A Cat In A Sack | Crooked Media
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August 08, 2022
Another Russia
A Cat In A Sack

In This Episode

The oligarchs install Vladimir Putin to replace Yeltsin as the president. But it soon becomes clear Putin has no interest in being the lapdog of the rich and powerful. Boris Nemtsov goes into opposition and starts to face the consequences. 


If you want to learn more about the stories of Russians who are standing up to autocracy and how you can help support their work, check out https://nemtsovfund.org/en/RussiansForChange/


Ben Rhodes December 31st, 1999. Zhanna was a teenager. I was a senior in college. For many Russians, the nineties had been a disorienting, tumultuous decade. But for Americans my age, progress seemed preordained. More freedom. 


News Clip This agreement is one more reminder that former adversaries can come together to find common ground. 


Ben Rhodes More Internet. 


News Clip Internet is that massive computer network. The one that’s becoming really big now. 


Ben Rhodes Gas was around a dollar a gallon. The scariest thing out there was Y2K. 


News Clip Almost everyone is preparing for the worst. Potential Y2K computer crashes topped the list. 


Ben Rhodes So I barely registered the report about Boris Yeltsin’s announcement in his annual New Year’s Eve address. It was the kind of thing that showed up on the news in the background, the slurring, droopy, sad looking Russian president. 


News Clip [Russian News Clip]


Ben Rhodes A far cry from the heroic figure who helped bring down the Soviet Union. 


News Clip [Russian News Clip] 


Ben Rhodes The man who presided over Russia’s wild nineties and its messy transition to capitalism was asking for forgiveness. 


News Clip [Russian News Clip]


Ben Rhodes And he was calling it quits. 


News Clip [Russian News Clip] 


Ben Rhodes At the end of the speech, a bombshell. 


News Clip [Russian News Clip] 


Ben Rhodes Yeltsin announced his successor, a gray KGB man, in an ill fitting suit. 


News Clip [Russian News Clip] 


Ben Rhodes Vladimir Putin. 


News Clip [Russian News Clip] 


Zhanna Nemstova When I heard the news, I almost knew nothing about Putin. 


News Clip [Russian News Clip]


Zhanna Nemstova Putin was not a popular politician. Putin was not a recognized politician. We knew nothing about his political views or his political agenda. 


News Clip [Russian News Clip]. 


Zhanna Nemstova Nobody could could say what he would do. 


News Clip [Russian News Clip]. 


Zhanna Nemstova So he was, as my father put it, a cat in a sack. 


News Clip [Russian News Clip] 


Ben Rhodes From Crooked Media. I’m Ben Rhodes. 


Zhanna Nemstova I’m Zhanna Nemtsova. 


Ben Rhodes And this is Another Russia episode three, A Cat In A Sack. On the last episode, Boris Nemtsov went to Moscow to take on the oligarchs. It was a fight between two visions of Russia, one democratic with rules that apply to everyone. The other believed that money and power trumped everything else. And the oligarchs won. Nemtsov resigned. But they were still left with Yeltsin, who was increasingly drunk and dysfunctional. So they needed to find a new front man for Yeltsin to appoint in his place. The next president of Russia. 


Arkady Ostrovsky The oligarchs who are very much still in control, were not going to let electorate decide free and fair elections. 


Ben Rhodes That’s Arkady Ostrovsky. He’s the Moscow correspondent at The Economist. 


Arkady Ostrovsky They needed to ensure that whoever comes to power would guarantee their position, their capitals, and they started looking for a successor. 


Ben Rhodes The oligarchs knew that whoever was chosen would eventually have to win an election. That meant they needed to find out what kind of leader would appeal to ordinary Russians. A magazine owned by a top dog oligarch commissioned a poll. Who do you most admire? It asked. First place was Russia’s World War II commander. 


Arkady Ostrovsky And the other was a character called Stierlitz, the character in the most popular Soviet television series of the 1970s. 


Music [Music]


Ben Rhodes This guy, Stierlitz, was a fictional Soviet spy who infiltrated the Nazi high command. He was basically the Russian version of James Bond. 


