In This Episode
Boris Nemtsov goes to Moscow as Deputy Prime Minister to take on Russia’s newly-minted oligarchs in a showdown that would determine the future of the country. He’ll find out whether idealism can trump money and power.
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/
Zhanna Nemstova On the 24th of February 2022, I woke up in Nizhny Novgorod, where I was born.
Ben Rhodes Zhanna had arrived the night before. She was still allowed back into Russia, but it was dangerous for her. Since she left in 2015, Putin had become more and more hostile to critical voices like hers, but she took the risk because she wanted to see her grandma. Boris Nemtsov’s mother, who was in her mid-nineties.
Zhanna Nemstova Well, I woke up and I got the call very early in the morning at 6 a.m. from my husband, who said, “fly away right now. Russia is at war with the Ukraine”.
News Clip All right. Our top story today, Russia has launched its invasion of Ukraine, attacking from three sides. And Vladimir Putin has just addressed the Russian people moments ago, announcing what Putin called the start of a military special operation.
Zhanna Nemstova I was shocked, of course. It was a scary moment. And it was difficult to buy a ticket because some Russians wanted to escape.
Ben Rhodes Yeah.
Zhanna Nemstova They wanted to flee Russia immediately.
Ben Rhodes Were people, like at the airport, were people talking about the war? Or did people not want to.
Zhanna Nemstova It was silence.
Ben Rhodes Silence.
Zhanna Nemstova Total silence. And I can feel this nerve. I was sitting in a row together with other two people and they read the news. And I asked them one question “Why are you leaving?” And they said, “because of the invasion of Ukraine”. I sent my grandmother a message on WhatsApp. “I’m leaving. I’m sorry”. And she said, “I’m so happy for you. That’s great. I am happy”.
Ben Rhodes Zhanna had not even seen her grandmother on this trip. But this woman, who was born when Stalin was in power and outlived her son, she was just happy that Zhanna was safe.
Zhanna Nemstova My grandmother was worried about my security because she knows that I am an outspoken person and she knows that I cannot just keep silent. She lost her son and she does not want to lose me.
Ben Rhodes From Crooked Media, I’m Ben Rhodes.
Zhanna Nemstova I’m Zhanna Nemstova.
Ben Rhodes And this is Another Russia episode two, Beautiful Russia of Tomorrow. In our last episode, we met Zhanna and heard about how her father, Boris Nemtsov, was murdered right outside the Kremlin. We also told the story of his rise as a politician. A young, tall, handsome and charismatic reformer who caught the attention of Russia’s president, Boris Yeltsin. Yeltsin had even told the media that he wanted Nemtsov to be the next president. Not too long after that, when Zhanna was 13, her father told her they would be moving to Moscow to help Yeltsin build the Russia of tomorrow.
Zhanna Nemstova I was a guest there, as always. I was a guest there because I liked our life in Nizhny Novgorod. I was very attached to my little place. I didn’t want to go to Moscow. I perceived Moscow as like a different country.
Ben Rhodes Mm hmm.
Zhanna Nemstova It has always been a different country, so I didn’t want to go there.
Ben Rhodes Nizhny Novgorod was 4 hours from Moscow on the train, but it was a different world. For a long time it had been closed to foreigners because there was a Soviet military base. It felt like a provincial town. And Zhanna liked that.
Zhanna Nemstova I was, I was in despair. I didn’t want to leave our house, everything, my friends, my school. But my father was appointed in March 1997, and we moved to Moscow in August 1997.
Ben Rhodes And then what what was what was life like in Moscow? How did your life change?
Zhanna Nemstova Well, it was awful. There were incredible traffic jams. I was not used to traffic jams. What I noticed air pollution, lots of people rushing around, things like that. My school was very different. My Moscow school was very different from my provincial school because it was a special school for the Russian elite. So children of very prominent Russian politicians and businessmen attended that school.
Ben Rhodes And Zhanna noticed that these children seemed to be very, very rich.
Zhanna Nemstova Lots of people were ostentatiously wealthy, and they were not embarrassed to show their wealth.
Ben Rhodes Mm hmm.
Zhanna Nemstova That was very new for me. Of course, we had a school uniform, but they had some accessories, very expensive accessories. And they were brought to school in very expensive cars.
Ben Rhodes Mm hmm.
Zhanna Nemstova No. Volga? What was that?
Ben Rhodes Volgas were the traditional Soviet car. Basically a box on wheels. But they’re driving Mercedes and.
Zhanna Nemstova Yes, all those, all were those very, very expensive, luxurious cars.
