Oksana Baulina, Fashion Editor-Turned-Kremlin Scourge, Killed in Kyiv

Russia loses a passionate voice against injustice.

By , an investigative editor at Meduza.
Russian journalist Oksana Baulina killed in Ukraine
Russian journalist Oksana Baulina killed in Ukraine
Oksana Baulina, then the chief of video operations at the foundation run by Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, speaks after a live broadcast in Moscow on May 16, 2017. Pavel Golovkin/AP

Covering the war in Ukraine for Meduza, the Russian news site now banned by the Kremlin, I’ve been online virtually nonstop for more than a month. In the few hours of sleep I manage to get, I dream about the war—or my sudden new life in exile after fleeing from Russia to Latvia by foot just before a new law criminalizing my work as a journalist went into effect. I’ve immersed myself into accounts of individual tragedies and mass atrocities. I’ve come to terms with not talking to family members in Russia anytime soon, thanks to their indoctrination by the vile and grotesque war propaganda spewing from Russian television sets morning, noon, and night.

So I thought I’d be desensitized to bad news by now. But on Wednesday—one month into the war—I got a message on Telegram from a strange number. “I am a journalist from Kyiv,” the message said, asking if I knew any ways to contact the family of the Russian journalist Oksana Baulina. There are a few very specific reasons why someone would ask a stranger that, and my heart sank. Still, I called the number and sheepishly asked, “Why, what happened to Oksana?” She was dead, my Ukrainian fellow journalist said, killed by a Russian strike in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, a few hours earlier.

I’m no stranger to tragedy and have buried good friends, but the news of Baulina’s death floored me. Russia loses one of its most passionate voices against injustice, a journalist and activist with a clear-eyed view of the evil that lay at the root of Russia’s vicious and unprovoked attack on Ukraine. “I love my country so much but I hate the state,” she quoted a famous Russian rock anthem in a Facebook post on Feb. 10, shortly before the war started. Although she spent the last years of her life in exile, she remained part of Russia’s dwindling group of independent reporters not afraid of drawing the Kremlin’s ire.

Covering the war in Ukraine for Meduza, the Russian news site now banned by the Kremlin, I’ve been online virtually nonstop for more than a month. In the few hours of sleep I manage to get, I dream about the war—or my sudden new life in exile after fleeing from Russia to Latvia by foot just before a new law criminalizing my work as a journalist went into effect. I’ve immersed myself into accounts of individual tragedies and mass atrocities. I’ve come to terms with not talking to family members in Russia anytime soon, thanks to their indoctrination by the vile and grotesque war propaganda spewing from Russian television sets morning, noon, and night.

So I thought I’d be desensitized to bad news by now. But on Wednesday—one month into the war—I got a message on Telegram from a strange number. “I am a journalist from Kyiv,” the message said, asking if I knew any ways to contact the family of the Russian journalist Oksana Baulina. There are a few very specific reasons why someone would ask a stranger that, and my heart sank. Still, I called the number and sheepishly asked, “Why, what happened to Oksana?” She was dead, my Ukrainian fellow journalist said, killed by a Russian strike in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, a few hours earlier.

I’m no stranger to tragedy and have buried good friends, but the news of Baulina’s death floored me. Russia loses one of its most passionate voices against injustice, a journalist and activist with a clear-eyed view of the evil that lay at the root of Russia’s vicious and unprovoked attack on Ukraine. “I love my country so much but I hate the state,” she quoted a famous Russian rock anthem in a Facebook post on Feb. 10, shortly before the war started. Although she spent the last years of her life in exile, she remained part of Russia’s dwindling group of independent reporters not afraid of drawing the Kremlin’s ire.

A red-haired whirlwind of infinite energy, always immaculately manicured, coiffed, and accessorized, she was always the one who sparked the table-dancing parties in the offices of Time Out Moscow, where we met in 2006—long before she started covering Russian politics and became a scourge of the Kremlin. Back then, Baulina was in charge of the fashion desk while I ran syndications with other Time Out franchises around the world.

Reading Baulina’s April 2008 review of the season’s hottest pleated skirts is a flash from several lifetimes ago. She made many U-turns between her career as a high-powered fashion editor and death on the battlefield of Kyiv as a war reporter. But her ethical core—to call out and oppose injustice and evil wherever she saw it—remained unchanged throughout her life.

“How can I be reviewing lace panties and lipstick when my elections have been stolen?” she asked a friend.