Arkady Ostrovsky And one of the magazines put him on the cover and said, Stierlitz, President 2000. 


Ben Rhodes That’s right. The magazine was suggesting that any future president of Russia had to be someone like Stierlitz. What this said to the oligarchs is that Russians wanted a hard man, someone who could protect them, no more of the embarrassment of Yeltsin, the humiliation of the post-Soviet years. They wanted someone like Stierlitz, who had protected Russia from the Nazis. 


Music [Music]. 


Arkady Ostrovsky They started looking for a candidate who would fit the profile of who people wanted. So they needed one of those kind of uniform guys, but they needed that guy to be completely controllable. And in a way, Putin, being from the KGB, being a spy, fitted that profile. 


Music [Music]. 


Ben Rhodes Now, this isn’t a podcast about Putin, but we can’t tell the story of what happened to Russia and to Boris Nemtsov without the man who became the arch villain. Vladimir Putin was a KGB man through and through. He’d been a spy in East Germany in the eighties. He survived the post-Soviet years by getting into the corrupt politics of his hometown, St Petersburg. He was grim, workmanlike and maintained his KGB connections. By the late nineties, he had risen to the top of Russia’s security services. The oligarchs thought this is their guy, a guy without too much charisma who could perhaps be molded. 


Arkady Ostrovsky So they sold the idea of Putin to Yeltsin. 


Ben Rhodes Yeltsin was mainly worried about his own skin. He knew that whoever came next could investigate his family’s corruption. Putin was known to be loyal to his former bosses, and he was willing to privately promise the Yeltsin family immunity from prosecution. So the oligarchs were happy and Yeltsin was satisfied. They even came up with a name for their plan. Operation Successor. A bit obvious, I know. And to turn Putin from a faceless bureaucrat into a president, they used their most powerful tool. Television. 


Arkady Ostrovsky Having seen the power which television wielded in the ’96 elections, having seen the power to wield it in ’97, when they destroyed the government of of Nemstov. They decided that it was so powerful that they could actually pick up somebody who was pretty much unknown to Russian public and make him president. So they basically turned Putin by means of television. Who. Putin, who most people would never even recognize, into a television star. 


Ben Rhodes Putin’s star turn came in 1999. By then, Yeltsin had appointed him as prime minister, a good stepping stone to the presidency. But there’s still one problem. No one really knew who Putin was. And then, on August 31st, a massive explosion goes off at a shopping mall in the center of Moscow. 


News Clip [Russian News Clip]. 


News Clip 41 people were hurt yesterday when a bomb exploded in an underground mall in Moscow. 


Ben Rhodes Ten days later, another bomb explodes in an apartment building. This time, over 100 people are killed. 


News Clip Another bomb has ripped through an apartment block in Russia. 


Ben Rhodes All of a sudden, people in Moscow are terrified. Who are the bombers and when will they strike next? 


News Clip All of the explosion happened during the night, apparently to inflict the maximum number of casualties. 


Ben Rhodes Rumors spread that these bombings were being carried out by Chechen terrorists who wanted to make Chechnya into an independent state. 


News Clip It’s an attempt by international terrorists to frighten the people, stir up panic, paralyze the political leadership of the country. 


Ben Rhodes Putin was asked about these terrorists by journalists. He appeared frazzled, his eyes darting wildly around the room. And then he said. 


News Clip [Russian News Clip]. 


Arkady Ostrovsky We will wipe out these Chechens in a shit hole. And he spoke a different language. You know, this was not the language of a sort of office politician. This was a language of a kind of a a street guy, a guy next door people could relate to. He spoke in the language which a lot of people understood. We’ll wipe them out in a shit hole. 


Ben Rhodes This was the hard man the oligarchs had been looking for. 


Arkady Ostrovsky And that was the moment when the public attention clicked and suddenly Putin’s ratings started growing. 


Ben Rhodes The oligarchs filled their television stations with images of Putin. He was a bit like Tom Cruise’s character in Top Gun. Don’t think. Just do. 


