In a good month, the Russian-language news site Slavic Sacramento averages around 50,000 readers. But when Russia invaded Ukraine, that figure tripled.
Founded in 2014 and catering to a large Russian-speaking community that has set up home in Sacramento, California, and in other American cities, Slavic Sacramento covers a mix of local and national U.S. news, as well as events back home.
“There is a niche audience [in California] that speaks the Russian language, that doesn’t read or watch American news,” said editor-in-chief Ruslan Gurzhiy.
These are people “who oftentimes feed themselves with disinformation and misinformation” from Russian-sponsored media, Gurzhiy told VOA.
Since its invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Russia has sought total control over news coverage, issuing laws and directives to local media on how to cover the war and forcing the few remaining independent outlets to shut down or go into exile.
And while Kremlin-backed outlets have been dropped in the U.S. and barred across the European Union, they still have a hold in Russian and Spanish-language markets.
That’s where outlets like Slavic Sacramento come in.
“I noticed that [state-controlled] channels like Russia Today and Channel One Russia are overwhelming,” Gurzhiy said, as he explained the drive to provide more independent coverage.
Born in Belarus to a Belarusian mother and a father from Crimea — the Ukrainian region later annexed by Russia — Gurzhiy moved to the U.S. with his family more than 20 years ago.
The 40-year-old identifies as Ukrainian-Belarusian-American.
While Gurzhiy has a small team working with him in Sacramento, he relies on a network of journalists and military officials in Ukraine to report on the conflict and to counter what he calls Russia’s systematic disinformation campaign.
“It’s really challenging for us because we want to make sure that our coverage remains objective, and so we verify everything that comes from Ukraine, because just like how Russia has a lot of disinformation, it’s wartime and Ukraine has some too,” he said.
For that end, Gurzhiy and his team in California reach out to multiple sources for every story.
Blocks to news
Slavic Sacramento’s efforts haven’t gone unnoticed in Russia. In the first days of the war, the country’s media regulator, Roskomnadzor, blocked access to the website in Russia along with several other news networks, including VOA’s Russian service, the BBC and others.
But the website continues to reach readers in Russia.
“About 10 percent of our current readership comes from Russia despite the ban, because I published a story about a VPN [virtual private network] service, so I think people are using that proxy to access our website,” Gurzhiy said.
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Back in California, Gurzhiy says, he has received threats via social media over his coverage on the war and previous reporting on corruption in Ukraine.
He is also fighting a 2018 defamation lawsuit over the outlet’s reporting on alleged misuse of humanitarian aid to Ukraine.
“I have many local enemies among the diaspora community in California who’ve been threatening me a lot … threatening to destroy my business,” he said.
“The funny thing is that one side says I’m a Ukrainian agent, while the other calls me a Russian agent,” Gurzhiy said. “Other people even say that I’m an FBI agent, and so it’s really hard to work in this community.”
Videos about war
Still, the coverage is popular, with Slavic Sacramento’s Facebook page gaining more than 70,000 new followers.
Part of that success is due to its livestreams about the war.
Vitaly Ataev Troshin, a Russian journalist based in Los Angeles, California, has been a leading contributor to those videos.
Originally from Moscow, the 33-year-old has been living in the U.S. for six years. In addition to his collaboration with Slavic Sacramento, he broadcasts videos on his own social media accounts.
“I go to Ukrainian rallies, I bring guests from different backgrounds, I try to diversify as much as possible to show my audience in Russia that we are able to talk with Ukrainians,” Troshin told VOA.
Unlike Slavic Sacramento, Troshin’s target audience is primarily in Russia.
“I try to tell people who watch my videos to see what is going on next door in Ukraine,” he said. “Sometimes they don’t believe me, they go against me.”
For these livestreams to be effective, Troshin occasionally conducts high-profile interviews.
This month he hosted Konstantin Borovoy, a liberal Russian politician and former member of the Russian parliament (Duma), to discuss the situation in Ukraine. In another livestream, he brought on the Russian actor Aleksey Panin.
Before he left Russia, Troshin in 2014 founded a bimonthly newspaper called New Moscow, named after a territory incorporated into the Russian capital.
He still manages the publication and its online version from Los Angeles, and uses it to publish news about the war.
“We’re checking the information about who has died or been captured in Ukraine right now from the Russian side,” he said. Many people in Russia “don’t know that these [soldiers] have left the country to go fight the Ukrainians.”
“I know it is against what the government is saying, but I can’t just skip it because these are my people, they are from my city,” Troshin said.
Publishing such news in Russia is risky.
Moscow in March passed a law that carries a 15-year prison term for those found to have spread what it deems false news about the military. Authorities have already charged journalists and activists under the law.
Troshin is planning to visit Russia in the summer, but doesn’t know what awaits him.
“I don’t know what [Russian authorities] will do to me when I go back, but I live here now and I see what is going on,” he said.
“When I go back to Moscow, I will continue to talk about what’s happening [in Ukraine]. I can’t just sit home, close my door and windows and ignore the fact that people are dying.”