– There are surprises appearing all the time.
When Journalisten meets foreign correspondent Jan Espen Kruse outside NRK’s premises, he’s just returned from Russia and has finished quarantine. Despite the fact that he’s been vaccinated with the Russian Sputnik, because this vaccine isn’t approved in Norway. He vividly remembers when he came to Russia for the first time in 1991 as a correspondent.
– It’s like two completely completely different systems. I managed to experience half a year of communism, even though it was a slightly softer variant then at the end with Gorbachev, and then the whole Soviet Union disintegrated.
Then there was chaos, simply, in the whole country, Kruse sums up.
– There were queues for everything, there was a shortage of food, there was a shortage of most things. And how they fought through those nineties, with huge changes with that bandit economy and mafia, and with conflict between Boris Yeltsin, ie the reformists and the conservatives, and how in 1993 they ended up almost shooting the parliament, the white house, to smithereens. So coming back three years ago, there was a huge difference.
Suddenly, Moscow had become an international super city, at least for a foreigner who can afford to live well.
– In other words, an international city on a par with other cities. Maybe even more exciting than many other big cities in the world. But then there are still these contrasts that characterize the city, with the fact that you only need to venture an hour or two outside Moscow, before you find places that are at least reminiscent of the old times.
Although Kruse has also been a correspondent in the USA, there is no doubt about which country has been most interesting for him to work in.
– Russia is by far the most interesting. It’s so exciting, and I thought when I started this correspondence period that it would be very calm and very stable, but then things happen all the time. That’s what’s so fascinating about being a journalist in Russia, you never know what tomorrow will bring. There are surprises all the time!
He points to President Vladimir Putin, who according to Kruse was on the TV screen almost every other night in the spring of last year and said that he didn’t intend to do anything special to be able to continue after 2024 – when his current term expires. He wouldn’t come up with any tricks, he wouldn’t come up with any deception to be able to remain in power.
– And he repeated and repeated this, and I thought that “well, then that’s probably what you mean then!” With my background from Russia, I should have understood that when he denies this night after night, that is exactly what he’s sitting and thinking about. And then Valentina Tereshkova came to parliament and suggested that they zero out his presidency terms. And that was absolutely coming up with some deception to be able to remain in power. So it just goes to show that even if you’ve worked with that country and that culture for as many years as I’ve done, they’re always able to surprise.
Earlier this summer, President Putin wrote an article about Ukraine. It has become mandatory reading for all military in Russia now – and anyone trying to understand this country.
– There he writes that the Russian and Ukrainian people have common roots, and that it’s a tragedy that they’re so far apart now. But what in the world does he mean by that? Does he think they should be reunited? Does he just think that contact should be resumed? So one wonders all the time – there is always something to speculate about as a journalist in this country.
But Russia not only offers speculation, it can also boast a huge difference between rich and poor.
– The great contrasts in Russia continue, but what is most fascinating to me now is the political development, ie how Putin last year arranged it so that he – at least theoretically – can sit until 2036 as president, says Kruse and continues:
– In my opinion, something happened in January when Alexey Navalny returned. Then they had to make this decision, whether he should be imprisoned or not, and so they chose to imprison him. Then came all the demonstrations over large parts of Russia, which they chose to quell.
He says 11,000 people have been arrested for participating in demonstrations. And recently, all of Navalny’s organizations were declared extremist.
– That means they’re completely banned! You cannot give them a “like”, you cannot retweet.
Everything related to them is criminal.
– So now things, in my opinion, are moving very, very fast in a more authoritarian direction. They move so fast that I myself struggle a little to keep up, even though it’s my job to sit and follow this.
– It’s becoming harder and harder for Putin’s regime to claim that they’re fundamentally democratic. They use more and more authoritarian methods, and move further and further in an authoritarian direction. So that’s probably what’s most fascinating journalistically for me, right now. But there’s always a lot of exciting reporting to do, too.
Back to the beginning
After all the years in Russia, it seems that politics are on their way back to where they started: an authoritarian form of government.
– Putin and many of those he governs with have their background from the Soviet Union. That’s where they started, and that’s what’s largely their frame of reference. That is their understanding of reality. So, yes, I see a lot of similarities. If you want to govern in an authoritarian way, then there are a number of methods that are common. I mean, what were they doing in Cuba now when there were demonstrations? Yes, they cut out the internet and social media.
If there is one thing the Putin regime is doing, it is working hard to control the internet, Kruse points out. More and more laws, more and more restrictions, more and more control.
