In This Episode
As Putin tightens his grip on the Kremlin, Boris Nemtsov tries to build an opposition movement. He joins forces with a young and tenacious leader named Alexei Navalny. Their alliance culminates in the biggest protest Russia has seen since the days of the Soviet Union. It also sparks a brutal crackdown.
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/
News Clip [Russian News Clip]
Ben Rhodes It’s New Year’s Eve 2010. And Zhanna has just been to her first protest. It ended with a swarm of police around her dad.
Zhanna Nemtsova I called my father. He 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 the New Year in a prison cell.
Ben Rhodes Boris Nemtsov, the former deputy prime minister, spending New Year’s Eve on the floor of a freezing jail.
Zhanna Nemtsova It was something very new because my father was one of the most recognized politicians in Russia. He was in the government. He held senior positions.
Ben Rhodes Everyone in Russia knew this guy. He was kind of a celebrity. Now, he was arrested, charged with disobeying the police and sentenced to two weeks in prison.
Zhanna Nemtsova It was an act of humiliation I think so. So the whole idea behind this arrest was to humiliate my father, to show to him personally, but also to many other people who are not such high profile politicians or activists, guys, if you want to go against the ruling regime, you can be thrown in jail at any point of time and nothing can protect you.
Ben Rhodes So if it can happen to Boris Nemtsov, it can happen to anybody?
Zhanna Nemtsova Yes, absolutely.
Ben Rhodes From Crooked Media, I’m Ben Rhodes.
Zhanna Nemtsova I’m Zhanna Nemtsova.
Ben Rhodes And this is Another Russia episode four, March of the Millions. New Year’s Eve 2010 would be the first of many arrests for Boris Nemtsov, and it was for something pretty absurd – appearing at a small protest, maybe a few hundred people. But over the next couple of years, Boris would build something much bigger. He would help grow movement from a small ripple into a tidal wave, culminating in the biggest protests since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
News Clip It’s a public outpouring on a scale that has not been seen in Russia for two decades.
Ben Rhodes How did that happen? To answer that question, you have to understand what happened in Russia between 2008 and 2012. You see, back in 08, Putin had a problem. The Russian constitution only allowed a president to serve two terms in a row. So Putin came up with a game plan. He handed over the Kremlin to his loyal aide, Dmitry Medvedev, a man with a tidy haircut and designer suits.
News Clip Striding into the opulence of the Grand Kremlin Palace, Dmitry Medvedev followed an age old ritual reborn under Vladimir Putin.
Ben Rhodes While Medvedev took over the presidency, Putin would wait out those four years as prime minister. Once that term was up, Putin would be eligible to run for president again. In other words, they could swap jobs. So by the time I followed Obama into the White House in 2009, Medvedev was president and he seemed different. While Putin appeared to retreat into the background, Medvedev put himself forward as a reformer.
News Clip I pledge to the people of Russia to protect human and respect the human rights and freedoms.
Zhanna Nemtsova You know, he was like a guy who wanted to represent modernity. He wanted to shake hands with Steve Jobs.
News Clip And this is that white iPhone. So we’re going to call.
Zhanna Nemtsova He wanted to be perceived as a modern leader. He used his smartphone. He took pictures.
News Clip Go ahead and turn it sideways.
News Clip Yes this is great.
News Clip It’s pretty great.
Ben Rhodes I remember when he came to the United States, he spoke off an iPad in Silicon Valley wearing like jeans. And then he came to the White House and he and Obama went out for like hamburgers.
News Clip Well, before he left for the G20 summit, President Obama tried out some burger diplomacy with Russia’s president.
Ben Rhodes It was a little weird because he ate the hamburger without a bun with his hands.
News Clip Mr. Obama and the Russian president both had cheeseburgers and they shared the fries. That was nice of them. And Mr. Obama paid.
Ben Rhodes The hamburgers, that was actually my idea. A casual lunch out. We were trying to get stuff done with Medvedev. After he came to office, Obama had called it a reset.
News Clip We resolved to reset US-Russian relations so that we can cooperate more effectively in areas of common interest.
Ben Rhodes And for a while, it seemed like it was working. Medvedev let us supply our troops in Afghanistan through Russia. He supported sanctions on Iran. He negotiated a nuclear arms control treaty with Obama. He even talked about liberalizing the Russian economy.
Zhanna Nemtsova So on the surface, Medvedev was the guy with his iPhone shaking hands with Steve Jobs and wanted to be regarded as a progressive, which was not the whole truth because of what was going on inside the country.
