On February 25, 2022, the front page of Novaya Gazeta, Russia’s acclaimed independent newspaper, ran the headline “RUSSIA IS BOMBING UKRAINE.” People reading The New York Times or watching the BBC already knew this. But it was news to most people in Russia. In those last days of February I asked people around me in St. Petersburg—friends, acquaintances, strangers working the counters at diners and stores—“What do you think, are we shelling Ukrainian cities? Are we shelling Kyiv?” Those who had friends or family abroad typically said yes. Those who didn’t said no, of course not, what a crazy idea.

And although the dissemination of “unreliable information” about the Russian Armed Forces was not criminalized until March, some people already took the question as a moral transgression. One older woman I work with overheard my conversation in line at the office coat check and confronted me about it hours later. No, she said, we are not shelling Kyiv. The TV would have reported it if we had been. There was a flash of confidence in her eyes, a claim that certain lines should not be crossed. Elena Kostyuchenko gives us a term for this certainty. She calls it decency: “A decent person follows established rules,” she explains. “They obey their elders. They don’t insist on their rights.”

Kostyuchenko is an investigative journalist. Her new book, I Love Russia, is about power in Russia, and about the media. It is also a love letter of sorts to Novaya Gazeta, where she worked for seventeen years. Founded in 1993, Novaya Gazeta has received numerous prizes for the courage and quality of its coverage. Its journalists have been threatened, assaulted, and murdered.

Once, the paper came out in print three times a week. It was available by subscription, at newsstands all over Russia and for free online. Then, in mid-March 2022, after its truth-telling about the invasion of Ukraine, newsstands stopped carrying it. Website traffic surged—to 23 million unique monthly visitors—just before new censorship laws forced the newspaper to suspend publication. It continues today, online and in exile, from Riga, Latvia, as Novaya Gazeta Europe, but has become hard to access in Russia. The state censorship agency, Roskomnadzor, blocks its web pages.

Kostyuchenko was born in 1987. Her book opens around the time Novaya Gazeta was founded, with her childhood in impoverished post-Soviet Yaroslavl, some two hundred miles northeast of Moscow. As a little girl, she writes, in a characteristically attentive phrase, she was captivated by the TV screen: touching the dust on its surface “felt like touching a moth’s wings, ever-so-gently.” She would watch cartoons, and her mother would watch the news. But the quality of their old television set kept getting worse, until “it became hard to make out the faces in the black-and-white static.”

She turned her attention to newspapers. At fourteen she looked through the public library’s collection of Novaya Gazeta and realized that “I didn’t know anything about my country. TV had lied to me.” Three years later she was in Moscow studying journalism and working at Novaya as an intern.

I Love Russia collects twelve of the investigative articles Kostyuchenko published in Novaya Gazeta between 2008 and 2022, interspersed with shorter autobiographical essays. “Justice vs. Decency” is one such essay, about the attempted deportation of Manana Dzhabeliya from Moscow in 2006 for a lapsed passport registration. (Dzhabeliya, a fifty-year-old refugee from Georgia, had gotten caught in a bureaucratic mistake: her passport was at the embassy, awaiting renewal.)

“You’re an adult woman,” Kostyuchenko relays the words of a police inspector chastising Dzhabeliya. “Why are you torturing yourself and your loved ones? It is indecent.” Dzhabeliya’s misdeed was refusing to sign a ruling that would have had her deported. Formally, she did not need to; her status in the country was legal. But “Manana was being indecent,” Kostyuchenko writes, meaning that she was conspicuously demanding her legal rights. “She starved herself, got on the nerves of her jailers, attracted attention from human rights activists and journalists, she insisted on her rights instead of accepting her lot.”

Kostyuchenko had become involved in Dzhabeliya’s case through her activist friend Irina Bergalieva, who founded the Moscow Dormitory Movement on behalf of impoverished residents in meager housing. “We were also behaving indecently,” she continues. “The human rights activists held press conferences. I wrote stories.” Dzhabeliya at last got a court date. It was a clear-cut case. The deportation was canceled. But the judge’s decision came at the end of the workweek, so her release was postponed to the following Monday. She never made it out. Dzhabeliya died in prison that Saturday.

