In This Episode
Putin annexes Crimea and Nemtsov goes hard in his opposition to the war in Ukraine. Banners with Nemtsov’s face on them calling him a “national traitor” line the streets of Moscow. Zhanna tries to persuade her father to leave Russia.
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 March 26, 2014. Zhanna was turning 30.
Zhanna Nemtsova Well, I organized the party because as my father, I do like my birthdays. I organized quite a big party. I invited my colleagues, even my boss, my friends, my family members, everybody. And of course, I was expecting my father to come.
Ben Rhodes Zhanna had booked a restaurant she couldn’t really afford. She’d chosen a menu that she knew her father would like. He was trying to stay thin. But a few hours before the party, Zhanna’s phone rings. It’s her dad.
Zhanna Nemtsova I was surprised. Why is he calling me? We’ll see each other in two or three hours. And he said, so happy birthday. Happy for you. Happy for your achievements. You know, I can’t come today. I said, Why? What’s going on? And he said, I’m in Israel.
Ben Rhodes Boris Nemtsov had left Russia.
Zhanna Nemtsova And he said, I decided to leave. I don’t want to go into much detail and I ask you not to reveal this information to anyone. I don’t want it to be leaked into the media. He was thinking about emigration.
Ben Rhodes Emigration. How had it gotten to this point? The courageous opposition leader who had endured harassment, prison and threats on his life, on the verge of leaving Russia behind. From Crooked Media, I’m Ben Rhodes.
Zhanna Nemtsova I’m Zhanna Nemtsova.
Ben Rhodes And this is Another Russia, episode five National Traitor. At the end of our last episode, Boris Nemtsov was arrested for a second time. He had helped lead the biggest democracy protest in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union. But he was also in deepening danger from Vladimir Putin, who was throwing people in prison and sending a message to Nemtsov and anyone who thought like him, don’t cross me. The protests were like nothing Russia had seen before. So many people out on the streets calling for change, for a Russia without Putin. It was a high point for the opposition movement. And that put Putin on edge. And it ended up fueling his determination to turn Russia from a so-called democracy into a full dictatorship. It was around the time of those protests that New Yorker correspondent Joshua Yaffa, then a young freelancer, turned up in Moscow. To him, the protests were inspiring.
Joshua Yaffa And I showed up to work as a journalist and what was supposed to be potentially a short trip of a few weeks just to write a story or two about those protests, turned into a decade of living and working as a journalist in Russia.
Ben Rhodes Josh remembers that the crackdown came hard and fast. Hundreds of activists thrown in jail. Many others fled the country. Dissent in Russia was increasingly dangerous. And then a year later, something happens in Ukraine that taps into Putin’s greatest fear, a revolution. It started on November 21st, 2013.
News Clip Thousands of people have been demonstrating in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, after their president-
Ben Rhodes Protests broke out in Kiev’s Maidan, the central square in the city. The protesters were angry at the Putin backed president of Ukraine. He’d been planning to sign an agreement to draw closer to the European Union.
News Clip The agreement was all but ready to be signed at the EU summit today when President Yanukovych demanded more financial aid from the West.
Ben Rhodes Instead, he flipped the script and signed on to a more dependent relationship with Russia. That sent young people onto the streets. They wanted to look west to Europe, to democracy. Joshua Yaffa was in Kiev covering the protests. And then after a few months-
Joshua Yaffa The president, who the protesters were trying to overthrow, disappears, essentially flees office, flees to Russia really, in the middle of the night.
News Clip We begin with a dramatic turn in the crisis for control of Ukraine. This morning there’s an apparent power vacuum there, with reports its president fled Kiev, the capital, after signing a peace deal with the opposition leaders.
Joshua Yaffa And when the city wakes up, there’s this vacuum of power. It looks like the protesters have won. But of course, for Putin, that means his worst nightmare has come to fruition.
Ben Rhodes Putin saw this as a challenge to his influence in Ukraine and as a threat to the dictatorship that he was building in Russia.
Joshua Yaffa Putin was definitely primed to see threats all around and especially threats from protest movements. He had just lived through one of his own in Russia, the Bolotnaya movement from just a year before. He was convinced that the West orchestrated a coup or overthrow of the government of Ukraine that he saw as sympathetic to Russia’s interests, and replaced it with the mob.
