Anton Dolin is one of the most prominent Russian journalists to have fled abroad since the beginning of Russia's war in Ukraine. We spoke to him about life in exile and reaching his audience back home.
When Anton Dolin started receiving anonymous threats on Facebook in the days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he decided to take his family to Latvia's capital city Riga – initially just for a couple of weeks.
Overnight, Dolin lost his status as one of Russia's pre-eminent cultural journalists and all the privileges that came with it. He also gave up his job as editor-in-chief of Europe's oldest film magazine Iskusstvo Kino.
Currently, the 47-year-old travels extensively giving lectures and movie screenings, producing videos for his YouTube channel and writing film reviews and festival reports for independent news site Meduza. In this interview, Dolin opens up about having 'foreign agent' status, his newest book and being an "eternal fugitive".
Exile journalism is also a topic of one of the DW Global Media Forum 2023 panel discussions on June 19, 2023.
DW: How are you feeling now compared to when you arrived in Riga over a year ago? What has changed? What's the same?
Anton Dolin: Everything and nothing. Nothing, because the war is still here. Everything, because last October I became a 'foreign agent.' This means a number of things: Number one: I cannot earn money in Russia or pay money in Russia. I froze all of my accounts in Russia because anybody receiving money from me could get in trouble or even get proclaimed a 'foreign agent' themselves.
Number two: Normally, I have to write: 'This material is produced by foreign agent Anton Dolin.' And many people do this. But I refuse to put the disclaimer on my social network. It means I can potentially end up in prison or my apartment could get seized.
Number three: I used to earn a lot of money by giving lectures in Russia. But now it's no longer possible, not even via Zoom or Skype.
Number four: Very few advertisers are still willing to collaborate with my YouTube channel. You can still buy my books in bookshops in Russia, but they are labeled 'foreign agent'.
DW: In January, your employer Meduza was labeled an ‘undesirable organization,’ a sanction which puts its staff and donors at risk of significant jail time. How did that affect your work?
Dolin: It's much, much worse than the 'foreign agent' status. If I were to step on Russian soil now, I could go to prison for four years just for the fact that I published an article with Meduza about John Wick 4. Being part of an 'undesirable organization' was one of the accusations against Kremlin critic Vladimir Kara-Murza. He was sentenced to 25 years in jail last month.
DW: Last fall, the Latvian government tightened its immigration law to "strengthen national security," which has made it harder for Russian and Belarusian citizens to obtain temporary residence permits and employment. What are some of the challenges you've been facing as a Russian citizen in Latvian exile?
Dolin: My family and I have long-stay visas, which were just extended for another year. I have a work permit, but my wife and my older son cannot earn money here officially. And I can work only for Meduza.
The biggest problem for me psychologically is the situation in Ukraine, however. I'm trying not to pity myself and my family too much. We are together and we are surviving. I can still watch films and work in my profession, and my global audience is growing. So I have good hopes for myself and for my family. But not for Russia and not for the situation in Europe in general.
DW: You recently published a book titled 'Act of disobedience' about award-winning Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, who in April left Iran for the first time in 14 years. How did that come about?
Dolin: When I escaped Russia last year, I was wondering whether cinema is capable of resisting politically. Because I know that literature and music can. But for movies, you need many people as well as permission to shoot and show the film. That's a problem. And Panahi is the living example of cinema resistance.
I've been thinking about him for years. We don't have such a figure in Russian cinema. Jafar Panahi is unique in the world. The French Cinematheque has this program for scholars who lost their home and possibility to work because of the war. They gave me money and access to their library and funds. So I went to France for three months, worked on a book, finished it, and when I returned to Riga, I found a local bookstore selling Russian-language books, including some of mine, that agreed to sell it.
While working on the book, I was in touch with Panahi's family, who consulted me. I hope I will be able to offer him a book finally in a few months.
DW: How do you reach your audience in Russia and which topics do you cover with your YouTube videos?
Dolin: Since YouTube is still available in Russia, many people watch it there without a VPN. Maybe because the Russian government considers YouTube as an important channel for their propaganda and information. But it can be closed any day, like they already did with Instagram and Facebook. The comments I get are usually very positive, along the lines of 'Thank you for doing this here in Russia. It really gives us a breath of fresh air.' The majority of my viewers are still in Russia.
I'm always looking for new forms of resistance via film journalism. I did a big show just about LGBT cinema when this new, totally fascistic law was introduced banning any LGBT activity in Russia. I also did a special show comparing Russian propaganda films and Ukrainian films about the war. At the moment, I'm preparing an episode about films talking about dictatorships and dictators.
I don't feel forced to add something about the war in every video, because I know already that many people in Ukraine find some kind of consolation in my shows. When I show my stance clearly from time to time, I don't have to lose my position as a film reviewer and film critic for the sake of being a political activist and political speaker.
DW: Do you see yourself and your family living in Latvia long-term?
Dolin: I consider it a possibility. But now I'm getting Israeli citizenship. Living in Israel, getting a school for my son, earning money there – a solid backup plan is really important for me right now, especially psychologically. The country where I was born doesn't want me anymore. Every Jewish person is an eternal fugitive, but at least in Israel I'd belong to a larger community of fugitives.