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Investigative journalist Elena Loginova on balancing reporting on Russian war crimes and Ukrainian corruption amidst the invasion of her country

Investigative journalist Elena Loginova navigates the complexities of reporting on war crimes and corruption during the Ukrainian invasion while balancing the need for accountability and uncovering the truth. Elena Loginova joined Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) in 2017 as an investigative reporter. She has been a team member on the Paradise Papers, FinCEN Files, and Pandora Papers projects. Elena also worked as a filmmaker for Slidstvo.Info, an OCCRP member center in Ukraine.

Iain Overton: When did you start working as a journalist?

investigative journalist, conflict reporting, internal corruption, societal dynamics, data analysis, human interest stories, financial investigations, Russian involvement, database development, storytelling, war reporting, information verification, journalistic challenges, media ethics, Elena Loginova

Elena Loginova: About 11 years ago. It wasn’t right after university though. Before that, I had various jobs. It took me some time to figure out what I really wanted to do.

Iain Overton: What kind of jobs were you doing?

Elena Loginova: Well, I worked for a delivery company. I was a customer service representative, dealing with phone calls and deliveries. I also worked as a personal assistant for a guy running a company. Oh, and I was a lifeguard too. Yeah, it was in Texas, but that was a long time ago. I was quite confused about my career path back then.

Iain Overton: You currently work for the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, right?

Elena Loginova: Yes, that’s correct. I’ve been working with them since 2015, and full-time since 2017.

Iain Overton: Would you consider yourself an investigative journalist? And did you always focus on national or international issues before the invasion?

Elena Loginova: I don’t think I had a specific focus. I worked on stories about criminals, murders of journalist and activists. I also participated in big leaks like the Pandora Papers, Paradise Papers, and the Russian and Azerbaijani Laundromats. Before the full-scale invasion, I was particularly interested in international stories. I still believe we live in one world, where global corruption has local consequences, even though my perspective shifted a bit in early 2022.

Iain Overton: Ukraine isn’t without its own complexities and challenges. Despite that, there is a strong global sentiment in support of Ukraine given the invasion. Have you considered this tension as a journalist? That to criticise Ukraine now – through exposes of corruption – might be seen as somehow unpatriotic?

Elena Loginova: Just before the full-scale invasion, I published a story about President Volodymyr Zelensky and his connections with oligarch Igor Kolomoisky. International reporters reached out to me for comments on that story because they were doing profiles on Zelensky and it was a moment of realisation for me. I had to think about the context – criticising Ukraine’s President in the midst of an invasion. Of course, when you’re facing imminent danger, discussing offshore deals may not be a priority. However, I also had a colleague from Romania, Ramona Puiulet, who told me about some shady grain deals happening at the border between Ukraine and Romania. She suggested investigating that. I was torn between focusing on the war crimes and human lives versus economic crimes. In the end, I decided to pursue both aspects because I believe they are all interconnected.

Iain Overton: That’s a complex situation indeed. Have you faced any criticism or accusations of being unpatriotic or not focusing enough on the actions of the Russians?

Elena Loginova: Surprisingly, no. The situation is such that there are so many things happening simultaneously that people don’t even have time to reflect on one big issue before another arises.

Iain Overton: So the war becomes the ultimate distraction, preventing people from addressing internal corruption or smaller scandals?

Elena Loginova: Exactly. There are scandals happening every day. For example, I recently read a story about a Ukrainian millioniare leaving the country with a fake disability certificate and going to climb Everest. It’s a bizarre situation. Meanwhile, my story might seem a bit complex and hard as it focuses on shell companies involved in grain exports. Ukrainians must have mixed feelings about corruption. While they consider Russia the external enemy, corruption remains an internal issue that shouldn’t be forgotten. It’s a complicated dynamic within our society.

Iain Overton: It’s interesting how war can either change people’s behaviour or present an opportunity for those who are already inclined to engage in corruption. Now, after the invasion, did you end up reporting on the war itself or did you primarily continue your investigations?

Elena Loginova: Initially, when I joined OCCRP, I was mainly focused on investigations. However, I had moments of contemplation. For instance, I had a conversation with my sources, and it made me realise that while people were experiencing these atrocities, the oligarch’s behaviour and tendencies hadn’t changed. Some individuals continued to steal and engage in corrupt practices. It was disheartening. I sometimes even feel naive, thinking that people would change in such war circumstances. But last spring, early summer, I decided that if they didn’t stop robbing the country and making shady deals, I should continue my previous work.

Iain Overton: So it seems that some individuals persist in their corrupt behaviours despite the ongoing war. Have you encountered any challenges or difficulties in your reporting?

Elena Loginova: Yes, there have been challenges. With so much happening, it’s hard for people to prioritise or reflect deeply on one issue before another arises. The pace of events makes it difficult for society to process everything fully.

