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Putin critic Yevgeniya Albats leaves Russia after a crackdown on independent media

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

As Russian President Vladimir Putin presses ahead with his war in Ukraine, he's also continued to crack down on dissent at home. His government has branded opponents foreign agents and traitors. NPR's Michele Kelemen caught up with one of them who fled to New York.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Yevgenia Albats is a leading Russian expert on the KGB and its successor, the FSB, so she's long been aware of the risks of her work, but she's tough minded and was determined to keep it up, editing The New Times, a magazine she founded, and publishing reports that were critical of the war in Ukraine, even as a court found her guilty of spreading false information.

YEVGENIA ALBATS: Judge decided that all this information was false because this information wasn't published on the website of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation.

KELEMEN: After three misdemeanors and $13,000 in fines, she called a high-ranking FSB source who addressed her, condescendingly, with a diminutive name.

ALBATS: Zhenyachka (ph), don't worry. You know, with your age, with your status, no, no, I don't - no, they're not going to - I said, you know, would you please to check? OK. You know, so he called me back and said, you know, no, you shouldn't be worried; just be very careful.

KELEMEN: Albats, who's in her 60s, was told to stop writing about the war and about Yevgeny Prigozhin, who's been recruiting Russian prisoners to fight in Ukraine with his Wagner Group. Albats planned to ignore that advice. A week later, the minister of justice published its latest additions to its foreign agents registry.

ALBATS: I found my name on this list. I was so angry.

KELEMEN: It was chilling for Albats, given her family history in Soviet times.

ALBATS: My grandfather, Mark Albats, was pronounced an enemy of the people and shot via firing squad in 1937 because he was pronounced an enemy of the people. He was 37.

KELEMEN: We meet in her office at New York University, where she's now a distinguished journalist in residence.

ALBATS: Just one sec.

KELEMEN: Her phone constantly notifies her of new texts - phishing attempt, she suspects. Albats is kind of the grand dame of Russia's independent media and knows that she's one of the lucky few with both the connections and the means to leave Russia.

ALBATS: But that's me because I'm a known personality in Russia. But what about everybody else? They cannot leave. And they are really afraid.

KELEMEN: Albats talks every day to her twin sister and many friends who remain in Russia. She wants to believe that she'll be back there in the spring.

ALBATS: Am I, you know, a wishful thinker? Maybe. Maybe. But I have to believe that, sooner or later, my friends will get out of jails and - Ilya Yashin and Aleskei Navalny, my closest friends.

KELEMEN: Yashin and Navalny are both leading opposition figures. Asked how all this can end, Albats thinks President Vladimir Putin will be toppled in some kind of palace coup.

ALBATS: I don't think that Putin will go down in Russian history as a great man, as he wants to see himself in the schoolbooks. No, he will go down in history as the one who destroyed Russia, as the one who destroyed two countries, Russia and Ukraine.

KELEMEN: Yevgenia Albats describes Russia as a very sick country and says it will take a lot of effort to cure it.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.