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I Love Russia

Reporting from a Lost Country

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Hardcover
$30.00 US
6.32"W x 9.53"H x 1.28"D   (16.1 x 24.2 x 3.3 cm) | 21 oz (601 g) | 12 per carton
On sale Oct 17, 2023 | 384 Pages | 978-0-593-65526-9
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* Named a Best Book of the Year by The New Yorker and TIME * A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice *

“A haunting book of rare courage.” —Clarissa Ward, CNN chief international correspondent and author of On All Fronts

To be a journalist is to tell the truth. I Love Russia is Elena Kostyuchenko’s unrelenting attempt to document her country as experienced by those whom it systematically and brutally erases: village girls recruited into sex work, queer people in the outer provinces, patients and doctors at a Ukrainian maternity ward, and reporters like herself.

Here is Russia as it is, not as we imagine it. The result is a singular portrait of a nation, and of a young woman who refuses to be silenced. In March 2022, as a correspondent for Russia’s last free press, Novaya Gazeta, Kostyuchenko crossed the border into Ukraine to cover the war. It was her mission to ensure that Russians witnessed the horrors Putin was committing in their name. She filed her pieces knowing that should she return home, she would likely be prosecuted and sentenced to up to fifteen years in prison. Yet, driven by the conviction that the greatest form of love and patriotism is criticism, she continues to write.

I Love Russia stitches together reportage from the past fifteen years with personal essays, assembling a kaleidoscopic narrative that Kostyuchenko understands may be the last work from her homeland that she’ll publish for a long time—perhaps ever. It exposes the inner workings of an entire nation as it descends into fascism and, inevitably, war. She writes because the threat of Putin’s Russia extends beyond herself, beyond Crimea, and beyond Ukraine. We fail to understand it at our own peril.
Chapter 1

The Men from TV

I don't remember myself as an infant, my memories begin from the time I am four, maybe three. I remember the silhouettes bending over me, or maybe I just think I do. I remember my grandma, she died when I was five, which must mean I have memories from when I was younger. Babushka would make fun of me and slap my hand and then laugh. She wasn't always all there, she was sick. When madness came over her, she would get shy and searching. She thought she was living with strangers and would become eager to make us like her. When she regained her senses, she'd turn back into the woman who had for many years been-and remained-the head of the household. She was accustomed to being obeyed and demanded obedience.

I was sick all the time, I'd always get colds. I rarely went out. In my memory, it's always twilight. A new building was slowly rising up in front of our windows, rising to block out the light. In the right corner of the room we lived in, there was a piano for me to grow into. Mama hoped I would one day learn how to play. In the left corner, there was the television. It worked, but the picture was fuzzy, shot through with static, making it look black-and-white.

The television was huge, or it seemed huge to me, with a bulging silver-gray screen made of thick glass. Dust adored it. I would pull up a chair, climb onto it, and brush the screen with my fingers. It felt like touching a moth's wings, ever-so-gently. Mama would say: that's the static.

I waited for evening for my allotted pleasure. That's when Good Night, Little Ones! would come on. The puppets, a piglet named Khryusha and a bunny named Stepashka, would talk to each other, and then they would play a cartoon. I loved the hand-drawn animations, but sometimes they'd be stop-motion instead, clay or just dolls. Those seemed like a sad waste of the magic of television. I could play with dolls all by myself.

I noticed that Mama turned on the TV before it was time for Good Night. She came home from work, hung up her trench coat, and sat down on the couch, still in her shoes. She'd wait a few minutes for her feet to "settle" and then she'd get up and plod over to the TV to turn it on. It'd be a show about grown-ups or news.

I hated the news and didn't understand how anybody could voluntarily watch it. The pictures that broke through the grainy broadcast were mystifying. People yelled, went places, there were identical anchors with identical intonations. I couldn't understand what they said. Mama watched them in silence. She was so tired.

Little by little, I was figuring out what was going on. One day, Mama told me our country used to be called the USSR, but now it was Russia. It had been better in the USSR: there was a lot of food, people were kind to each other. Now things were different. Later, I learned that Mama had been a chemist, but the institute where she had worked no longer paid money, so she became a cleaning woman and teacher and also washed diapers at my preschool. This was why she was so tired and didn't play with me and didn't hug me as much as I wanted. I asked her whose fault it was that the USSR had turned into Russia. Mama said Yeltsin. Who's Yeltsin? The president. What is the president? The most important person in the country.

Mama pointed him out to me on the news. The most important person in our country was ugly and old, with a giant head. I didn't understand what he was saying. He mumbled just like my grandma did when she was sick, stretching his words.

