There are many individual battles that tell the story of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, but few can have quite the fairytale resonance of Natalya Sindeyeva’s. A dancer as well as a defiant truth-teller, Sindeyeva has lived a life that feels a bit back to front: she first married her handsome prince and then all her struggles began.
Sindeyeva’s wedding took place at the Peterhof Palace in St Petersburg in 2006. She was the founder and voice of a celebrated non-stop music radio station and a fixture in style magazines; her new husband, Alexander “Sasha” Vinokurov, was part of the fabulously wealthy post-communist oligarchy, the young multimillionaire head of an investment bank who lived on a great estate outside Moscow. The celebration at the Peterhof involved a performance by dancers from a prominent ballet company, with Sindeyeva taking the lead. When that party ended, it seemed she might float away to any make-believe she chose.
What she decided to do was this: she would create an independent television channel that championed what she saw as a new youthful exuberance in Moscow society. The station, Dozhd, or TV Rain, would be drenched in attitude as much as news values and billed as “the optimistic channel”. Sindeyeva, with her fantasy lifestyle and her bright pink Porsche Cayenne, was determined to inject some of her life-loving energy into the restricted landscape of Russian state media. The promotional launch of the new channel featured her dancing barefoot on a rooftop in the rain.
Those chapters of her story are the opening scenes of a new documentary about Sindeyeva and TV Rain called [email protected] This Job, which was the headline act of last year’s Artdocfest in Moscow. The director of the festival, the veteran film-maker Vitaly Mansky, describes succinctly what happened next: “When Natalya started her journey with the Dozhd TV channel, she was naive enough to believe that it was possible to create independent, light and, let’s say, glamorous television in Russia,” he says. “Instead, this innocent young woman drove her Porsche into a war zone and her glamorous car got very dirty and hit by shrapnel.”
The documentary, which opens in UK cinemas this week and will be shown next month on the BBC, has been made by Vera Krichevskaya, who was among Sindeyeva’s first hires as an editor in the TV Rain newsroom. (“Natalya knew nothing about news,” Krichevskaya tells me. “She came from showbusiness.”) The film examines all the ways that Sindeyeva’s irresistible optimism went head to head with the Kremlin’s cynical authority. For a while, TV Rain was tolerated by the censors and included on all the digital broadcasting platforms.
Peter Pomerantsev, author of the seminal book about Russian media manipulation, Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible, recalls that time to me in this way: “There was a moment when it seemed that just maybe the future of Russia would not be determined by these crazy KGB guys. At that moment, TV Rain and Sindeyeva seemed to have the zeitgeist, improvised and hipsterish – they represented that reforming, optimistic tone. Not many voices in Russia ever say ‘We can change things’, but they were very much the hub of that possibility.”
Sindeyeva’s hopes for that new Russia rested on Dmitry Medvedev, who was president, in name at least, alongside prime minister Putin from 2008 and in some ways a modernising force who looked to build relationships in the west. After the 2012 presidential election, however, when Medvedev was replaced by Putin, who had forced changes to the constitution to enable himself to return to power, that hope disappeared.
With mass protests over rigged elections on the streets of Russian cities, Sindeyeva had a choice to make: which side are you on? TV Rain sent its reporters out to give live-streamed reports of the protests that were being ignored on the national news. Several reporters were arrested and continued coverage on their mobile phones from the back of police vans. That anarchic spirit went on to inform the ways in which TV Rain covered all subsequent opposition demonstrations, as well as events in Chechnya and Ukraine (the title of the documentary, F@ck This Job, comes from a live phrase uttered by a lone frontline reporter when he came under fire from Russian-backed troops during the 2013 democracy riots in Kyiv). The station became, too, a vocal champion of LGBTQ+ rights at a time when laws were introduced making the public expression of same-sex relationships illegal.
