"If you spend all of your time being apathetic, one day they will knock on your door, grab your husband by the collar and in three days time throw him into [Ukraine] where he will be killed," said investigative reporter Roman Anin. "This is exactly the price that people pay for being indifferent toward their own fate and the fate of the country."
The Moldova-born Russia is one of this year's recipients of the Free Media Award from Germany's Zeit Foundation. And this is only the latest in the string of accolades and awards for the 36-year-old, who is a member of multiple international investigative networks, including the team behind the Panama Papers investigation.
In Russia, Anin's Important Stories (IStories.media) website first drew headlines in 2020 by looking into procurement of ventilation machines during the COVID pandemic. In the same year, they also published a report on one of the most sensitive topics in the country — apparent corruption linked to the family of President Vladimir Putin. Anin was forced to leave Russia the following year.
Speaking with DW in Hamburg, Anin said his audience in Russia is still keen to learn about high-level graft. "But as a whole, the Russian society cares little about this problem, it's been infected with apathy," he said.
Russia's corruption and 'colossal misery'
Anin himself shows no sign of apathy. He moved to Russia as a teenager, studied journalism in Moscow and in 2006 started working as a sports reporter with the Novaya Gazeta, a paper known for seeing several of its reporters killed under the Putin regime. In 2008, Anin was sent by Novaya Gazeta to cover the brief war between Russia and Georgia, when he joined the outlet's investigative unit.
That position allowed him to work on major stories including tax fraud uncovered by Sergei Magnitsky and corruption surrounding the 2014 Winter Olympics. But he also conducted investigations into people at the highest levels of the Putin regime, such as Putin's friend and billionaire cellist Sergey Roldugin and Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin. In a 2016, Anin wrote an article about Sechin's wife owning a yacht worth $100 million (€94 million). Sechin sued the paper for defamation and won.
Anin is aware that many people find it hard to understand the level of graft happening in the Russian elite.
"Russian society simply lives in colossal misery," he told DW's Andreas Brenner in Hamburg. Stories about Putin's castle or his friends' yachts mean little to rural people living "without flushing toilets in 18th century-like conditions."
This disconnect is "nothing to marvel at — even the war was only a concern for a few people until the mobilization started and they started detaining husbands and brothers, sending them to the front with no training, where they simply got killed," he added.
Peace in Ukraine as a starting point for Russia
Ending the Ukraine war would only be the first step in waking up Russian society, according to the reporter. He believes it would take decades of working with the populace to reform the country. And it would happen only after the death of Putin and the "collective Putin" — the clique gathered around the long-ruling Russian president.
"It's impossible to break this apathy under the Putin regime," said Anin. "All the truth about the war needs to be made public, so that the people would simply become aware what horror was happening during those 30 years, with them witnessing it in silence. And those horrors were committed with the unconditional approval of the people. And maybe after that Russia will have some chance to overcome this apathy and start living in a new way."
Anin was detained by Russian authorities in 2021, and had his Moscow home raided and many of his belongings seized. The official pretext was him being a potential witness in a case of privacy invasion. Colleagues at the Novaya Gazeta described it as a delayed payback for his 2016 Sechin story.
Both Anin and his outlet Important Stories were labeled "foreign agents." He is now continuing his investigative work from outside of Russia. Important Stories is still going strong, despite being officially "undesirable" under the Russian law — meaning it's illegal to repost their content or even like their posts online.
'Our task is to tell people what is really happening'
Anin said he is still able to reach his audience in Russia, as shown by the millions of YouTube views. And if all communication channels end up cut off, he said it would not be "the greatest tragedy among the tragedies of today."
"Our task is to tell people what is really happening, what the government is really like, what is actually happening in Ukraine, to tell them about this war being criminal, to tell them how the Russian authorities don't consider the lives of its own citizens and are simply sending hundreds of thousands to slaughter," he said.
"And the future of the people depends on the people themselves. If the people in Russia don't want to live differently, don't want to know the truth […] there is nothing we can do."
Commenting on the way Ukrainians and people of other nations view Russians in light of the war, Anin said he has never experienced distrust from his Ukrainian colleagues. But he also said he would not be insulted.
"Ukrainians and the world today have the right to point a finger at Russians, even the 'good Russians'," he said. "We will still be facing it for decades to come, just like Germans were facing it after 1945. Sorry, but we deserve it."
Edited by: Ben Knight