20 years under Putin: a timeline

Prominent TV presenter and star of the so-called “old” NTV channel, Evgeny Kiselev has been living and working in Kiev since 2008. He was one of the first Russian journalists who was forced out of Putin’s political system. Kiselev spoke with IMR’s Olga Melnikova about the future of journalism in Russia, Kremlin propaganda, his life as an emigrant, and his chances of returning to Russia.


According to Evgeny Kiselev, today’s Russia reminds of Germany in the 1930s. Photo: inter.ua


From Moscow to Kiev

Olga Melnikova: Evgeny Alexandrovich, do you think of yourself as an emigrant?

Evgeny Kiselev: Yes and no. I came to Kiev as a migrant worker. Allow me to elaborate on the history of my career after the crackdown on the so-called “old” NTV in 2001 and the split-up of the editorial team. Part of the team, including myself, managed to stay on television for two more years, working at TV-6 (which later became TVS), but in the summer of 2003, this channel was taken away from us. I was made to understand that in the changing political situation both in Russia and in Russian television, I had become a persona non grata.

OM: How did they make you understand this?

EK: That’s a separate story. Konstantin Ernst offered me a job at Channel One, making auteur documentaries on historical topics in the same style that I was using when I worked for the “old” NTV. I’ve made about ten films—All-Russian President, The Afghan Trap, Andropov, Stealing Fire, Taganka With and Without Its Master, The Knight of the Oval Cabinet—many of which can now be found on the Internet. On the day when we were supposed to meet with Ernst to finalize the offer, I received a call from his receptionist, who informed me that our meeting had to be postponed for another day, and that they would notify me of the exact time. It’s been 18 years, and no one has called me yet. I’m joking, of course. But I’m not offended. I don’t know the details, but according to my sources, some high-profile Kremlin bosses persistently recommended to Ernst that he not have any business with me.

OM: After leaving TVS, you also worked at the Moscow News.

EK: Yes, right before the infamous Yukos case, I received an offer from Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Leonid Nevzlin to head the Moscow News. But the newspaper didn’t last long under the pressure [of the Yukos trial]. Thus, I became a freelance journalist. I hosted shows on the Ekho Moskvy radio station and wrote articles and op-eds for GQ, Forbes, Vedomosti, and the New Times. Professionally, it was a very important time for me. My ill-wishers used to spread rumors that I was no journalist at all, that I couldn’t put two words together on paper, and that the only thing I could do was to read the teleprompter. During that period, all doubt about my ability to write disappeared.

OM: How did you come to work for RTVi?

EK: I was invited by [former owner of NTV] Vladimir Gusinsky to host a program. RTVi is a global, satellite Russian-language channel that Gusinsky launched in the United States in 2002, after he fled Russia. About a year and a half later, Gusinsky also offered me a job in Ukraine, and I ended up at the newly launched Ukrainian channel TVi. The project didn’t succeed, but I got lucky one more time: the largest Ukrainian TV channel, called “Inter,” invited me to host their major weekly political talk show. Since then, I’ve been constantly living and working in Kiev.

OM: Do you ever come to Moscow?

EK: The longer I lived in Kiev, the more rarely I visited Moscow. After [my trip there] this February, I stopped going at all. It simply became unsafe for me to travel to Moscow. At the end of February, I went because I felt like I really ought to say good-bye to [former U.S. ambassador to Russia] Michael McFaul. Michael is an old acquaintance of mine; we’ve known each other for two decades. I really wanted to shake his hand and wish him a happy return to California. On the very next day after my return from Moscow, a peaceful agreement was signed in Kiev. But Maidan [protesters] declined it and demanded that Yanukovich resign. So, finally, Yanukovich fled Kiev. And I haven’t been in Moscow since then.

OM: Was it hard for you to adjust to life as an émigré in the beginning?

EK: It is very hard to change a country, adjust to a new home, a new circle of friends. But, you know, the social circle isn’t the most important thing for me. It had already gotten split up in Moscow: some friends went a different way, some passed away, some moved abroad, some became people whose hand you no longer wanted to shake. Besides, as you grow older, you realize that there are very few people around whom you can call real friends—the ones who in a time of trouble would call you first and offer help. When I came to work in Kiev in 2008, I felt, as I have already mentioned, like a migrant worker. But the situation was different then. It was a time of hope that Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency would bring a political “thaw.” New opportunities in journalism had emerged and new online media had appeared, like Snob and Slon.ru. Still, the protests in Bolotnaya Square and at Sakharov Prospect happened during Medvedev’s time. I personally hoped that I wouldn’t be in Kiev for long and that soon I would get an opportunity to work in Russia again. Today, six and a half years later, I have begun to think of myself as a free-will emigrant.