This stinging essay is followed in the book by an investigative report that takes us into a police station where Kostyuchenko spent twenty-four hours undercover as an intern in 2009. (She got in after a police officer she’d never met tracked her down to thank her for one of her articles, which, unbeknownst to her, had gotten him out of hot water. Call me, he told her, if you ever have any unresolved problems, if I can help. Two years later, she did.)


One person inside the police station knew that she was a journalist. The others conducted themselves as usual: drunk and stoned at HQ, watching cop shows on television, wielding their considerable power over helpless people whose crimes they made up to cover their monthly work plan. The officers worked together to fabricate these reports. This, too, is a feature of what Kostyuchenko calls decency: giving moral credence to the illegal actions that are carried out to support one’s colleagues.

The British historian Geoffrey Hosking writes that the Russian tradition of krugovaia poruka—of holding an entire community liable for the misdeeds of its individual members—gives Russian law “the form of command from above, reinforced by peer pressure.”1 This structure encourages people to cover for each other, to protect each other from top-down commands. “An officer will do anything for another officer,” Kostyuchenko explains. “He’ll take a bullet, stick up for him in front of the administration, sign a phony report, get his son into college.”

“Detectives have to send forty cases to court every month, or else they’ll lose their bonuses,” she writes. And bonuses are a big deal here, whether formal or informal, taxed or untaxed, recorded or not. Police officers, firefighters, metallurgical workers, medical workers, janitorial staff: everywhere it’s the same structure. People say that bonuses make up 30 to 50 percent of their income, and that they can get docked for minor infractions.

Kostyuchenko brings us inside a psychiatric institution whose patients are kept in conditions worse, an employee tells her, than prison. Some patients are classed as nonverbal, primitive, vegetative (sometimes mistakenly, it turns out: one woman writes poetry). “Not enough nuance in the system for them all,” a doctor tells Kostyuchenko, who recedes into the background of such articles and lets her subjects speak instead.

The institution’s staff members are horribly overworked. Before the pandemic, each psychiatrist had one hundred patients—then it was four hundred. Nurses speak of endless reports to fill out: “If I miss filling in one line, I get docked all of my pay,” one says. Janitorial staff speak of subsistence wages docked for failures beyond their control, of early retirement plans denied by bureaucratic sleights of hand. “We’re scared, all the time,” the cleaning woman tells Kostyuchenko. “We bring everything from home—Mr. Clean, Fairy, some stronger stuff to get the rust out. The stuff they give us doesn’t cut it. And if you don’t get it clean, you’ll lose your bonus.”

The cleaning woman did not make it into the English translation. (The original essays are long and were edited down for the book.) But this story, also about the importance of bonuses, did: drinking at work with his colleagues, a senior officer recounts how he was once reprimanded for disobeying a superior and dropping his holster on the ground to jump into a freezing river where a woman was drowning. He saved her, just before passing out. Both wound up hospitalized. He recalls:

They told me that she survived, but I don’t know—she never came in to see me, maybe she was embarrassed…. They ended up taking my bonus away…. That’s my very best memory.

The world Kostyuchenko describes is “a lot of Russian roulette—you could end up in jail if a cop didn’t like you.” But by the same token, personal contacts can also help get you out. Publicly opposing state-backed networks of power rarely ends well: protesters are beaten, arrested, harassed; journalists are killed. But personal relationships with people within these power structures might help you move around them. This is how everything works in Russia.

It is how journalism works, too. In 2021 Dmitry Muratov, Novaya Gazeta’s cofounder, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to safeguard freedom of expression. (A year later he auctioned the medal to raise $100 million for Ukrainian refugee children.) Interviewing him for The New Yorker, Masha Gessen explains that he managed to keep Novaya open because “he knows many of the men who, through the years, have wielded power in Russia…. Other opposition journalists are an abstracted enemy to these men, but not Muratov—he drinks with them.”

The state itself also works this way, around its own laws. “We do not have a law for private military organizations,” President Putin explained in July 2023, and so Wagner, the private military company widely celebrated in Russia for brutal efficiency, “simply does not exist.” Yet he also insisted that Wagner was entirely state funded. And everyone knew all about them. When Wagner troops marched on Moscow in full battle formation that June, shooting down the military planes and helicopters that were sent to stop them, people came out to greet them with flowers. The FSB, the Federal Security Service, brought criminal charges against Yevgeny Prigozhin for having organized this armed insurrection. But then Wagner pulled back and all charges against Prigozhin were dropped.