In predictable response, Putin’s state set about intimidating Sindeyeva and slowly starving TV Rain of its audience. The station was, overnight in 2014, removed from cable networks and digital packages (after the broadcast of a discussion programme, which was deemed “anti-patriotic”, about whether surrender at the siege of Leningrad would have changed the course of the second world war). Its regular audience of 10 million collapsed. In a period when the murders of dozens of investigative journalists were left unsolved, however, the channel continued to resist efforts to silence it and created an online platform with a subscription model. When its headquarters were shut down and no one would offer studio space, it broadcast for a time from Sindeyeva’s apartment.
Last week, I spoke to Sindeyeva in that apartment about TV Rain’s long decade and about her continuing efforts to make it a small – and optimistic – voice of truth.
By Zoom from Moscow she still wears the smile that illuminated her wedding videos, but the wide-eyed innocence that accompanied it has been replaced by a far wearier edge of experience. She recently turned 50 and the last couple of years have been particularly tough for her. She announced live on her own TV Rain show in February 2020 that she had breast cancer and was taking some time off for treatment and surgery. Since then, her marriage to Sasha, partner in all her adventures, has ended.
Meanwhile, the attacks on TV Rain have intensified. In August last year, she and her staff were officially declared a “foreign agent” by the Kremlin. Last month, Putin’s thuggish stooge in Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, denounced the station’s journalists as “terrorists” who should be “destroyed”. Most recently, the state ordered that all TV Rain’s archived coverage of opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s investigations into high-level corruption must be destroyed. With translation help from a TV Rain editor, Sindeyeva talks me through some of these latest trials.
“We definitely are entering a different landscape,” she says. “I guess it really started from the jailing of Navalny last year. Every time we think it cannot get worse, it gets worse. Many journalists have left the country recently, other people, just associates of Navalny’s organisation, have been arrested. Putin is always moving the borders of what is allowed…”
When she was classed as a foreign agent, Sindeyeva responded with an open letter stating: “Rain is almost 200 people who, just like me, love their country, cheer for it and want Russia to become better – more humane, safer, fairer, more honest, richer, freer. And I’m sure the approximately 20 million people who watch and read us on different platforms every month want the same thing as we do. You can joke as much as you like about the status of ‘foreign agent’ and call it a ‘seal of excellence’. But, in fact, all this is terrible. It is quite awful when the state divides people into ‘friends’ and ‘strangers’.”
The latest round of attacks escalated her sense of personal threat that came after the murder of the opposition leader Boris Nemtsov in 2015. That event, she has recalled elsewhere, “brought the physical feeling of fear. There had been warning signs before – a car following me after one of our stories came out, things like that. But when Nemtsov was killed, it became an existential fear. You start thinking to yourself, ‘Well, how long will they wait before killing someone else?’”
In the face of that, I wonder if Sindeyeva has been surprised by her own courage, by her determination to stay in Moscow and keep TV Rain alive…
She smiles. “To be honest, that has surprised me. I found out many new things about myself in the past few years. I always believed I was an open-hearted person, with a strong sense of justice. But I didn’t really think that I was brave. I keep on asking myself: why are you not afraid? And my answer to that question is that I have no choice. That gives me a sense of enormous calm. There is no fear. I don’t think I am a hero, though Dozhd does some heroic things.”
Krichevskaya’s film portrays this growing resolution beautifully. “I have to be honest,” says Krichevskaya, who is now based in London. “I didn’t consider either Natalya or her husband were serious people to start with. I wasn’t interested in their opinion on politics or stuff in the news. But later, especially after the Leningrad siege scandal, I started understanding that they had changed. They were always driven by justice. Sure, they didn’t always have a clear political agenda. But what was most important for them? To be honest.”
Krichevskaya describes the golden couple as products of the “fat years” of wild prosperity among the Russian elite before the global financial crash of 2008. I wonder if their political awakening is rare among the oligarchs who benefited from that great windfall?
“In Russia, this couple is completely unique,” she says. “Many oligarchs from different fields, they thought about Sasha as a really stupid guy who has allowed himself to be led by his wife, which is completely unacceptable in Russia.”