Ben Rhodes As Zhanna says, inside Russia, not much was changing, especially when it came to human rights. In Chechnya, several activists were murdered. Journalists faced intimidation. And then on New Year’s Eve 2010, Boris Nemtsov was arrested and sentenced. After a few days, Zhanna went to see him. He was in a low security prison for petty crime.
Zhanna Nemtsova There was minor criminals sitting with him in this prison cell. And he made them do their morning exercise. And he tried to tell them more about the current political situation in Russia. So he basically tried to educate those guys.
Ben Rhodes When her father was released in January 2011, Zhanna took him to a cafe to celebrate, but it quickly became clear that life was not going to return to normal.
Zhanna Nemtsova When we got out of this cafe, one guy wearing a black jacket, black trousers, tried to attack my father in a very strange way. He wanted to catch my father in a very big butterfly net.
Ben Rhodes What?
Zhanna Nemtsova Yes.
Ben Rhodes Yes, you heard that right. A butterfly net.
Zhanna Nemtsova I understand that you cannot imagine that. But at the time, some young people who were the members of different pro-Putin youth organizations, they organized different creative attacks on the leaders of the Russian opposition.
Ben Rhodes The Kremlin was building its base, especially among disaffected young people. The biggest group was called Nashi, and they were famous for attention grabbing ambushes. It was becoming clear that the stakes of being in opposition had just got a lot higher. How did you feel? Like you’ve seen your father get sent to prison, you’re walking with him, there there’s someone trying to catch him in a butterfly net. Did you just feel like you wanted to tell him to stop being in politics, or did you feel scared for his future? Did you ever just feel like, Man, I wish my dad was just kind of a normal guy who wasn’t doing this?
Zhanna Nemtsova Back then, I understood clearly my father would never give up on politics. He regarded it as his mission to confront the Putin regime. And he has said it crystal clearly, Vladimir Putin is rebuilding an autocracy and Russia does not need it. Russia needs to be a democracy.
Ben Rhodes Boris Nemtsov understood, maybe more than anyone else, that just because Putin wasn’t president anymore, did not mean he had given up power.
Zhanna Nemtsova So my father came up with a strategy to challenge Vladimir Putin and his regime. So he wanted to expose grand corruption of the Putin elites.
Ben Rhodes Boris was targeting Putin, not Medvedev, because he understood that it was still Putin holding the reins.
News Clip There’s a special operation so Putin can keep power in Kremlin.
Ben Rhodes We heard last episode how Putin made short work of the oligarchs in the 1990s. In their place, he elevated his cronies, friends and former KGB guys. The big state oil company, that was handed over to Igor Sechin, an old colleague. So Nemtsovatov thinks, If I can just show people the scale of corruption, maybe I could get them to care about politics. Care enough to join the opposition. But how’s he gonna do that? It’s not like he has a bunch of people working for him. He’s got one assistant and a few volunteers. And so this group starts doing their own investigations into how Putin’s cronies got fleets of luxury yachts or the palaces at Putin’s disposal. And then, Nemtsov actually travels around the country, publicizing what they found through pamphlets that he hands out himself in any public place he could find. At railway stations, on squares, outside shops. The most basic kind of democratic politics. On the streets, people recognize him.
Zhanna Nemtsova Even in some cases, he told me. Even some policemen could come up and could ask him, Boris Yefimovich, I would like to have one copy.
Ben Rhodes Think of it. The image of a former deputy prime minister handing out pamphlets at train stations. This is someone who believed in democracy, but it wasn’t resonating. Not in a country where even young liberals were pretty much okay with life under their new president, Medvedev.
Leonid Volkov For me and very many people around me, those formative years were a genuine illusion.
Ben Rhodes A genuine illusion. That’s Leonid Volkov. For the last several years, he’s been chief of staff to Alexei Navalny, currently Russia’s leading opposition figure who’s been poisoned and jailed. We’ll come back to Navalny later. At the time, in 2011, Leonid was working on the council of a big Russian city. Medvedev was nearly done with his presidential term, and Leonid was already making plans for Medvedev’s second term.
Leonid Volkov We really, sort of okay, so the first one was a warm up, but then the second will come and the country will really open up for like liberal reforms and all types of, you know, civic participation.
