(NEW YORK)—With independent Russian news outlets shuttered by Vladimir Putin and journalists forced into exile, PEN America today launches an online archive that will preserve  their news stories and investigations from the last two decades and make the content accessible to researchers, journalists, and scholars worldwide.

The Russian Independent Media Archive (RIMA) developed in partnership with Bard College, secures an irreplaceable historical record that could be destroyed as the independent media outlets are closed or taken over and their online and physical archives lost, according to Dru Menaker, chief operating officer at PEN America, who oversees the project.

“Truthful accounts of the last 20-plus years of Russian history risk being erased if we don’t create this ‘digital ark’ to save the work of independent journalists,’’  said Menaker, herself a former foreign correspondent posted to Moscow and advisor to independent media outlets globally. “Accountability and accurate narrative depend on reliable witnesses who stand against propaganda efforts to reinterpret the past. Brave, determined independent journalists have worked under tremendous constraints on press freedom and free expression, and their stories  must be preserved if we are to understand Russia’s present and serve its future.”

The initiative was spurred by a conversation shortly after the Russian invasion of Ukraine between two PEN America trustees — writer and Russia expert Masha Gessen and Peter Barbey, whose professional background includes newspaper publishing – about the imperiled Russian independent media.

“Journalists say their work is the “first draft of history,” said Gessen. “My fear was – and remains – that in Russia, this draft is being deleted. With Vladimir Putin having forced independent media to close or flee Russia, we need to prevent the journalistic record of recent Russian history from vanishing. We know from the three decades of painstaking work by historians and archivists— who are only beginning to fill in the story of the Soviet period— just how hard the historical record is to restore.”

Gessen, who is a distinguished visiting writer at Bard in addition to being a professor at the Craig Newmark School of Journalism at the City University of New York, serves as an advisor to the archive. The project is made possible by the Edwin Barbey Charitable Trust, which Barbey advises. Through Bard, the Threatened Scholars Integration Initiative of the Open Society University Network and the U.S. Russia Foundation are also supporting the archive.

The Gagarin Center at Bard College offers an academic foundation for the archive, which is being established by a team of Russian journalists, scholars and information technology specialists working in exile since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Bard and The Gagarin Center have long involvement in Russia, including through its liberal arts-focused Smolny College program at St. Petersburg State University, a decades-long collaboration that was closed by Russian authorities in mid-2021. 

Also collaborating on the project is the Wayback Machine initiative of the Internet Archive, which contributed to the urgent archiving and securing of data from Russian media as well as providing technical consultations. With the support of the Mass Media Defence Centre, PEN America, where possible, is entering into licensing agreements with the participating outlets to protect their copyright while the archive serves as a secure home for the content.

A diaspora network of Russian programmers and database specialists have built the digital platform for the archive, developing functions that collect, clean, sort, and search the media content. To create the archive, the team has worked closely with the journalists, editors and publishers of the outlets and to date has brought half a million articles from 13 news outlets onto the platform. Over the next year, the goal is to include more than 70 outlets. Currently, the archive includes Novaya Gazeta, Taiga.info, Meduza, Mediazona, OVD-info, Pskovskaya Gubernia, The Bell, Russian Newsweek, Holod, Agency, Ochevidcy, Verstka, and Proekt.

The archive project is also developing tools to help other journalists, writers, and editors who come under authoritarian threat around the globe preserve their work and resist efforts to destroy their legacy.

Anna Nemzer, a now-exiled presenter for Dozhd (TV Rain), the independent Russian broadcaster forced to operate from the Netherlands, is navigating cooperation with the independent outlets, working against time knowing that materials can disappear from public view at any time. Indeed, she said, some already have had to be reconstructed from other sources. “This will be important evidence from the era. We are collecting everything, so all the investigations that expose corruption or murders—it will all be there for history,” Nemzer said.

Also leading the archive project are Ilia Venyavkin, a writer and historian of Soviet culture and the Putin era, and Serob Khachatryan, an information technology specialist and activist who has overseen development of the archive platform and the global network of IT experts.

Khachartryan said: “Programmers and data specialists who have left behind their homes and jobs since the Russian invasion of Ukraine are now contributing from several continents to solve this technology challenge and make this archive functional and accessible for all.”

Venyavkin added: “As we (Russians) are living in a state of authoritarianism we do not have real information coming to us and we know we need this. Independent journalism offers some foundation for our understanding of what is happening. The best thing we can do is collect the media archive, hoping one day it will be supplemented from documents coming from state archives.”


“I Wish We’d Known that: Leading Journalists Look Back at the Russian Story”

5-7 pm Tues., April 11, Newmark J-School, 219 West 40th St., Room 308 in New York City

In connection with the archive launch, PEN America and the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York will host a conversation on Tuesday, April 11 with noted journalists who covered Russia. They will reflect on their reporting and draw insight from the archive on questions such as: What did I not know back then? What has been revealed now? How can it help us in the future?

Gessen and Nemzer will participate, along with The New Yorker editor David Remnick and Beth Knobel, former Moscow bureau chief for CBS News.

About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. Learn more at pen.org.