Ben Rhodes He was paranoid. And he thought that Russia had the right to shape events in Ukraine. I don’t know how many times I heard Putin tell President Obama that the U.S. had orchestrated a coup in Ukraine. To understand his mindset, you need to understand a bit about the history. For a long time, Ukraine was part of the Russian Empire, and then it was part of the Soviet Union. After the fall of the Soviet Union, an event that Putin called the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century, Ukraine became an independent country, and a successful democracy in Ukraine would prove that a democratic revolution could also succeed at home. That was an existential threat for Putin.
Joshua Yaffa And he wanted to send a message that that sort of thing wasn’t acceptable to him and that Russia would respond. That he would respond.
Ben Rhodes But how would he respond? Well, after a few days, Joshua Yaffa started to hear rumors coming out of a peninsula on the southern tip of Ukraine called Crimea. And so he got on the first flight from Moscow.
Joshua Yaffa And I remember landing at the airport and exiting to the strange sight of men in fatigues with no insignia, no markings, not really saying a word, but patrolling around with automatic weapons. These little green men set out to essentially seize Crimea. To capture the airport, military bases, major bits of infrastructure.
Ben Rhodes Little green men. Remember, they had no markings, no insignia, just standard army camo showing that they were military. But Josh says he knew exactly where they came from.
Joshua Yaffa These were Russian soldiers and they were preparing for some sort of show of force, if not takeover by Russia.
Ben Rhodes Why was Putin doing this? Part of it was revenge for what happened in Maidan. But also Crimea was strategically and symbolically important. From the 18th century to the collapse of the Soviet Union, its position allowed Russia to control the Black Sea. And even after Ukraine became independent, Russia maintained a naval base there. The population of Crimea was also majority Russian rather than Ukrainian, meaning a lot of people in Russia thought Crimea rightfully belonged to Russia. And some people in Crimea actually agreed with them. And so Putin sent these soldiers in by stealth.
Joshua Yaffa We hadn’t seen anything like this before.
Ben Rhodes Russia swallowing a chunk of another sovereign country, essentially undercover. A week later, the Russian government staged a referendum. Of course, as they voted, they were watched over by these little green men.
Joshua Yaffa In hindsight, it all kind of makes a certain sense, given everything that’s happened in the years since. But at the time, this was really unexpected and strange and ominous, certainly.
Ben Rhodes In Russia, there was euphoria.
News Clip [Russian News Clip]
Joshua Yaffa There were Russian flags around more than usual. There were kind of patriotic murals going up. I remember seeing a mural in Moscow that appeared on the side of a building in the center of town. There was a soldier without insignia or any kind of identification popped up on the side of, the whole side of the building.
News Clip [Russin News Clip]
Zhanna Nemtsova I witnessed this patriotic euphoria with my own eyes.
Ben Rhodes Zhanna remembers going to parties and talking to her friends.
Zhanna Nemtsova We were trying to persuade people to put some rational argument forward.
Ben Rhodes And if you expressed doubts about what was going on in Crimea.
Zhanna Nemtsova The typical answer was, you are not patriotic. You are not a patriot. You are influenced by the West. So Crimea is ours. It’s our land. It belongs to us. It has always belonged to us. People just went crazy. And they were highly irrational about their feelings towards the annexation of Crimea. They were just happy, really happy.
Ben Rhodes Why do you think they were so happy?
Zhanna Nemtsova Well, I think it’s a psychological phenomenon. For many years, Russians had felt humiliated.
Joshua Yaffa The annexation of Crimea tapped into something really raw, I think for a lot of Russians. It turned out in ways maybe we didn’t totally understand or pay attention to. The depth and trauma of the collapse of the Soviet Union kind of post-imperial syndrome, hangover, people longing for this sense of greatness, of meaning, of purpose that came from the Soviet state. It wasn’t that people had a whole lot of nostalgia for communism per se, but I think they did have a lot of nostalgia for this sense of belonging to a great and powerful nation. And Crimea was like this jolt, like a dose of heroin, like straight to the veins.
Ben Rhodes There was one person who did not get high from the annexation of Crimea, Boris Nemtsov. He was actually in jail at the time. When he heard the news, the first thing he did was call his assistant.
Zhanna Nemtsova He wanted to voice his position on the extension of Crimea.