“Collective enlightenment”

OM: Did the situation become harder for you after the “thaw” ended?

EK: Yes, today, even in Kiev, it’s not easy to work. It’s very hard to stay out of the struggle, no matter what the professional standards demand. It is very difficult for a journalist in a situation when the direction the country is heading in has already been decided. For example, how should Ukrainian journalists stay objective when Russia takes away parts of their own country’s territories? How should they show both sides of the war objectively when it’s happening in eastern Ukraine—especially when pro-Russian separatists often see the journalist as an enemy whom they should kill or at least take hostage. It is also impossible to think of employees of the Russian propagandist media as journalists, especially when they dress in camouflage, take machine guns, and pose in front of TV cameras. Or remember the recent case when [Russian] actor Mikhail Porechenkov put on a helmet with a “Press” sign on it and shot at Ukrainian military positions using a heavy-caliber machine gun—not with blank charge, but with real armor-piercing incendiary charge. He might be a good actor, but what is he doing?

OM: What do you think happened to the Russian people who support Porechenkov?

EK: What happened to the people in Germany in the 1930s? Today, Russia reminds me of Germany in the ’30s, version 2.0. Of course, it’s not an exact copy, and historical parallels are always risky. But people have surely been fooled. Sooner or later, an awakening will happen, [and there will be] a heavy hangover. Sooner or later, they will repent. We’ve been through this before.

OM: What do you mean?

EK: In the late 1980s, during one episode of a program entitled Meetings in the Ostankino Concert Studio, the late academic Dmitry Likhachev gave a brilliant answer to a question from the audience about what was the most insulting thing to him. He said, “Collective enlightenment.” Such “collective enlightenment” can be observed today. It can be seen inside the circle of Russian liberals who used to reproach those few who criticized Putin [when he had just come to power]. Or we can [see it in] journalists. I won’t name any names, but even among the authors of today’s sharp-edged articles, op-eds, and blogs that slam Putin’s regime, there are plenty of those who used to passionately praise Vladimir Vladimirovich and fight for a place in the Kremlin’s media pool. And how many of those [individuals] used to actively assist him in developing his domestic and foreign policy?!

OM: Like Gleb Pavlovsky, for example.

EK: That is the brightest and most obvious example. But I wouldn’t deny a person’s right to change his or her views and become wiser.


Profession: reporter

OM: During a lecture [you delivered] to the students of the Free School of Journalism here in Kiev, you named Alfred Kokh among the authors whom you read regularly and with interest. At the same time, it was Kokh who actively participated in the crackdown on the “old” NTV. How have you managed to revise your relationships with people who played a low-down trick on you in your life?

EK: I assume it comes with age. What Kokh writes today—and I believe he writes sincerely, confidently, and with talent—makes me forgive him everything. Honestly. I confess my admiration: “Alik, well done! You have reinvented yourself.” But there are also people whom I can never forgive. And there are people who bring out strong disgust in me.

OM: May I ask you who those people are?

EK: For example, Oleg Dobrodeev, for what he has done to Russian television. If it were 1945, he would have been tried for his misdeeds in a Nuremberg-style process. But, well, never say never.

OM: What has happened to Russian television, in your opinion? Do the editors of the national state-controlled channels actually believe what they say? Or is it a just a paid job—[for example,] inventing stories about crucified boys?

EK: Did you read the recent interview with Tatiana Mitkova in Forbes? It is absolutely repellent, and I don’t even want to discuss it. But one thing in this text made me feel good: I found out that one of my former colleagues didn’t sell out, didn’t descend to the point of licking the shoes of the highest Kremlin authorities. Mitkova complains that “Slava Grunsky, who couldn’t find himself, quit the profession; the man has vanished, gone. Some say he’s hitchhiking somewhere in America.” What a stupid woman! Slava Grunsky was one of our best war correspondents—a tall, handsome, fearless guy; all the girls were crazy about him—and is now happy and free. He used to spend months reporting from Sarajevo, Grozny, the Middle East. And now he has enough guts to say “the heck with it” [to the crackdown on the free media] and go hitchhiking in America. And he’s not the only one. Sergei Gaponov is one of those tough guys who seemed to like nothing better than to take a trip to Chechnya as a reporter—he lives in Germany now. Judging from what he writes on Facebook, this was a conscious choice: he doesn’t want to be a part of that crap, if you will excuse my language—what the Russian pro-government journalism has become in Russia today. Just a couple of days ago, I read an interview in Moskovsky Komsomolets with another former NTV correspondent, Boris Koltsov, who now lives in New York. He says, “I’d rather be a taxi driver here than go back to Moscow. I’m very aware that working conditions have fundamentally changed back there. And I think that if I came back, I’d be labeled as the ‘fifth column’. Do I really need this?”