I'd watch him and think, It's your fault that my mama is tired. That she drags her feet when she walks like she's old. That she doesn't play with me and doesn't hug me as much as I want. That people used to be kind and live in the USSR, and now we live in Russia, and Russia is worse. When Yeltsin appeared on the screen, I'd furrow my brow and say, Yeltsin is bad. And Mama would smile. I started watching the news with Mama and yelling at Yeltsin just so I could see her smile.

Sometimes Mama's friends from the institute would come over. They'd sit in the kitchen and I would be underfoot. Whenever anyone mentioned Yeltsin, I'd perk up my ears. And then, in the next available pause, I would add, "Yeltsin is bad." The grown-ups laughed. They'd say, "Your little girl is so grown up." The grown-ups told me that Yeltsin was also a drunk. And so I started saying, "Yeltsin is a bad drunk." The grown-ups laughed at this, too.

The older I got, the more I could understand the news. Miners were beating their helmets against a bridge in Moscow. Mama sent the miners money, she said they were starving. Chechens were fighting with Russians. I was afraid of Chechens, I thought they were all scary bad guys with beards, just like pirates. I wished I could see one of them in real life. Then came the criminals. I never saw them but I would hear them. Sometimes, there would be shooting outside. Mama would say, Stay away from the window.

When I was five, I found out that we were all going to die. Even Mama. A little while later, I realized that Mama might not die of old age sometime in the future, she could die any moment because of the criminals. I started being scared of the night. Evil came closer at night, darkness opened the door to it. I would get up on the windowsill and stare into the darkness. I believed that my gaze lit Mama's way home and protected her. Sometimes, the terror would overwhelm me. Then I would take out our tin of old buttons and pore through them all like they were treasure. The buttons protected me from the terror a bit.

When I was in third grade, I finally saw the criminals up close. I was taking a shortcut home, through the courtyards, instead of taking the streets. Mama said never to do that, but I was in a hurry. I came upon three men and another one with them, but somehow apart. I remember them wearing black leather trench coats, but I probably made that up. One of the three men was swearing and then another one got out a gun. It was small and very black. I ducked into the nearest building to wait out the shooting. Two gunshots. I waited a little while longer, then peeked out of the doorway. The man who had been standing apart was curled up on the ground. Behind his ear, there was red. I couldn't see the criminals anymore. I made a wide arc around the man, then ran home. I didn't tell Mama. I knew that worrying could make the heart stop, and, with all of my little body, all I wanted was for Mama to live.

The criminals were because of Yeltsin, and so was the darkness outside the window, and all the long evenings waiting for Mama, and how we never had enough money-I knew what money was now, how much it cost. We didn't always have food. When I was nine, I joined a choir, we'd sing in hospitals and Houses of Culture. They paid choir members 30 rubles a concert, 60 for soloists. I wanted to be a soloist. Sixty rubles could get us seven loaves of bread.

I would ask Mama, If the USSR was such a good country, why didn't you stand up for it? Mama would say, We were deceived. Yeltsin lied to us.

I began watching the news with a voracious rage. I was impatient for Yeltsin to die. They would definitely show that on the news.

But: he kept not dying. Other people were dying. There were constantly funerals, coffins upholstered in red were continually being carried out into our courtyard. I would go up to our neighbors and ask, Why did he die? Why did she die? Alcohol poisoning, hanging, shooting, being murdered during a robbery, dying in a hospital that didn't have any drugs or doctors. My mama lived, my gaze protected her. Sometimes I'd bargain with God. I'd tell him, If Mama dies and I go off to live in the forest, what are You gonna do then?

When I was in seventh grade, here is what Yeltsin did. On New Year's Eve, while Mama and I were having our holiday dinner, he came on TV and he said, "I am tired. I'm stepping down." And with that, he stopped being the president. It was a New Year's Eve miracle. Mama cried and laughed and called all her friends and I thought, Finally. Now our new life would begin.

Six months later, there were elections. Vladimir Putin won. Putin was nothing like Yeltsin, he was athletic and young, with clear eyes. The eyes were the only memorable thing on his face. He had a special voice, it always sounded like he was restraining a growl. But when he smiled, everybody around him was very happy.

Mama didn't vote for Putin. She said he was KGB. I knew what KGB agents were, two of them had apartments across the way. They were maniacally suspicious, they drank a lot and weren't friendly. We didn't talk to them much.

On the day of the election, I went out to the courtyard to play. People were coming home from the polling places and asking each other, Did you vote for Putin? Me too. People would ask me about my mother. I would say, No, we're for the communists. Boys from our courtyard told me the communists were all rotting in their graves. We almost got into a fight.

