Jill Dougherty is a former CNN foreign affairs correspondent and Moscow bureau chief with expertise in Russia and the former Soviet Union. She is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University.
A week after Russia invaded Ukraine, the staff of Russia’s last independent TV channel, TV Rain, also known as Dozhd, shut itself down.
Seated at the news desk, general director and co-founder Natalia Sindeeva — a tough-as-nails media entrepreneur — announced the channel was closing, took a breath, and said, “We need strength to exhale and understand how to work further. We very much hope to return to the air, and we will continue our work.”
The station was already officially blocked by Russia’s regulators but had, until now, continued to broadcast via YouTube.
The image on the screen cut to a gallery view of staff joining a Zoom call from different locations. In the studio, other staff crowded around the news desk behind Sindeeva.
One young man stepped forward.
“We all feel such pain and we’re afraid,” he said. “We are crazy scared! And I know many of you are afraid right now, but a coward is a person who gives in to fear.
“We’ve lost this fight but sometimes in a fight you have to step back. And I think right now we’ve made the right decision to keep the most treasured thing we have. It’s our life, it’s our duty. They tried to call us the worst names ever, to blame us for some imaginary crimes, but why do we need to be afraid of the new law about ‘fakes?’ We tell the truth here on TV Rain.”
TV Rain’s final broadcast ended with Sindeeva saying “no to war” as everyone walked off the set.
The word “war” was a violation of a new law that forbids media operating in Russia to use the words “war,” “attack” or “invasion” to describe President Vladimir Putin’s decision to unleash his forces against Ukraine. Instead they are to use the Kremlin’s Orwellian phrase, “special military operation.”
The expression “no to war!” has become the rallying cry of Russians who risk sometimes brutal arrest to protest on the streets of cities across the country, often carrying signs with those same three words.
As TV Rain employees filed out of the studio, the channel began broadcasting black and white film of Tchaikovsky’s ballet “Swan Lake,” just as Soviet TV did during the 1991 coup against President Mikhail Gorbachev, the death of Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev, and at other destabilizing moments, playing the ballet over and over again on television.
TV Rain has been in the Kremlin’s crosshairs for years.
In 2014, it conducted an online survey asking viewers whether, during World War II, the Soviet government should have let Leningrad surrender to the Germans in order to avoid the roughly one million deaths that resulted from the Nazi blockade of the city.
Putin’s parents survived the Leningrad blockade and his government was furious that such a sacred demonstration of bravery was being questioned. Cable operators dumped TV Rain’s broadcasts, leading to a major loss of revenue.
I’ve been a guest on the channel several times over the years and, in 2014, while in Moscow, I got a call asking me if I could give an interview to one of the channel’s journalists, Mikhail Fishman. I said yes but was confused when they gave me their new address: a private apartment building in the center of Moscow.
I made my way up in the elevator, knocked at the door, and entered to find myself in a large, makeshift studio set up in the living room. The “makeup room” was in the bathroom. All windows were blocked out with curtains, and I was told not to refer to where the “studio” was located. As Fishman explained, the landlord of their previous office was under pressure not to rent to them and they were using a friend’s apartment.
TV Rain eventually was able to keep broadcasting the news but it continued to anger the Kremlin with its coverage of anti-government protests and the anti-corruption activities of Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny.
In the summer of 2021, it was officially declared a “foreign agent” and required to include an announcement in every broadcast or website report: “This report (material) is created and (or) distributed by a foreign mass media outlet, carrying out the functions of a foreign agent, and (or) a Russian legal entity carrying out the functions of a foreign agent.”
With characteristic brashness, the channel began selling T-shirts with the words “Foreign Agent.”
By last Thursday evening, the writing was on the wall. Switching to its channel on the instant messaging service Telegram, TV Rain reported, “Two policemen, one of them in plain clothes, have arrived at Dozhd’s office,” leaving two “warnings” from the prosecutor’s office, informing the channel that it is against the law for the media to spread “extremist material.”
Another flagship news outlet, Echo of Moscow radio station, is also dead.
The station had a storied history, dating back to the 1991 failed coup attempt against Gorbachev, when it courageously continued broadcasting against the putsch. Its signal was heard by 1.8 million people in many Russian cities and was carried by affiliates throughout the former Soviet Union.
