Global Freedom of Expression

2024 CGFoE Prize Ceremony, Keynote Speech by Elena Kostyuchenko

Key Details

  • Region
  • Themes
    Freedom of Association and Assembly / Protests, Political Expression, Press Freedom

Keynote Address by Elena Kostyuchenko at the 2024 CGFoE Prize Ceremony

April 25, 2024

Italian Academy, Columbia University, New York City

Watch Elena Kostyuchenko speak on our YouTube channel

I am a journalist. All I am doing is writing and talking to people. Recently, I was filling out a questionnaire and had to dredge my memory for all my run-ins with the law. Honestly, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been detained by police. More than twenty, I think. Sometimes it just meant being stuck in a cage for hours, but I’ve had policemen spit at me, beat me up on occasion, and once, shove me down a flight of stairs. One time, they tore some ligaments in my neck, and it was a miracle that I escaped being paralyzed. From the police cell, I’d go straight to court. Every time – except a single one – I ended up being convicted.

I remember the judge who ruled that my work did not constitute a crime and exonerated me. He served in a small town called Khimki, where all the power rested in the hands of a corrupt few who committed crimes against the town’s citizens. I was investigating those crimes. My work displeased Khimki’s rulers, who thought they had control of the municipal courts. But this judge chose to let me go.

My freedom was his choice.

I’m so lucky to be able to speak here, and especially now.

On April 18, more than a hundred Columbia University students and staff were arrested during a peaceful protest. It was the university’s President, Nemat Menouche Shafik, who called the police.

If I studied or worked there, I would stand beside the protesting students now. Not because I agree with their opinion. But because I know what happens when you don’t defend another’s opinion.

The day after, you yourself won’t be allowed to speak out.

Our rights are not a given, they are a process. They change every day. Decisions we make today will govern our lives tomorrow.

No one should be detained for protesting peacefully. No one should be detained for their opinion. If we cross this line, we find it very difficult to repair. The price could be many human lives.

It isn’t a question of who is wrong and who is right. It isn’t a question of what is happening between Palestine and Israel, and whose pain is the greater.

Repression is never the answer.

Repressions are born of fear. Fear makes things that have not happened real. You feel the danger, growing close. It seems that it’s alright to compromise a bit, to quieten your principles, if only in exceptional circumstances. Yet, when we compromise our principles, trampling human rights, we are the ones creating exceptional circumstances.

The history of my country is clear on this. When, in 1993, the democratically elected president, Boris Yeltsin, attempted to dissolve the Communist Parliament in contravention of the Constitution, and then fired on the Parliament from tanks, many supported his actions. They were afraid of a resurgence of the Soviet Union, with its repression, censorship, violence, war, unfair elections. Yeltsin handed power to Putin, and violence towards political opponents became the norm. We have no Parliament now. No freedom of speech. No elections. We have war, repression, censorship. The compromise led us straight to what we feared.

Six of my colleagues at Novaya Gazeta were murdered. The newspaper itself lost its license; it carries on, but illegally. Most of its staff are in exile. I lost my home, too.

When you invite police to your campus, you open the door into another reality. To shut this door again requires a huge, long-term effort. Perhaps the effort of the next generation, too – the one you were trying to protect.

Freedom of expression is a fragile thing. Freedom of expression requires vigilant protection. Freedom of expression demands faith in people. And that’s the hardest part.

It’s hard to speak when you are hurting. It’s even harder to listen. It’s so hard to really listen, rather than just wait for your turn to make your argument. But conversation is the only thing that can keep the peace and stop the war.

Freedom of expression is a thing beyond price. Please don’t underestimate it exchanging for silence in the campus.

Thank you so much.


Elena Kostyuchenko

journalist and activist
author of "I Love Russia: Reporting from a Lost Country"