People believed that Putin was going to protect them. Before the elections, buildings were blown up in several cities. We learned the term terrorist attack. Men from our building took turns doing night shifts, making sure that nobody wired our house with explosives. Putin said that we simply needed to kill all the terrorists and then the buildings would stop blowing up. He started a new war in Chechnya. I started washing floors. I was almost a grown-up now and I wanted to make some money so that my mother could be less tired. I'd get so tired, I would come home and do exactly what Mama did: go and sit down on the couch with my shoes on until my feet "settled." Mama didn't get mad.

Our television kept getting worse; it became hard to make out the faces in the black-and-white static. I started reading newspapers, we had them at our school library. I got obsessed with them-the pictures didn't change, you could think while you read. I decided to go work at one. The pay was no worse than washing floors. I wrote about bus pass scams, a teen health clinic, the skinheads that had appeared in our city. I was proud I was writing about grown-up things and considered myself a reporter.

Then one day I happened across a copy of Novaya Gazeta. I opened it up to a story about Chechnya. It was about a boy who wouldn't let his mother listen to Russian songs on the radio. Russian soldiers had taken his father away and brought him back as a corpse with no nose. The article had the words cleansing and filtration center. Soldiers killed thirty-six people in the village of Mesker-Yurt. One man (he survived) was crucified, they drove nails through the palms of his hands. The article was signed "Anna Politkovskaya."

I went to the public library and asked to see the collection of Novaya Gazetas. I searched for Politkovskaya's articles. I read them. 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 realization 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.

I was angry at Novaya Gazeta. It had torn the commonly held truth away from me. I'd never had my own truth before. I am fourteen, I thought, and now I'm like some sort of invalid.

I decided I had to work at Novaya Gazeta.

It took me three years, but I made it happen.

Putin's Been At It for a Long Time, but PICKING Medvedev Was a Huge Pain in the Ass

May 8, 2008

The Kremlin has been on high alert since 11 a.m. on May 6 because of the inauguration. Instead of the usual gaggle of camera-clutching tourists, the cobblestones have been swarming with military men, peculiar people in black suits, tuxedoed musicians, and chorus girls. They're holding the final rehearsals for the parade, and the choir, and the orchestra, too. But most important, these rehearsals are for the TV correspondents.

Sixty-nine cameras will be trained on the president as he assumes his new role. They will film from the ground, from the waists and shoulders of cameramen, and from the towers overlooking the square. Channel 1 will be filming from helicopters. After many rounds of negotiations, a Belgian TV crew has been granted permission to mount their cameras to cables strung over the fortress walls.

Rehearsals began at the end of April. The Channel 1 camp by Sobornaya Square has been up for a whole week-some vans, an HQ tent. Inside their tent, they have internet, hot water, salami, and ramen. Men's suits hanging along the walls (anyone caught on camera has to be dressed for the occasion), assorted notices, rehearsal schedules. They've already filmed one hundred hours of the fifty inaugural minutes, from every angle. Putin's procession across the parade, then Medvedev's, the ceremony in the Grand Kremlin Palace, both presidents' reappearances before the crowd, their speeches-again and again and again.

It doesn't seem like the camera choreography should be too complicated. There are just two principal figures. Putin exits one building, then walks to another. He goes up the right-hand staircase of the Grand Kremlin Palace. A short while later, Medvedev's motorcade sets off from the White House and heads to the Kremlin. He enters through a different door. They only meet once they are both inside. After the ceremony, they go down to the soldiers together.
“Defined by trauma and disorientation, hardiness and resolve . . . a wrenching and visceral text whose details almost seem to waft off the page. . . [Kostyuchenko] filed dispatches on Russia’s occupation and bombardment of Ukraine’s southern cities, bracing accounts laced with a sense of guilt and the utter futility of that guilt . . . Kostyuchenko’s writings are also a personal reckoning, an attempt to work through how she missed—or, rather, failed to adequately react to—Russia’s descent into fascism.” The New Yorker, Best Books of 2023 (Essential Read)

“A stunning collection . . . [Kostyuchenko] has been assaulted, arrested, and, she writes, nearly killed in retribution for criticizing her country . . . a portrait of a country falling ever deeper into fascism. She says this vital read will be the last book she ever publishes.” —Shannon Carlin, TIME, 100 Must-Read Books of 2023

“Jaw-dropping . . . her style of brave, intimate reporting is likely to be a rarity in Russia for years to come.” —Valerie Hopkins, New York Times Book Review

“[With] selfless courage and uncompromising journalistic style . . . Kostyuchenko describes the personal, social, and political environment of modern Russia . . . a convincing rebuttal of Russian nationalist self-perception and propaganda.” —Jon Tell and Balthazar de Robiano, Jacobin