Under its famous editor-in-chief, Alexey Venediktov, the station weathered numerous attempts by the government to shut it down.
Venediktov — an energetic journalist with a mop of untamed gray hair, skilled in navigating government media regulations and with some friends in the presidential administration — found ways of continuing to broadcast. That included agreeing to a deal to allow Gazprom Media to become its majority shareholder and, on air, the station balanced its liberal discussions with more commentary friendly to the Kremlin.
But walking that fine line on the war in Ukraine did not work.
Just like TV Rain, Echo of Moscow was accused of “calling for extremist activity and violence” and sharing “deliberately false information about the actions of Russian military personnel in Ukraine.”
Two days later, the station’s board of directors voted to shut it down.
Many of Russia’s leading journalists began fleeing Russia after the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, taking up residence and continuing to work in the Baltic nations, especially Latvia, as well as in Poland and Georgia. Now, with the war in Ukraine raging and the government passing draconian censorship laws, that exit is becoming an exodus.
TV Rain host Fishman fled Russia less than a week after the invasion of Ukraine. After watching the channel’s last broadcast, I called him up to see how he was doing.
“It was heartbreaking,” he said, “I knew it was over on Tuesday when they shut down the website and, at the same time, they shut down Echo Moscow’s transmission. The moment I learned that, I knew that it’s over.”
“This is a very different moment, and very different Russia, and a very different Putin from what it was in 2014,” he explained. “I mean, it’s dangerous to be in Moscow.”
I asked him if he feared for his life.
“Not for my life,” he said. “But I was afraid. I was afraid that I could be arrested at any moment. This is not something I would think about in 2014 but now, for sure.
“As long as I’m staying quiet, OK? But if I’m on air and if I’m talking about the war and … they would easily call it treason if I’m not following the general party line.”
Novaya Gazeta newspaper, a leading liberal voice, is still online but its editor, Dmitry Muratov — who was a co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize last year — has decided not to report on the conflict in Ukraine.
“We remain to cover this huge range of topics,” he said. “Correspondents of the information service of Novaya Gazeta have been working all these days without sleep, and will continue to work, but in a different capacity — we will carefully and calmly publish stories about where the global turning point that occurred at 5am on February 24 is leading the lives of each of us.”
Other Russian journalists are intent on toughing it out in Moscow.
Investigative journalist and author Yevgenia Albats, who is the editor of the political weekly The New Times magazine, said it’s too early to “weep for our profession.”
Talking with her fellow journalists after the shutdowns of TV Rain and Echo of Moscow, she said, “Either we continue our work, regardless of whether we write in our publications or on social media or, I don’t know, on a piece of paper we’re going to glue on the wall of buildings, we are required to do our work.
“… In contrast to you, I remember how bad it was in 1979 when troops were sent into Afghanistan. Yet, nevertheless, in those conditions, people found possibilities to write, to speak as much as was possible.”
Dissenting voices can get still through on some social media sites and messaging apps, although the blocking of Facebook, which has become an alternative TV for many young Russians, will be a major blow.
Young Russians have abandoned TV, which now is totally controlled by the government and filled with pro-war propaganda. They are online, getting their news and information from other sources, including bloggers and vloggers.
Vlogger Yuri Dud, whose YouTube channel has more than 9.8 million subscribers, has taken on the subject of Russia’s invasion and didn’t shy away from using the word “war” in his recent discussion with Russia’s best-known contemporary novelist, Boris Akunin.
Discussions like Dud and Akunin’s would have been tough but permissible before the invasion but they are now unthinkable.
Just days after Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s federal internet regulator blocked Twitter, and Apple and Google’s app stores.
Russian websites of the BBC, Germany’s Deutsche Welle, Meduza, as well as several US- funded websites were also blocked.
The same day, the Russian Parliament passed a law declaring it illegal to spread “false information” about Russia’s military, with violations punishable with up to 15 years in prison.
Fishman is still trying to understand how his world was transformed in just a week. But he is sure of one thing: Putin has “destroyed professional journalism, eliminated it.”
“It’s the kind of transformation that Russia went through in 1917 (the Bolshevik Revolution), something like that,” he said.
“The scale of transformation is absolutely unprecedented…it’s a tragedy. It’s a tragedy that we are witnessing. It’s like historic tragedy. It’s epic.”