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Carry Heavy Equipment and Report the Truth

Russia--Irina Lagunina, portrait
Russia--Irina Lagunina, portrait
Irina Lagunina is no newcomer to the RFE/RL’s Russian service, Radio Svoboda,
which was founded in 1953 to counter communist propaganda and create an open space in the deep freeze of the Soviet Union for independent thought and truthful reporting.

Twenty-five years since the fall of the Berlin Wall and 90 years since the death of Vladimir Lenin, Russia’s media remains overwhelmingly state-controlled. Lagunina, named Radio Svoboda’s director in December, has set herself the task of expanding the service’s influence and audience despite a restrictive media environment and widespread apathy toward public affairs.

In a conversation with RFE/RL, Lagunina was triumphant about the service’s current impact, as reflected in its gains of 800 – 1000 followers on Facebook alone every few days.

“We have the trust of our followers, our readers and our listeners. That’s a good thing,” she said adding, “but now we have to expand.”

Russia -- Elena Fanailov, Boris Dubin and Irina Lagunina - future of Radio Liberty talk show, on May 14, 2013.
Russia -- Elena Fanailov, Boris Dubin and Irina Lagunina - future of Radio Liberty talk show, on May 14, 2013.
Recent social research shows that a mere four percent of the Russian population is socially and politically active.

“Four percent have a critical mind and are willing to speak out. This is our potential audience. We can’t jumpover the general mood in the society,” she said. “I think we pretty much serve these four percent. Further development is very difficult and challenging.”

Lagunina’s four percent, far from a majority stake in Russia, has nevertheless anchored Radio Svoboda in the country’s independent media landscape. Lagunina recounts a meeting with Alexei Venediktov, chief editor of Ekho Moskvy,
Russia’s leading, local independent broadcaster.

“[Venediktov] looked at me and said, ‘You know, I’m often asked why I support Radio Liberty so much. Why I support my competitor. And I always tell them, no. Radio Liberty is not our competitor. It is our base,’” Lagunina recalled.

“If we can be and remain this base for the free media in Russia, for our colleagues who work under growing pressure from the government, that would be the greatest achievement of Radio Liberty,” she said.

Lagunina spoke about the impact she wishes Radio Svoboda to have on Russia’s future leaders – today’s youth - who have grown up after communism and with little knowledge of the Soviet period.

“Over these 25 years there was a new generation in Russia that doesn’t know anything about the period of transition that other countries in Central and Eastern Europe went through. It’s not in history books, it’s not in public memory. And if it’s in the [official] press it’s all perverted,” she said.

“This new generation in Russia, even though they travel, read and use the Internet, they still don’t know the history of this part of Europe, the history of the collapse of the Soviet Union or the socialist system.”

Lagunina sees such public education as contested terrain where Radio Svoboda can be influential through its coverage, and where the State will use gaps to its advantage.

Reflecting on her own career as a journalist, Lagunina says she has witnessed tremendous changes in the field. The faculty of journalism of MGIMO University she attended as a student in the Soviet Union only accepted four women each year, and the international department of the Journalistic faculty of Moscow State University didn’t accept any women at all. “Now there are no quotas and no discrimination [in Russian universities],” she said.

Soviet universities were obliged to place their graduates in jobs, and that was another reason the state system was reluctant to accept female students – it was difficult to find employment for them. Lagunina was offered a position at “Rabotnitsa“ (Working Woman) magazine.

"I never showed up there because I had already found a job myself at 'New Times' weekly,” she said. “I started in the readers’ mail department, in the department that dealt with fact checking. But as a female journalist I had to go through all the stages, starting at the bottom to being a columnist in the newspaper, 'Moscow News.'"

Lagunina credits a foreign assignment in Sarajevo in the 1990s during the war between Serbia and Bosnia with having lasting impact on her work as a journalist.

Irina Lagunina in the studio hosting "Free Talk."
Irina Lagunina in the studio hosting "Free Talk."
“At that time all the Russian press was on the Serbian or Bosnian Serb side, to the extent that in 1992-93 it was unknown in Russia that Sarajevo was under siege,” she said. “Going to this city, living through the life of Bosnians, seeing death was shocking, it was professionally moving.”

“We came to one of the backyards where a mine exploded,“ she recalled. “There were seven kids killed. They were cleaning the blood when we came and you could see the mark of the mine explosion on the pavement. Then we went to the morgue and saw those kids. I took pictures. “

Lagunina showed the pictures to her colleagues in Moscow, who were also shocked. Not even the members of the editorial board knew what it was like in Sarajevo at that time.

“I carried this through my whole life. Three years ago I went back to Sarajevo, and to the Serbian part in that conflict where I refused to go before because the whole Russian press was there,“ she said. “I found out that Bosnia hadn’t moved far from the war. There is still hatred, misunderstandings between nationalities, ethnic groups, religious groups.“

For young women journalists in Russia today, Lagunina warns about sexism.

“Journalism in particular is very sexist, because television is dictating its standards,“ she said. “It’s hard to imagine that in the U.S. somebody would say to a female moderator of CNN, for example, that she is too old to appear on the screen. On the contrary the older the journalist, the more experience they have, the more credibility, the more trust they have from the audience. But in Russia it’s young, nice-looking girls.”

Her advice? “Think about yourself as a journalist, don’t think about yourself as a woman.“ And bring heavy equipment to any interview in countries with a sexist culture. “The less visible the equipment you have with you, the more [men] flirt,” she said. “So if you put a [piece of] equipment on the table and say, ‘Now, think before you answer,’ it usually helps.”

- Anna Shamanska