Arkady Ostrovsky Putin was the man of action. He was different from Yeltsin. He was anointed by Yeltsin, but he was different. He was young. He was sober. He was a man of action. He was the Bond. 


Ben Rhodes Putin was presented as a solution to the chaos of the nineties. For so many Russians, that had been a scary and disorienting time. 


Zhanna Nemstova So our society was disillusioned with the liberal course. They did not want reformers to rule the country anymore. So their prevailing mood was reactionary. So they probably were nostalgic about the Soviet Union. They wanted order. They wanted the rule of law. 


Ben Rhodes And so on New Year’s Eve, 1999, Russians watched as Boris Yeltsin announced Vladimir Putin as his successor. 


News Clip [Russian News Clip]


Ben Rhodes Another Russia is brought to you by The Daily Show Ear’s Edition podcast. Did you know The Daily Show is also available as a podcast called The Daily Show with Trevor Noah Ears Edition? This is really exciting news, guys. I have to admit, I love The Daily Show. I love Trevor Noah. I watched the extended interviews on YouTube whenever I can, and I do listen to this podcast. And on the podcast you can listen to full episodes, revisit your favorite interviews, and hear exclusive bonus content like extended interviews and behind the scenes content. In every episode, Trevor Noah and The Daily Show correspondents Ronny Chieng, Michael Kosta, Desi Lydic, Dulce Sloan, Roy Wood Jr. All of them. They bring insightful humor to the day’s top headlines, providing coverage of and catharsis from daily events through a sharp, incisive lens. Really, this is some of the smartest and funniest commentary out there. You guys should check this out. If you like The Daily Show, you’ll get even more on this podcast. Daily Show, Ears Edition podcast. Take The Daily Show with you wherever you go with The Daily Show Ear’s Edition podcast available on the iHeartRadio App, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts. 


Ben Rhodes After that speech on New Year’s Eve, Yeltsin retired. Putin served as acting president for a couple of months before easily winning the election in March of 2000. So now the oligarchs had their men in power, but they quickly learned that they’d made the wrong bet. One of the first things Putin did was call a closed door meeting with the very oligarchs who helped anoint him. This meeting has since become famous, in part because no one knows exactly what was said. There were no journalists, no notes taken. One thing is clear. Putin wanted to show who was boss, and he issued something of an ultimatum. Do as I say, stay out of my way, and you can keep your mansions and yachts and billion dollar companies. Go against me and you’ll suffer the consequences. As with Nemtsov and the oligarchs, television would be the battleground. It was around this time, as Boris Nemtsov was serving in parliament, that he noticed something about Putin when he went to visit him in his office. 


Arkady Ostrovsky Putin took Yeltsin’s office where Nemtsov had been many, many times. And Nemtsov said he looked at the desk of Putin and said nothing changed. And apart from one thing, Yeltsin always had a pen on his desk. And the pen, which he gave to Putin, was gone. And instead of the pen, there was a remote control for television. And that television control, television remote control was the new instrument, sort of a new weapon through which Putin came and conducted power. 


Ben Rhodes Putin would sit at that desk for hours watching television news. He understood the power of propaganda, and he was obsessed with what people said about him. But then something happened that didn’t play out on television the way that Putin wanted. So tell me about the Kursk submarine disaster. What happened? What do you remember about it? 


Zhanna Nemstova It happened in August 2000. 


News Clip A race is under way to rescue a Russian nuclear powered submarine with more than 100 men on board that stranded on the bottom of the sea inside the Arctic Circle. 


Zhanna Nemstova I learned about it from the news. 


News Clip It is becoming increasingly clear that the crew of the Kursk were doomed from the moment huge explosions ripped through the Russian nuclear submarine during naval exercises nine days ago. 


Zhanna Nemstova So it was a total disaster. That Kursk submarine sank and there were a number of explosions and a lot of crew members died immediately. 


