Representing an incredible twenty regions in the Caucasus, the online newspaper Caucasian Knot is a small, award-winning initiative with a very big voice. Its main aims are "to ensure free access to truthful and non-engaged information about events in the Caucasus; inform the Russian and global communities about violations of human rights, the situation in armed conflict zones, cases of ethnic or political discrimination and refugees' problems; and to provide information support to civil initiatives and independent mass media." Caucasian Knot continues to achieve its goals with tenacity, determination and an unwavering commitment to the voices of regular citizens. While publishing news, analysis, commentary, weather and cultural production in Russian and English, Caucasian Knot places a strong emphasis on citizen journalism by engaging with comment threads as well as the high volume of text messages it receives. I recently had the chance to meet founder and editor-in-chief Gregory Shvedov, who cuts an unlikely figure as journalist and activist with his monastic beard and sardonic sense of humor. Russia has now declared him an "enemy of the state," but it seems to have not left Shvedov scrambling or tense in any way. The day we spoke, he was calmly gearing up for a legal battle with the state that he believes he stands no chance of winning. In this interview, Shvedov reflects on the growth of his digital publication, the constant challenges it faces and how the state is forcing his team to become radicalized.
Bhakti Shringarpure: Tell us about Caucasian Knot. What is its specific focus?
Gregory Shvedov: Caucasian Knot was established about 15 years ago, and it was very different time than now, so we have kept our main mission but we also kept changing modes during these years. Our main idea was that we need to give a voice to the local people who live in 20 regions which are partly Russia and partly independent countries of the Caucasus, and we need to focus on human rights and human interest stories, which are not only human rights abuses. This includes politics, social issues and culture as well. We have changed a lot in terms of form, so we don’t always base [content] on the regional journalists. But 15 years ago, we did completely different stuff from what we do now...
BS: But you've always been an online publication?
GS: Yes. It was always internet because it's the cheapest and most effective form. It has developed a lot over the years, because it was not easy to imagine how many of the regional readers would go online. But after a large amount of the regional audience went online, we understood that we needed to develop different tools to let them comment, to let them send text messages, to let them suggest what we should write about, to let them set up an agenda for stories, so that's what some of our readers are doing. This dimension was absent 15 years ago.
BS: I see. And how many languages do you publish in?
GS: It's mainly Russian. We translate brief versions of the stories into English.
BS: When we spoke some time ago, you said that the past year, 2014, has been particularly tough. Can you talk a little bit about that?
GS: Sure. 2014 was the year that Russia took a part of Ukraine and, unfortunately, there was not only the Russian-Ukrainian crisis. This was a time Russian officials made a special effort to control the Internet, to close down independent media. So it became very complicated to work.
BS: And lot of the journalists that work for you experienced threats physically? Or was it more "cyber bullying" that you were dealing with?
GS: Both things are going on. Our journalists have been beaten, and two of our journalist have been killed.
BS: You’re an alternative media source - this is, at least, how I would define you. What would you say is your unique style with regards to what you do, and what specifically is the role you’re trying to play in society as a whole?
GS: It would be too complimentary to say that we have unique style, but we do try to play a role. What's our role? We live in a market of propaganda. There are different actors engaging in propaganda. The Russian state is a huge actor of propaganda. They do it a lot, but there is also a market of information about terrorism, propagated by terrorists themselves. They also don’t like informing. They like propaganda. They like manipulating, and this is another elephant in the room which is very often forgotten. What is going on in Ukraine right now? Ukrainian people are clearly a victim of this war, but the Ukrainian state unfortunately is also using propaganda. So there are at least three sources of propaganda in the region. What we are trying to do? I don’t know if it's our unique style, or it's just our vision, but we are trying not to give the easy answers that propaganda often includes, but to pose questions. We often tell our audience what we don't know, and we try to be very open. The majority of the audience, unfortunately, is attracted to propaganda because people want easy answers. And we, instead ask the tough questions.
BS: That’s great. I know also that there's quite a bit focus on citizen journalism on Caucasian Knot. You put a lot of value in comments that come in from articles, and also on text messages that are sent to your website. How does that work?
GS: It is a mainstream discussion in professional or critical media in terms of how bad comments are, how well developed trolling is. It is one of the layers of propaganda to develop trolling on the internet. We don't like just putting our head in our hands and saying, "Oh, look how bad things are; oh, trolling is so developed." We like to work with that. We have about 25,000 registered users on Caucasian Knot. There are definitely a number of trolls. We don't even know how many of them are physically individuals. Many might have different accounts. But we promote those comments which are substantial. Those comments which, for example have factual information from the persons or human beings (or a "registered user" would be more correct to say) who's sharing information - I am calling such a focus on those who share “crowdsharing.” We allow some users or communities to use Caucasian Knot not only as a tool to emplify the voices, but also as a tool to set up agenda. Instead of crowdsourcing, crowdsharing is about people in the field, who set up the task. And we, at Caucasian Knot, take a stand to implement the task, even the one that comes in form of comment or text message. Thats how a lot of stories about human rights abuses are born – through users, who share facts and ask for jounalistic research.