Ben Rhodes And he dictated a statement to his assistant over the phone.
Zhanna Nemstova He just told him what to write. First of all, he, of course, underscored that it was a clear breach of at least two international treaties. It was illegal. It will have dreadful consequences for Russia.
Ben Rhodes Nemtsov was going to publish this post on the Echo of Moscow website, but they told him it was too inflammatory. And so he turned to social media.
Zhanna Nemtsova It was on his Facebook. It was on his blog.
Ben Rhodes And within minutes, the post was everywhere. And it was inflammatory. He called Putin a, quote, crazed KGB man who will cost Russia and Ukraine dear. The ghoul needs a war, he wrote. God, why should we be cursed like this? How much longer can we take it? The problem was he was totally out of step with most Russians. Boris Nemtsov was saying things that left him dangerously exposed.
Joshua Yaffa I remember walking down [00:12:53][street name], [0.0s] one of the main thoroughfares in Moscow in those days. And on the side of one of the skyscrapers, on [00:13:00][street name] [0.0s] this giant poster effectively appeared with the faces of a number of Russian liberal figures, opposition figures. Among them was Nemtsov. And his face was plastered on this billboard. And the tagline was, [Russian]. I remember still this line. And effectively it means foreigners or others in our midst.
Zhanna Nemtsova There were big posters hanging on the main street of Moscow with my father’s photos, with photos of famous singers, Russian singers. And with very big letters it was written, national traitors. National traitors.
Ben Rhodes What’s it like to walk past that and see a poster of your dad with national traitor written above?
Zhanna Nemtsova It was scary. Why different dictators are doing that? They are doing it to dehumanize people so they can become very easy targets. It was not a very pleasant experience.
Ben Rhodes Boris Nemtsov was not intimidated by threats, though. While a lot of the protesters at Bolotnaya were scared off by Putin’s crackdown, Nemtsov was not afraid. When he got out of prison, he kept posting on Facebook. And he went on the radio. He was also trying to organize more protests.
News Clip [Russian News Clip]
Ben Rhodes And he was more pointed in his criticism of Putin than ever before.
News Clip [Russian News Clip
Zhanna Nemtsova So he used very strong terms. He said, like Putin is mentally ill, he needs medical doctors immediately.
Ben Rhodes He had to know, like he was saying, the most provocative possible things about both the war and Putin, right?
Zhanna Nemtsova Yes, absolutely. He didn’t try to use some euphemism. He condemned the war and Putin in the strongest terms possible.
Ben Rhodes And this made Zhanna worried, seriously worried. For the first time, she feared for her father’s safety. So a couple of weeks after Boris got out of prison, Zhanna made a decision. She decided that she needed to warn him. So she called him up and said, Let’s have dinner.
Zhanna Nemtsova So I met him at the restaurant and it was my idea to meet. And I said only one thing. I would like to warn you about the growing risks for you personally.
Ben Rhodes She told him the atmosphere in Moscow is bad. The media is saying you’re an enemy of the state. You’re in danger.
Zhanna Nemtsova And I said you should consider leaving Russia. And he said, because, of course, he did not consider me as an experienced politician or an expert in such matters. He said like, okay, I understand, but, you know, I will tell you when it gets dangerous. I said, okay, but I just wanted to warn you.
Ben Rhodes And then at the end of March 2014, on her 30th birthday, she gets a phone call from her father telling her, I can’t come to your party. I’ve left Russia. Zhanna was surprised. Her father had listened to her. Maybe this was an opportunity to save her dad from what she now thought could well be his ultimate tragic fate. So in the spring of 2014, Boris Nemtsov left Russia. He traveled to Israel. A few days later, Zhanna flew out to join him.
Zhanna Nemtsova He was a bit lost, you know. That’s what I could sense. He was lost. He didn’t know what to do next. I think that the word vulnerable describes his state better than many other words.
Ben Rhodes Zhanna’s father was not someone who often appeared vulnerable. He was the big man, the courageous leader. And now here he was on his own. A man in exile from his country, his home. And with this one question playing over and over in his mind.
Zhanna Nemtsova Should he stay in Israel or should he come back to Russia?
Ben Rhodes He understood now that he was risking everything by continuing to protest and lead the opposition in Russia. That if he went back, he would end up in prison for a long time or worse. Zhanna was clear with him. If you stay in Israel-
Zhanna Nemtsova I will join you.