Ben Rhodes But there was this one group of crew members who did manage to escape. They went into the back of the submarine and they waited for a rescue that never came. This was a disaster that played out 24/7 on Russian television. People watched the tragedy in real time and Putin did not look good. 


Zhanna Nemstova And then he went to meet the widows of the crew members of the submarine. He was wearing all black, but he showed almost no empathy. He wanted to get out of this room so badly. And you could understand that. 


Ben Rhodes Yeah. 


Zhanna Nemstova So he was not used and he is not used to talking to people to express any human feelings. 


Ben Rhodes Have you ever seen him show empathy for anybody? 


Zhanna Nemstova I have never seen. Actually I have never seen his real emotions. Except for one, his anger, his rage. 


Ben Rhodes And the fact that Putin struggled to show emotion was pounced on by the TV stations he loved to watch. They went after him, especially this one network called NTV, owned by the oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky. Remember Gusinsky, the former theater director who helped destroy Boris Nemtsov with the very same television station? That’s the guy. NTV started going after Putin in ways that seem unimaginable today. Every night, attacking him, making fun of him. One sketch on a popular satirical show showed a puppet Yeltsin rocking a hideous baby with Putin’s face. 


N/A [Russian sketch clip]. 


Ben Rhodes And Yeltsin is asking himself, How did I give birth to this creature? 


N/A [Russian sketch clip]. 


Ben Rhodes In reply, the hideous puppet baby starts to yell the phrase that made Putin famous. Wipe them out in the shithole. Wipe them out in the shithole. 


N/A [Russian sketch clip]


Arkady Ostrovsky Putin saw this as a subversion. He saw it as a as a betrayal by television channels. He saw that television still had independence of him. And that there was opposition, there was still opposition in the country. 


Ben Rhodes Maybe the oligarchs had not listened to Putin at that meeting. So he decided to act. He tells Gusinsky, essentially, I’ve had enough of this. I’m going to take over your television channel. 


Arkady Ostrovsky It happened one night in April 2001. 


Ben Rhodes At the NTV studios. Putin’s goons, the security services, stormed the building in the middle of a live broadcast. They told the journalists, this channel has now been taken over and you need to leave. But the journalists refused. 


Arkady Ostrovsky For as long as journalists were in the studios, as long as they were in front of the cameras, they could continue to do their job. 


Ben Rhodes They kept delivering the news for hours and hours. Journalists facing off with a bunch of security guys. 


Arkady Ostrovsky The journalists understood what was going on, that this is a authoritarian, you know, this is a takeover. 


News Clip Many people gathered here outside of Ostankino TV Center to support NTV. People do care about the future of Russian independent media. 


Arkady Ostrovsky This is, you know, attack on the on the freedom of speech. 


News Clip Still, we are going to fight.  


Ben Rhodes But eventually, the security forces win the battle. 


Arkady Ostrovsky And physically force the journalists out. Turn them off air. 


Ben Rhodes This was a turning point for Russia. Putin had taken over a TV channel with brute force, and it was just the beginning of his crackdown on media. 


Arkady Ostrovsky Looking back at the event, you can see that Putin had a very systemic approach to power. He recognized that to have power, he needed to control people’s minds. 


Ben Rhodes And he couldn’t control people’s minds without controlling the television. 


Arkady Ostrovsky Television mattered more than anything else. 


Ben Rhodes The takeover of NTV was a signal to the rest of the oligarchs that Putin meant business. A warning sign. I’m not beholden to you. You’re beholden to me now. And most Russians loved it. After all, they hated the oligarchs. They blamed them for what happened in the nineties. And after the turmoil of the past, they were just concentrated on living. And for the first time in a while, they were starting to live well under Putin. 


Zhanna Nemstova Well, when Putin came to power, there was a major improvement in oil prices. 


Ben Rhodes The Russian economy is very dependent on oil. And the higher the oil prices, the richer the country becomes. And in the early 2000s, that’s what happened. Global oil prices rose, Russia’s economy got stronger and stronger, and the lives of the Russian people got better. So they didn’t have to worry about politics. 


