Twelve years ago, Vera Krichevskaya and Natalia Sindeeva founded TV Rain, a media organization built on independence and — as the two women said at the time, “optimism.” They had in mind an engaging, high-wattage media platform that would steer clear of politics. Sindeeva, the CEO of the new enterprise, was a wealthy businesswoman and by her own admission “not a political person”; she was interested in building a lifestyle channel. Neither woman envisioned anything like the highly charged political entity that TV Rain would become.
Events took care of that. Before long, TV Rain’s reporters were covering stories that were increasingly unpalatable to the Kremlin: Russia’s invasion of Crimea, the assassination of the opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s manipulation of elections, anti-Putin protests and many others. In all these cases, TV Rain’s coverage was straightforward, often hard-hitting and unlike the fare on most other Russian channels.
The Kremlin took note, and what followed was a kind of rolling crackdown that grew in intensity as the years passed. TV Rain was warned by the Kremlin, kicked off cable networks by Russian state-controlled providers, evicted from its office space, and its reporters and editors were harassed, followed and threatened. Ultimately, Sindeeva was branded a “foreign agent” — a title reserved for the Kremlin’s top enemies.
Time and again, TV Rain rose from the ashes in different ways; the company used Sindeeva’s apartment as a studio, turned to YouTube as a distribution platform and put its content behind a paywall to earn revenue.
Six days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, TV Rain was shut down entirely in Russia and threatened — along with all media organizations in the country — with long jail terms for any opposition to the war or the Kremlin more generally. Most of the team fled the country for makeshift studios in Latvia or Georgia; TV Rain has recently relaunched its programming on YouTube from outside the country.
For the last three years, Krichevskaya has been chronicling TV Rain’s story for a documentary film that was released this week in the U.S. It’s called “Tango with Putin” — with the more provocative subtitle “F@ck this Job.” In an uncanny coincidence, the film’s European release was scheduled for Feb. 24, the day Russia invaded Ukraine; a rollout of the film across Russia had been planned for the following week. Krichevskaya got a call from the ministry of culture on March 1. “They told me that the film won’t be released,” she told Grid. “Everything was canceled. And a few hours later we all received push notifications that TV Rain itself was blocked in Russia.”
Beyond the story of TV Rain, “Tango with Putin” is a film about what has happened in Russia (the filmmakers would say, “what has happened to Russia”) during the last decade. It’s a powerful account of the many forces that have led to the current moment — both in terms of the war and public opinion inside Russia.
Krichevskaya and Sindeeva have both left Russia and aren’t sure when they may return.
“My hope, my vision, I suppose,” Sindeeva said, “is that once we have survived this catastrophe, whatever it will be, then we will get another chance for the future.”
Grid’s Global Editor Tom Nagorski spoke to the two women on Monday, the day of the film’s launch in Washington, D.C. — a conversation about TV Rain, about the film, and about the limbo they and millions of Russians now find themselves in.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Grid: You had already created a media enterprise. What made you decide to make the film?
Vera Krichevskaya: I had the idea for a film in 2019, when we were struggling at TV Rain to find a solution, some way to survive. It was a depressing time, when you fight for independence, you struggle, but you don’t feel any demand from the society. We had a subscription model that helped us survive. But we were making so much effort for maybe 60,000 people, in a country of 140 million. It was very depressing. TV Rain had built up the biggest subscription base of all Russian media, but at the same time it was just 60,000 people.
It was a real crisis point for the company, in my life and Natasha’s life. You wonder what is your purpose, why you have been doing this so many years, with such little result? My feeling was that this is the end of the company. That Natasha was probably going to close it, or sell, or something.
Natalia Sindeeva: That moment — May 2019 — it was the only time when I felt lost. I have never felt that way before. I was asking: “What is my life’s purpose?” And I did not know the answer.
VK: And so I got the arc of the film, the story, in my mind. All our great optimism at the beginning, and then such darkness, hopelessness at the end. This is why the film is also a story about Russia.
G: The film does seem to be about so much more now, given the invasion of Ukraine and all that has happened. What role can the film play now?
VK: Well, first of all, it was a total coincidence that the date for the film’s release in London and Paris and other places was Feb. 24. Natasha landed at Heathrow Airport on the 24th. I dropped everything to go and meet her when I heard the news, because it was shocking. The invasion of Ukraine.
The release in Russia was scheduled for March 2. We were going to go on a big tour around Russia. Our first region was going to be Siberia, the start of a two-week tour. Screenings were sold out, around the country, all over. But the week before, on Feb. 24, it was the first international release.
Immediately, the film became something different.
Our release in Russia was canceled at the last minute. I came back to Russia on March 1. And on that day, it was around 7 p.m. or so, I got a call from the ministry of culture. They told me that the film won’t be released.
I had fought for the permissions for maybe three months. We had our premiere scheduled for one of the biggest cinemas in Russia, very close to the Kremlin, 2,000 tickets had been sold. And then everything was canceled. The cinema got a bomb threat — the area around the cinema was cordoned off.
So it wasn’t released in Russia. And of course we canceled everything. Our trip to Siberia, to the south of Russia and so on. In Russia, only one cinema in Moscow showed the film, for two weeks. It was very brave of them.
And a few hours later, we all received push notifications that TV Rain itself was blocked in Russia. All this on March 1. TV Rain was operating on YouTube only then. It became clear that we will face punishment, with 15 years in prison, for the work TV Rain was doing.
And that’s why we decided to close the company.