Iain Overton: Did you focus on the war itself or have you mainly continued your investigation?

Elena Loginova: I was at our member center called Slidstvo.Info. I recall attending a meeting in early February. My friend Anna Babinets, who’s the editor in chief, asked people about their plans if the invasion started. Many wanted to be war reporters but I didn’t. I had some doubts about whether it’s right not to go to the front line, but then I realised that from our team, no one was doing such investigations as I do. So it was better for me to use my experience in that direction, which could be more useful than being on the front line.

In addition, my source gave me a list of around 150,000 Russian soldiers allegedly involved in the war in Ukraine. I wanted to publish it quickly, but my colleagues and editors stopped me. They said we needed to check out all these serious accusations. That’s when I thought about creating an institutional memory, not an investigation, but a space where you can see all investigations about war crimes. So we made this database with Slidstvo.Info. This database is growing every day with data about Russians who are involved in the fighting or are now in captivity.

Iain Overton: So you’ve helped create a database to really hold the Russians accountable when the war ends?

Elena Loginova: Yes, I don’t want to meet these people after we win the war at some London conference (laughs).

Iain Overton: Are you seeking to uncover who’s funding the war or how the war has been funded? Is there a financial element that you’re looking at in this data set?

Elena Loginova: I haven’t done such investigation about financing the war yet, but I hope they will be in the future.

Iain Overton: So what is your main focus at the moment? Is it developing these datasets?

Elena Loginova: The dataset is developing by itself. I just want to somehow automate it. So I’m looking for ideas on how to improve it. It’s also a kind of map where you can see Russian units and track how far they traveled to kill Ukrainians.

Iain Overton: Are there things that you can look back on and go – the skills I developed during the Panama Papers or other big exposés – I’ve used the same skills to continue doing this war-focused reporting?

Elena Loginova: The techniques are the same. It’s about analyzing data and being a bit creative in turning it into a story. For example, we did a story about a Telegram chat used by residents of a block in Bucha during the 33 days when Bucha was surrounded by Russians. It was a lot of data, and it contained very human stories.

Iain Overton: It’s interesting how you used a vast trove of data to uncover human interest stories. That’s the same sort of approach you would have used for other big datasets but trying to humanize something.

Elena Loginova: Yes, indeed. For instance, using satellite imagery to prove the presence of a yellow bus carrying dead Ukrainian civilians.

There are other challenges, too. Once the war started, much of the financial and company data that we had previously used to report from became locked, with people citing national security concerns, and this created a significant obstacle for quick stories. So, while it’s still possible to access some information, it requires more time than simply opening an official document.

Iain Overton: Do you think that some people might have been using the war as an excuse to cover up the growing transparency in this country?

Elena Loginova: Certainly. It’s just more convenient for them.

Iain Overton: Have you ever contemplated leaving Ukraine and living in the UK as a refugee?

Elena Loginova: I love this country. Despite the corruption, there are many good people in my community. Before the war, I felt I could live anywhere, but now I yearn for home. There’s something – strangely – about being in your own country that makes you feel safe, even when it’s at war.

Iain Overton: Are you afraid of repercussions from your investigations? That exposing a multimillionaire Ukrainian thug might have consequences?

Elena Loginova: I’m not frightened because at OCCRP, we have a lot of security trainings. I know how to protect my technical information and my physical wellbeing. This is just my regular job. It’s unpredictable things, like drone strikes, that I can’t control that scare me.

Iain Overton: So you can control people knowing about your whereabouts, but you can’t really control a random Russian missile strike?

Elena Loginova: Exactly, no one can protect you from that.

Iain Overton: As an investigative journalist, have you considered looking at what’s driving Russian ambition? For instance, I’ve written about the covetousness some Russians might have for Ukrainian land. Are you interested in investigating the military-industrial complex behind the Russian invasion, or who’s profiting from the Russian perspective?

Elena Loginova: I know colleagues who are doing that, but I haven’t personally delved into it.

Iain Overton: So what’s your current focus? What do you see yourself focusing on in the next few months?

Elena Loginova: I don’t like to talk about plans, as they might not materialize. But currently, I’m working on a piece about a Ukrainian oligarch.

Iain Overton: Are you optimistic that what you’re doing now is to ensure a better future for Ukraine by challenging its corruption, even in the midst of war?

Elena Loginova: Yes. Looking at Russia, we see the impact of corruption on a country. It can lead to serious crimes, and even can lead to war.

I think it’s better to fight every day for improvement – far better than to merely exist in a country like Russia. That is not life, that’s mere existence.

The travel for this article was generously funded by a Justice for Journalists Foundation Grant. All editorial control remained with AOAV.