As a feature editor at InStyle Russia and Glamour, she insisted on covering difficult subjects—such as cancer or domestic violence—that other glossy magazines steered clear of for fear of losing lucrative advertising by luxury brands. Laser-focused on whatever task was at hand and never missing a deadline, Baulina was a stickler for rules and keeping her word. Gennady Ustiyan, Time Out Moscow’s former editor, recalls in a Facebook post how he and Baulina went to Bucharest, Romania, for a city break. Baulina insisted on waiting at a red light to cross a deserted street in the middle of the night. Ustiyan quotes her: “If I don’t follow the rules, how can I demand the same of others?” Her sense of what’s right was her lodestar. She went further than most of us in her absolute rejection of moral compromises with the Russian government, which she regarded as her nemesis.

When Russian President Vladimir Putin began his third term amid nationwide protests against rigged elections in 2011, Baulina started to feel increasingly restless in the lifestyle magazine world. “How can I be reviewing lace panties and lipstick when my elections have been stolen?” she asked a friend, lawyer Tatiana Solomina, as the latter recalls in an obituary.

In 2014, Baulina resigned from her position as a senior editor at the Russian edition of Conde Nast Traveler when the magazine, against her protest, decided to run a puff piece about the Crimean Peninsula shortly after its illegal annexation from Ukraine. Now, Baulina fully immersed herself in political activism: her truest passion and where she directed all of her superhuman energy and dedication. She went to every demonstration and joined—or started herself—any campaign she thought worthy. In 2016, she joined opposition politician Alexey Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, where she produced the organization’s YouTube shows. When she invited me to appear on the show, she not only pestered me until I agreed to come to the studio at her exact, specified time but also made me choose a background color on a Pantone wheel—and send her pictures of all my shirts so she could match one to the background, all to meet her precise standards of quality. In March 2017, while she was coordinating livestreams from the anti-corruption protests in Moscow and other Russian cities, police stormed the studio to arrest her. She spent seven days in a detention facility for “resisting an officer’s order.”

In 2018, I asked Baulina to join Coda Story, a Tbilisi-based international crisis reporting platform where I edited the project’s Russian-language edition. Her dedication and compassion shone once again when she produced a docuseries we called Generation Gulag, a collection of personal survivor testimonies of the Soviet system of industrialized cruelty. In a backstage video made by our then-colleague Katia Patin, we see Baulina preparing for an interview with Irina Verblovskaya, the widow of a Soviet dissident who refused to testify against her husband and was sent to a Siberian labor camp. Baulina gently brushes Verblovskaya’s hair. She wanted the 86-year-old woman to not just look perfect on camera but to feel beautiful.

We again parted ways in March 2019 when I joined Meduza but regularly stayed in touch. In August 2020, a few months before Navalny was arrested and his foundation declared “extremist” by the Russian authorities, Baulina emigrated to Poland, foreshadowing the mass exodus of Russia’s independent journalists and opposition activists since the beginning of Putin’s war, including my own escape. Lonely and homesick at first, she soon found an outlet for her passion by joining Belsat, a Russian-language news channel based in Warsaw, and then the Insider, a Russian investigative news site allied with Bellingcat and focused on exposing corruption and other wrongdoings among Russia’s ruling elite. She was on assignment in Ukraine for the Insider when she died.

She needed to bear witness to the evil committed by her own country, whose roots she saw early on and spent the final decade of her life actively opposing.

Our final conversations on Telegram were short, hurried exchanges about the logistics of covering what the Russian government has made illegal to call a war. One was about picking up an extra flak jacket for one of her colleagues in Kyiv; another was about where she could crash in Kyiv. Two days after we last chatted, she was killed by a piece of shrapnel to the head near a shopping mall in Kyiv, where she was filming the devastation wreaked by an earlier Russian bombing. It’s still unclear what exactly killed her. According to Ukrainian official data, it was a stray mortar shell fired toward Kyiv from a spot near Hostomel, the contested suburb northwest of Ukraine’s capital. A civilian passerby and a local policeman were also killed in the strike.

It didn’t even occur to me to ask Baulina if it was a good idea for a reporter like her—without conflict experience—to head straight into a war zone. But for Baulina, it wasn’t even an issue: She needed to be there on the ground and bear witness to the consequences of Russia’s brutal war against Ukraine and its civilians—an unspeakable evil committed by her own country, whose roots she saw early on and spent the final decade of her life actively opposing. Her final story for the Insider is a short dispatch from the front lines. But her colleague Timur Olevsky told me there’s still a trove of material to be recovered and posthumously released, including her interviews with captured Russian soldiers. She insisted the Ukrainian guards uncuff the prisoners—and gave them her phone to call home.

Baulina died at age 42. She is survived by her mother and sister in Russia.

Alexey Kovalev is an investigative editor at Meduza. Twitter: @Alexey__Kovalev

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