Yevgenia M. Albats is the editor-in-chief and CEO of the Russian publication The New Times and an associate of Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. She served as a Nieman fellow in 1993 and afterward received her master’s degree in Government and Ph.D. in Political Science at Harvard. Albats has taught at Yale University, Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
FM: What were your early experiences working as a journalist like?
YMA: It was still the Soviet Union, so there was no real journalism. I wanted to go to grad school, but because there were quotas on Jews, and I’m Jewish, I couldn’t get into them. So, I went into journalism rather by accident.
I went to work for a newspaper in the Russian Far North. I was writing feature stories about people living in rural Russia, on the bank of the White Sea. It was a good experience for a young reporter from Moscow to find out how people lived outside big cities.
When I was young, I used to travel a lot. I was not allowed to go outside the Soviet Union. Russian authorities didn’t allow that. But I traveled a lot around the country to the Far East, Sakhalin, Uzbekistan, Georgia, Ukraine, you know, you name it, all across the country. Just you know, backpack, and off I go.
I think for young journalists, it’s a great way to start working. Just go on the road, talk to people, listen to people. Try to understand how people live outside your bubble and your social strata and write about that.
FM: Can you tell me about a mentor you had as a young reporter?
YMA: No one really influenced me. You know, what you do when you’re getting into that line of work, you just read your predecessors, and you just learn from that. You cannot teach journalism really. You have to accept the ethics. But you have to just learn how to do that. It’s not like art, no. It’s just an everyday hard job.
FM: You’ve done a lot of very politically risky journalism. Could you tell me about a time you put yourself on the line for your work?
YMA: If you start thinking about how you’re putting yourself on the line, you’re never going to do a story. So no, I don’t think about this. I just follow my instincts and my interests.
I started covering the Soviet Union’s political police, the KGB, in 1986. It was still the Soviet Union. It wasn’t possible to cover the way journalists here in the United States cover the CIA or the NSA. It’s very difficult to cover secret powers.
But I just started writing about Stalinist interrogators. I was obsessed with the idea of bringing justice to those millions who perished in the Stalinist Gulags. So I was searching for these bloody monsters, for the interrogators of the NKVD, who tortured people and extracted false confessions.
FM: Can you tell me about your writing process? How do you begin writing a story?
YMA: I begin writing a story from hating. Even, you know, even the thought that I have to sit down and write makes me sick. I like research, I like being on assignment, I like talking to people, I like taking interviews, and then I hate writing. And then I hate I hate I hate and then I see that there is a deadline, and I have to write, and I do. And then somewhere in the middle, I feel like I’m flying.
And then I start loving this job. And by the end, and when I finish my piece, early in the morning, I feel perfect joy.
FM: Could you tell me a bit about your journey at the New Times?
YMA: The whole story of this magazine is quite amazing. It was founded in 1943 by Joseph Stalin. And it was another piece of Soviet propaganda, which was aimed predominantly at a readership outside the Soviet Union.
And then when the Soviet Union fell apart, it turned into a magazine of democratic ideas.
This magazine became very popular. We didn’t have control from any state or state-affiliated company. We had a private owner. And we didn’t report to anyone but to our readers. Pretty quickly, we were labeled as an anti-Putin magazine because of our investigations.
Several times there were attempts to close the magazine.
By 2017, I had to close the paper edition and go digital. It became impossible to make any money. Stands refused to sell us because they had problems with the Kremlin and distribution networks refused to distribute to us across the country because they had problems with local authorities, and so on.
And then we got the biggest fine ever in the history of the Russian media. I was fined at the amount of 23 million rubles, it came to $370,000. And people, my readers bailed me out.
When the war started on Feb. 24, 2022, five days into the war, the New Times was blocked by the Russian authorities, as was other independent media.
So now we keep writing. We have a very, very small staff. Reporters who worked in Russia experience a lot of problems. I was pronounced a foreign agent. It’s like an enemy of the people.
The absolute majority of independent journalists or pro-democratic journalists just left the country. We are all exiles.
FM: How has reporting from abroad changed the nature of your work?
YMA: I don’t do reporting per se, because I’m an editor now. But I have people sitting on the ground. And I tell them: I would like you to check this, this, and this. Just be very careful. And if you feel like you are going to endanger your well-being, just don’t do it. And so some of them do, some of them don’t. And then I read for what they send to me, and then I tell them that it’s total bullshit. It’s a bad job. They have to go back and do a better job. And that’s what you know, the job of the editor. You constantly tell people unpleasant stuff.