The film details how, over successive years, that journey cost Natalya and Sasha and their two children almost everything. The had to sell the big estate and the glass-walled mansion as they poured their money into keeping TV Rain alive. It must, I suggest to Sindeyeva, have been a very hard thing to watch that happen again on a screen having lived through it?
“Those decisions weren’t so hard,” she says. “Because when we were selling our house, the audience for the channel was growing. We didn’t see it as some sort of a tragedy.” She describes the decision to end their marriage last year as a mutual one, brought about in part by the pressure of running the business. “Both of us were unhappy,” she says of the last act of that fairytale. “But we are still friends. We keep on talking to each other. And perhaps we didn’t totally close that door.”
One compensation has been that she still has her family in the newsroom at TV Rain to rely on. Even after her successful cancer treatment she sees no separation between work and home. “If ever somebody leaves Dozhd, they’re still part of my family. I think of them all as ‘raindrops’. We’ve been through a lot and are all part of this bigger thing.”
Have there been moments when she thought of giving up?
“The main crisis was when the cable operators just switched us off,” she says. “And there was a moment when I wanted to quit everything. That was the day when our landlord in the Red October district, in the very centre of Moscow, said that we were no longer allowed to work there. But that despair lasted, I guess, for 24 hours or so.” Since then, she says, no doubt just as the state intended, the frustrations have been drip-fed, as the station has become more isolated. The dangers then become that “we are tired of each other and we tired of the war that was going for so long”.
The latest episode in that war is the film itself. The preview screenings gave something of a taste of the political climate in which it is being released, in which Putin seems determined to silence all opposition in advance of his move to secure power for a further 12 years after the 2024 elections. The Artdocfest was disrupted by a series of threats and protests from violent pro-Kremlin activists and anti-gay protesters, who broke up the screening of films about Chechnya and Ukraine. Mansky was physically assaulted by one thug, but the festival director persisted with the sold-out screening of [email protected] This Job.
The film gets a wider release in Russia next month, with a series of screenings that will be attended by Sindeyeva and Krichevskaya. I suggest to the director that it seems a particularly significant and precarious moment for that short tour, not least because the presentation of TV Rain’s vibrant newsroom reminds viewers both at home and abroad what an alternative vision of what Russia could look like…
“One of my big motivations to make this film for a western audience,” she says, “was to tell you guys that despite what you see on the news, we are not freaks, not all of us. I live in London and my children go to school here. After each recent crisis, it has been easier for me to tell the other school mothers that we’re from Ukraine rather than Russia, just to avoid questions. Some people can’t imagine that we might be normal and live in a free way. The cliche of Russia is so bad.”
I ask how the audience responded to the film when it was first shown last year, and Krichevskaya’s voice chokes a bit with emotion. “I got hundreds and hundreds of letters and emails from professionals, from media, saying that it represented all their stories. Afterwards, everyone was crying. People want to cry together about our hopes, why we didn’t achieve what we wanted…”
She says that for the first time in her life, she saw Sindeyeva lost for words. When I ask Sindeyeva about that moment on our Zoom call, she falls silent for a moment again as she collects her thoughts.
“One thing was,” she says eventually, “that ever since 2014 all the state propaganda is always doing some fake news about Rain or about me. Saying that we are owned by Americans, or Ukrainians, making personal attacks.” Watching herself on film dancing with Sasha, seeing herself having scans for her cancer, reminded her, she suggests, not only of all the lies that had been told but of the sacrifices they had made. “I guess there is a large number of people here who believe the lies,” she said. “But there are also thousands of people who have stayed loyal to us.”
And what about her optimism, had that survived the decade?
“I’ve always been optimistic and I’m still optimistic,” she says. “For me, this means that there is always some hope, that the good guys will take over eventually. But also there is one more important thing to say about that. Optimism is not dreaming, it also says, ‘Get your ass up from the chair and try to make things happen.’”