– This spring, we made a story about students who told about their reality. The statistics show that something like a third of young people are considering moving from the country. And that is a gloomy statistic. If young people full of courage don’t see a future in their own country, then something is wrong, then you have problems.
One way to notice the authoritarian direction, Kruse believes, is control of the media.
– It is obvious that they are actively targeting independent media. There is no doubt.
Among other things, he talks about Projekt, wich has invested heavily in investigative journalism about the entanglement of the political and economic elite in Russia, how they transfer values to their relatives. The website’s editor and several employees have now been declared “foreign agents” by the authorities.
– They write about high-level corruption. And the authorities decided that this is a threat to Russia’s security and stability. It says something about how those who investigate corruption, they are a danger to the country’s stability, ie a danger to the regime.
– Therefore, they target all those who write about and investigate this, because the authorities know very well that dissatisfaction is significant in the country. Putin says several times a year that he works to raise the standard of living for Russians, while Russians – the vast majority – see that they only get less and less money with each passing year!
The authorities know that it only takes a little spark to trigger this dissatisfaction, says Kruse.
– Therefore, it’s important to stop these media that they have no control over. See, for example, the website Meduza – they are also branded as foreign agents or an unwanted organization, and then those who buy advertising with them withdraw, and then their income disappears.
So it is a somewhat advanced way to suffocate them financially, the NRK employee concludes.
– But I would very much like to add that the picture is not completely black and white. You still have Novaya Gazeta, which is a critical body, you have the TV channel Dozhd, you have Ekho Moscow, the radio channel. So it’s not like it’s North Korea. Everything isn’t gone.
A bad relationship
As Russia’s government becomes more and more authoritarian, Kruse is at the same time concerned about the relationship between Norway and Russia.
– I don’t think it will get better in the near future. We are where we are – close to Russia. We are a member of NATO, we participate in military exercises that are getting closer and closer to Russian territory, ever closer to the most important military bases they have, on the Kola Peninsula, where they have their nuclear submarines with nuclear weapons.
He says that they constantly hear at press conferences that the Russians are furious.
– At the Russian Foreign Ministry’s press conference once a week, Norway is constantly being mentioned. Earlier, it could take months between each time we were mentioned. Now we are constantly in this picture, and they are very preoccupied with the NATO exercises taking place closer to Russia. So that is one of the main reasons, but we’re also involved in the sanctions under the auspices of the West and the EU.
The escalation started in 2014 with the annexation of the Crimean peninsula, Kruse believes.
– Then the punitive measures against Russia began, and then Russia responded with punitive measures, and then this goes back and forth, and it acidifies the relationship between Russia and western countries very strongly.
He adds: – Russia will never give up Crimea, and the West will have huge problems with saying that “now we’ll put Crimea behind us” because it is important in principle. Russia technically took – occupied and annexed – territory by military force, in the middle of Europe. And many had thought we were done with that.
Getting to know another culture
Attending press conferences with angry Russians may be interesting enough, but that’s not what Kruse likes best about being a foreign correspondent.
– It’s to be able to spend your time and energy on getting to know another country and a different culture. It’s an incredible privilege. It is a very big contrast with coming back here to Marienlyst to start going morning shifts and evening shifts.
– The big difference is that when the shift is over you go out, you’re usually done, he adds.
– Something completely extra is has to happen if someone calls then and asks you to come back to work. Because usually someone else has taken over the shift and takes it. But as a correspondent, you never really have time off.
– You have to work and work when something special happens, and then you can take it a little easy when nothing much happens in the news, but you’re never really completely free. Suddenly, at any time of the day, a phone call may come and something must be done. But at the same time you get resources to travel, and to suggest reporting trips around the coverage area, which is very large.
Despite all the benefits, there are some things you sacrifice as a foreign correspondent, the NRK veteran believes.
– I don’t feel that something’s bad, then I wouldn’t have the job! But you sacrifice something by not being able to be with family and friends. That is probably what you really sacrifice. And it’s a choice you make then. Now I have two grandchildren, one and a half and three years old, and it cuts a little deep in my heart to just have to be on Skype and not with them. Especially now when there’s no opportunity to visit me in Russia. I don’t mind that there will be a lot of work – that’s why I’m there, and that’s what I find interesting.
But sometimes it can be too much, too.
– I remember after my first year, in the summer of ’92, when I had probably gone too far, and just before I went home I was almost beaten to the ground by the fact that I had stood worked night and day to finish before I went home on holiday. So it’s about understanding that balance. It’s possible to work oneself to death, but no one benefits from it.