“Kostyuchenko did not lose her desire to write about the truth . . . a mosaic of vivid short stories about the Russians she grew up with, the people she met on assignments, and discovering her sexual orientation and coming out. She writes as if the reader is there with her witnessing the scene.” —Heather Cassell, The Bay Area Reporter

“The story of [Kostyuchenko’s] own life is the story of the Russia that was decisively lost in February 2022 . . . Even in writing, she’s cool about her exposure to violence, making the choice to endanger her life sound as banal as the choice to wake up in the morning . . . Her motivation, as ever, is the love she feels for her place of origin.” —Signe Swanson, The Cleveland Review of Books

I Love Russia, while true to its name, holds that the greatest form of patriotism is criticism. It’s a mixture of Kostyuchenko’s reporting—on the 2014 war in Donbas, Ukraine, the contract killing of six of her colleagues, the Russian government’s grim denial of the fighting in Donetsk in 2012—and her deeply personal essays . . . makes a point to foreground the overlooked and oppressed.” TIME, Best Books of October

“Part memoir, part anthology of her fearless reporting . . . shocking and moving . . . gritty insider’s take.” —Matthew Campell, Sunday Times, Book of the Week (UK)
 
“Brilliant and immersive . . . brave and luminous . . . Kostyuchenko’s fearless coverage of the war in Ukraine speaks for itself . . . She argues that to love one’s country—truly, deeply—is to view it critically, through a harsh and unblinking gaze.” —Luke Harding, The Guardian (UK)

“Bold, revelatory . . . eschews the usual authoritative voices, and instead speaks to people who have been erased . . . remarkable, courageous first-person journalism.”—Jane Graham, Big Issue (UK)

“Sharp-edged . . . harrowing . . . With gritty determination, she ventures beyond the Kremlin and its state-managed propaganda . . . Kostyuchenko’s journalistic integrity is unquestionable and the dangers she faces are very real. It’s a vivid and poignant account.” Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Intimately, disturbingly detailed . . . important. A deeply felt, fractured collection reveals a fractured, benumbed society.” Kirkus

“Would you like to know where Putin comes from? What the Russians are like today? And why? Read this book. For years, the author has been keeping a diary of the soul of her people, with love and with hate. Scientists claim that there is no place in the body where the soul resides. So where is it then? The author goes to homes and schools, sits at weddings and celebrations, asking about love and hate, children and parents. We get to see the rise of the monster that now leaves its footprints in Kyiv, Bucha, and Irpin — and how it forces the whole world to fear the future.” —Svetlana Alexievich, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature and author of Secondhand Time

“Elena Kostyuchenko is an important guide to the twenty-first century. She exemplifies all the reportorial virtues, from physical courage through careful prose. The Russia she recounts here is the Russia we need to understand.” —Timothy Snyder, author of The Road to Unfreedom
 
“A haunting book of rare courage. Kostyuchenko’s searing reportage takes the reader under the skin of a Russia that few outsiders get to see. With spare, unflinching prose she lays bare the cynicism and corruption, but also the bravery and heart, of her beloved country.” —Clarissa Ward, CNN chief international correspondent and author of On All Fronts  
 
“Not only does Kostyuchenko find her way into the very darkness, she goes for its blackest corners. . . . The good news that emerges is her talent. Read her. It’s worth it.” —Dmitry Muratov, editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize
 
“A fascinating, frightening, compulsively readable chronicle of life in Putin’s Russia. As a girl, Elena Kostyuchenko wanted to believe in her country; as a journalist she has dedicated her life to exposing its darkness. Her prose is haunting, edgy, searing. Her stories are unforgettable, and deeply important.” —Carol Off, author of The Lion, the Fox, and the Eagle and former host of CBC As It Happens
Elena Kostyuchenko was born in Yaroslavl, Russia in 1987. She began working as a journalist when she was fourteen, and spent seventeen years reporting for Novaya Gazeta, Russia’s last major independent newspaper until it was shut down in the spring of 2022 in response to her reporting from Ukraine. She is the author of two books published in Russian, Unwanted on Probation and We Have to Live Here, and the recipient of the European Press Prize, the Gerd Bucerius Award, and the Paul Klebnikov Prize.

Bela Shayevich is a Soviet American writer and translator. She is best known for her translation of 2015 Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich’s Secondhand Time,for which she was awarded the TA First Translation Prize. Her other translations include Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We and Vsevolod Nekrasov’s I Live I See, which she cotranslated with Ainsley Morse. Her writing has appeared in n+1, Jewish Currents, and Harper’s Magazine.

