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‘I Won’t Be Quiet’: Current Time Editor Yelizaveta Surnacheva On Russia's ‘Foreign Agent’ Label

Current Time editor Yelizaveta Surnacheva
Current Time editor Yelizaveta Surnacheva

Hours after Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov, editor-in-chief of the independent daily Novaya Gazeta, became a co-recipient of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize, Russia’s Justice Ministry on October 8 registered two journalists who work for Current Time as “foreign agents.” The ministry has not elaborated about its reasons.

Current Time’s Kyiv-based editor Yelizaveta Surnacheva and freelance journalist Roman Perl are among five journalists connected with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Current Time’s parent organization, whom the Justice Ministry included on October 8 in its “foreign agent” registry.

Tatyana Voltskaya, Yekaterina Klepikovskaya, and Yelena Solovyova all work for RFE/RL’s Russian Service and its North.Realities department. Both Current Time and RFE/RL already are designated as “foreign agents.”

Also included in the registry’s October 8 update were Daniil Sotkin from the independent TV news broadcaster Dozhd (TV Rain) and Andrei Zakharov, a reporter for the BBC’s Russian Service. Two non-journalists who challenge Russia’s status quo also received the label: media-rights attorney Galina Arapova; and eco-activist Yevgeny Simonov.

Under a 2017 law, media organizations or journalists, like other entities recognized as “foreign agents,” must identify their content as that of a “foreign agent” and submit to financial audits by the government. The label, applied to 85 media outlets and journalists to date, assumes foreign financial support for political activities.

RFE/RL Director Jamie Fly charged on October 8 that the “foreign agent” designations for RFE/RL’s Russian Service and Current Time collaborators are “just the latest attempt to silence independent media in Russia.”

“We will continue to fight this absurd use of the 'foreign agent' law to control the information that the Russian people can access and engage with,” Fly said. “Our commitment to serving our audiences in Russia will not waver."

RFE/RL has refused to pay fines associated with the “foreign agent” designation and is currently challenging the status’ legality before the European Court of Human Rights.

In a July 16, 2021 interview with the Russian daily Kommersant, Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov asserted, however, that the “foreign agent” label for media is not akin to banning their work.

We spoke with Current Time editor Yelizaveta Surnacheva on October 8 about her own reaction to being designated a “foreign agent":


-First of all, I don’t agree with the very existence of such a law that allows individuals, mass media, non-profit organizations to be recognized as “foreign agents.” I believe that this just should not exist in the civilized world.

Second of all, even if we accept that some kind of similar law exists, it should be aimed, based on any human logic, at catching spies; at those who are really working on foreign money to undermine the state and all the rest of it. I’m not either one of these people.

-What do you intend to do now?

-To start with, I’ll talk with lawyers, I’ll talk with former and current colleagues who already have been designated with this status. I’ll find out what needs to be done, what threatens me, and what I need to work on. And, depending on that, I’ll take further steps.

-Do you agree with the assertion of Russian presidential press secretary Dmitry Peskov that, in his opinion, the “foreign agent” status doesn’t interfere with the work of a journalist?

-No, of course not. This is total nonsense. If Dmitry [Peskov] believes this, I would advise him to acquire this status himself; to voluntarily hang this [“foreign agent’] sign on himself and see how much it will interfere with his life; how much he’ll like giving an account of himself to people about each of his purchases, about each pair of pantyhose, or whatever Dmitry Peskov likes to buy.

-Do you know someone personally out of those who were included in the list of media “foreign agents” today?

-I know a lot of the people who were recognized as “foreign agents” both earlier and today. There are also my former colleagues: like, for example, Andrei Zakharov, who now works for the BBC. We worked together briefly in Proyekt (The Project; a now-shuttered media outlet that investigated alleged wrongdoing among senior Russian officials – CT) and also together at the BBC. I know Daniil Sotnikov. We also worked together at Proyekt and at Dozhd (TV Rain). And I can say that these are wonderful journalists, honest people, and that, of course, they should not have any such status like this.

—What do you think, why did you all end up in this list?

-To be honest, I don’t have the slightest guess because we still do not know the clear rationale for a single one of the decisions about those listed as a “foreign agent.” No one explains anything. No one alerts people themselves about why they are recognized as “foreign agents.” Mass media doesn’t alert [them].

I just don’t know how these people [in the Justice Ministry] work. I don’t understand what they physically do.

Do they Google me and look for “Yelizaveta Surnacheva, foreign financing”? Or do they just Google everyone who, for instance, was linked with Proyekt?

“So, who else worked at Proyekt? Oh, Danya Sotnikov, definitely. We forgot about him. And a year and a half ago, Yelizaveta Surnacheva worked there. We forgot her for sure.”

They probably act somehow like this.

Or they look at some kind of statutory documents, although I wasn’t named in any statutory documents.

Or they just have some kind of secret list of enemies of the people, which we don’t know about, and they’re just gradually recognizing people from this list [as “foreign agents”]. They prepare documents for 10 people, and then for another 10, and recognize however many more people [as “foreign agents”]. I don’t know how this works.

Many of those who were recognized as “foreign agents” nonetheless remained in Russia and continue to work in Russia. And the outlets that were recognized as “foreign agents,” including the outlet where we’re now located, continue to broadcast on Russian territory and to work in Russia.

So, yes, this is getting complicated, but it’s not completely restricting this activity.

I think that, in reality, for the people who take such decisions, it doesn’t matter where I’ll be located.

They need this terrifying [“foreign agent”] sign to be everywhere. They need the overall mass of people to understand that “Aye, yai, yai, yai, this is forbidden!” That it’s not possible to say anything, in general, aside from “Putin is great and let him rule forever.” And this is their global aim. And it already doesn’t make a difference whether I’ll be quiet in Russia or be quiet abroad.

But I won’t be quiet.