Laws, juridical norms, “are written by people to protect order and stability in the country,” Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of RT, reassured TV viewers. “And if in some exceptional, critical, cases they stop performing this function, then they can go take a hike.” Prigozhin’s private jet went down in flames two months later, en route to St. Petersburg from Moscow. Putin explained that the plane had blown up from the inside: fragments of hand grenades were found in the passengers’ bodies. “Unfortunately,” he said, “no tests were carried out for the presence of alcohol and drugs in the victims’ blood. In my opinion, it would’ve been important to do that analysis.”

Nine years earlier, in 2014, state spokesmen insisted that meeting foreign demands for Russia to stop its military intervention in eastern Ukraine was “impossible, because we are not there.” So when a freezer truck crossed from Ukraine into Russia carrying the bodies of men killed in combat, this was somewhat problematic—and the bodies seemingly vanished, leaving no paper trace. Those people who managed to retrieve their loved ones did so not through legal or bureaucratic means but thanks to the people they happened to know.

Investigating the story, Kostyuchenko met Lyana, a sales clerk who learned that her husband’s body had been in the truck and who wanted desperately to give him a proper burial. “I went to work, but the girls could see the state I was in,” she said. “They started looking for him too, through their acquaintances. Some knew people in the police, some in the FSB—everywhere, nothing.” The FSB outranks the police, its power vast and clandestine. A connection in a veterans’ organization got Lyana into the hospital where the bodies were kept, but there again the door closed. Security officers gave her an FSB phone number. In the English translation, the guard says,

Just calm down and explain everything to this FSB officer. He’ll issue orders to the head of the hospital, and then you…If it were up to me, but it’s not. I was told: don’t let them in.

It sounds friendlier in the Russian original. I would translate it as:

Just quietly explain it all to this FSB guy, he’ll give the hospital director the go-ahead, and you… My heart goes out to you, but it’s not up to me. I was told: don’t let them in.

The FSB officer they contact does not seem forthcoming, but then mysterious people start calling. They offer to release Lyana’s husband’s body in a sealed casket. But she wants to open it. She calls local morgues. The people she talks to can’t help her, but some try to find a solution. One morgue worker tells her:

Try to understand, this is a Russian citizen, who died in combat. And our country is not conducting any combat operations. Listen to my advice, I’ve been in the business 25 years. You’ve got to get an official identification, with a protocol, and not open the casket yourself. You don’t know who’s inside. What do they say? “We haven’t received any bodies.” Your other option is to just bury what you have. We won’t hold him, it’s very risky for us. FSB guys appear out of nowhere in such stories. It might even be some kind of provocation…

In the English text, parts of this quote are misattributed. Lyana herself gets the first line: “This is a Russian citizen who died in a combat operation,” she says. To which the morgue worker answers: “But our country is not involved in any combat operations.” Again, the English translation is less friendly than the original Russian; the worker’s tone is harsher, more official, less like a stranger trying to help. But strangers do help, especially if some personal relation can be established. This is how Lyana gets to bury her husband: a friend finds a connection to a general, who promises that if the body is not released “he will personally accompany them to [the army morgue]. ‘But only one body, you got it?’ the general says. ‘Don’t ask me for any more relatives. I can only get one body out!’”

Differences in tone and emphasis are inevitable in translations—a translation creates a new text, after all. Still, it’s interesting to track the changes: characters and situations become less ambiguous, descriptions of economic constraints thin out. Perhaps this is reasonable. Anglophone readers might welcome a more clear-cut narrative, in line with traditional images of the totalitarian Russian state. But Kostyuchenko’s writing overflows all such easy divisions. The world that she shows us is not easily parsed into state and society, villains and victims. It is structured by top-down commands and animated by informal relations all the way through. These relations involve people breaking orders, regulations, and laws to help others. Sometimes they solidify into networks of personal power; other times they are isolated ethical acts.

Investigating an oil spill in an FSB-controlled company town, Kostyuchenko finds most people unwilling to talk. “I’d talk to you,” people say, “but I’d lose my job.”

The city says: Those who aren’t friends with the [mining company] aren’t friends with common sense.

The city says: If there is no Complex, there is no us.

The city says: Why did you even come here?

