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Under Putin's media crackdown, Russian journalists flee to Turkey

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, HOST:

Istanbul, Turkey, is one of the cities now hosting Russians who have fled their country since the start of the invasion of Ukraine. Sanctions are squeezing the Russian economy, and there's been a crackdown on Russians opposed to the war. Those fleeing include journalists and academics who've gone to Armenia, Georgia and other countries that don't require them to have a visa. NPR's Peter Kenyon met two Russian journalists in Istanbul. Their news channel, facing pressure from authorities, suspended its operations earlier this month, and they left quickly.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: TV Rain was one of the few remaining independent outlets that called Russia's invasion of Ukraine what it was angering a government that was threatening journalists with up to 15 years in prison for reporting, quote, "fake news" about what Moscow calls its special military operation. Now the channel is off-air, staff and journalists escaping to wherever they can.

Thirty-two-year-old Dmitry Varlamov taps an unlit cigarette in an Istanbul cafe as he recalls finishing the evening news earlier this month when a security guard told them he'd received a call saying special police forces were heading toward the station. He and his colleagues ran down to the street, where they decided to get out of the country. Varlamov ran to a nearby friend's house with no idea how he'd get out.

DMITRY VARLAMOV: So at the moment, I was really scared. Maybe I even panicked. Yes. I'm - barely could spoke. I cannot properly express my thoughts. So my good friends, they bought me a ticket, opened their notebook and bought me a ticket. Took a taxi to my home. I have maybe 20 minutes to grab my things, take a shower, the last shower in Moscow. Then I went to the airport.

KENYON: Twenty-seven-year-old Sonya Groysman found her career interrupted that night as well. She had only recently returned to TV Rain after another outlet she worked for was declared undesirable, and she was labeled a foreign agent, a designation that brings intense scrutiny from security agencies. Groysman says she was in that group with Varlamov huddled on the street.

SONYA GROYSMAN: That night, I took my - I don't know - 10-kilogram suitcase, packed all my life in it. And I realized that it may be the last day for I don't know how much time when I sold my lovely apartment. But it's worth it. I believe that everything we did, worth it. And now we can continue what we did before.

KENYON: Since last summer, Groysman has been hosting a podcast called "Hi, You're A Foreign Agent," and says TV Rain's journalism will continue as well. She says there are theories about why Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine. Some think he's read too much propaganda, but she says maybe there's a simpler explanation.

GROYSMAN: But maybe the most obvious reason is just he trying to keep his power to close country, to shut up all the independent voices. Russia is turning to the most hated country in the world.

KENYON: They haven't given up on returning, but Varlamov says even if he did go back and wasn't arrested, he doesn't think he can work as a journalist in Russia right now. Besides, he says, he covered the Russian economy, which is under heavy pressure from international sanctions. He wonders if this will be Putin's legacy.

VARLAMOV: I think that Putin just destroyed everyone's hope. He destroyed careers, a lot of people's businesses. And I'm talking about Russia. And in Ukraine, he destroyed lives.

KENYON: Dmitri Varlamov and Sonya Groysman, two of the tens of thousands of Russians fleeing to nearby countries - in their case, with hopes that they'll be able to find a way to resume informing Russians about their country's invasion of Ukraine. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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