Elena Kostyuchenko is spending 2018 at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism as its International Journalist in Residence.
She is an award-winning Russian journalist who works as a special correspondent and editor at the independent, twice-weekly Moscow-based newspaper Novaya Gazeta.
The newspaper is one of the handful of remaining news outlets in Russia that continues to publish critical, investigative journalism on such sensitive topics as corruption, human rights abuses, and Russia’s intervention in east Ukraine. The newspaper has lost six of its journalists, including the iconic reporter Anna Politkovskaya, to murder because of its courageous reporting.
Kostyuchenko is one of Novaya Gazeta’s star journalists who has a number of prestigious domestic and international awards under her belt. Among them are the Gerd Bucerius-Förderpreis Freie Presse Osteuropas (2013), the European Press Prize: The Distinguished Writing Award (2015), and the Andrei Sakharov Prize For Journalism as a Deed (2015).
In her 13 years as a journalist, Kostyuchenko has covered the volatile North Caucasus republics—Russia’s most dangerous assignment—including human rights and humanitarian crises, and the Russian government’s seeming indifference to providing redress. She has reported from such hot zones as Zhanaozen, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine’s southeast, where a raging conflict between Ukrainian security forces and Russia-supported separatists continues to devastate a once-prosperous region.
Kostyuchenko has also distinguished herself on the plight of Russia’s vulnerable underground communities, including drug addicts, homeless orphans, sex workers, the mentally ill, and LGBT individuals. Her two books, “Conditionally Unwanted” and “We Are to Live Here,” are based on her reporting on these communities and are being translated into English.
Because of her work on sensitive subjects, Kostyuchenko has been repeatedly threatened, physically attacked, detained, and prosecuted on politically motivated charges. Her family has also been subjected to threats and harassment. She is at additional risk for harassment and hostility as an LGBT activist and an openly gay woman.
A couple of incidents stand out. Kostyuchenko was part of the investigative team at Novaya Gazeta that broke the story in April 2017 about the horrific torture and so-called honor killings of gay men in Russia’s North Caucasus republic of Chechnya. The investigation resulted in threats, including a fatwa, against the entire Novaya Gazeta staff, issued by Chechen officials close to the Kremlin-supported Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov.
After the story broke, it was was corroborated and followed by international media, including The Guardian of London and The New York Times. Meantime, Novaya Gazeta received threatening packages containing an unidentified white power. The newsroom’s work was disrupted by the evacuation of the offices and searches by Russia’s agency tasked with handling biological threats.
In late August 2016, Kostyucheko arrived in Beslan, North Ossetia, to report on the life of local residents 12 years after armed rebels seized an elementary school on the first day of school. The incident resulted in a hostage crisis with a botched rescue operation by Russian security forces that led to the death of 334 people, including 186 children.
On the 12th anniversary of the Beslan tragedy, Kostyuchenko witnessed a protest by mothers who had lost children in the crisis. The women wore T-shirts with an image of President Vladimir Putin and the text “Putin—executioner of Beslan” printed on them.
While other journalists at the scene turned off their cameras, Kostyuchenko captured images and footage from the protest and continued to cover the events. Local police seized her mobile phone and reporting notes and held her for two days. Upon her release, an unknown man threw a green caustic substance on her face while the police stood by and watched. Several hours later, another assailant beat her so severely she was diagnosed with a severe concussion that required six months of treatment. No person was ever investigated, charged, and prosecuted for the attacks.
Photo by Yulia Balashova