The BBC’s Moscow correspondent Sarah Rainsford is being forced to leave Russia at the end of August when her visa expires. Russian state media say the move is in retaliation for the refusal of the UK to grant visas to Russian journalists. Sarah spoke to the BBC Today programme about her sorrow at leaving a country she loves.
“I am being expelled – it’s not a failure to renew my visa, although technically that’s what it is. I’m being expelled and I’ve been told that I can’t come back, ever.
“To be honest, it’s devastating personally but it’s also shocking. Russia has never been a posting for me: it’s not just any old place. It is a country that I’ve devoted a huge amount of my life to trying to understand…
“I calculated just now that it’s almost a third of my life I’ve lived in Russia, so one way or another: learning the language, studying the culture, the history, living here, trying to understand the people, and of course as a journalist, over many years for the BBC, on and off, working in Russia.
“I’ve really loved trying to tell the story of Russia to the world but it is increasingly a difficult story to tell. I have to say, though, I wasn’t expecting this to happen. There were clear signs for Russian media: there have been really serious problems recently, for Russian independent journalists, but until now, for the foreign press, we’d somehow been shielded from all of that.
“But this, I think, is a clear sign that things have changed. It’s another really bad sign about the state of affairs in Russia and another downward turn in the relationship between Russia and the world – a sign that Russia is increasingly closing in on itself.
“We were told officially about one case [where a journalist’s visa had been refused or delayed by the UK]. It’s a case that was two years ago.
“There are also separate reasons that I’ve been given, including sanctions by the British government against Russian citizens – for human rights violations in Chechnya, and also a list of people sanctioned for corruption. But it is clearly in the context of a massive deterioration in relations between Russia and the UK and, more broadly, Russia and the West.
“I said, when this bombshell was dropped, to the people who were delivering this information: ‘I’m not your enemy’. I’ve tried my hardest to understand this country and to tell the story of this country and it is something that’s very close to my heart.
‘You’re removing from Russia somebody who understands Russia, who speaks directly to people in Russia and tries to explain Russia to the world, and that’s becoming increasingly difficult’.”
“The reality is that they don’t want people like that here. It’s much easier to have fewer people here who understand and who can talk directly to people and hear their stories. It’s much easier, perhaps, to have people who don’t speak the language, don’t know the country so deeply. I really think it is indicative of an increasingly difficult and repressive environment.
“In many ways, Russia is a stronger and better place for many people than it was. In the early 1990s, people were queuing on the streets to sell their belongings to have enough money to buy food. There was no food in the shops. They were terrible, turbulent times, the 90s, and it’s something that’s always referred to here as a time that nobody wants to go back to.
“But at the same time, the 90s were a time of new and exciting freedoms for Russia, and I suppose my career here as a journalist has charted the path through which those freedoms have been reduced and reduced and reduced.
“I spent an awful lot of my time as a reporter here in court, as various people were prosecuted essentially for their political views – for many other ostensible reasons but ultimately for being too critical and now they’re coming for the press.
“I don’t mean myself: I’m talking really about the Russian journalists, the few who are left that have been trying to report independently, freely, in extremely difficult circumstances, about Russia to their own people and those people having a much tougher time with every day and every week.
“We wake up every day now and we hear news about someone else who’s had a police search of their flat, someone else who’s in court, someone else who’s left the country. The number of people leaving the country now is extraordinary: I’ve never seen anything like that, and that’s sad.
“So yes, I’ll be leaving the country and I’m extremely sad that I won’t be able to come back here – I hope one day I can – but it makes me sadder that Russians feel that they don’t have a future here, many of them. And that’s not the country I came to, 30 years ago, and it’s certainly not the one I started reporting on 20 years ago.