Crimean journalist Vladyslav Yesypenko is languishing in a Russian prison after saying he was subjected to a series of grueling torture sessions.
RFE/RL, an editorially independent media company funded by a grant from the U.S. Congress, is the largest target on the Kremlin’s list of inconvenient sources of information. It provides independent coverage that drastically differs from that of state-controlled media, including covering anti-government protests, and has the biggest audience of any international media outlet operating in Russia.
RFE/RL’s popularity and journalistic independence does not sit well with the Kremlin or the slew of its dedicated propagandists. Russian state media constantly represents the organization as a nefarious tool of U.S. intelligence agencies.
The case of Vladyslav Yesypenko, who worked for the Ukrainian service of RFE/RL, falls squarely into the Kremlin’s agenda of eliminating independent media coverage that is not controlled by the Russian regime. In March, he was apprehended by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) after covering an event honoring Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko in the city of Simferopol on Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, annexed by Russia in 2014. Yesypenko did not resist arrest, but was nonetheless thrown on the ground, face down, while his vehicle was searched.
His wife, Ekaterina Yesypenko, believes that this was done in order to plant a grenade that was allegedly “found” in her husband’s vehicle. In a gut-wrenching video, she proclaimed her husband’s innocence and demanded his immediate release.
During Yesypenko’s first closed-door court appearance, the journalist declared that he was beaten and tortured with electric shocks in order to procure a false confession, which he promptly refuted and requested to withdraw during the same hearing. Yesypenko reported that his jailers threatened to kill him and make his death appear as a suicide, unless he agreed to confess to the crimes he says he did not commit.
After two days of torture, Yesypenko says was forced to say that he spied on behalf of Ukraine. Before he was allowed to see an attorney, Russian state TV journalists arrived to videotape the confession. Yesypenko was given a written text to read aloud and forced to answer questions in the way his jailers demanded.
In addition to claims of “spying,” Yesypenko faces charges of illegally manufacturing firearms because of the grenade that he claims suddenly appeared in his car at the time of his apprehension. The reporter denies making or possessing such a device, and a fingerprint analysis failed to locate Yesypenko’s fingerprints on the weapon. If convicted on firearms charges, Yesypenko could remain in a Russian prison for up to six years; if convicted of espionage, he could face up to 20.
The targeting of Yesypenko is only one of many ways the Kremlin is attempting to force RFE/RL out of Russia. The organization’s bank accounts have been frozen, and it faces oppressive fines by Russian media regulator Roskomnadzor in excess of $2.4 million, as a consequence of being labeled a “foreign agent” and refusing to comply with requirements for labeling its news content.
Since October 2020, Roskomnadzor has ordered broadcasters designated as foreign agents to add a lengthy statement to news reports, social media posts, and audiovisual materials specifying that the content was created by an outlet “performing the functions of a foreign agent.” As an editorially independent organization, RFE/RL refused to publicly label itself as an agent of the U.S. government.
To date, appeals of exorbitant fines filed by RFE/RL have been summarily rejected by Russian courts. This month, Russian court bailiffs arrived at RFE/RL’s Moscow bureau to notify the organization about the commencement of enforcement proceedings against the company for its rapidly multiplying fines. If the fines continue being imposed at the present rate, they will likely reach approximately $33 million by the end of 2021. And if they’re not paid, Russian authorities have the power to place RFE/RL into insolvency and to block access to the news organization’s media sites. The general director of RFE/RL’s Moscow bureau, Andrei Shary, could face a prison sentence of up to two years and personal bankruptcy.
Yesypenko’s arrest brought sheer terror and heartbreak to his family, which is haunted by a history of political repressions. Yesypenko’s sister, Larisa Krupina—a journalist herself—told The Daily Beast that her great-grandfather was sent into exile to the Urals, along with his wife and children. After years of forced hard labor, Yesypenko’s great-grandparents died in exile. Their grandfather was accused of being “an enemy of the people” and shot for allegedly making anti-Soviet statements. Larisa recalled her brother’s 45th birthday, when Vladyslav told her, “All of our lives are still ahead of us, but our grandfather was shot when he was only 42! Those were such terrible times.”
But terrible times are back with vengeance, as Putin’s Russia is returning to the ways of the past. “We could not even imagine that those terrible Stalin times would return, that totalitarianism, the dark legacy of the Soviet Union, is still alive,” Larisa told The Daily Beast. “Taking our great-grandfather and grandfather was not enough. Now they want to take Vlad. And the methods are painfully similar. Ridiculous accusations, lack of access to independent defense lawyers, inhumane torture. Back to 1937, as though the last 84 years never happened.”
The Russian government’s unprecedented actions will have a profound chilling effect on what little is left of the independent media in the Russian Federation. “This is the culmination of years of efforts by the Kremlin to limit our access to the Russian audience. They now apparently view us and other independent media outlets as so threatening that we should not even be allowed to maintain a physical presence in Moscow,” RFE/RL President Jamie Fly told The Daily Beast.
To incapacitate RFE/RL and deter Russian citizens from working for the media outlet, the organization’s local freelancers have been designated as individual “foreign agents,” forcing them to identify themselves as such in all electronic communications, and to file extensive financial declarations with the authorities.
In the Wednesday’s broadcast of his nightly show, state TV host Vladimir Soloviev demanded that all RFE/RL freelancers be publicly named and labeled as individuals receiving funds from foreign governments. To make matters worse, Russian authorities are instigating bogus criminal prosecutions against RFE/RL reporters—aiming to destroy not only their livelihoods and reputations, but their lives and liberty.
In public statements, Maria Zakharova, the Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, described RFE/RL as “mouthpieces for U.S. government propaganda.” On state TV news talk show 60 Minutes last Wednesday, Nikolai Starikov, chairman of the ultra-conservative Great Fatherland Party, baselessly claimed that RFE/RL is directly affiliated with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The host of 60 Minutes, Evgeny Popov, chimed in and slammed RFE/RL as “the garbage dumpster of the State Department”—an expression he frequently uses on air and in his social media posts.
Still, the media outlet remains undeterred in its commitment to reporting in Russia.
“RFE/RL’s journalism and content production in Russia are the products of an expansive network of brave contributors,” Fly said. “We have worked with freelance journalists in Russia for decades, and we will do all that we can to ensure the safety and security of those who work with us—no matter what the Kremlin does to undermine the rights of these Russians to provide a public service to their fellow citizens.”
Domestic and international support is what gives strength and hope to Yesypenko and his family. His wife, Ekaterina, told The Daily Beast that moments of dark desperation are overcome by messages of support that are pouring in day and night, for which the family is eternally grateful. The journalist’s mistreatment has received worldwide condemnation, including from the U.S. State Department, the European and International Federations Of Journalists, and Reporters Without Borders, among others.
Despite what he has gone through, the journalist is still trying to cheer his family up in a series of letters—even promising his young daughter he would eventually write her a story about prison to explain everything that had happened. “I can only imagine the characters in it,” Vladyslav’s wife said, as she marveled at her husband’s strength and sense of humor.
“Our 6-year-old daughter aged a lot over the last two months,” Ekaterina shared. When the child saw the video of her father’s arrest, she refused to be led away from the television set. “I want to see the rest of it,” she demanded, “I want to see daddy get up and fight back.”