On July 4, a group of unknown armed men assaulted Elena Milashina, an award-winning reporter with the Russian independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, and lawyer Alexander Nemov in Grozny, Chechnya.
Both sustained extensive injuries.
Milashina was transported to a hospital in Moscow and has been diagnosed with a brain injury and 14 bone fractures, Novaya Gazeta said. It published photographs showing Milashina’s smashed fingers, her back covered in contusions, head roughly shaved, and face covered in green dye.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov said on July 4 that the attack on Milashina and Nemov was “a serious incident and demands energetic measures.”
In a cryptic Telegram post, the head of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, said he had instructed authorities “to make every effort to identify the attackers” but neither provided details of the attack he was referring to nor mentioned the victims.
Still, Kadyrov’s nearly three million subscribers swiftly connected the message to the attack on Milashina. At the time of this writing, the post had received some 900,000 views and more than 8,000 comments. Almost all the comments insulted Milashina and claimed either that the assault was staged, or that it was insufficient punishment, and that the journalist should long ago have been put behind bars as a traitor to Russia.
The verbal assaults on Milashina following the physical attack against her did not just come from Kadyrov’s social media followers. Chechen officials and Russian state-aligned media have also engaged in victim blaming and spinning conspiracy theories.
Chechnya’s human rights ombudsman, Mansur Soltayev, said the attack against Milashina and Nimov was a “daring sabotage and false flag operation against our republic.”
He downplayed the severity of Milashina’s injuries, saying: “She was fully examined, everything is fine.”
Some state-affiliated Russian media had similar takes.
“This is a common special operation by the West’s secret services,” pro-Kremlin journalist Yuri Kot wrote of the attack.
Kot called Milashina and Nemov “agents of the West working for the West against Russia.”
He also cast doubt over the severity of Milashina’s injuries; claimed that in 2013 she received a “prize from her master, then U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry; and that, a few years later, “she revealed the mythical ‘Chechen gays’ to the world.”
Kot’s later claim mirrors Kadyrov’s rhetoric, who once infamously told HBO’s "Real Sports” program: “We don't have any gays (in Chechnya).”
A piece by “doctor and publicist” Lucy Dickerson in the Kremlin-aligned EurAsia Daily echoed a similar theme, calling Milashina “a fool and a provocateur who was used to revive the campaign of hatred towards Chechnya and Kadyrov.”
Dickerson also cast the assault on Milashina as a “tool” to attack Kadyrov for being “Putin's most loyal infantryman” in Russia’s war against Ukraine.
Dickerson justified the attack, stating:
“Once again, hitting women is very, very, very bad…But what is much worse is cultivating a situation in the country when this becomes not only possible, but downright inevitable.”
Milashina has investigated corruption and rights abuses in Russia’s North Caucasus region. She exposed what became known as gay purges in Chechnya, in which members of the republic’s LGBTQ community were abducted, tortured, disappeared and killed.
She also investigated the murder of two of her female Novaya Gazeta colleagues — Anna Politkovskaya, who was shot to death in Moscow in October 2007, and Natalia Esterimova, abducted and shot to death in Chechnya in July 2009.
Novaya Gazeta accused Kadyrov of ordering Politkovskaya’s and Estemirova’s assassinations. Those crimes, however, remain unsolved.
In February 2020, Milashina, and human rights lawyer Marina Dubrovina were violently assaulted by a large group of people at a hotel in the Chechen capital Grozny.
Amnesty International designated Milashina as a “case of concern” after she received a death threat from Kadyrov in April 2020 in response to her critical expose of Chechnya’s implementation of COVID-19 measures.
“If you want us to commit a crime and become criminals, then just say so. Someone will take on this burden, responsibility, and will be punished according to the law, serve time in prison and be released. Don’t try to turn us into bandits, murderers,” Kadyrov said in a now deleted Instagram video.
“Chechen officials began a defamation and intimidation campaign against Milashina after she published the testimony in Novaya Gazeta … of a former police officer who said he witnessed extrajudicial executions, torture, and other grave human rights violations in 2017,” the U.S. State Department reported in its “2021 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Russia.”
Since 2017, Grozny TV, Chechnya’s official state TV channel, has published 17 reports mentioning Milashina.
Below are some examples.
On July 11, 2017, Grozny TV published a piece on Milashina that stated, in part:
“The Union of Journalists of the Chechen Republic is forced to state the diagnosis: Mrs. Milashina from Novaya Gazeta, with the maniacal persistence of a person suffering from a morbid addiction to detecting imaginary crimes and pseudo-exposing activity, has been keeping the Chechen Republic in the center of her inflamed sick attention for many years.”
On April 15, 2020, the Union of Chechen Journalists used exact same wording in a statement condemning Milashina’s coverage of anti-COVID-19 measures in Chechnya.
On January 31, 2022, Grozny TV quoted RT chief editor Margarita Symonyan as saying: “I, personally, do not consider Milashina terrorist. I consider her unprofessional, biased petty demon... lost sheep.”
The most recent Grozny TV mention of Milashina was on February 2, 2022, in a report from a mass rally in Chechnya held to appeal to President Putin to prohibit the media “who support extremism” in their reporting on Chechnya.
“We appeal to you regarding the anti-state extremist activities of Elena Milashina from Novaya Gazeta,” the statement read.
“The people of the Chechen Republic appeal to you to immediately halt the activities of such enemy media... as Novaya Gazeta. Arrest and bring in front the court of justice such foreign intelligence agents and saboteurs as Elena Milashina....”
The attempts to discredit Milashina, twist the facts about her assault and blame it on her fit into the broader Kremlin disinformation playbook.
It is similar to Russia’s disinformation tactic of victim blaming and reality distortion against Ukraine, which John Kelley, Political Counselor at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations described as “gas-lighting” while delivering remarks at a U.N. Security Council briefing in March.
Kelley said Moscow has been using “truly ridiculous conspiracy theories” and other accusations of “Russophobia” to deflect attention from the “gruesome and repulsive aspects” of Russia’s “brutal invasion” of Ukraine.
Likewise, those attacking Milashina simultaneously deny the Chechen authorities were responsible for the attack on her, claim it was a false flag intended to smear Kadyrov, and downplay the severity of the attack all while calling Milashina an anti-Russian, anti-Chechen agent of the West who brought the attack on herself.
Experts say this lack of narrative consistency is a regular feature of contemporary Russian propaganda.