In aviator shades and a brightly coloured jacket, Natalia Sindeyeva is not a person to let life’s troubles stand in her way. The 50-year-old was treated successfully for breast cancer in 2020; today she puffs happily on miniature cigarettes from a heated tobacco device. A competitive dancer, she is in Istanbul to take part in a tango tournament — the dancing, she says, helped see her through her treatment.

But Sindeyeva is also an unlikely media revolutionary. Once a society fixture, she founded TV Rain (or Dozhd) as a hip lifestyle beacon for the emerging middle class. Instead, a decade of Kremlin crackdowns against the press turned the network into one of the country’s last bastions of free speech: Russia’s only independent news channel.

When Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine in February, TV Rain’s young staff covered the war around the clock, reporting on Russia’s brutal rocket strikes on civilian areas even as Russian state television pretended most of the conflict wasn’t even happening. But they knew their days were numbered. Russia’s censors forbade them from calling it a “war”, then banned the channel from the internet.

“We were working practically nonstop because we felt we didn’t have long left,” Sindeyeva tells me when we meet on a rooftop overlooking the Bosphorus. “They didn’t declare martial law, but it was clear that they wouldn’t let independent media work during a war. The only question was how many days it would take.”

For more than a decade, TV Rain had been a small glimmer of light in Russia’s increasingly dark television landscape — one dominated by frothy shouting matches on the state channels that are the main source of news for most Russians. At its peak the channel had 13mn viewers a month, before it was dropped from the airwaves under Kremlin pressure; although it could muster only 70,000 paying subscribers online, it had more than 3mn subscribers on YouTube.

A week into the war, Sindeyeva and her staff bid a tearful farewell to their viewers live on air, then suspended broadcasting and fled the country to avoid prosecution under a new law making “fake news” and “discrediting Russia’s armed forces” punishable with up to 15 years in prison — conditions that essentially made journalism impossible.

Now Sindeyeva is plotting how to bring it back. She is securing funding from Russians in Silicon Valley, despondent at Russian state TV’s hold over their relatives back home, to set up small studios in several countries across Europe with large émigré populations. “Inside, I feel like I’ve just gone on a long work trip,” she says. “I never wanted to leave Russia. Now I’m constantly thinking about when and how I’m going to go back.”

The plan is too much in flux for me to get my head around — there is Paris, Amsterdam, and a decentralised, blockchain-based management platform. But Sindeyeva feels her struggles have prepared her for any challenge. “I had no idea I had so much endurance and courage inside me. I got to know myself better — I’d never been in a position for that to come through. That’s why I’m not scared of anything.”

In the span of the 20th century, the efflorescence of Russia’s media was vanishingly brief. The period of glasnost in the run-up to the break-up of the Soviet Union spawned a thriving media scene where journalists were able to criticise the state for the first time in decades. Kommersant, Russia’s top business newspaper, took its name from a tsarist-era newspaper and joked that it had ceased publication from 1917 to 1990 for reasons beyond its control.

Though often accused of being the tools of their oligarch funders, the likes of Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky, this new, privately owned media had real impact. Gusinsky’s NTV covered the horrors of the first Chechen war in the 1990s in graphic detail, and has been partly credited with forcing the Kremlin to pull back.

Things changed when Putin became president in 2000. He took criticism as a direct affront from potential rivals. Early in his first term in power, Channel One and NTV fell under the grip of the state and their owners fled to Europe.

When TV Rain launched in 2010, it would hardly have seemed a threat to the Kremlin. Two years earlier, Putin had stepped aside as president for his iPhone-wielding protégé Dmitry Medvedev, who made tentative inroads to rebuilding ties with the US and liberalising Russia’s justice system. Inspired, Sindeyeva and her third husband, investment banker Alexander Vinokurov, began planning to set up their channel, which she initially conceived as a being for upwardly mobile Muscovites — people just like her.

After the USSR collapsed in 1991, Sindeyeva, then 20, had seized the opportunities that Russia’s wild new capitalist era offered her with both hands. Trained as a maths teacher in Michurinsk, the backwater town in central Russia where her grandparents raised her, she moved to Moscow to take the nascent Russian entertainment industry by storm.

Sindeyeva quickly rose up the ranks from secretary to TV producer, then set up Silver Rain, a radio station playing western pop hits, with her first husband in 1995. The station’s success made her a fixture on Moscow’s showbiz scene in the 2000s, when an oil boom ended the economic turmoil of the previous decade.

“I really had no interest in politics — it seemed like something very far away. That was my mistake,” she says. “In the 1990s we cared about politics, and then those wonderful golden years started when everything was good, you could make money, you could do good things like open cafés and restaurants, and you think politics is somewhere else.”

Sindeyeva and Vinokurov “had no agenda, so they could give us the opportunity”, says Vera Krichevskaya, a former NTV journalist who helped set up TV Rain and directed F@ck This Job (known in the UK as Tango with Putin), a documentary about the channel. “They thought more about lighter content at the beginning. But in terms of values — what is good, bad, white, black — they were on the same [page] with us.”