Speaker 1 It’s not that Leonid loved Medvedev, but he did like some of the stuff Medvedev had to say. About reform, the closer ties with the West. In that image of modernity, the iPad, the more media friendly attitude, it made things feel different. So people like Leonid held out hope. But then, on September 24th, 2011, everything changed. Leonid was attending a fancy pro-democracy conference in Moscow.
Leonid Volkov It was like really a huge house, very posh, the chandeleirs and so on. It used to be an embassy or something like this before.
Ben Rhodes And it was full of liberal politicians. Some people actually working for Medvedev, preparing for a second term. Lawyers, technocrats. Halfway through the conference, they learned that Putin and Medvedev were going to do a public event. There was a big plasma screen in the lobby of this house.
Leonid Volkov All of us, like 50 or 70 people, maybe hundreds lobby in front of the TV screens to watch the announcement of Medvedev’s second presidential candidacy.
Ben Rhodes But that’s not what happened.
News Clip Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has proposed his prime minister and former head of state Vladimir Putin as a candidate for the country’s 2012 election.
News Clip Vladimir Putin.
Leonid Volkov Putin and Medvedev announced they decided to change their seats.
Ben Rhodes Putin was coming back. Medvedev would revert to being prime minister and Putin was going to be president again. Medvedev even said this had been the plan all along. Leonid looked around the room.
Leonid Volkov I could see how their faces became, like, really pale. I literally saw how all these guys like, close to Medvedev, his think tankers, his advisers, like, literally lost their faces watching this. They were caught by surprise. They didn’t expect this to happen and it looked like their worst nightmare came true. So everyone couldn’t actually really believe and very many people were upset.
News Clip The move could mean a continuation of strongman rule, especially considering that victory would open the door to Putin’s ruling Russia for two more terms, or 12 years. He already held the office from 2000 to 2008.
Ben Rhodes People felt conned. They were in despair. They’d bought into the facade of a more liberal Russian president. And it had all come crashing down. And Nemtsov realized this announcement was his chance, his moment to build the opposition.
Zhanna Nemtsova He wanted to form a broader alliance with all people who were critical about Putin’s regime and who wanted to change Russia. He said, you know, my role as the member of the Russian opposition is that I am a very experienced person. I held senior positions in the government. I know a lot about politics and I can help younger politicians to grow into good leaders. It was not about his personal ambition to become Russia’s next president. It was about his ambition to bring democracy to Russia, to bring Russia on track.
Ben Rhodes As one slogan said. A Russia without Putin.
News Clip [Russian News Clip].
Ben Rhodes But how was Boris Nemtsov going to build that Russia? He couldn’t do it on his own. And so he decided to team up with someone who today, everyone has heard of.
News Clip A handsome 41 year old lawyer.
News Clip The charismatic orator.
News Clip Kremlin critic, jailed opposition leader.
News Clip Anti-Corruption crusader.
Ben Rhodes Alexei Navalny.
News Clip Alexei Navalny. Alexei Navalny. Alexei Navalny.
Ben Rhodes Together, they would create the biggest protest movement the Putin era had ever seen. For many Russians, the announcement that Putin was returning to the Kremlin was a shock to the system. The middle classes had become politically disengaged. The opposition was weak and fragmented. And now the whole system felt more rigged than ever. The TV channels spouted propaganda. Traditional media was largely a tool of the state. So where could a Russian turn for political dialog and dissent? Where could you build a movement of people who supported change?
Leonid Volkov And the Russian internet was very independent. Kremlin didn’t pay attention to what’s going on on the internet. They consider it to be like a sandbox for children.
Ben Rhodes That’s Leonid Volkov again. After his day job on the city council, he went casting around in the sandbox.
Leonid Volkov I was blogging on a platform called LiveJournal. Now forgotten, but it was the main opposition plot, main independent platform in Russia by that point of time.
Ben Rhodes And one person in particular had Leonid’s attention, Alexei Navalny, then a young lawyer in jeans and a white shirt with rolled up sleeves.
Leonid Volkov And Alexei Navalny was blogging about corruption.
Ben Rhodes Like Nemtsov, except Navalny was younger and understood the Internet was a far more effective way to get a message out than printed pamphlets.
Leonid Volkov He started to blog on corruption as early as 2008, and his anti-corruption investigations and anti-corruption agenda has really attracted a lot of attention already by 2009 or 2010. So he became prominent in this very small circle of Russian political Internet users, of LiveJournal users. So I had maybe 10,000 followers, and it was a lot. And he had maybe 50,000 and it was huge.
