DW's Vladimir Esipov explores 'The Russian Tragedy' in new book | DW's international conference: Global Media Forum. | DW | 12.04.2024
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DW's Vladimir Esipov explores 'The Russian Tragedy' in new book

As Vladimir Putin starts his fifth term in office after what is widely regarded a staged election, DW's Vladimir Esipov publishes his first book detailing how Russia has slowly been embracing authoritarianism since 1991.

DW: Vladimir, your new book is titled "Die russische Tragödie," which translates as "The Russian Tragedy." That evocative title sounds pretty self-explanatory in many ways, but can you perhaps tell us more about what the book is all about?

Esipov: My book deals with the last 30 years of Russian history, and looks at the transformation of Russian society from the collapse of the Soviet Union to today, where we find ourselves waging a war against Ukraine. It started off purely as an analysis on the limitations on press freedom in Russia today but grew into something much bigger.

But you can also say that the book is my way to try to overcome my Post-traumatic stress syndrome from the last two years.

What has changed for you in the past two years, since the invasion of Ukraine first started?

I've spent my whole professional life working as a news journalist. I've covered some big events and huge human tragedies, like the hostage-taking in Moscow at the Dubrovka Theatre in 2002 or the Kursk nuclear submarine disaster in 2000. At every point in my career, I was always able to keep a distance to what I was witnessing around me, and so I was able to stay calm and control myself.

Book cover of A Russian Tragedy by Vladimir Esipov

Esipov's book exlains the events that led to Russia's war on Ukraine 

Then two years ago, overnight, Russia — my country — started to bomb Ukraine, and I really struggled to cope with this surreal situation. Suddenly, I was just not able to control myself. I started to have breakdowns, especially in the first weeks and months. I barely recognized myself in the way I reacted to this war.

I had a breakdown live on air. Then I started having nightmares, I developed a sleep disorder. Now I wake up to check the news at 4 am every morning. I just can't help myself. 

So this is a completely new situation for me, not only professionally but mentally as well. Basically, there's no normality in my life anymore. Normality is gone.

What are some of the more disturbing stories that have impacted you since the war began?

It's usually not something big and disastrous but rather the more intimate stories I hear. At the beginning of the war, I often spoke to my friends in Kyiv and in other places in Ukraine to hear their stories before they also left the country. They told me a lot about the air raids and bombs there, and how that had become normal for them. 

It is just strange to know that missiles flying over your city is normal. That should not be normal. One friend told me last year, for example, that it's actually a 'good' thing to hear the Russian missile rockets flying overhead, because it means that as long as they're flying they won't fall on your head, and that you're safe — more or less.

So I am now used to listening to stories like that all the time, and that's a complete contradiction to what I see in front of my eyes here while living in Germany, where life is beautiful. The sun is shining, people are happy, everything is fine. 

But in my mind, it's a completely different story.

We hear a lot of compelling narratives coming out of Ukraine, but there are also many narratives from Russia which influence the views of many people about this war. The vast majority of that, however, is part of Russia's misinformation campaign. How should we deal with this kind of propaganda that is coming out of Moscow? 

Russia's influence on information is quite sophisticated, because you can't always identify it for what it is, and it's not just their troll factories we're talking about here. Through social media, through Facebook, Instagram and many other channels, they're spreading their ideas quite effectively, actually — even in Western populations, in Africa, in Latin America. 

They even have this thing called 'Hahaganda' where they spread misinformation through jokes and memes, and they even make fun of themselves; and then they plant just a little bit of Putin's narrative on top of this — enough for some people to take their side. And this is not always identifiable as an obvious misinformation campaign. Meanwhile, we're being bombarded with this kind of content every single second.

What this means in simple terms is that they're very professional in turning people against each other and creating more polarization with everything they produce. That's Russia's strategy, and we're all still sleepwalking into this. We have to wake up and realize that what's going on right now is going to decide our future for generations to come. 

Vladimir Esipov appearing on the DW TV magazine format 'To The Point' on June 15, 2023

Vladimir Esipov believes that the only way to combat Russia's false narratives is by focusing on solid, objective reporting

That's why our responsibility in this historic moment is huge: Every single Instagram post is an investment in our democratic future. This is why we as journalists must be very professional about our journalistic products, and try to reach more people, more hearts and minds, in defense of a free society. But when I look online, I realize just how much we really are in a big crisis as a society, and that's exactly what's keeping me up at night.

What is one thing you find people are not thinking about enough when reporting about the war? Two years into the war, is there any particular narrative you find is missing in all this?

We have to think not only of what Ukraine is going to look like after this war ends. I also am thinking of Russian society, and what it will look there after the war. Because I am still a Russian citizen, and I am still very concerned about my country as well, and how it will overcome this war as a society, as a nation. 

Because as soon as this war ends, Russia will have a lot of very big questions to answer to.

Vladimir Esipov has been working as an editor for DW Russian Service since 2016. Born in St. Petersburg in 1974, he has experienced the cultural upheavals in his country first-hand, including the increasing limits placed on freedom of the press. 

In his new book, "Die russische Tragödie" [The Russian Tragedy], published by Germany's Heyne Verlag German, Esipov reflects on the shifts that have defined Russia over the last 30 years. 

Introducing the DW Global Media Forum

Sertan Sanderson conducted this interview for the DW Global Media Forum.

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