But she also finds people who help her. A boat captain takes her, along with two Greenpeace activists and their photographer, to collect water samples under the cover of darkness: “He knows that the other captains were fined, that they were threatened, but he is still taking us. Why? ‘I love these places. And I know them very well.’”

When a man known locally as “FSB Sasha” descends on them in the tundra in a little red helicopter, accuses them of minor infractions, and confiscates their diesel, the locals give them fuel, “which is like gold here. They say, ‘The helicopter has been looking for you for two days.’”

The state and the mining company blend into one extra-juridical muddle of power: “It’s a factory town and nobody needs a revolution,” Kostyuchenko writes. FSB Sasha helicopters in alongside the head of the company’s security department, which is itself staffed by former police and FSB officers. Staffing decisions reflect more personal interests as well, “like when the wife of the deputy head of the local FSB used to work there. ‘She’d always get very good bonuses.’” FSB Sasha waves an expired warrant around while confiscating their diesel. He doesn’t need a fresh one. The FSB uses the image of law, but need not obey it.

Nor need the state obey borders. Russia does not border Ukraine, explained Viktor Zolotov, head of the National Guard, at a National Security Council meeting held on February 21, 2022, in the Kremlin. “This is the Americans’ border, because they are the masters in that country.”

I Love Russia ends on the other side of this border, with Kostyuchenko reporting from Mykolaiv, Ukraine. She speaks with residents whose children have been killed by Russian shelling, whose houses have been destroyed, who have been gunned down in their cars and survived. It’s painful to read.

The article wasn’t up on Novaya Gazeta’s website very long. By March 2022 the new law criminalizing the “discrediting [of] the Russian armed forces” came into force. It carries a maximum sentence of fifteen years. Kostyuchenko’s essays were taken down, and then Novaya Gazeta was shut. (Kostyuchenko’s reports from Ukraine can still be read on other platforms: they were quickly republished by Meduza, in the original Russian, and in English by n+1.) A source informed Kostyuchenko’s colleagues that a Russian battalion stationed in Mariupol had orders to kill her. Muratov told her to leave immediately. She traveled to Germany and planned to reenter Ukraine as a reporter for Meduza but fell ill, apparently poisoned.

Kostyuchenko survived, but she cannot go back to Russia. As she wrote in a recent essay in these pages, she cannot even go to the embassy to participate in Russia’s “election ritual,” in which people vote, but they do not choose.2 After Kostyuchenko began to attend gay rights protests in her twenties—at one Pride parade in Moscow, she was hit in the temple and her girlfriend arrested—an elderly Jewish neighbor told her mother, “Stop your daughter. She doesn’t understand what it means to be an enemy of the state.” Now, she might.

This year Putin won again—by a landslide. He was running virtually unopposed, but nonetheless people came out to vote, driven to the polls by the same informal mechanisms of economic and social pressure Kostyuchenko writes about. In some places they were reportedly asked to provide photographs of their cast ballots, in others to vote electronically and provide a screenshot. “No one is irreplaceable!!!” one manager at a navy shipbuilding plant wrote to his subordinates in a private Telegram chat, ordering them to cast their ballots for Putin. “It’s our obligation!”

The state projects an image of unified strength through its violence, censorship, and informal pressure. But it cannot hold a monopoly on the extra-juridical realm of personal ethical action. In a 2023 interview Yury Dud asked Kostyuchenko whether people within the Russian state’s security forces ever help her. Yes, she said, “these people saved my life.” They alerted her colleagues about the planned assignation. Why would they do that? “Perhaps,” she said, “because they don’t think it’s right to kill journalists. Perhaps they know my work, perhaps they are patriots of their country.” To be a patriot here is to take responsibility for protecting others from the state, despite the law, against the bosses’ commands—by your own initiative, because it’s the right thing to do. And it is this ethic that keeps Russia lively. It is the general helping Lyana retrieve her husband’s body no less than the boat captain taking Greenpeace volunteers into the tundra.

The world that Kostyuchenko describes is a terrible one in many ways. I caught myself groaning aloud as I read. But the book is called I Love Russia. So I also kept thinking about what there is to love. Because, I realized, I love Russia, too. I love it, I think, for the courage with which people break orders and laws to help others, knowing that the swords of law and “decency” are raised over their heads. They do so clandestinely, without attracting unneeded attention, because it is right. Perhaps this is decency, without the scare quotes.