Ben Rhodes Navalny was born into a military family just outside of Moscow. He wasn’t a classic liberal like Nemtsov. He had a streak of nationalism, a sense of some of the post-Soviet humiliation that Putin also tapped into. And he was ready to make his move.
Leonid Volkov He was not yet a leader of a large political organization, but it was very clear that he’s ambitious, and he knows what he does.
Ben Rhodes Leonid was impressed. So he invited Navalny to his city to meet local politicians, anti-corruption lawyers, do interviews.
Leonid Volkov And the schedule was really exhausting. But I saw how he derived energy from those meetings. How every next meeting, every next possibility to talk to people, to connect to people, to share his ideas, gave him energy rather than took energy from him.
Ben Rhodes And Boris Nemtsov was also impressed.
Zhanna Nemtsova My father publicly acknowledged that Navalny was a rising political star.
Ben Rhodes He saw him as a leader for the next generation, someone who knew how to use the Internet to inform and to organize. And soon something happened that pushed Navalny into the spotlight. In December 2011, after Putin and Medvedev announced they would be swapping jobs, parliamentary elections were held in Russia.
Leonid Volkov On December 4th, an enormous act of election fraud happened. Ballots were stuffed. Independent observers who tried to object, were removed from the polling stations, often by police force.
Ben Rhodes But many of those election observers took videos on their cell phones.
News Clip Reports of alleged vote rigging first came to light after this footage was circulated on the Internet. The reporter, seen in the red jacket, appears to show ballot papers found in a toilet of a polling station marked in favor of Mr. Putin’s party, and pens in polling booths that can erase ink if a vote needs to be changed.
Ben Rhodes People like Navalny shared them on the Internet. And on social media, they spread like wildfire. People watched as their votes were stolen.
Zhanna Nemtsova And that sparked massive protests unseen since the collapse of the USSR.
News Clip [Russian News Clip]
News Clip Tens of thousands voiced their anger over alleged election fraud last weekend, which saw Mr. Putin’s party win almost 50% of the vote. Setting the stage for his probable return to the presidency next year. And in Russia tpo, the protesters were armed with a modern equivalent of the pitchfork and the Molotov cocktail, cell phones.
Ben Rhodes Nemtsov gave a speech.
News Clip [Russian News Clip]
Ben Rhodes So did Nevalny.
News Clip [Russian News Clip]
Ben Rhodes They demanded fair elections. The next week, an estimated 50,000 people gathered in Moscow. Two weeks later, it was up to 120,000. It felt big.
News Clip [Russian News Clip]
Ben Rhodes Nemtsov and Navalny realized they complemented each other. Navalny was Internet savvy, with a younger following, a rising star. Nemtsov had been organizing the old way, in the streets, for years. He knew a lot of people. Together, they could create something powerful. So they started to hold training sessions at local cafes and people’s apartments. How to protest, when to protest. They were building momentum.
Leonid Volkov So many new people joined the movement. So many new people came.
Ben Rhodes Including people who had done pretty well in the Putin era.
Zhanna Nemtsova There were people who had previously been loyal to Putin, but they also wanted change. So lots of people who were pretty well off, who were recognizable, took to the streets.
Leonid Volkov So many people, like, found themselves humiliated by this voter fraud and decided that they have to do something. They have to express themselves. And those people found each other. It was really like a new starting point.
Ben Rhodes Nemtsov and Navalny wanted to go even bigger. Putin’s inauguration date for a third term was announced. May 7th, 2012.
News Clip Vladimir Putin tonight declared victory in Russia’s presidential elections, the third time the former KGB man has held the Kremlin’s top job.
Ben Rhodes And they had an idea, a protest so brazen that the Kremlin would have to pay attention. Right on the eve of Putin’s inauguration. So what happens on on May 6th?
Zhanna Nemtsova I was in Moscow. I got a call from my father. My father wanted me to join this protest. He realized it would be really big. Initially, I wanted to join him, but I fell sick and I had a fever. And I called him back and said, You know, I think I cannot join you today because I’m not feeling really well. So I spent the whole day in my bed.
Ben Rhodes But one person that Zhanna now knows really well did go.
Zhanna Nemtsova Well yes, my husband. His name is Pavel Elizarov.
Pavel Elizarov I’m from Russia. I’m a web designer and developer, also a political activist, and more recently, I’m a proud husband of Zhanna.