We also promote comments which share opinions - not hate speech but comments expressed in a much more ethical way. We create a whole rating for our 25,000 users, and about some we say "Hooligan" and some "Expert." We write about them. We give them titles. They might dislike us, but if a person or user is periodically violating our ethical code, we would ban this person from being able to write to us, so I think that there is need of an internal policy. It is making us less attractive. People love hate speech. People love emotional, negative expressions and exchanges. But we think there are certain lines. We don’t want certain lines to be crossed, even though these exchanges would be more popular. Text messaging is another story.
BS: Where do the text messages go?
GS: They go to Caucasian Knot. You can send text messages, and they would be delivered to Caucasian Knot web application, but they are not published immediately. We urge people to report, share about important issues, but many of them don't do that. Many of them just spam us. We don't publish spam, even though it would make us much more popular. But we think it is the people's role to report what is going on. When you see that your neighbor is beaten by police, don't be silent. Don't expect human rights activist to come to you. You know, go yourself. Go to your cell phone. It is usually in your pocket. Text. That's what's going on often, but still not often enough. It would be anonymous. You wouldn't be immediately traced (although officials eventually can). But we promote this idea: Be active. Don't expect journalists or activists to do everything. Present yourself as a witness. Share facts, become a crowdsharer. And so there is a lot of spam, but there are also a lot of important things coming out of it and we're doing dozens of journalistic research [projects and] stories based on the text messages.
BS: What's your relationship with mainstream media in the West and in Russia as well? Do you find that your stories are a resource for a lot of mainstream media, or do you feel you're generally ignored? Where are you in terms of wanting to be recognized by them, but at the same time keeping a sort of separate, honest identity. You see what I mean?
GS: Yes, I know what you mean. Before 2008, Russian independent and professional media wasn't recognizing us much. That is not the case anymore and even state media quotes us sometimes. As for Western media, we have some cooperation with them. For example, Caucasian Knot has a partnership with the BBC, and we have a joint project that we have run together for many years. It's not a project from the point of view of funding - we don’t have funding for it - it's more in terms of preparation and publication of stories. Right now we are working on another story for them. So that’s a very important thing for us. The Guardian also created a New East Network which we are part of. We would like these to be more active collaborations, but it's still very good. I spent a lot of time in the United States. I had a fellowship to travel for a few weeks to try and find a partner in the United States. I went to The Washington Post, The New York Times, NPR, Foreign Policy, The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Philadelphia Inquirer and some others trying to set up this idea that we can deliver content. International sections in these papers have been diminishing, and those big American newspapers have been closing down their Moscow offices. So we thought that might be a good window for us to find a partner in the United States, but we haven't managed so far.
BS: So you didn't succeed after all this travel?
GS: No. It was an Eisenhower fellowship which I was happy to have won and to get to spend time there.They had been helping to organize meetings with all these beautiful American media which have been reporting our stories from time to time, but unfortunately news agencies tend to dominate and American newspapers prefer to take stories from there. We can't break through. We are still very much interested to partner with those in the United States who want to take content. We give it for free, and there are a lot of people in the United States from the Former Soviet Union and regions of the Caucasus who might be consumers of this information.
BS: Absolutely. So you've been declared an "enemy of the state" recently. What does that even mean?
GS: Well, it's good to know, first of al! I have an expression about this. It's like you're on an overnight train, and then you wake up in the morning and you are not so sure whether your train is going to Minsk in Belarus or its final destination is Tashkent in Uzbekistan. So it's unclear where our train is going. What’s our next stop? Is the final stop Tashkent, Uzbekistan, or maybe even in North Korea (by the way, as you know, the leader of North Korea is visiting Russia by train!). We've been declared by the Ministry of Justice as a foreign agent. We disagree with that. We brought the case to court, where there is very little chance that we will win. From the year 2014, we've been pushed by the state from the position of a media outlet that just reports and does not take sides to a position of a media outlet that has to fight the state just to be able to report. Now we need to do a lot of fighting with the state. I believe. It's very stupid on the part of the state, because they are radicalizing us. It's not that we are getting more critical. They themselves are forcing Caucasian Knot towards a direction of criticism because it's very hard to keep a balance when we get attacked all the time. And what do I mean by "we?" We have more than two million downloads every month in terms of numbers.
BS: And a final question. What's your background? What drives you?
GS: I'm a philologist. So I'm not even a journalist by study. I was studying literature. I'm a Muscovite. I have no relation to any of these 20 regions. I just felt at some point that someone needs to do it. And then, once you feel that someone needs to do it, you have to start with yourself.
Bhakti Shringarpure is editor-in-chief of Warscapes magazine. Twitter @bhakti_shringa