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Elena Kostyuchenko's 'I Love Russia' is a memoir about being a journalist in the country


Elena Kostyuchenko is a great reporter who cannot do the work she loves in the country she cares for. She's covered the Russian military in Crimea and other parts of Ukraine, and in hospitals, stifling bureaucrats and the aftermath of the storming of the school in Beslan in 2004 and finally the intrepid staff of her own lone newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, before it was forced to cease publication in Russia last year. She's written a memoir, "I Love Russia: Reporting From A Lost Country." And Elena Kostyuchenko joins us now. Thank you so much for being with us.

ELENA KOSTYUCHENKO: Thank you so much for having me here.

SIMON: Memoirs are invitations to look back. You grew up watching and reading a lot of Soviet and Russian state-run media. Why did you want to be a reporter?

KOSTYUCHENKO: Well, I decided that I would be a reporter, then I fortunately read Anna Politkovskaya's article. Anna Politkovskaya is a great journalist of Novaya Gazeta who's been murdered in 2006. I was 14. I was living in Yaroslavl, and I thought that I know what's happening in my country. But when I read her article about cleansing of Chechen village by Russian soldiers, I was shocked because what she wrote there - it was completely out of the picture of what I had in my head. And then I went to library and started to read everything what she wrote. And I got even more shocked. It appeared that television lied to me. Television lied to everyone, and everyone believes it. So I got very angry first at Novaya Gazeta, who's published this article because, like, I lost the common truth I had, but then I decided that I want to join them, so I did.

SIMON: Did you have fun as a reporter?

KOSTYUCHENKO: Oh, yes, all the time. I really love my work. Actually, I still have problems to believe that it's, like, paid work. We see different places. We meet different people. We try to understand the reality as deep as we can.

SIMON: You did a story once where you tried to help a widow recover the body of her husband, a Russian soldier who was killed in the battle for the Donetsk airport in 2014. Why was that so difficult?

KOSTYUCHENKO: Yes, it was because Russian authorities denied and keep denying that Russian soldiers did participate in Donbas War. So basically, the first truck with first bodies of dead Russian soldiers, when it was sent back to Russia, it, like, disappeared right after crossing the border. And while I was looking for it, I met a woman. Her name was Yana (ph). She was looking for her husband, who was sent to Donbas and then disappeared. And we started to look his body together. Finally we found it's being kept in the morgue in the military base. But when we found it and they promised to give it to her, they said that she cannot open the coffin. And then they learned that I was helping her, and they said that for communicating the - with me, they won't give her this body at all.

SIMON: What was it like to be LGBTQ in Russia?

KOSTYUCHENKO: It's hard, and it's getting harder and harder. Like, when I became an LGBTQ activist, there was still a space - at least I believe there were still a space for communicating with the authorities. We were asking for rights out loud. We did some street actions and educative work. And then in 2013, our parliament applied the new law, its anti-gay propaganda law. Basically, this law says that we are socially unequal to the others. And I believe this is, first, clearly fascist formula, what we had in our Russian legislation.

SIMON: I have to ask you about the important reporting you did after the siege of the school in Beslan 2004, a horrifying story - a thousand hostages herded into a gymnasium rigged with explosives. More than 300 people died, most of them children. But what did you discover about the actions of the Russian forces?

KOSTYUCHENKO: Well, it wasn't my discovery. It was discovery of Novaya Gazeta, who started to work there since the very first day of hostage crisis. And what we discovered is that the main goal of the storm wasn't to save hostages. The main goal of the storm was to destroy terrorists. And they did, but the price was enormous. And actually, I believe that this was the turning point of Russian history, because after that, Putin understood that he can do whatever he wants. He can shoot at a school full of children, and nothing's going to happen with him. Right after Beslan, Putin stopped playing democracy.

SIMON: You are outside of Russia now. Are you worried for your safety?

KOSTYUCHENKO: So I believe I have to, because I had some security issues when I was working in Ukraine. My colleague told me that Chechen military forces who were participating in fight for Mariupol had information on me and were expecting on me in the moment when I was about to take this road to Mariupol. And they expected for me not to arrest me, but to kill me. And, like, half a year after that, then I was in Germany, and I felt sick, and I had, like, very strange symptoms. And after 2 1/2 months of doctors examination, what's happening with me - it's that I was poisoned. I cannot say I feel very much different in Europe than I felt in Russia, because you always know that your work has risks and these risks can become reality one day.

SIMON: Elena Kostyuchenko - her memoir, "I Love Russia." Thank you so much for being with us.

KOSTYUCHENKO: Thank you so much.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.