Ben Rhodes Yeah.
Zhanna Nemstova And I was once again embarrassed because I thought we were a pretty well-off family. Now I saw this gap. It was a very wide gap between those children and me. And I could not integrate into this new environment. And I felt lonely. And then I said to my parents, Hey, guys, well, I’m planning to move back to Nizhny. I want to go to my old school. I don’t want to spend time here. I hate Moscow.
Ben Rhodes Zhanna was lonely, and she was also seeing something most Russians had never seen or even dreamed of. Staggering wealth. The kids who had all this money, they were the children of the oligarchs.
Arkady Ostrovsky By that time, the oligarchs basically felt entitled to determining how Russia was going to develop.
Ben Rhodes This is Arkady Ostrovsky. He’s been covering Russia at The Economist for over a decade. When he was living in Moscow in the mid-nineties, he was trying to answer one big question. How did a small group of men come to own most of the country?
News Clip We call them oligarchs. Maybe that’s too nice a word. Robber barons. They’re buying up newspapers, airlines, oil companies.
Arkady Ostrovsky I mean, they. They made money in the way that that people make money in revolutionary times. They cut corners. There were no rules. There were no laws.
Ben Rhodes I’m not going to reel off their names. It would take too long. But you may have heard of some of them. Berezovsky, Abramovich. It’s those guys we’re talking about. They were young. And most of them were not part of the old communist elite.
Arkady Ostrovsky Some were sort of in technical intelligentsia. Some were just very young and started on making money by providing service. By trading, banking, wheeling and dealing really.
Ben Rhodes Roman Abramovich, for example, that guy made his first pot of money selling rubber ducks out of his Moscow apartment.
Arkady Ostrovsky They they did the best they could. Russia was going at a breakneck speed through transformation.
Ben Rhodes And through that transformation, these men got insanely rich. We’re talking superyachts, trips to the Seychelles, and Zhanna’s classmates turning up to school in Mercedes with Gucci handbags.
News Clip They can spend in seconds what would take most of us a lifetime to earn. Russian oligarchs have mind boggling wealth.
Ben Rhodes Zhanna’s father wanted something different.
Zhanna Nemstova My father was afraid that he could spoil me. For example, I couldn’t say, “Father, I want this Gucci bag. Bye”. No. So he wanted me to become financially independent. And I think that was one of his main goals in how he brought me up.
Ben Rhodes I think this actually speaks to a bigger difference between Nemstov’s vision of capitalism and the oligarchs. Nemtsov believed in rules and responsibility. The oligarchs, they believed in something else.
Arkady Ostrovsky They understood capitalism as they were taught it in schools, in a way, as a sort of cutthroat, American gangsterism of the 1920s.
Ben Rhodes It’s a dog eat dog, winner take all kind of thing. Al Capone comes to Moscow.
News Clip All of a sudden, great wealth was in reach of a happy few. Wealth became fashionable. These were the new Russians, Russians with money. It’s all about profit. It was all about profit rather than rules.
Ben Rhodes But while there was a small group of men making a lot of money, for most Russians the nineties felt different. In the Soviet days, the government set the prices. But there wasn’t a lot of stuff. You could go to the store and find nothing but apples and sardines. In the new Russia, there was more stuff. But after Yeltsin lifted those price controls, people couldn’t afford it. A candy bar that used to cost a ruble now cost you 2000 rubles.
News Clip Shoppers stared in disbelief at what they now have to pay for the most basic goods. Ham, for example, at more than a thousand rubles a kilo. That’s two months worth of wages for most people.
Zhanna Nemstova So only a few people could afford to buy cars, could afford to travel abroad, could afford to buy fancy clothes, to go to restaurants, etc.. So it was a striking contrast between the majority of Russians and those few who could afford to buy almost everything that they wanted to buy.
Ben Rhodes No Gucci, no Prada, definitely no expensive cars. In fact, for a lot of Russians, things got worse.
News Clip I went today to get bread, the store had just opened. I gave them my money, but they said “old woman, we won’t give you your bread. You don’t have new money. So I left without any bread. Now I don’t understand what’s going on in this country”.
Ben Rhodes They felt they’d been conned. Where was the beautiful Russia of tomorrow that Yeltsin had promised? By 1996 there was a feeling in the air that maybe it would be better to go back to the safety and stability of the Soviet days. This was a problem for Boris Yeltsin. He was about to run for reelection. He was facing a resurgent Communist Party. Yeltsin needed help with this campaign, and so he turned to the people with the power in Russia, the oligarchs.