Ilona Yazhbin Chavasse was born in Soviet Belarus. She has translated three novels by Yuri Rytkheu, including most recently When the Whales Leave, Aleksandr Skorobogatov’s Russian Gothic, and Galina Scherbakova’s short stories for the Dedalus anthology Slav Sisters, as well as The Village at the Edge of Noon by Darya Bobyleva. She lives in London.
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About

* Named a Best Book of the Year by The New Yorker and TIME * A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice *

“A haunting book of rare courage.” —Clarissa Ward, CNN chief international correspondent and author of On All Fronts

To be a journalist is to tell the truth. I Love Russia is Elena Kostyuchenko’s unrelenting attempt to document her country as experienced by those whom it systematically and brutally erases: village girls recruited into sex work, queer people in the outer provinces, patients and doctors at a Ukrainian maternity ward, and reporters like herself.

Here is Russia as it is, not as we imagine it. The result is a singular portrait of a nation, and of a young woman who refuses to be silenced. In March 2022, as a correspondent for Russia’s last free press, Novaya Gazeta, Kostyuchenko crossed the border into Ukraine to cover the war. It was her mission to ensure that Russians witnessed the horrors Putin was committing in their name. She filed her pieces knowing that should she return home, she would likely be prosecuted and sentenced to up to fifteen years in prison. Yet, driven by the conviction that the greatest form of love and patriotism is criticism, she continues to write.

I Love Russia stitches together reportage from the past fifteen years with personal essays, assembling a kaleidoscopic narrative that Kostyuchenko understands may be the last work from her homeland that she’ll publish for a long time—perhaps ever. It exposes the inner workings of an entire nation as it descends into fascism and, inevitably, war. She writes because the threat of Putin’s Russia extends beyond herself, beyond Crimea, and beyond Ukraine. We fail to understand it at our own peril.

Excerpt

Chapter 1

The Men from TV

I don't remember myself as an infant, my memories begin from the time I am four, maybe three. I remember the silhouettes bending over me, or maybe I just think I do. I remember my grandma, she died when I was five, which must mean I have memories from when I was younger. Babushka would make fun of me and slap my hand and then laugh. She wasn't always all there, she was sick. When madness came over her, she would get shy and searching. She thought she was living with strangers and would become eager to make us like her. When she regained her senses, she'd turn back into the woman who had for many years been-and remained-the head of the household. She was accustomed to being obeyed and demanded obedience.

I was sick all the time, I'd always get colds. I rarely went out. In my memory, it's always twilight. A new building was slowly rising up in front of our windows, rising to block out the light. In the right corner of the room we lived in, there was a piano for me to grow into. Mama hoped I would one day learn how to play. In the left corner, there was the television. It worked, but the picture was fuzzy, shot through with static, making it look black-and-white.

The television was huge, or it seemed huge to me, with a bulging silver-gray screen made of thick glass. Dust adored it. I would pull up a chair, climb onto it, and brush the screen with my fingers. It felt like touching a moth's wings, ever-so-gently. Mama would say: that's the static.

I waited for evening for my allotted pleasure. That's when Good Night, Little Ones! would come on. The puppets, a piglet named Khryusha and a bunny named Stepashka, would talk to each other, and then they would play a cartoon. I loved the hand-drawn animations, but sometimes they'd be stop-motion instead, clay or just dolls. Those seemed like a sad waste of the magic of television. I could play with dolls all by myself.

I noticed that Mama turned on the TV before it was time for Good Night. She came home from work, hung up her trench coat, and sat down on the couch, still in her shoes. She'd wait a few minutes for her feet to "settle" and then she'd get up and plod over to the TV to turn it on. It'd be a show about grown-ups or news.

I hated the news and didn't understand how anybody could voluntarily watch it. The pictures that broke through the grainy broadcast were mystifying. People yelled, went places, there were identical anchors with identical intonations. I couldn't understand what they said. Mama watched them in silence. She was so tired.

Little by little, I was figuring out what was going on. One day, Mama told me our country used to be called the USSR, but now it was Russia. It had been better in the USSR: there was a lot of food, people were kind to each other. Now things were different. Later, I learned that Mama had been a chemist, but the institute where she had worked no longer paid money, so she became a cleaning woman and teacher and also washed diapers at my preschool. This was why she was so tired and didn't play with me and didn't hug me as much as I wanted. I asked her whose fault it was that the USSR had turned into Russia. Mama said Yeltsin. Who's Yeltsin? The president. What is the president? The most important person in the country.

Mama pointed him out to me on the news. The most important person in our country was ugly and old, with a giant head. I didn't understand what he was saying. He mumbled just like my grandma did when she was sick, stretching his words.

I'd watch him and think, It's your fault that my mama is tired. That she drags her feet when she walks like she's old. That she doesn't play with me and doesn't hug me as much as I want. That people used to be kind and live in the USSR, and now we live in Russia, and Russia is worse. When Yeltsin appeared on the screen, I'd furrow my brow and say, Yeltsin is bad. And Mama would smile. I started watching the news with Mama and yelling at Yeltsin just so I could see her smile.