Zhanna Nemstova So Putin is a lucky guy. There was like, sort of an agreement between the ruling class and other people. So you can make money, you can do your business, you can open credit lines, you can get cheap mortgages. Things like that. But you do not have to to be engaged into into politics in any way. 


Ben Rhodes Maybe it was too much politics that caused all the chaos in the first place. 


Zhanna Nemstova We don’t want any political fight. We want stability. And that’s what Putin wanted Russians to believe. So stability, stability, stability. And he kept on contrasting his years with Yeltsin’s years. 


Ben Rhodes Where, were you in Moscow in those years? 


Zhanna Nemstova Yes, I was in Moscow. Moscow was changing at the time. You could see a lot of new places opening up. Cafes, restaurants, cinemas. 


Ben Rhodes This is around the time IKEA came to Russia. Now, IKEA was a symbol for many Russians. Its arrival told them they could finally start to live the middle class dream they’d been promised for so long. Just like in the West. And to bring things full circle, IKEA is one of many Western companies that pulled out of Russia this year after the invasion of Ukraine. 


Zhanna Nemstova After after this very difficult, transformational period in the nineties, a life became more pleasant. 


Ben Rhodes So where was Boris Nemtsov in all this? 


Zhanna Nemstova My father described the spirit as like that life has become better but more disgusting. 


Ben Rhodes What do you think he meant by that? 


Zhanna Nemstova I assume that he meant, first of all, that Putin, one of his first decisions was to return their Soviet anthem. 


N/A [Anthem plays]. 


Zhanna Nemstova He did it in 2000. It was a signal. It suggested a lot about his political style. He was probably nostalgic about the USSR and his secret dream was to restore the glorious Soviet Union. Something like that. 


Ben Rhodes In 2003, Nemtsov’s Liberal Opposition Party got crushed in the parliamentary elections. With oil prices sky high, no one had much of an appetite for criticism of Putin. Not even the Moscow liberal elite. So your father loses in 2003. What does he decide to do next? 


Zhanna Nemstova He decided it was probably the best time for him to earn money. 


Ben Rhodes Nemtsov decided to do what the rest of the country was trying to do, make money, go into business. But there was a problem. 


Zhanna Nemstova He was not good at business and he admitted many times, I’m a bad businessman. I don’t understand the thing in business. I didn’t know how to deal with that. 


Ben Rhodes A friend of his, a guy called Mikhail Friedman, who is in charge of one of Russia’s biggest banks, told Nemtsov. 


Zhanna Nemstova I will never hire you, Boris. No way. I know you really well. You will not be able to stay away from politics. You’re a natural politician. You will never be silent. You will speak your mind. I’m sorry. It will ruin my business. No, we can meet with you, we can have dinners with you, we can go on holidays with you, but we will never work together. 


Ben Rhodes And so Nemtsov got back into politics, but this time outside of parliament. He wrote a book, Confessions of a Rebel. He started campaigning against government corruption and for freedom of speech. The 2000s were a strange time to be in opposition in Russia. What little there was. The economy was still growing and Putin tolerated the illusion of democracy, so he let them keep it up, within reason. But it would turn out to be a facade. Because meanwhile, Putin was taking over the media, putting his friends in charge of the big companies, making sure that pretty much everything in Russia was under the Kremlin’s control. The truth is, most Russians weren’t paying close attention. They were just going about their business. So was Zhanna. Her life changed a lot during Putin’s first two terms as president. She finished school, she got married, and then in 2010, it all came crashing down. 


Zhanna Nemstova I divorced my husband. We decided to divorce, and I lost my job. And I lost my apartment. I just lost everything in one day. I just didn’t know what to do. My father was absolutely furious. He did not want me to divorce. He regarded it as a big disaster. It’s my it’s my greatest failure. 


Ben Rhodes And so we get to New Year’s Eve 2010, ten years after Putin was announced as president. Zhanna was feeling low and a bit lonely. She was on her own. 


Zhanna Nemstova And then I called my father and I said, Dad, what are your plans for this day? And probably we could celebrate New Year together. And he said, Of course. You can come to my place, but first let’s go to the protest. 