When TV Rain was launched, the ideal vehicle for Sindeyeva’s values appeared to be Medvedev, who posted his own nature photography on Instagram while uttering bland liberal koans like “freedom is better than unfreedom”. Sindeyeva says she “thought Medvedev was awesome . . . he seemed like this really great guy and we all hoped that he would keep going.” In 2011, dressed in ripped blue jeans, she even showed Medvedev around the channel’s hip red-brick offices.

That sunny approach placed her at odds with some staff. Leonid Bershidsky, TV Rain’s first editor-in-chief, says that he fell out with her when she complained that its journalism was insufficiently “glamorous or upbeat”. Krichevskaya quit not long afterwards, when Sindeyeva refused to air a satirical programme that featured an actor mocking Medvedev in the style of classic Russian poetry.

Sindeyeva now says she and her peers “were all hiding in our comfortable little homes”, noticing the reprisals against Putin’s political opponents but acting as if it had nothing to do with them. Gradually, she realised her audience was hungry for unvarnished news of the sort absent from state television, which would run entertainment programmes even as TV Rain switched to rolling coverage of events like the anti-immigrant riots of 2010 and the 2011 Moscow airport bombing.

“When we were just doing the news, we realised nobody else was doing it,” she says. “It became clear you couldn’t close your eyes to what was going on. So the channel started exposing it and you started changing along with it.”

In late 2011, Medvedev stood aside for Putin to return as president in 2012, prompting a despair that turned into fury months later, amid reports of widespread fraud in elections to Russia’s parliament.

The more than 100,000 people who took to Moscow’s streets in freezing weather to protest were essentially TV Rain’s audience; the actors and activists making stirring anti-Putin speeches from the stage, some of whom were banned from the state-run airwaves for their political views, were TV Rain’s stars.

“The government was really scared. These were all sorts of different people they thought would never take to the streets,” Sindeyeva remembers. “Then the New Year’s holidays began, everyone went on vacation and by the time they came back, it was all over.”

TV Rain’s peak viewership of 13mn viewers a month was a fraction of Channel One’s 59mn monthly viewers, but more than enough to make an impact.

“You could feel it by talking to people: the journalists would go to villages and meet some babushka or gas-station attendant who would say, ‘Oh, TV Rain is here!’ That meant you could be popular without doing dumb or bad things, without any hack jobs or pandering to your audience,” Sindeyeva says.

When Alexei Gromov, Putin’s television impresario, called Sindeyeva to complain that she’d created a “breeding ground for the state department”, she told him she didn’t care what he thought. She never heard from the Kremlin again, and the channel kept up its coverage of controversial subjects such as protests in Ukraine and Kremlin corruption.

Then, weeks before Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, cable operators suddenly dropped TV Rain from their packages, blocking it off from most of its advertisers and all but its most devoted viewers.

However, TV Rain’s refusal to bend attracted a new generation of reporters. Maria Borzunova, then 19, got her start at a phone bank, fielding calls from viewers wondering how to watch the channel, then parlayed this into a reporting job. As other media caved in to censorship or their staff quit in protest, TV Rain “wasn’t somewhere you’d be ashamed to work”, Borzunova says. “They were covering things that nobody else was.”

TV Rain’s young staff got a crash course in journalism while the field was collapsing around them. Reporters not yet out of university would be given important assignments and were mentored by the channel’s old guard of refugees from Putin’s earlier media purges.

Losing access to the airwaves forced Sindeyeva to cut TV Rain’s budget drastically. The channel filmed out of her apartment for several months; reporters would deliver stand-up pieces from the field on their phones. Sindeyeva and Vinokurov sold real estate, poured their savings into the channel and switched to broadcasting online — but could only muster a mere 70,000 subscribers.

Sometimes, they would turn up in unexpected places: Borzunova recalls being recognised while covering a mining accident in Siberian coal country last year. But Sindeyeva never had the money to set up bureaux nationwide, and admits that TV Rain struggled to break out of its Moscow middle-class bubble.

“We never tried to speak to a different audience,” she says. “We probably should have thought about that more — how to get through to my uncle who watches state TV from morning until night.”


Proportion of Russians cited by opinion polls as backing Putin and his war

The Kremlin drumbeat, meanwhile, became more and more compelling. “I would go to Michurinsk, they’d have state TV on, and three hours later I’d start wondering — maybe there’s something I don’t know? Maybe there really are Nazis in Ukraine?” Sindeyeva says. “They have different shows on different channels with different hosts. It’s not just the host yelling — they have an expert, they show maps, they have ‘eyewitnesses’. I think, ‘I’ll watch a bit more and I’ll believe it myself.’”

The Kremlin began to impose its own language on independent media, too. Last year, Russia’s justice ministry labelled nearly all of them “foreign agents” — a designation that carried allusions of espionage, scaring off their advertisers and forcing them to label every post with a 24-word all-capitalised “foreign agent” disclaimer.