Sometimes Mama's friends from the institute would come over. They'd sit in the kitchen and I would be underfoot. Whenever anyone mentioned Yeltsin, I'd perk up my ears. And then, in the next available pause, I would add, "Yeltsin is bad." The grown-ups laughed. They'd say, "Your little girl is so grown up." The grown-ups told me that Yeltsin was also a drunk. And so I started saying, "Yeltsin is a bad drunk." The grown-ups laughed at this, too.

The older I got, the more I could understand the news. Miners were beating their helmets against a bridge in Moscow. Mama sent the miners money, she said they were starving. Chechens were fighting with Russians. I was afraid of Chechens, I thought they were all scary bad guys with beards, just like pirates. I wished I could see one of them in real life. Then came the criminals. I never saw them but I would hear them. Sometimes, there would be shooting outside. Mama would say, Stay away from the window.

When I was five, I found out that we were all going to die. Even Mama. A little while later, I realized that Mama might not die of old age sometime in the future, she could die any moment because of the criminals. I started being scared of the night. Evil came closer at night, darkness opened the door to it. I would get up on the windowsill and stare into the darkness. I believed that my gaze lit Mama's way home and protected her. Sometimes, the terror would overwhelm me. Then I would take out our tin of old buttons and pore through them all like they were treasure. The buttons protected me from the terror a bit.

When I was in third grade, I finally saw the criminals up close. I was taking a shortcut home, through the courtyards, instead of taking the streets. Mama said never to do that, but I was in a hurry. I came upon three men and another one with them, but somehow apart. I remember them wearing black leather trench coats, but I probably made that up. One of the three men was swearing and then another one got out a gun. It was small and very black. I ducked into the nearest building to wait out the shooting. Two gunshots. I waited a little while longer, then peeked out of the doorway. The man who had been standing apart was curled up on the ground. Behind his ear, there was red. I couldn't see the criminals anymore. I made a wide arc around the man, then ran home. I didn't tell Mama. I knew that worrying could make the heart stop, and, with all of my little body, all I wanted was for Mama to live.

The criminals were because of Yeltsin, and so was the darkness outside the window, and all the long evenings waiting for Mama, and how we never had enough money-I knew what money was now, how much it cost. We didn't always have food. When I was nine, I joined a choir, we'd sing in hospitals and Houses of Culture. They paid choir members 30 rubles a concert, 60 for soloists. I wanted to be a soloist. Sixty rubles could get us seven loaves of bread.

I would ask Mama, If the USSR was such a good country, why didn't you stand up for it? Mama would say, We were deceived. Yeltsin lied to us.

I began watching the news with a voracious rage. I was impatient for Yeltsin to die. They would definitely show that on the news.

But: he kept not dying. Other people were dying. There were constantly funerals, coffins upholstered in red were continually being carried out into our courtyard. I would go up to our neighbors and ask, Why did he die? Why did she die? Alcohol poisoning, hanging, shooting, being murdered during a robbery, dying in a hospital that didn't have any drugs or doctors. My mama lived, my gaze protected her. Sometimes I'd bargain with God. I'd tell him, If Mama dies and I go off to live in the forest, what are You gonna do then?

When I was in seventh grade, here is what Yeltsin did. On New Year's Eve, while Mama and I were having our holiday dinner, he came on TV and he said, "I am tired. I'm stepping down." And with that, he stopped being the president. It was a New Year's Eve miracle. Mama cried and laughed and called all her friends and I thought, Finally. Now our new life would begin.

Six months later, there were elections. Vladimir Putin won. Putin was nothing like Yeltsin, he was athletic and young, with clear eyes. The eyes were the only memorable thing on his face. He had a special voice, it always sounded like he was restraining a growl. But when he smiled, everybody around him was very happy.

Mama didn't vote for Putin. She said he was KGB. I knew what KGB agents were, two of them had apartments across the way. They were maniacally suspicious, they drank a lot and weren't friendly. We didn't talk to them much.

On the day of the election, I went out to the courtyard to play. People were coming home from the polling places and asking each other, Did you vote for Putin? Me too. People would ask me about my mother. I would say, No, we're for the communists. Boys from our courtyard told me the communists were all rotting in their graves. We almost got into a fight.

People believed that Putin was going to protect them. Before the elections, buildings were blown up in several cities. We learned the term terrorist attack. Men from our building took turns doing night shifts, making sure that nobody wired our house with explosives. Putin said that we simply needed to kill all the terrorists and then the buildings would stop blowing up. He started a new war in Chechnya. I started washing floors. I was almost a grown-up now and I wanted to make some money so that my mother could be less tired. I'd get so tired, I would come home and do exactly what Mama did: go and sit down on the couch with my shoes on until my feet "settled." Mama didn't get mad.