Ben Rhodes Pavel is a soft spoken guy, not someone you’d expect to be fighting the regime in the streets, but he’d been working with the opposition for years. On May 6th, he woke up in his apartment in a suburb of Moscow.
Pavel Elizarov And it was sunny and it was spring, so I was feeling good.
Ben Rhodes He took the subway to the city center.
Pavel Elizarov People were smiling and it was, like, kind of a familiar event with kids. And there was new hope, I don’t know why. Maybe because of the weather. And there was a feeling that on this day, something may go different. But what exactly will happen? Nobody knew. So in this good mood, we went for an hour marching and shouting, Putin, go away. Stop Putin. Enough Putin.
Ben Rhodes Tens of thousands of people came out to March that day. It may not seem like a huge amount, but it was unprecedented. So much so that it became known as the March of the Millions.
Pavel Elizarov And the final destination was Bolotnaya Square.
Ben Rhodes Bolotnaya Square is in central Moscow, across the river from the Kremlin. As Pavel approached the square, he saw police everywhere.
Pavel Elizarov Huge police lines locking the streets around the square.
Ben Rhodes The police were trying to stop the protesters from getting in.
Pavel Elizarov But people were pushing right in front of the police line.
Ben Rhodes Amidst the chaos, Navalny started a sit in.
News Clip [Russian News Clip]
Pavel Elizarov He sat down at the entrance to the square and he said that everybody should follow and should sit down as well. And the police started to arrest these people.
News Clip [Russian News Clip].
Ben Rhodes Navalny was immediately arrested, but Nemtsov managed to push through.
Pavel Elizarov He managed to access the square and he claimed it as a stage. And he said in megaphone for everybody, what’s going on. The police is blocking access, that some people got arrested, and they should continue to protest, to stay in the square. And immediately he got arrested himself. Right during this speech. With megaphone in his hand, which was quite spectacular.
Ben Rhodes The crowd started getting angrier and angrier, screaming at the police, pushing.
Pavel Elizarov And the police get angrier themselves. And they started to beat people. Not only to arrest, but also to beat people.
Ben Rhodes More and more police started arriving, and eventually, they managed to block off the square completely. So the protesters started to peel off and go home.
Pavel Elizarov And I was just going home when I got arrested myself. Of course, they didn’t explain the reasons. They just took me. And it was a lot of force, but violently they just took me.
Ben Rhodes The police beat Pavel, threw him in jail, and released him later that night. The next morning, May 7th was Putin’s inauguration.
News Clip In executing the office of President of the Russian Federation, I solemly swear to respect and protect the rights and liberties of men and of the citizens.
Pavel Elizarov And in the morning, when the inauguration happened, city was empty. There was no crowd like celebrating, going, trying to congratulate Putin with his inauguration. And the images were quite powerful with his motorcade, his car going across Moscow, an empty city. And he knew that city in this moment hate him. And it was really impressive.
Ben Rhodes The fallout from the Bolotnaya Square protest was significant. 400 demonstrators were detained and fined. 28 people were charged with violence towards the police. Some got 2 to 4 year prison sentences.
Pavel Elizarov Putin himself was angry. Some people say that his reaction was, okay, they ruined my celebration, so I will ruin their lives. And he managed it.
Ben Rhodes Pavel’s own life, too. He received a summons to come to court. He knew he had to get out of Russia. And he hasn’t been back since.
Zhanna Nemtsova Of course, the Bolotnaya case that followed was another major turning point in the transformation of the Russian regime. Internetocracy. People realized, specifically people who were not professional activists and politicians, realized how dangerous it was to oppose Putin and his regime. And probably they realized that Putin regime would not crumble that easily.
Ben Rhodes As for Nemtsov, he spent the following months trying to help all those people whose lives had been upended by the crackdown.
Zhanna Nemtsova I think that he did not expect that to be that brutal. He did not expect that people who were detained at the protest in Bolotnaya Square would be thrown in prison.
Ben Rhodes Over the next couple of years, Putin would continue to crush dissent at home, and soon his attention turned outward towards establishing his power in a different country, Ukraine. But Nemtsov didn’t back down. Instead, he decided to make what became his final play, to go it alone and oppose the war. No holds barred. Personally calling Putin out.
News Clip [Russian News Clip]
Ben Rhodes 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 Nemtsova And I’m 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 Nemtsova 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 Nemtsovatova.org/russiansforchange. We will also put a link in our shownotes.