This article is part of our Women and Leadership special report that profiles women leading the way on climate, politics, business and more.
In Russia, where men far outnumber women in political clout, defiant females might seem to stand little chance of making themselves heard.
But don’t tell that to Galina Timchenko, a prominent Russian journalist, chief executive of the alternative news site Meduza and recipient of the 2022 Gwen Ifill Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists. Ms. Timchenko has spent more than 20 years battling attacks on free speech by President Vladimir V. Putin and his Kremlin allies.
Like many activists worldwide, Ms. Timchenko and her colleagues at Meduza are growing ever more adept at combining new technology and old-fashioned shoe leather to report on their country without censorship.
“In 2021, when the authorities labeled us ‘foreign agent,’ we understood that’s just the beginning of a major attack, and started preparing for the worst,’’ Ms. Timchenko said in a video conversation.
When Russian troops invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, and the Meduza website was blocked in Russia, “we already had eight platforms: two email newsletters, a Telegram channel, Facebook page, podcast, YouTube, TikTok, Instagram. And the most important thing was that we upgraded our mobile application with built-in mechanisms of bypassing blocking. We even launched a promo campaign, “‘Download our mobile app before it’s too late!’”
Ms. Timchenko founded Meduza after being fired as chief editor of Lenta.ru, a major Russian news portal, in 2014, the year of Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
She put the newsroom and herself out of Mr. Putin’s reach in Riga, the capital of Russia’s small Baltic neighbor Latvia.
Back then she had lined up financing within a week. But now, in 2023, maintaining investments is difficult, she said, as Russians who support Meduza could face prison.
“Russian propaganda has enormous financial sources, and what do we have really?” she asked. “A little crowdfunding campaign by people of good will around the world, and some support from international organizations. And the Kremlin has billions of dollars to hire people and to spread this disinformation.”
Being pronounced “foreign agents” has made it even more difficult for reporters to get sources to talk to them, she said. And when they do, many of their sources speak only on the condition of anonymity.
Even covering Ukraine has been a challenge. Once, she said, they had their own correspondents. Now, after war erupted, they have only freelancers, as Ukraine requires Russian nationals to have visas issued in Russia, and reporters, facing up to 10 years in prison under censorship laws, are loathe to return there.
Even without the wartime restrictions and ongoing censorship, reporting in Russia is difficult for women. Men in Russia’s masculine media world, she said, can go to a sauna, drink vodka and cut backroom deals. “It’s impossible to invite me to a sauna,” she chuckled.
She was able to get around the limitations, she said, by being “absolutely inflexible.” There were, she said, “no concessions with all these Kremlin Men.”
Still, she recalled a 2010 media conference. “All major newspapers and internet resources were headed by women: Forbes, Vedomosti, even the state-owned RIA Novosti, New Times, Lenta.
“That was one of the greatest moments of Russian media history.” All of those women have since been fired, she said. “They shot us one by one.”
Was there something in a Soviet upbringing that made women particularly suited to this kind of work?
“I hate to say this, but there were more rights for women in the Soviet Union than after the Soviet Union,” she said. “The usual phrase you heard in the Soviet school was: ‘You are a girl, you take responsibility!’ All representatives in student bodies were girls. And after perestroika everything changed: Girls became dolls.”
Ms. Timchenko, 60, the daughter of a prominent Moscow doctor, surprised her family by quitting medical studies right before graduation. She has a daughter and a grandson. She spends her days, she said, dealing with “meetings and documents, documents and meetings,” referring to paperwork. In the evening, she works with numbers, she said, “because I’m very fond of stats and analytics.”
“And now we are actually in the process of relocation of part of our team.”
At the war’s start, she said, 25 staff members and their families were evacuated from Moscow. “So now we want to relocate them to Berlin, around 10 people, and partly to Amsterdam, around six to eight people,” she said.
“We realized you cannot count on just one single government, and Latvia is in a very difficult position toward Russia. So we decided to spread Meduza subsidiaries all across Europe. It will be Riga, Berlin and Amsterdam. Yes, newsrooms will be in all three places so if one of them is under attack, the others should continue.”
The site has news, analyses, features and blogs. Its daily Ukraine coverage is headlined War, an obvious rebuttal to the Kremlin’s insistence that the invasion is merely a “special military operation.” Its podcast is “The Naked Pravda.” It advertises itself as “The Real Russia. Today.”
Ms. Timchenko does of course have her critics. The head of the official League for a Safe Internet, Ekaterina Mizulina said that despite being banned and blocked, Meduza keeps on disseminating “disinformation and outright lies” about Russia.
But Kirill Rogov, a prominent Russian political expert now in exile and director of an online project Re: Russia, told The New York Times: “I think one of Russia’s major problems is that media managers like Galina Timchenko don’t become politicians.”
Ms. Timchenko is not optimistic that the war will end soon. She recently gave a phone interview to Evgenia Albats, another prominent Russian journalist living in exile. “And she said: ‘So, Galya, let’s meet next year in Moscow!’ I said: ‘No way. Be prepared for a very long winter.’ ”
“My feeling is that these guys,” she said, meaning Mr. Putin and his allies, “they stole our past.” People can no longer “spend nights with our friends, discussing something, singing, drinking and having fun.
“Now we are representatives of an aggressor country,” she said. “So we are like German people in the 1940s.”
Meduza reports that it has more than 10 million unique web visitors, the majority of whom are readers younger than 45.
“They are those who will live after Putin,” she said. “To think that I have potentially 25 million politically motivated people who could be our ambassadors, our evangelists and our interpreters to connect with other people.”
Above all, she said, her goal is “absolute freedom of information. I just want all the sources, all the media, on all the platforms to be unblocked.
“Even if everything is open, it’s not guaranteed that people will understand everything, or will share our views.”
But, she said, “I hate these bans on spreading information, news and so on. I want Russian internet to be unblocked, information to flow freely and without any censorship.”