Our television kept getting worse; it became hard to make out the faces in the black-and-white static. I started reading newspapers, we had them at our school library. I got obsessed with them-the pictures didn't change, you could think while you read. I decided to go work at one. The pay was no worse than washing floors. I wrote about bus pass scams, a teen health clinic, the skinheads that had appeared in our city. I was proud I was writing about grown-up things and considered myself a reporter.

Then one day I happened across a copy of Novaya Gazeta. I opened it up to a story about Chechnya. It was about a boy who wouldn't let his mother listen to Russian songs on the radio. Russian soldiers had taken his father away and brought him back as a corpse with no nose. The article had the words cleansing and filtration center. Soldiers killed thirty-six people in the village of Mesker-Yurt. One man (he survived) was crucified, they drove nails through the palms of his hands. The article was signed "Anna Politkovskaya."

I went to the public library and asked to see the collection of Novaya Gazetas. I searched for Politkovskaya's articles. I read them. 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 realization 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.

I was angry at Novaya Gazeta. It had torn the commonly held truth away from me. I'd never had my own truth before. I am fourteen, I thought, and now I'm like some sort of invalid.

I decided I had to work at Novaya Gazeta.

It took me three years, but I made it happen.

Putin's Been At It for a Long Time, but PICKING Medvedev Was a Huge Pain in the Ass

May 8, 2008

The Kremlin has been on high alert since 11 a.m. on May 6 because of the inauguration. Instead of the usual gaggle of camera-clutching tourists, the cobblestones have been swarming with military men, peculiar people in black suits, tuxedoed musicians, and chorus girls. They're holding the final rehearsals for the parade, and the choir, and the orchestra, too. But most important, these rehearsals are for the TV correspondents.

Sixty-nine cameras will be trained on the president as he assumes his new role. They will film from the ground, from the waists and shoulders of cameramen, and from the towers overlooking the square. Channel 1 will be filming from helicopters. After many rounds of negotiations, a Belgian TV crew has been granted permission to mount their cameras to cables strung over the fortress walls.

Rehearsals began at the end of April. The Channel 1 camp by Sobornaya Square has been up for a whole week-some vans, an HQ tent. Inside their tent, they have internet, hot water, salami, and ramen. Men's suits hanging along the walls (anyone caught on camera has to be dressed for the occasion), assorted notices, rehearsal schedules. They've already filmed one hundred hours of the fifty inaugural minutes, from every angle. Putin's procession across the parade, then Medvedev's, the ceremony in the Grand Kremlin Palace, both presidents' reappearances before the crowd, their speeches-again and again and again.

It doesn't seem like the camera choreography should be too complicated. There are just two principal figures. Putin exits one building, then walks to another. He goes up the right-hand staircase of the Grand Kremlin Palace. A short while later, Medvedev's motorcade sets off from the White House and heads to the Kremlin. He enters through a different door. They only meet once they are both inside. After the ceremony, they go down to the soldiers together.

Praise

“Defined by trauma and disorientation, hardiness and resolve . . . a wrenching and visceral text whose details almost seem to waft off the page. . . [Kostyuchenko] filed dispatches on Russia’s occupation and bombardment of Ukraine’s southern cities, bracing accounts laced with a sense of guilt and the utter futility of that guilt . . . Kostyuchenko’s writings are also a personal reckoning, an attempt to work through how she missed—or, rather, failed to adequately react to—Russia’s descent into fascism.” The New Yorker, Best Books of 2023 (Essential Read)

“A stunning collection . . . [Kostyuchenko] has been assaulted, arrested, and, she writes, nearly killed in retribution for criticizing her country . . . a portrait of a country falling ever deeper into fascism. She says this vital read will be the last book she ever publishes.” —Shannon Carlin, TIME, 100 Must-Read Books of 2023

“Jaw-dropping . . . her style of brave, intimate reporting is likely to be a rarity in Russia for years to come.” —Valerie Hopkins, New York Times Book Review

“[With] selfless courage and uncompromising journalistic style . . . Kostyuchenko describes the personal, social, and political environment of modern Russia . . . a convincing rebuttal of Russian nationalist self-perception and propaganda.” —Jon Tell and Balthazar de Robiano, Jacobin

“Kostyuchenko did not lose her desire to write about the truth . . . a mosaic of vivid short stories about the Russians she grew up with, the people she met on assignments, and discovering her sexual orientation and coming out. She writes as if the reader is there with her witnessing the scene.” —Heather Cassell, The Bay Area Reporter

