Russia ‘diary’: Media freedom and elections

 Marina Ovsyannikova

A video grab taken on March 15, 2022 showing Russian Channel One editor Marina Ovsyannikova holding a poster reading ‘Stop the war. Don’t believe the propaganda. Here they are lying to you’  during on-air TV studio by news anchor Yekaterina Andreyeva, Russia’s most-watched evening news broadcast, in Moscow on March 14. 

Photo credit: AFP

When I got the invite to go to the Alliance Francaise last week to watch the documentary film with the hard-hitting title ‘[email protected] This Job’ whose projection would be followed by a virtual Q&A with the actual filmmaker Vera Krichevskaya (now in exile from Moscow in London), I couldn’t have been more excited.

As one who has schooled in Russia, actually Sankt Petersburg, the city of literature where Ms Krichevskaya is from, the description of the movie ticked all the boxes of places and issues close to the mind.

[email protected] This Job’ is a colourful story about the rise and fall of Dozhd, the main and last independent Russian TV Channel run by the former Moscow socialite Natalya Sindeyeva.

This channel, set up in 2008, was officially labelled by the Russian regime as a ‘foreign agent’ and then completely banned on the eve of the current war.

In reality, nothing can prepare one for this searing 105-minute film.

Third husband

It starts off optimistically enough on the twilight of the ‘Fat Years’, the mid-2000s in Russia, when oil prices were doing well, the upper middle class actually becoming rich, Moscow socialites lighting up the scene like nocturnal fireworks, and investment bankers growing wealthy off the fat of the Mother Russia.

Socialite Natalya Sindeyeva had just married her third husband, KIT Bank Head of Investment Sasha Vinokurov, whom she had incidentally met at Stamford Bridge during a Chelsea FC game.

Having set up a successful radio station before called Silver Rain, Natalya Sindeyeva, now in her late thirties, embarked on setting up TV Rain, officiall dabbed ‘Dozhd : the Optimism Channel’.

For Natalya, the start of 2008 is a supremely optimistic time, with Russian president Vladimir Putin ‘leaving’ the presidency to his protege, Dmitry Medvedev, who is seen as the ‘Obama’ of Russia by certain liberals ; and her husband Sasha’s bank booming to bankroll her TV empire dream. ‘TV Dozhd’ hires top talent, and moves to an expensive tower in uptown Moscow.

But by the end of 2008, the global financial markets crash, and her husband’s bank, KIT, is smelted in the money market meltdown.

With nobody to ‘make it rain’ anymore, TV Rain is forced to move downtown to new premises – an old chocolate factory where Dozhd is on the first floor, sharing space with a brothel above them on the second floor of the building.

In a wryly humorous comment, the founding Editor-in-Chief of Dozhd TV Mikhail Zygar, an award-winning former war correspondent in the 2000s (covering massacres from Darfur to Uzbekistan) said : “Drevneyshiye v mire professi, press i prostitusiya, soshlis’ v odnom zdanii.” (Finally, the world’s two oldest professions, the press and prostitution, had come together in one home...)

The filmmaker Vera Krichevskaya, who was Natalya’s business partner and chief producer, left TV Rain after a year due to what she regarded as the station’s ocassional ‘over self-censorship’, but mostly because on the first anniversary of the station, Natalya Sindeyeva invited Russian president Medvedev as her VIP walk-in guest, never mind that Dozhd was supposed to be ‘anti Kremlin’.

But by 2012, no one could claim that it wasn’t the ‘most independent’ TV station in all of Russia.

As the Federation’s Roskomnadzor tightly controlled other television stations in the country, TV Rain went on what one can only describe as a ‘freedom rampage’ that gained it over seven million viewers, with its journalists reporting the anti ‘No return of the Gremlin to the Kremlin’ (Putin to the presidency) in 2012 from the streets, and when arrested, continuing the broadcasts from the back of police vans.

Moscow puppet

In 2014, while covering the overthrow of Moscow puppet Viktor Yanukovich, one of the Dozhd reporters screams ‘f*ck this job!’ as he is forced to run from clouds of tear-gas and an angry mob – hence the title of the film.

But it is the Kremlin, following TV Rain’s reportage of the events in the Ukraine, that really starts to screw Dozhd over by turning the regulatory screws on them, and taking them off air on the pretext of ‘patriotism’ after a programme (in which the hosts asks if ‘one million lives wouldn’t have been saved (from starvation) if Stalin had surrendered Leningrad to the Wehrmacht in 1942 ?’).

Dozhd is forced to go behind a paywall to survive, where they get just sixty thousand subscribers out of a population of 140 million, although they eventually defy Moscow on this!

The cost to Sasha Vinokurov, the main funder of Dozhd, in terms of both monetary and marital loss, even as Natalya becomes diagnosed with breast cancer (and entangled in tango), is enormous. A beautiful blonde presenter of TV Rain says: “Basically, I, we all, had no personal life for the decade. We had become a family for all our fights, then a kind of freedom cult...”

Press oppression

The process of press oppression of course goes on, across the board, in all of Russia (including inducing national amnesia by banning groups like ‘Memorial’ that archive WW2 and crimes of Stalin like mass starvation of Ukraine 90 years ago), culminating in the total ban of Dozhd a week after Russia started its invasion of the Ukraine on February 24 this year.

All of TV Rain’s journalists, save two, are now exiled all over Europe, but hope to get Dozhd back online next month, according to Vera Krichevskaya, who collated over 16 hours of footage across the years, and did the commentary to put together this excellent documentary film.

In Kenya, the French Ambassador Aline Kuster-Menager (through her Head of Press and Communication Ingrid Onzon-Kem) hopes to put on a session of the film, with other Kenyan journalists through the MCK to react to, especially in light of the ongoing aggression in Ukraine.

Regarding president Putin’s’legal’ longevity in power (until 2036), Vera Krichevskaya had this to say : “Kenyans should beware of any leader who comes into power promising goodies and freebies, but is already an enemy of the media. As we have learned in Russia, such a man can bribe and cajole to ‘constitutionally’ extend his tenure through the Duma (parliament).”

Then Kenya would be stuck with such a ‘Mugabe’ age-wise (and corrupt ‘Mobutu’, character-wise) until 2063.

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