Putin had created his own media zoo. If a Western leader comes to visit Russia and starts blaming him for strangling the freedom of the press, Putin can take that person on a tour of that “zoo.”

OM: So does it really mean that we’ve got only one choice—quit the profession and leave the country?

EK: There are not enough opportunities for everyone [from Russian journalism] in the foreign media. It is also impossible for everyone to go work at Ekho Moskvy or TV Rain. Besides, no one knows what will happen to these two [remaining independent media outlets] soon. I think Putin hasn’t shut them down because he still needs some imitation of freedom of the press. About ten years ago, a politician from the opposition joked to me that Putin had created his own media zoo. If a Western leader comes to visit Russia and starts blaming him for strangling the freedom of the press, Putin can take that person on a tour of that “zoo.” “In this cage I keep independent radio, and in this one oppositional television. Here is a cage for a magazine for intellectuals, and this large aviary is for independent newspapers—a big one. See how many species we’ve got—and you are telling me that freedom of the press is being strangled!” Now Putin has reduced that “zoo” to a Kunstkamera. Do you remember how Peter the Great had a Kunstkamera—a collection of freaks, such as a newborn calf with two heads? Now independent—not even critical or oppositional—media outlets in Russia are becoming showpieces from a Kunstkamera, like some freak preserved in alcohol. Today, the items on display in Putin’s Kunstkamera are Novaya Gazeta, Ekho Moskvy, and TV Rain. So Putin can say, “Ladies and gentlemen, don’t you say that we haven’t got any independent media.”

ОМ: Perhaps this situation illustrates that the system has its flaws?

EK: If Putin wanted to, he could fire Alexei Venediktov and appoint Margarita Simonyan to head Ekho Moskvy, and that would be a totally different radio station. If someone [from the government] came and made an offer to Natalya Sindeeva [general director of TV Rain] that she couldn’t turn down, and if the government bought out the TV channel, it would be a totally different TV Rain. Again, like they say in The Godfather: it’s just business, nothing personal.


The Choice

OM: This is what happened to Lenta.Ru and RIA Novosti...

EK: It happened to Lenta.ru, RIA Novosti, Kommersant. You know that even better than I. But I’m neither a politician nor a civil activist. I’m a journalist, a political commentator, an analyst. I know how to do my job, but in today’s Russia, I’ve got no opportunities to earn money. I found an opportunity to work according to the standards of my profession in Kiev. That’s why I’m here today. No one in Russia has offered me a job like that for over ten years now. They might have offered, but [it would have been] in return for a public recantation. About ten years ago, one Russian democratic politician actually gave me the Kremlin’s “message”: if I agreed to repent, I’d get a job. If I didn’t agree, I wouldn’t.

OM: To repent for what?

EK: For being wrong in my criticism of the Kremlin and its master. I could kiss Vladimir Putin’s shoe and tell him: you are great and almighty, like Goodwin; you are exactly the kind of president that Russia needs; you are doing everything right. I could begin serving him with sincerity, like, for example, Vladimir Solovyov does. Or I could do what Andrei Norkin did—write a loyalist satire about my former colleagues.

OM: Many believed that Norkin betrayed himself and his colleagues and couldn’t believe that he did so.

EK: But he did. First, there was that satire—an open letter about the situation of TV Rain. Then Norkin was offered a job at Russia-24 TV channel, and then he became an anchor of the “new” NTV—the NTV of the Putin period, the era of “the great glaciation.” And this is the same Andrei Norkin who used to pound his chest defending the “old” NTV from Putin. What a shame and a disgrace. There’s nothing else I can say. A shame and a disgrace.

OM: Don’t you feel any anger because you have to work outside of Russia?

