Russian journalists in exile feel caught between old and new lives | Space for Freedom | DW | 01.08.2023
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Space for Freedom

Russian journalists in exile feel caught between old and new lives

In conflict zones, journalists risk their lives to work. In doing so, many are compelled to leave their native countries. Recognizing their psychological challenges is just as crucial as ensuring their physical safety.

Exiljournalisten | Help needed

Latvia has become residence to many Russian journalists who felt compelled to leave their homeland, particularly if they wanted to continue working. Some say that mental health services could help them and others navigate a new life in exile.

Sabine Sile, a board member of DW Akademie's partner organization, Media Hub Riga, has had extensive experience with journalists forced to leave their native country. And through the DW Akademie program "Space for Freedom,"which supports journalists under threat in their countries, she has had the opportunity to observe what troubles journalists in exile and what could help them adjust and continue working.

"The exiled journalists' identity crisis is real," she said. "These people have to deal with many things, starting with the backlash for doing their work and ending with the fear of a potential nuclear war. They have become despised in their countries, and even worse - their closest connections often label them traitors. We've even seen cases where relatives told our fellows that they are no longer part of their family."

She notes how difficult it is to start completely from scratch in an unfamiliar country when one is identified as a representative of a terrorist state. Younger journalists, she added, seem particularly traumatized, in part because they may not have completed their studies.

Much more than PTSD

"The evident plight of these individuals necessitates our collective assistance to alleviate their suffering," Sile concluded.

Various recent studies examining Ukrainian and Russian exile journalists and journalists who continued to work in their countries demonstrate high symptomatology for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression.

"There was much more than PTSD," said Dr. Tarass Ivaschenko, a psychotherapist in Estonia who has worked with journalists in exile. "I've witnessed the phenomenon of so-called 'social death,' or the prolonged absence of one's typical social connections — as well as adaptability, insomnia, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive thinking. Focus group participants have also reported having difficulties in 'digesting' the large amount and intensity of information. The stress of learning a new language and culture and dealing with feelings of isolation can be overwhelming.

Exiljournalisten | Taras Ivascenko

Tarass Ivaschenko, a psychotherapist who has worked with journalists in exile, says he has witnessed "so-called 'social death,' or the prolonged absence of one's typical social connections — as well as adaptability, insomnia, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive thinking."

Journalist Mikhail B, a Russian journalist who fled his country in 2022, can recall the emotional suffering on the journey to his new life in Estonia.

"The discomfort developed during the beginning of my emigration keeps causing an extreme degree of uncertainty….it's like having lost a house, (and) it is almost impossible to find it fully in a new place," he said. He has no idea where he will be in six months or in a year from now, and he likens his existence to "living on a volcano," he said.

Russia considers the newspaper that employs Mikhail B a foreign agent.

Vital community support

"Exile disturbs every facet of your existence," he continued. "I am talking about a disorganized career, money and legal problems, culture shock, and many other integration challenges. And being a journalist, which is by nature stressful, adds to all of that. And as we all keep writing about the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, we go through the never-ending 'trauma of the witness.' Journalists today encounter very distinct psychological obstacles."

Psychological support and over the long-term, he said, is critical for journalists like him. And therapists with Russian roots themselves, he said, would be even more beneficial.

Russian TV producer Anna K, agreed with Mikhail, noting that community support is vital to recovery.

"I have frequent conversations with colleagues who have fled Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, she said. "Over the course of my time here, I made a lot of new acquaintances, and even made friends. Media Hub Riga's personnel was incredibly helpful, both legally and in terms of adjusting to a new environment. People who are going through similar situations bond closely together. Now, more than ever, it's crucial for people to reach out to one another, make connections, and rally together to overcome hardship."

Exiljournalisten | Sabine Sile, Media Hub Riga

Sabine Sile of Media Hub Riga believes community support is vital to journalists working in exile, and that affordable mental health services could be expanded to address a growing need.

Preventative measures

So, will the journalists be able to acquire all the aid they need, and what choices do they have right now? Sile has some ideas.

"We concentrate on preventative measures, and we provide additional therapy sessions with mental health professionals to people who we see are close to giving up," she said."We have had to raise the budget for this project many times throughout the year since we did not expect such a high level of demand."

Media Hub Riga, she added, has developed intensive recovery programs that not only give exiles time to rest, but also offer training and strategies that can support them before they burn out, allowing them to continue working and living a full and healthy life despite their circumstances.


DW Akademie is conducting the Space for Freedom project as a network partner of the German government's Hannah Arendt Initiative. Through this initiative, the Federal Foreign Office and the Federal Commissioner for Culture and Media are supporting journalists, media workers and defenders of freedom of expression in crisis and conflict areas, as well as those living in exile. 

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