Arkady Ostrovsky And the oligarchs actually understand that there is opportunity for them there because there is some stuff which is still up for grabs. And the stuff which is up for grabs is not some small bakery or even a machinery plant. The stuff that’s up for grabs is the large stuff. It’s the oil companies. It’s big metallurgical companies. It’s large Soviet enterprises.
Ben Rhodes Companies not worth millions, but billions of dollars. The kind of money that would turn someone like Abramovich into the kind of guy who could buy one of the world’s biggest soccer clubs.
Arkady Ostrovsky Effectively, it was a back door deal to privatize stakes in large Soviet enterprises to a small group of Russian businessmen.
Ben Rhodes And so the deal was made. The oligarchs threw their weight behind Yeltsin. They donated millions of dollars. They hired political operatives. They used their television channels to pump out pro Yeltsin propaganda.
News Clip [In Russian]
Ben Rhodes In the end, Boris Yeltsin won reelection. But in Moscow, the oligarchs believed that they were the true power behind the throne. There’s a video from Yeltsin’s inauguration and you can see the oligarchs standing around, joking, patting each other on the back, right out in the open. This is the Moscow that Boris Nemtsov and Zhanna moved to in 1997. Nemtsov knew what he was walking into.
News Clip [In Russian].
Arkady Ostrovsky He knew it was a snake pit. He knew it was a cesspit. He knew how corrupt things were getting.
Ben Rhodes But he goes anyway. He goes because Yeltsin has given him a task. Yeltsin won the election with the help of the oligarchs, but he didn’t want to just let them pull all the strings. And so he turns to Nemtsov, a young and fearless, fresh face. He makes Nemtsov deputy prime minister and puts him in charge of breaking up monopolies. And for Nemtsov, that means one thing. Take on the oligarchs. Otherwise, the dream of a democratic Russia could die.
Arkady Ostrovsky I think he did have this big picture in his mind. And he wanted Russia to be a different society, a different country.
Ben Rhodes And this battle over what kind of country Russia should be? Came to a head in 1997.
Arkady Ostrovsky A ferocious fight unfolded between two visions of Russia. One was represented by Nemtsov, who continued to want Russia to be a democracy in a sense that the people should be empowered, emancipated from the state, and should have a say. You know, they, it’s the people who should decide how Russia is run. The oligarchs had a somewhat different idea. If we are the smartest and if we are the richest, then we are the elite. And whether we were elected or not, we are the barons. We are the elite. And we are the ones who are going to decide how the country is run.
Ben Rhodes So it’s 1997 and there are now two sides competing for power in Russian politics. There are the oligarchs, who think that their money means they should control the country. And there are politicians, like Nemtsov, who want to make Russia into a fully functioning democracy. In July, those two sides clashed.
Arkady Ostrovsky The fight unfolded in 97 over privatization of a company called Svyazinvest, which was a telecom, Soviet telecom company.
Ben Rhodes Sounds kind of technical, but it’s basically just a telephone company. And this was one of the biggest. This firm controlled 22 million telephone lines across the country, which meant that every time someone made a phone call, the company, and therefore the owner of the company, got paid. Now, before Nemtsov arrived in Moscow, here’s how it worked. The oligarchs would get together in a back room and they’d decide whose turn it was to buy one of these companies. Gas, oil, steelworks. These were called auctions, but they weren’t auctions like you or I know them, where the prize goes to the highest bidder. Instead, it was all fixed and private before the deal went down in public. And everyone thought this auction was going to be the same. The guy who thought it was his turn was someone called Vladimir Gusinsky.
Arkady Ostrovsky Gusinsky was a former theater director and came out of kind of nowhere, built up this channel, he had a bank.
Ben Rhodes Gusinsky doesn’t fit the picture of your standard oligarch. He actually trained as a theater director. In the eighties, he was even the stage director for Ted Turner’s Goodwill Games. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, he got his hands on one of those television channels that backed Yeltsin for reelection. Now, he was looking to expand his empire.
Arkady Ostrovsky Actually, the oligarchs said to him, they said, “it’s your turn. It’s only fair that having done the service to Yeltsin, you should now get a stake in this company”.
Ben Rhodes But Boris Nemtsov had different ideas.
Arkady Ostrovsky And he said, “no, we’re not going to fix this auction and it’s not going to go to Gusinsky”.