Ben Rhodes She wanted him to stay. She would go there with him. She knew how dangerous Russia was, and she knew that he would be safe there in Israel.
Zhanna Nemtsova I was ready to quit my job and I loved my job. But I wanted to help my father. I felt like I should be by his side.
Ben Rhodes Night after night, they talked in the kitchen of their little rental apartment in Tel Aviv. They talked about what he could do if he stayed in Israel. How could he still support the fight against Putin from outside of Russia?
Zhanna Nemtsova And one idea was to set up the foundation to implement some Russia focused programs.
Ben Rhodes But he wasn’t just talking to Zhanna. He was also calling up other dissidents and exiles.
Zhanna Nemtsova And he asked one question, What would you do if you were me?
Ben Rhodes These are hard bitten guys. They had left Russia for similar reasons. They were scared for their lives. Nemtsov wanted to know, what is it like to live in another country? To live outside of the place you call home? To not be able to go back?
Zhanna Nemtsova And some people whom he respected said, If I were you, I would go back to Russia.
Ben Rhodes After a few days, Zhanna left. She had to go to work. She was still hoping her father would stay. And then she went on Facebook.
Zhanna Nemtsova And I learned about his return to Russia when I saw his picture standing in front of the Moscow airport. And it was written in Russian, I have just landed in Moscow.
Ben Rhodes He was back in Russia and ready to face down his enemies again. Zhanna couldn’t believe it.
Zhanna Nemtsova Of course I wish he had stayed. He’s my father. He’s not a politician for me. He’s my father. And I need him. And of course, he should have stayed.
Ben Rhodes But Boris Nemtsov could never have stayed.
Zhanna Nemtsova He wanted to live in Russia. Yes, he was Russian. He was 100% Russian. And he loved this country that much. He was a brave man and he wanted to retain this reputation. He would have been insulted then if somebody had said, yeah.
Ben Rhodes You ran away.
Zhanna Nemtsova You ran away, yes. That was an emotional thing. My father didn’t want to be seen as a coward, that’s for sure. But he also wanted to be involved in politics. And his position was that you cannot be involved in politics in Russia if you stay outside of Russia.
Ben Rhodes And so Nemtsov came back to Russia. He knew it was dangerous, that Russia was not a safe place for him. But he wanted to fight against Putin. And instead of pulling back, he doubled down and fought harder than he had before. The problem was, Putin was getting stronger. The annexation of Crimea had been a success. And Putin had decided to push further, into a region of Eastern Ukraine called Donbas, with militias and trainers backing so-called separatists.
News Clip Satellite photos show convoys of Russian artillery on the move inside Ukraine.
Joshua Yaffa Russia sparked a separatist war in which it backed these militias, sending in arms, supplying covert soldiers and advisers, providing diplomatic cover.
News Clip In the last 24 hours, up to 1000 Russian troops with heavy weapons moved into the area.
News Clip Russia has deliberately and repeatedly violated the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.
Joshua Yaffa And I remember being in the Donbas in those months and having this equally kind of fun house, confused, labyrinthine understanding of what was going on. In that Russia wasn’t outright annexing these territories, it was instead looking to essentially bleed the Ukrainian state to create this open wound in Ukraine that would go on to fester for eight years.
Ben Rhodes He was trying to show the Ukrainian government that they’d never be in control of their country.
Joshua Yaffa And it was scary. It was something really dark and really bloody with a human toll and a human cost that we didn’t see in Crimea.
Ben Rhodes And it was that human toll that Boris Nemtsov focused his campaigning on.
Zhanna Nemtsova Once he came to his office and said, I have a great idea how we can counter Putin’s propaganda and Putin’s lies. We should publish a report titled Putin.War, and we should publish 1 million copies and distributed it in every major city of Russia.
Ben Rhodes This report tried to show people how the war impacted Russian families, how whatever the Russian government said, this was a war being carried out by the Russian state. And the people who bore the cost of that were the mothers who lost their sons in the fighting. It was 11 chapters long. It had pictures and graphs showing Russian troop involvement in Ukraine. And at the end, Nemtsov wrote,”the task of the opposition today is education and truth. And the truth is that Putin is war and crisis”. It seemed like Boris Nemtsov’s trip to Israel had only made him more determined to fight Putin directly, personally. But at the same time, Putin’s media was pumping out propaganda. Night after night after night.