Ben Rhodes These protests were not unusual. In fact, they were held almost every month in Moscow and always about the same thing. The right to protest itself. This was not a big movement. Most of the people there had been protesting for years. It was the kind of crowd who always turns up for a protest. In the US they’d be the people with homemade signs and grey ponytails. People thought they were safe. And so Boris asked Zhanna to come with him. 


Zhanna Nemstova Let’s let’s spend like 40 minutes there, and then we will go to my place. We will celebrate together. Great idea. Just come. 


Ben Rhodes Zhanna actually hadn’t been to a protest before. Politics and protesting really wasn’t her thing, but her father was her father. And he was very persuasive. And so she went. 


Zhanna Nemstova It was already dark, it was snowing. It was in the center of Moscow. The name of the square was Triumfalnaya square. The Square of Triumph. 


News Clip [Russian News Clip] 


Ben Rhodes There weren’t even many people there, maybe 200. 


Zhanna Nemstova Most of them were old people. People of, I would say, older generation. Very, very peaceful. 


Ben Rhodes But what she did notice was a lot of police. 


Zhanna Nemstova There are so many policemen everywhere. So many policemen. Special police tracks. It looked weird. Okay, why so many policemen? So, I couldn’t figure it out. 


News Clip [Russian News Clip]. 


Ben Rhodes So they were at this protest and there are all these police there. And her father made his way to the center of the crowd. 


News Clip [Russian News Clip] 


Zhanna Nemstova And then my father made the speech. It was very emotional. He used very strong terms. It was something about Britain. I think that specifically he said, like, we are not afraid of you. We have the right to peacefully gather and we will do everything we can to protect that right. 


News Clip [Russian News Clip]. 


Ben Rhodes What do you think, watching that? Were you proud of him? Are you worried or are you just, is it normal to see your dad do that?


Zhanna Nemstova I was I was I was taken aback by his speech because I hadn’t listened to my father speaking at such protests. And he was he was like, on stage he was like a different person. 


News Clip [Russian News Clip]


Zhanna Nemstova So in the private conversation, he was not that emotional. And wow, I hadn’t seen him like that before. 


News Clip [Russian News Clip]. 


Zhanna Nemstova He spoke for around a couple of minutes with others. And we were about to go out from the crowd and to take a car to drive to his apartment. It happened like in 5 seconds. He was surrounded by special police forces, 20, 30 or 40 people. They had uniforms. They had helmets. They had weapons. They detained him. I was frightened. And my first thought was, I don’t want to be arrested. And that’s why, together with my friend, we went behind a kiosk just to hide. And then we started to run and we ran for 5 minutes. And then I called my father, who was in the police car, and I said, Oh, what has just happened? My father said, well, I got arrested, and I think I will spend New Year in a prison cell. 


Ben Rhodes That cold New Year’s Eve in Moscow, at a place called the Square of Triumph, Boris Nemtsov’s life changed forever. And so did Zhannas. And it was also the beginning of a new and much darker period for the country that they called home. 


News Clip [Russian News Clip] 


Ben Rhodes That’s next time on Another Russia. Another Russia is an original podcast from Crooked Media. It is produced by Samizdat Audio. I’m Ben Rhodes, your co-host, writer and executive producer. 


Zhanna Nemstova And I am Zhanna Nemtsova, your co-host and executive producer. 


Ben Rhodes From Crooked Media, our executive producers are Sarah Geismer and Katie Long. With special thanks to Alison Falzetta. From Samizdat, our executive producers are Dasha Lisitsina and Joe Sykes. Asya Fouks is our producer. All three also helped with writing on the series. Fact checking by Amy Tardif. Archival by Molly Schwartz. The series was sound designed by Jeff Emtman and Martin Austwick composed our theme music and score. 


Zhanna Nemstova If you want to learn more about the stories of Russians who are standing up to autocracy and how you can help support their work, check out Nemtsova.org/russiansforchange. We will also put a link in our show notes.