EK: No, why should I? I’ve got an interesting job, a comfortable life. I like living in Kiev. It’s a lot cheaper than Moscow. In the summer, there’s a great variety of fruits and vegetables. Every day there are direct flights to any European capital—the flight is an hour shorter, and the tickets are, again, cheaper. Spring begins here a month earlier, and fall a month later. The winter is warmer, and the sky isn’t as low and grey as it is in Moscow. Kiev is a big city with the feeling of a European capital, but the distances are not as long as in Moscow—they are sort of more suitable for humans. There are no terrible traffic jams like in Moscow. Kiev is a very green city with a flare of the old times, and I like cities like that. The windows of my apartment overlook the garden of the Pokrovsky Convent. A huge apple orchard is located underneath my windows, and there are century-old acacias and chestnuts, too. I can’t see anything but that garden and the domes of the Nickolaevsky Cathedral from my windows, and my alarm clock is the monastery’s bell-tower. I’m not a religious person—on the contrary, I’m an atheist of Soviet descent, and I haven’t found my way to faith, to God—but there I get some mysterious feeling that this place is prayerful. The energy is very pleasant there.

OM: Do you speak Ukrainian?

EK: I don’t speak [Ukrainian], unfortunately, but I understand it. Many native Ukrainians wonder why it is so hard for a Russian to learn Ukrainian. But the thing is that only those who live in a bilingual environment from childhood succeed in it easily. When one begins to learn Ukrainian as a foreign language from scratch, especially when one is an aging person past fifty, like me, Russian only impedes the learning. Unfortunately, I’ve always been bad at languages, however paradoxical it might sound. There is also another thing. I wouldn’t want to look like Bulgakov’s character Talberg [from The White Guard], who, judging from his last name, descended from the Baltic barons but tried to appear Ukrainian. In the novel, [Talberg’s] relatives noticed that he was doing some exercises on paper and that there was a textbook on the Ukrainian language on his desk. ... Even though here, in Ukraine, they call me a Russian journalist sometimes, I correct them—I’m a Ukrainian journalist of Russian origin. My main job is in the Ukrainian media. No one would think of calling Vladimir Pozner an American or a French journalist in Russia.


To whom does Crimea belong?

OM: They say that Ukrainians test Russians on whether they are sincere by asking them a simple question: To whom does Crimea belong?

EK: That’s true. And my answer to this question would be clear and explicit: Crimea belongs to Ukraine. It was illegally annexed by Russia on an absolutely deceitful pretext—the alleged threat to ethnic Russians in Crimea (which was not true)—and with the help of military forces (the “green people”) and lies (a hastily organized and profaned “referendum”). I don’t see any difference between what Putin did to Crimea and how Saddam Hussein annexed Kuwait (and the whole world, including the USSR, rose up against him). I believe that one day, Crimea will have to be returned to Ukraine with no conditions or reservations, just like Alsace and Lorraine were once returned to France and the Sudetenland to Czechoslovakia.

OM: Early in the last century, some Russian emigrants decided not to purchase any property abroad. People continued to live in hotels, waiting for the fall of the [Soviet] regime and a chance to return to their motherland. Are you waiting for the collapse of the regime? Would you like to return?

EK: Those who never unpacked [because they were] waiting for the fall of the Soviet regime might have wasted their best years. If anything changes in Russia, I might visit it again or might even come back for good. I repeat—never say never. The history of our motherland repeatedly teaches us the lesson of how rapidly things change. I like giving the following example. In 1913, Russia was widely and solemnly celebrating the three hundredth anniversary of the reign of the Romanovs. Patriotic enthusiasm was on the rise, and the czar-emperor seemed united with his Orthodox people. Bells tolled. Sacred celebrations happened across Russia. If at that point someone had said, “Wake up! This country will fall into pieces in four years, the emperor and his whole family and household will be killed in a basement, brother will fight against brother, and the country will be awash in blood,” this person would have been considered completely mad. But things turned out exactly this way.

OM: If the Germans were told in 1930s that there would be concentration camps in their country’s territory, [as well as the] SS and the Gestapo, and that later Germany would be divided into four zones and Berlin would lay in ruins, no one would have believed it either, right?

EK: Right, it was the same when perestroika had just begun in our country and someone would tell us how it would end—such a prophet would also be laughed at. Even the most well-informed, thinking, keen people couldn’t anticipate how rapidly events would develop. I remember in the fall of 1989 being at a public talk with the late Vladimir Tsvetov, a wonderful journalist who worked in Japan, studied it, and wrote several great books about it. At that time, he then was very convincing in explaining why there would be no changes anytime soon in the German Democratic Republic, Czechoslovakia, Romania, or Bulgaria, despite the fact that reforms had been actively implemented in Hungary and Poland. And then, just a few days later, the Berlin Wall fell, and events followed the domino effect: [the Soviet regime fell in] Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Bulgaria. But even then, we still couldn’t imagine what was awaiting us in 1991. And you would have laughed at any man who said that on the first day of the putsch of the GKChP [State Committee of the State of Emergency], August 19, he wasn’t scared and knew ahead of time that everything would come to an end in three days and the members of the GKChP would fail in their coup. Many people were scared that the GKChP had come to stay and that soon someone would come knocking on their doors and arrests would start.