NS: We released the film in a secret YouTube channel, a secure channel, and we reached almost 1.9 million views. Then we gave rights to the BBC Russian service and ARD in Germany. ARD and BBC broadcast the film immediately. I think they realized it was so important to show the film at this time. Because the film shows the trajectory of Russia. How we reached this point. It gave a very transparent explanation for foreigners, about what had happened to us. What had happened to TV Rain, yes. But also, what had happened to Russia.
G: And what exactly has happened to TV Rain itself? What is the nature of the operation now?
NS: Most of our team members are based in Latvia right now. In Riga. We are renting a small studio in Latvia — they gave us a very kind price, but unfortunately we only have this studio for a few evening hours, so we cannot broadcast from early morning till midnight as we did before. In Georgia, it’s the same situation, we have very a small place there, it is not ours. We work when the studio is available. By late October, we hope to have our own studio in Amsterdam, our own place when we can start operating again.
G: And what is the output — the content, given that you are not in Russia anymore?
NS: We still have a lot of sources. They are not our journalists in Russia now, but there are others. And we have other good resources. It is still important that we focus on Russia.
VK: Of course we cover the war in Ukraine, and fortunately one of our journalists, one of our reporters, was in Ukraine when the war started — because right now it is impossible for us to get visas, or accreditation. We have good sources also in Ukraine — including in President [Volodymyr] Zelenskyy’s office. We would love to send more correspondents there if we could. But again, while we focus on Ukraine, we must focus primarily on what is happening inside Russia.
G: You’ve both spent a lot of time in the West. What do you think is the one thing — or maybe more than one thing — that people don’t understand, in the U.S. and U.K. and other places — about Russia right now?
NS: The most important thing people do not understand is the penetration of Russian propaganda. Just how deeply the propaganda has impacted things. How deeply it has gone into people’s minds. I do not think they understand this. And it’s not only the not-so-educated people. Even the well-educated people have been infected. Yes, “infected.” It’s a disease.
This is what people around the world do not understand. It is the nonstop, total propaganda. Everything the Kremlin says, it’s based on a lie. Everything Putin is saying, it is based on lies. Official statements, they are based on lies. All the time, lies.
At TV Rain, our independent reporters were trying to convey just how much money they spend on propaganda, how much money they spend on the internet and Telegram channels and other social networks to manage their propaganda, and censorship and so on. It really is, in my opinion, the only area where the Russian state under Putin achieved total success.
And people in the West do not understand that this has been going on for years. For eight years at least. That there has been an experiment with Russian society. A psychological experiment. An experiment to teach the Russian people their view of Ukraine. That it is not a country. That people there are evil. And so on. Every day, for years now, on all of these platforms. And so if you are saying, “Well, the Russians support the war,” that is a very simple approach. And it does not show a real understanding of what is going on in Russia. This is not “support” in the way you think of it here.
VK: It really is a kind of sickness. People are blind. They have been blinded and brainwashed to have a completely opposite picture in their minds of what is actually happening. They see attacks on all these towns and cities and people in Ukraine — and they are told it is Ukraine that is doing it. They are told to erase the Ukrainian people. They are told it is a fight not against Ukrainians now but against Americans.
G: Let me ask you about recent events. In just the last few days, it does seem that in some parts of Russia, some people are starting to understand, or at least they see now, “OK, it’s going to be my son, or it’s going to be my father, who goes to fight.” What are your impressions of what’s happening now, since Putin gave his mobilization announcement last week?
VK: Let me say it like this: On Sept. 21, Russians found out what had really happened on Feb. 24. Of course it’s not all of them, or not yet, but this is what has happened. For all this time, people were thinking, “Oh, no problem, it’s going to be OK.” Now it is something different. Now it is not so OK. It’s a big movement right now.
NS: It is very important to understand what happened to Russians last week, because of Putin’s speech. The idea of mobilization, the reality of mobilization, it meant that people who were paying no attention to the war, all of a sudden they are searching on the internet for any information they can find. They are going to Google or wherever to search. Because this announcement, it means war comes to their home and their life. And so now they started searching to know what is going on. It was like a trigger for them. It was a time to leave their comfort zone. And so, yes, immediately the situation started to change.
G: You have a quote in the film, I think it’s from the poet Vladimir Sorokin, saying that there is no future in Russia; that the present is the future. Things do not change. It’s a very pessimistic view of course, and the message in your film is very pessimistic too. But you also have these moments where you see hope — even “miracles,” as you say, along the way. Do you have any optimism now about the situation? And if so, where do you find it?
VK: Natasha and I, we see things differently. For me, I feel more pain than any optimism or pessimism. Because unfortunately, I don’t feel that there is any future for Russia. I have no vision for it. Actually, I can feel and imagine very well a future for Ukraine. I have a vision for Ukraine, and I don’t have any vision for Russia. And this is very painful.
One of the reasons to make this film was to make a film about a group of people who were completely different, different Russians but fighting together for the same thing. For independent media. It was something important. But now, I don’t know. Ever since Feb. 24, I have no real vision, no optimism right now.
NS: OK, for me, on one hand, I see my country as ruined, and I cannot say I have optimism right now. I believe Russia is moving toward some kind of catastrophe.
But my hope, my vision, I suppose, is that once we have survived this catastrophe, whatever it will be, then we will get another chance for the future. So if you ask me about today, no, I have no optimism for Russia. But I can see a day, after whatever is coming, when there will be a chance to have optimism again.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.