News Clip [Russian News Clip]
Zhanna Nemtsova I mean, 24 hours a day, there were floods of propaganda pouring on people’s heads.
News Clip [Russian News Clip]
Zhanna Nemstova And as my father put it, Russian propaganda has eaten people’s brains.
News Clip [Russian News Clip]
Joshua Yaffa I think we did have the sense something bad could happen, that there was this atmosphere of hate, legalized hate.
Ben Rhodes The government was fueling the hatred of political enemies, urging people on to think of them as other, as not legitimate, as less than human. And that meant that someone like Nemtsov was a pariah, someone who was no longer acceptable to associate with if you wanted to play a role in Russian society.
Zhanna Nemtsova My father’s birthday is on the 9th of October. He turned 55 years old on that day. And normally many people would come to his birthday party. And on that day, some people didn’t come. The reason was purely political. People were afraid of having anything in common with such a radical as Boris Nemtsov. Among those people was Mikhail Fridman, one of Russia’s richest men. He was my father’s personal friend and he didn’t come. And he explained the reason. He was very straightforward. He said, It can destroy my business. I cannot further maintain a relationship with you, though I love you dearly. You are my friend. But now those risks are much higher than they used to be.
Ben Rhodes So your father is actively trying to collect this information. He’s organizing protests. He’s speaking out. He’s being very provocative in his language about Putin himself. Did he have any sense that he was being watched, followed, that the Kremlin might be keeping an eye on him?
Zhanna Nemtsova He was sure that he was followed and his phone calls were intercepted. And even he thought that it was not that safe to speak about delicate matters in his apartment.
Ben Rhodes Did he take precautions to try to avoid that kind of surveillance?
Zhanna Nemtsova Yes. When he wanted to discuss something in his bathroom, he thought, okay, let’s let’s discuss it in my bathroom because I think that all our conversations might be overheard. But I think that my bathroom is a safe place.
Ben Rhodes Did he ever talk about, you know, being concerned that he could be harmed? Is it something he discussed or was it just something that was understood?
Zhanna Nemtsova Well, my father spoke about this risk during his interviews. He literally said a couple of times, Putin can kill me and I know that. Or, Putin will kill me, but probably he did it just for his own safety. When you voice your concerns, it makes it difficult for Putin, however, to kill you. Because you, by doing that, you just point out to the man whom to blame. So probably he-.
Ben Rhodes He wanted people to know that if something happened to him, it would be because of Putin.
Zhanna Nemtsova Yeah. Yeah, I think so. But he thought that he would not be killed because once he was such a high profile statesman.
Ben Rhodes Yeah.
Zhanna Nemtsova That Putin would not dare to kill him.
Ben Rhodes And that brings us to February 27th, 2015. Nemtsov was planning an anti-war protest. He was saying it was going to be the biggest one yet. And he goes on Echo of Moscow radio to talk about the war.
News Clip [Russian News Clip]
Ben Rhodes And that last media appearance is on February 27th. Did you watch it? What did your father say?
Zhanna Nemtsova He was absolutely radical. Positively radical.
Ben Rhodes Yeah.
Zhanna Nemstova Condemning Putin. Explaining the insanity of the war. Condemning Putin of lies. He said literally, Putin is a logical liar.
News Clip [Russian News Clip]
Zhanna Nemtsova And I think that the hosts were taken aback by by his energy, by his bravery. That he did not hesitate to speak up.
Ben Rhodes That night, Zhanna went home from work. She and her mom were going to Italy the next day. She turned her phone off. She went to sleep. Which takes us back to the very beginning of this show.
Zhanna Nemtsova And I think at midnight, I heard her crying and yelling. And I thought my, my immediate thought was that an intruder had broken into our apartment and about to steal something.
Ben Rhodes So you wake up hearing your mother yelling and crying.
Zhanna Nemtsova Yes and she just. She just came into my room and she said, your father was killed and he is dead.
Ben Rhodes What’s going through your head? Like, what are you thinking?
Zhanna Nemtsova Putin.
Ben Rhodes You’re just thinking Putin.
Zhanna Nemstova Putin did it.
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 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 Nemtsova.org/russiansforchange. We will also put a link in our show notes.