August 31, 2023

Poisoned Russian Journalist: "I Want To Live"


Poisoned Russian Journalist: "I Want To Live"
Elena Kostychenko at a Berlin hospital. Elena Kostyuchenko, Instagram.

On August 25, German authorities announced an investigation into the alleged poisoning of former Novaya Gazeta journalist Elena Kostyuchenko. The writer was investigating war crimes committed by Russia in Ukraine when she was poisoned on a German train in 2022.

The 36-year-old began her journalistic career as the independent Novaya Gazeta's youngest intern, at just 17. The Yaroslavl native quickly realized the dangers of being a Russian journalist when her colleague and personal idol Anna Politkovskaya, who was covering the Chechen war, was murdered on President Vladimir Putin's birthday in 2008. While at the publication, she was the first journalist to write about Pussy Riot, reported on the Zhanaozen Massacre in Kazakhstan, and uncovered Russian soldiers' presence in Donbas in 2014.

Shortly after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Kostyuchenko crossed the Polish-Ukrainian border and headed to the frontline with the help of Ukrainians. While documenting war crimes committed by Russian troops, the journalist found out that Novaya Gazeta had ceased publication due to pressure from Roskomnadzor. She continued working independently and headed to Mariupol. The trip had to be cut short when her former colleagues and Ukrainian intelligence services warned her there was a plot to kill her there. She was subsequently evacuated from Ukraine.

Despite the fact that she wanted to go home, returning to Russia was no longer an option for Kostyuchenko. She is a lesbian and was arrested and beaten multiple times for her LGBT rights activism. So she moved to Berlin.

Kostyuchenko began working for Meduza and planning a new trip to Ukraine. She exchanged messages via Facebook Messenger with the Ukrainian Embassy to book a visa appointment. In her text "I want to live. This is why I'm writing this text," the activist said she knew it wasn't the safest method of communication but thought, "I wasn't in Russia, I was in Germany." She agreed to go to the Ukrainian consulate in Munich. During her stay, she visited a friend and dined at a restaurant.

A friend accompanied her to the train station and told her she "smelled bad." On the train back to Berlin, she began sweating profusely. The stink began resembling that of "rotten fruit." Then came a headache. When she arrived in Berlin, she became disoriented. She thought she had caught COVID-19, yet that was three weeks prior. Ten days later, she went to see a doctor. The doctors became concerned with the changes in her symptoms but couldn't find an illness. In December, a medic suspected she might have been poisoned. Then the police became involved.

Kostyuchenko has not recovered her health fully and had to leave Meduza. Both Natalya Arno, president of the U.S-based Free Russia Foundation, and journalist Irina Babloyan were poisoned in Prague and Tbilisi, respectively, not long after Kostyuchenko.

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