that there are about forty to fifty people currently working for DOXA. Despite our history, many staff members are active in Russia. We warn our writers about our status and suggest that we publish their opinions anonymously, but ultimately, it's their own choice.' 

'My laptop is the most secured one in this building'

'At DOXA, we gather information from articles, interviews, and reports from various sources. We often rewrite content from various smaller regional publications. Additionally, we have our own journalists in Russia and Europe. Also, NGOs and various political movements send us opinion pieces or other texts that they want published. If we agree with what they send in, we publish them.' 

How do you write anonymously and safely? 

'We have extremely strict cybersecurity rules. When I started working for DOXA, I had to go through eighty pages of security protocol. My laptop is probably the most secured one in this building! (laughs)'

Is it possible to reach the Russian population that lives in a propaganda bubble?

'We make use of various sources on the internet. Our website is blocked in Russia, but our technicians have been able to develop a mirror (a copy of the website under a different domain name, as to bypass the blockade, Ed.) there. We try to spread links to that mirror.'

'It might be less popular here, but we also share our news via Telegram. It's perhaps one of the most popular social media platforms in Russia. There are rumours that the state has control over the platform, but it's still possible to disseminate information through it. Our posts are still widely viewed, which causes us to think it's safe.'

What’s the power of news channels like DOXA?

'It is crucial to maintain news channels like DOXA. They serve as avenues to reach and inform people. However, I believe that is not the most crucial aspect, since most Russian media, especially those that have left the country, insist that they do not align with the Russian government. They are independent. They are journalistic.'

'In this way, we maintain a relatively objective stance within our ideology'

'Personally, I believe that journalism should be ideological. When the media claims to have no ideology, they are influenced and controlled from above. In reality, the media has an objective ideology; they should not be allowed to lie.'

'DOXA would never provide a platform for someone like Putin, or a Nazi, or a proponent of war. Why the fuck should we? We shouldn't spread their ideologies. And in that way, we maintain a fairly objective stance within our ideology. (laughs)'

Russian politics

Today is a dark day for the Russian opposition, as Navalny is being buried. What was his influence? 

'Navalny is a man who changed the landscape of politics in Russia. He wielded significant influence, especially among my generation. Nearly everyone in Russia knew him. His political career has been extensive: he started out on the rightwing. Even then, Navalny was already considered a threat to the state.'

'Later, he began to distance himself from his right-wing tendencies. He became extremely popular in Russia as a part of the liberal community and gained recognition through LiveJournal, a Russian social media-blog. He actively participated in protests, and began to reshape politics after 2013.' 

'Navalny made his own media'

'His campaign began in Moscow but extended to all local villages. He campaigned in a very different way from what we were accustomed to in Russia. We were familiar with the "European way" of doing politics, wherein posters were put up and candidates appeared for the first time around election time.'

'Navalny went into the field, talked to people, and understood that he couldn't rely on the Russian media. He created his own media, and at the core of his messages was anti-corruption.'

Was Navalny supported by most Russians?

'Naturally, no definitive numbers exist, so we can never really know. Despite the lack of open support from the population, I believe Navalny has touched many people. The clearest example, of course, being the thousands of people awaiting him at the airport upon his return from Germany, and the nationwide protests after he was detained there.'

'Putin did not rise to power yesterday. He was already there in the 90s and he was already pulling shit back then'

'Even in Kazan, where I was at the time, there were protests. Kazan is quite patriarchal and has a fairly conservative culture. The city is known for rarely opposing the government and for not staging protests. Yet, even they organised protests in 2021 following Navalny's arrest. That tells me that Navalny was someone important, that he had an impact. People knew him.'

A post-Putin Russia 

Do you see the situation in Russia worsen after Putin?

'No idea, it depends. I'm afraid that, if there's going to be any change, it'll be a return to the era before Putin. So there's a good chance it will worsen. The change will probably come from the establishment, although I hope it comes from the people.'

Do you feel like the West is just standing by? 

'Putin did not come to power yesterday. He was already there in the 90s and he already pulled shit back then. Back then, he was already killing journalists. Years ago, he was shaking hands with Mark Rutte at the Nord Stream. Merkel was there too. The West was happy with a comfortable, authoritarian regime. "Keep the Russians safe and calm, and we’ll stay friends." I see that happening again.' 

'The elections are a way for Putin to legitimise himself'

'Russians do not expect or hope for anything from the West. Additionally, they receive a lot of anti-Western propaganda. But the West has not always been the hero and can also pull shit, like during the bombings in Belgrade or the Iraq War.'

Does Putin have anything to fear from future elections? 

'No, it's just a way to legitimise his own position. Then he can say: "Look, what I'm doing is okay. The people have chosen me."' 

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