Listen, it’s not an art. That’s very important to understand. Journalism is not like writing a book or making a sculpture. It is an everyday job. And you need to know what kind of tools you need, you know how to ask questions. How to do fact-checking and all the standards.
FM: What is something you miss about living in Moscow?
YMA: When you get to a place and can say this is home, the streets around my house. I like to walk around.
But most importantly, my books.
I have one of the best political science libraries in the city, in Moscow. And I can find the book when there are no lights during the night. I know exactly where it is. And sometimes when I’m writing something here, and I say, I need this quote and this quote. I know this book.
FM: In your talk at the Davis Center, you spoke very passionately about the need for greater U.S. involvement in Ukraine. Could you take a little more about that?
YMA: Yes, American involvement in the war in Ukraine is absolutely crucial for the success of this war. Just yesterday, this new temporal budget, which was passed by the House of Representatives, didn’t include either Ukraine nor Israel. President Biden requested $60 billion for Ukraine and $40 billion for Israel.
Ukraine won’t be able to sustain this war without American help. Europe is trying to help Ukraine, but the United States of America was the major supporter in this war against the nowadays Hitler — I mean Putin by saying ‘nowadays Hitler.’
Putin is destroying infrastructure in Ukraine on a daily basis. Ukraine needs money to rebuild this infrastructure so people can live there.
Before the war, there were 44 million people. Now there are 27 million people left. We are facing de-population of Ukraine. And I think that many people in the West, who understand the nature of the current Russian politics and the nature of the current regime, they do understand that if Putin manages to win this war in Ukraine, he’s not going to stop. Putin is obsessed with the idea of reinstating the Russian Empire. Finland, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia — they will be next. To be honest with you, I’m just terrified by listening to these disputes and in the House of Representatives, and then keep asking myself: How is it possible that in the U.S. Congress, people can be so irresponsible?
FM: What are you reading right now?
YMA: I’m always reading several books. I am listening to the third volume of Kotkin’s “Stalin.” I’m reading Rubenstein’s “The People of Nowhere.”
FM: What advice would you give to young journalists looking to get into this line of work?
YMA: It is the best job in the world. To be a journalist is the best job in the world. You need to be curious. You need to learn how to listen to people. That’s very important. You have to follow the rules of the profession: one source is nothing. People can say all kinds of things. That’s precisely our job: listen, and then check. You never can rely on one source. You need two or three sources. You have to be prepared for any story. You have to read a lot. Basically, you need to learn to know more than the people who are going to ask questions. Those are the rules of the game.
FM: Do you have a favorite memory from your time as a student at Harvard?
YMA: You know, I was a grad student, and I already had a kid, so it wasn’t easy. And I had to work. But I loved studying at Harvard. I had great professors. I took great classes, I was fresh from the Soviet Union. There was no political science in the Soviet Union; there was no sociology in the Soviet Union. When I first got to the Widener Library at that time, underground level D was the Russian section.
And I looked at those bookshelves, with books in Russian published before the revolution of 1917, and after. Books which were forbidden by the Soviet Union. Books, which were published in what was publishing houses outside the Soviet Union, and books which were published underground.
But I looked at these bookshelves and I told myself: I need my sleeping bag here. And please leave me alone for a couple of weeks. I can live here. It was my most beloved part of Harvard.
FM: What’s your favorite library at Harvard?
YMA: Widener Library. It used to be Level D. It’s a form of escapism. I like to be surrounded by books. And you know, the books, they’re great because they don’t talk to you. Like dogs. You know, they don’t talk to you, don’t ask questions. They allow you to think. You communicate with your mind. It’s amazing.
FM: Can you tell me about a book that you found there that has stuck with you?
YMA: No, I cannot tell you that, there are hundreds of them.
FM: What do you want people to take away from your body of work as a whole?
YMA: Journalism is very much about justice. The lives of many people across the globe are miserable. In many countries, people are suffering because of their cruel leaders, because of injustice, because of poverty, because of absence of normal medical help. Our job is to tell their stories. To remind the world that for many people on this planet, life is very difficult. I think it’s a normal thing to care about our fellow human beings, regardless whether they live and die in Sudan, or they live in Israel, or they live in Nairobi, Kenya.
FM: What is something you like to do for fun?
YMA: I like travel. That’s what I love more than anything else. Get me to a totally new place.
Travel is my understanding of happiness. I like to fly somewhere where no one knows me. And start walking around the place and then go to the other places, speak to people, stop by some pub, talk to people there.
That’s what I love the most. To be on the road.
— Magazine writer Hannah W. Duane can be reached at email@example.com.