“The story of [Kostyuchenko’s] own life is the story of the Russia that was decisively lost in February 2022 . . . Even in writing, she’s cool about her exposure to violence, making the choice to endanger her life sound as banal as the choice to wake up in the morning . . . Her motivation, as ever, is the love she feels for her place of origin.” —Signe Swanson, The Cleveland Review of Books

I Love Russia, while true to its name, holds that the greatest form of patriotism is criticism. It’s a mixture of Kostyuchenko’s reporting—on the 2014 war in Donbas, Ukraine, the contract killing of six of her colleagues, the Russian government’s grim denial of the fighting in Donetsk in 2012—and her deeply personal essays . . . makes a point to foreground the overlooked and oppressed.” TIME, Best Books of October

“Part memoir, part anthology of her fearless reporting . . . shocking and moving . . . gritty insider’s take.” —Matthew Campell, Sunday Times, Book of the Week (UK)
 
“Brilliant and immersive . . . brave and luminous . . . Kostyuchenko’s fearless coverage of the war in Ukraine speaks for itself . . . She argues that to love one’s country—truly, deeply—is to view it critically, through a harsh and unblinking gaze.” —Luke Harding, The Guardian (UK)

“Bold, revelatory . . . eschews the usual authoritative voices, and instead speaks to people who have been erased . . . remarkable, courageous first-person journalism.”—Jane Graham, Big Issue (UK)

“Sharp-edged . . . harrowing . . . With gritty determination, she ventures beyond the Kremlin and its state-managed propaganda . . . Kostyuchenko’s journalistic integrity is unquestionable and the dangers she faces are very real. It’s a vivid and poignant account.” Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Intimately, disturbingly detailed . . . important. A deeply felt, fractured collection reveals a fractured, benumbed society.” Kirkus

“Would you like to know where Putin comes from? What the Russians are like today? And why? Read this book. For years, the author has been keeping a diary of the soul of her people, with love and with hate. Scientists claim that there is no place in the body where the soul resides. So where is it then? The author goes to homes and schools, sits at weddings and celebrations, asking about love and hate, children and parents. We get to see the rise of the monster that now leaves its footprints in Kyiv, Bucha, and Irpin — and how it forces the whole world to fear the future.” —Svetlana Alexievich, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature and author of Secondhand Time

“Elena Kostyuchenko is an important guide to the twenty-first century. She exemplifies all the reportorial virtues, from physical courage through careful prose. The Russia she recounts here is the Russia we need to understand.” —Timothy Snyder, author of The Road to Unfreedom
 
“A haunting book of rare courage. Kostyuchenko’s searing reportage takes the reader under the skin of a Russia that few outsiders get to see. With spare, unflinching prose she lays bare the cynicism and corruption, but also the bravery and heart, of her beloved country.” —Clarissa Ward, CNN chief international correspondent and author of On All Fronts  
 
“Not only does Kostyuchenko find her way into the very darkness, she goes for its blackest corners. . . . The good news that emerges is her talent. Read her. It’s worth it.” —Dmitry Muratov, editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize
 
“A fascinating, frightening, compulsively readable chronicle of life in Putin’s Russia. As a girl, Elena Kostyuchenko wanted to believe in her country; as a journalist she has dedicated her life to exposing its darkness. Her prose is haunting, edgy, searing. Her stories are unforgettable, and deeply important.” —Carol Off, author of The Lion, the Fox, and the Eagle and former host of CBC As It Happens

Author

Elena Kostyuchenko was born in Yaroslavl, Russia in 1987. She began working as a journalist when she was fourteen, and spent seventeen years reporting for Novaya Gazeta, Russia’s last major independent newspaper until it was shut down in the spring of 2022 in response to her reporting from Ukraine. She is the author of two books published in Russian, Unwanted on Probation and We Have to Live Here, and the recipient of the European Press Prize, the Gerd Bucerius Award, and the Paul Klebnikov Prize.

Bela Shayevich is a Soviet American writer and translator. She is best known for her translation of 2015 Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich’s Secondhand Time,for which she was awarded the TA First Translation Prize. Her other translations include Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We and Vsevolod Nekrasov’s I Live I See, which she cotranslated with Ainsley Morse. Her writing has appeared in n+1, Jewish Currents, and Harper’s Magazine.

Ilona Yazhbin Chavasse was born in Soviet Belarus. She has translated three novels by Yuri Rytkheu, including most recently When the Whales Leave, Aleksandr Skorobogatov’s Russian Gothic, and Galina Scherbakova’s short stories for the Dedalus anthology Slav Sisters, as well as The Village at the Edge of Noon by Darya Bobyleva. She lives in London.

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