Some journalists tried to find a modus vivendi with the Kremlin to keep their publications alive. Novaya Gazeta’s Dmitry Muratov pointedly avoided criticising Putin directly in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech last December.

Sindeyeva used to attend parties where she would meet other high-ranking women in Russian news and entertainment whom she considered friends — such as Margarita Simonyan, editor of propaganda network RT and foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova. They would hug, kiss and exchange gossip about their children.

But the chasm became too great. The Kremlin kicked TV Rain out of Putin’s presidential pool over its coverage of protests. Zakharova accused the channel of collaborating with UK intelligence and called its reporters “dumb sheep”. Simonyan’s staff — which includes a former TV Rain reporter — have been embedded with the Russian army in Ukraine, where two of them raised the Russian flag over the demolished city of Mariupol.

When she saw her former friends speak at a huge pro-war rally led by Putin in March, Sindeyeva was so dismayed that she wrote them an open letter asking them to reconsider. “Somehow, she wants to see the better side of people. I think it’s a little bit delusional, but that’s her approach,” Krichevskaya says.

The Russia that gave Sindeyeva the optimism to create TV Rain has disintegrated around her. Since the war began, Medvedev has threatened to bring back capital punishment and use nuclear weapons against the west while vowing to “change Ukrainians’ bloody consciousness”.

I put to Sindeyeva a criticism that Ukrainians often level at anti-Putin Russians: that years of growing compromises with Putin’s regime only emboldened it.

But Sindeyeva thinks the problem has deeper roots in Russia’s failure to hold a truth and reconciliation process in the way Germany did after the second world war. “We didn’t get together as a country, as a society, to recognise the mistakes that were made. It all went unsaid. We talked about removing Lenin from the mausoleum [on Red Square] and we didn’t do it,” she says.

“Markets did amazing things for the country’s development and we didn’t take the time to explain to people that if you’re moving from communism to capitalism, it doesn’t just mean you can start making money. There are values — private property, human life, freedom of speech, free elections,” she says.

“Why is everyone taking repression so lightly now? Because we didn’t have a big discussion as a society about how it happened in our country [ . . .] We didn’t set those values. We didn’t work out why they’re important. It all went by in a flash.”

Opinion polls show that as many as 81 per cent of Russians support the invasion — a figure that sociologists say is probably wildly distorted by wartime censorship but that nonetheless correlates with the percentage of Russians who get most of their news from state TV.

“I’m not just ashamed, I feel guilty. I spent my whole life fighting Putin, but I’m ashamed that it’s our country doing this. My children are going to have to live with this,” says Sindeyeva. “It’s not just collective guilt but collective complicity. What Putin’s done is smear everyone, so you become part of it even without doing anything.”

Borzunova — herself recently named a “foreign agent” — wants to resurrect a Daily Show-style programme that she hosted, debunking Kremlin propaganda narratives. Like her, several other former TV Rain reporters have launched their own YouTube streaming shows and newsletters while they work out what to do. “A huge number of people keep writing to ask when we’re coming back. You can’t just tell them, ‘Screw it, TV Rain is gone,’” she says. “We had a big audience. We have a responsibility.”

But Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and nearly all independent media are now blocked in Russia, making reaching their audience a struggle. And sanctions have left most Russians unable to use their finances abroad or open up bank accounts, making getting paid for it even more difficult.

What news of the war’s horrors has broken through in Russia has yet to make a dent in support for Putin — a phenomenon that Sindeyeva blames on a kind of cognitive dissonance.

“They started by brainwashing them for a long time about saving people from Nazis. [When the war] went wrong . . . you can’t take that on board. You can’t imagine that your government, which you believed in, could have done something like that. You start convincing yourself and everyone around you that it’s all lies and you know the truth.”

Some cracks have emerged in the system through people such as Marina Ovsyannikova, the former Channel One staffer fined for protesting against the war live on air. But Sindeyeva thinks they will remain few and far between. “It’s very difficult to demand heroism from people under totalitarianism.”

Perhaps most worryingly, she says, the state TV bosses who once cynically used propaganda to drive support for the Kremlin have started to believe it themselves. “At some point you have to convince yourself, because otherwise you just lose your mind.”

Telling the truth, I put to Sindeyeva, seems to have taken its toll on her. Her increasingly desperate efforts to save TV Rain put her at odds with Vinokurov, who spent all his money on keeping the station afloat and began to feel he was losing her to it. They eventually split up, though Sindeyeva says they remain friends.

Nonetheless, Sindeyeva says, “I recently realised that’s just life. For some reason we think life is about having fun and enjoying yourself, but it’s not . . . Fear, stress and struggling are all parts of life,” she says.

Even as she prepared to shut TV Rain down, “I was never scared of the consequences. I realised I had this great fearlessness inside me. And I might have never known otherwise.”

Max Seddon is the FT’s Moscow bureau chief

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