The Struggle for Freedom: The vlogger imprisoned for reporting on Russian repression after the 2014 annexation of Crimea

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Ellen Bork
George W. Bush Institute

Kateryna Yesypenko visited Washington, D.C., in mid-May seeking to raise awareness about her husband Vladyslav, a Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty freelance reporter in Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014. He was arrested by Russian authorities there in March 2021, in retaliation for his reports on life under occupation.

Russian rule in Crimea has been characterized by arrests of journalists, human right activists, and persecution of the Muslim Crimean Tatars about whom Yesypenko reported extensively. Russia holds approximately 180 Crimean political prisoners, more than half of them Crimean Tartars. Some 34,000 Crimeans have been conscripted into the Russian armed forces, and Crimeans have been forced to acquire Russian passports to participate in virtually any aspect of daily life from health care to education. Schoolchildren are subjected to Russian nationalistic education, and criticism of the military is a criminal offense.

“The Russian authorities have suppressed media, speech, anything Ukrainian” in Crimea, said Elina Beketova, a Democracy fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, as well as a former journalist and Crimean native. Under Russian rule, she told me, Crimea resembles a “black box” with little information coming out.

And, after nine years of illegal occupation, things are getting even worse in Crimea, even as Russia is using Crimea as a “playbook” to impose similar measures in the areas of mainland Ukraine that it’s taking over, Beketova said.

Yesypenko only began reporting in his late 40s. Before the annexation, his life was settled and comfortable, and he could have just “stayed on the couch,” Kateryna Yesypenko told me through a translator. But seeing the impact of the annexation, the militarization of the peninsula, and the propaganda “aroused his sense of justice,” she said. “He made the decision that what he can do for Ukraine is to show the situation and tell people what is really happening.”

After the annexation of Crimea, Yesypenko moved Kateryna and their young daughter to Ukraine’s mainland for their safety. Then he began making reporting trips back to Crimea, recording interviews with his phone and sharing them with Ukrainian and international media outlets.

Eventually, Yesypenko began to freelance for Crimean.Realities, a regional project of RFE/RL’s Ukraine Service.

Yesypenko was a natural, his producer Olena Soroka told me. “His secret is that he looks like your neighbor. It drew people to him, and they described their lives.”

Beketova translated for me as we watched some of Yesypenko’s reports. In one, a woman described how local residents tried to prevent the Russian authorities’ massive extraction of sand from Bakalska spit, a natural feature of one of Crimea’s renowned beaches. Bakalska’s sand was used to build the Kerch bridge, which connects Crimea to Russia. Since 2022, the bridge has been used for the assault on Southern Ukraine and to exploit other natural resources.

In another report, Yesypenko juxtaposed the appointed Russian governor’s grandiose claims about the “fairy tale” of soccer under annexation with video of the neglected, crumbling arena of the popular local team, Tavriya. To the dismay of fans, Tavriya’s squad fled Crimea for the Ukrainian mainland and was replaced by a Russian one which is now under international sanctions.

In the last video report before his arrest, Yesypenko interviewed people on the street about life since annexation. Beketova gasped when an older woman declared “We are Ukraine, not Russia,” in Ukrainian rather than Russian, an extremely risky thing to do in public. “That is amazing. No matter how many years have passed since the illegal annexation, there are those who feel themselves Ukrainian. Yesypenko is brave, and those people are super brave.”

Yesypenko took precautions in his reporting – his voice was altered in the videos, and he didn’t use a byline – but ultimately the Russian authorities moved against him. It’s probably not a coincidence that he was arrested while filming the annual wreath laying ceremony honoring the revered 19th century Ukrainian national poet, Taras Shevchenko. Video of Yesypenko’s arrest shows him handcuffed on the ground while agents of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB)  searched his car. Several days later, he was taped confessing to espionage. Soroka, the RFE/RL producer, said Yesypenko appeared bruised and disoriented. She noted with a wry laugh that he named her as his spymaster.

In a letter from prison, Yesypenko described being tortured, and with obvious irony thanked the FSB for “an unprecedented opportunity for a freelance journalist for Radio Liberty not only to become an observer in a pretrial detention center in the occupied Crimea, but also to” experience “their ‘investigation’ methods…. It didn’t break me, but my hair seemed to turn gray.”

Yesypenko is not alone.

Crimeans from different walks of life have stepped forward to try to fill the void created by the Russian crackdown against independent media. Dozens have been arrested, forced out of the peninsula or have abandoned their work. The U.S. Senate has recognized the torture, threats, and arrests of journalists and bloggers including in Crimea and other areas of Ukraine under Russian occupation.

Among them is Iryna Danylovych, a former nurse who reported on corruption in the health sector. She is serving a seven-year sentence in prison, where she has been denied medical treatment.

Just before we met at RFE/RL’s Washington office, Kateryna Yesypenko learned that Russian rockets fell close to her home in the mainland Ukrainian town where she lives with her daughter. Her trip in May was her third visit to the United States. Last year, she went to New York, where, as part of its campaign to free Yesypenko, PEN America awarded him its PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award. Previous recipients include Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo who were imprisoned for reporting on the Burmese military’s atrocities against Rohingya Muslims. They are now free.

Kateryna Yesypenko hopes such recognition of her husband’s reporting makes the difference between his freedom and serving out the rest of his five-year sentence. RFE/RL is also working for the release of two Belarusian contributors, Ihar Losik and Andrey Kuznechyk.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken has said that journalists covering Russia’s assault on Ukraine are “shining a light on what’s going on in the darkest recesses of Earth.”  That’s exactly what Yesypenko was doing in Crimea and why Russia imprisoned him.