OM: Today, people are also afraid of arrests, the closing of borders, and prohibition of the use of foreign currency.

EK: The logic of the regime suggests, of course, that it will tighten the screws, try to limit currency exchange, and return to “exit permits” [an administrative procedure for foreign travel], like in the Soviet times; Internet access might get complicated, like in Iran or China. It might be even restricted fully. You should read Day of the Oprichnik and The Sugar Kremlin by Vladimir Sorokin—these are absolutely prophetic novels. That is why I tell all of my friends, acquaintances, and relatives: If you get a chance, move abroad.

OM: Do you think it’s time?

EK: I admire people who remain optimistic and keep their wish to fight. I think it’s wrong to demand a heroic self-sacrifice of every person with democratic feeling and to deny them the right to be named a democrat or a liberal just because they are not ready to fight. That is undemocratic and illiberal. Sometimes I get angry with myself for having been harsh on some of my colleagues who chose to wait for the outcome of the struggle for NTV in 2001 and didn’t leave the channel with me. History judged us: almost nobody ended up staying at the channel, and many willingly left the profession. Maybe Igor Malashenko was too harsh when he said that NTV journalists who stayed to work with [Boris] Jordan and Kokh sold their birthright for a mess of pottage. In the end, many journalists are just humble craftsmen who work in this profession not because they need to fulfill some public mission but simply to earn money to support their families. But in today’s Russia, horrible things are occurring. This might be a polemic exaggeration, but some people who choose to stay in Russia remind me of the Jews who refused to leave Kiev when it was occupied by the Germans [during World War II]. They said that they had already lived through the 1918 occupation and nothing scary could happen. They believed that Germans were “Europeans” and would do no real harm.

OM: After what the Bolsheviks did in Ukraine—the Holodomor [famine-genocide] and massive repressions—the Germans could really have been viewed as liberators.

EK: That’s a separate story. The Red Army, by the way, which “liberated” the eastern regions of Poland (modern western Ukraine) in 1939 according to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, was greeted [by Ukrainians] with bread and salt. That was because under the Polish reign, Ukrainians did not live happily either. And after two years of massive repressions, it was the Germans in 1941 who were greeted with bread and salt, and the Ukrainians were shooting the retreating Red Army in their backs.

OM: What will happen to the liberal intellectuals who prefer to stay in Russia now?

EK: None of Putin’s followers is going to make a new Babi Yar [a site of massacres carried out by the Germans in 1941] for those whom they consider “national traitors” or the “fifth column,” but calls for severe measures against the opposition are heard regularly. Those who refuse to worry about their destiny today are really following the path of those Russian intellectuals who decided to stay in Russia after the 1917 revolution. Some of them studied with [Vladimir] Lenin; others worked with [the diplomat Leonid] Krasin or were personally acquainted with [Cheka chief Felix] Dzerzhinsky. All those intellectuals would repeat [the assertion] that those three were well-educated, polite, and intelligent people. Many of them had to pay for their unrestrained optimism and had to do it very soon and rather expensively during the “Red Terror.” Those naïve ones who came back to Russia in the 1920s, when the smenovekhovsto ["change of landmarks"—the political movement that appeared in the 1920s among Russian emigrants who believed that the Bolsheviks had transformed Russia and acted in its national interest] emerged, and grew to be obsessed with Eurasian ideas—they also had to pay a high price. Leader of the smenovekhovstvo Nickolay Ustryalov came back to Bolshevik Russia and disappeared in the furnace of repressions. Some people returned following the surge of patriotism after the First World War. If you want to know what happened to them, watch the movie entitled East—West. Trains and ships arriving in the USSR were full of white émigrés, and all those people were directly sent to places where they were deprived of their freedom. I’m afraid that nothing good will happen in Russia now either.

OM: Do you expect a lot of resentment in reply to your calls for emigration?

EK: Oh, for sure. Surely there will appear representatives of the liberal-democratic community who will roar at me and recall all of my past lapses, real and imaginary. But I want to control my own life. And I’m jealous of Slava Grunsky, who is now hitchhiking in America. Unfortunately, I couldn’t do that.