Ben Rhodes Nemtsov wanted it to go to the highest bidder. Simple as that. Whoever bids the most money for the auction wins. That’s how he had run things back in Nizhny Novgorod. That’s how as deputy prime minister, he was going to run things in Moscow. So at 5 p.m. on July 25th, the auction takes place. Everyone is gathered in a back room at the Federal Property Fund building in Moscow. Think of one of those imposing, colorless, Soviet style buildings. Not a lot of flair. Looking back, it’s strange to think that this was one of those moments that helped determine the future of Russia. A bunch of envelopes are laid out on the desk. In those envelopes are the rival bids. Gusinsky assumes the fix is in. He thinks he has it in the bag. Then they open the envelopes. The winner is called out. And it’s not Gusinsky. The highest bidder actually wins.
Zhanna Nemstova And my father was euphoric about that. It was a clear victory for him.
Ben Rhodes But then all hell breaks loose.
Arkady Ostrovsky Gusinsky decided that he was deceived. And if we let them get away with it, then they have the power. And they decided that they were going to turn their cannons, their television weapons, onto this young Nemstov. Over the next few months, starting in July, I think, of 97, a fight unfolded when the television channels started absolutely demolishing the reputation of Nemtsov. They hired prostitutes to be interviewed on air to tell stories of how Nemtsov used their services and didn’t pay them.
News Clip [In Russian]
Ben Rhodes It was a lie. The whole thing was fake. Another channel attacked Nemtsov for a different reason.
Arkady Ostrovsky They attacked him for appearing in chinos, chino trousers, when he met the president of Azerbaijan, I think, or something. It was ridiculous stuff.
Ben Rhodes And if that sounds strange to Americans, just remember that Fox News turned Obama wearing a tan suit into a days long scandal.
Zhanna Nemstova I saw this television report about white pants and I couldn’t get it.
Ben Rhodes You didn’t understand what the big deal was.
Zhanna Nemstova I felt sorry for my father, of course. And what I didn’t like, it was another report. So on NTV, there was a weekly analytical program, and the presenter discussed the chances for different politicians to become Yeltsin’s successors.
News Clip [In Russian].
Zhanna Nemstova They showed my father’s photo and then they put a red cross on this photo, saying this person doesn’t have political future. He is bad as a politician.
News Clip [In Russian]
Ben Rhodes Boris Nemtsov had been one of the most popular politicians in Russia. He had sky high approval ratings. The political elite assumed he would become the next president. By the end of the oligarchs campaign, that popularity had collapsed down to just 1%, and it was clear that the oligarchs would not stop until Boris Nemtsov was driven from power.
Zhanna Nemstova And he decided to resign. And it was a very emotional moment. Yeltsin called him and told him, “Boris, I don’t want you to leave the government. Please stay”.
Ben Rhodes Zhanna remembers this as an awful moment for her dad. His career’s in peril. His dream of a new Russia under threat, threatened by an enemy who turned out to be far more powerful.
Zhanna Nemstova My father, he thought for, like, for a couple of days. And then he submitted an official letter of resignation to Boris Yeltsin.
Ben Rhodes You know, what you describe is essentially powerful people using the media, in this case television, to destroy somebody’s reputation, using kind of trivial information out of context like white pants, using trumped up stories about prostitution, using just kind of the assertion that somebody is a failed politician without, you know, much supporting evidence behind that. It seems to foreshadow the kind of disinformation that became a feature of Russian politics. Was this the beginning? Or was this a turning point in terms of the way in which media could be used like that?
Zhanna Nemstova To some extent, yes. So it was, of course, it was different because different media outlets were owned by different people. But it could be regarded as a pretext for what is now known as Russian propaganda. I think that oligarchs understood back then how powerful television could be, how easy it was for them to ruin my father’s political career.
Arkady Ostrovsky And so with the help of each other and the oligarchs, in pursuit of their own interests and their own idea of power and money, they destroyed probably the most liberal reformist government Russia could have ever had. And they destroyed, as a result, the chance of somebody like Boris Nemtsov to become the president of that country.
Ben Rhodes The oligarchs have won the battle against Nemtsov. He’s out of the picture. But another problem is looming. Boris Yeltsin is old, he’s a drunk. He only has a couple of years left in power. And so the oligarchs have to think about what happens next. Who can they find to succeed Yeltsin on the Russian throne?
Zhanna Nemstova The only thing they cared about was their wealth, their assets and their interests. They didn’t care about the future of our country. So they were looking for someone who could bear to service their needs. And they were looking for a successor who could be loyal. And they thought that such a man would be Vladimir Putin.
Ben Rhodes Putin’s rise. 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 Sara 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.