On Friday evening, the Freeman Spogli Institute (FSI) screened the documentary “Tango with Putin: Fighting for Free Media in Russia,” which powerfully traces Dozhd TV founder Natalya Sindeeva’s pursuit of independent news journalism under Vladimir Putin’s tightening grip on Russian media. Sindeeva, along with the filmmaker and the TV station’s co-founder Vera Krichevskaya, emphasized the importance of honest news reporting to counter propaganda amidst the recently escalated war in Ukraine in a followup Q&A with FSI Director Michael McFaul ’86 M.A. ’86.
The documentary does not begin with the birth of Dozhd TV, or TV Rain, the only independent TV station in Russia in the past 12 years. Instead, it portrays young Sindeeva as a relatable woman: an enthusiastic party dancer, the stylish wife of an affluent banker and a happy mother. After founding her own TV channel with her husband’s investment, she branded the “optimistic channel” with excessive magenta. She employed passionate media talents, many of whom were marginalized by Russian society due to their disability or sexual orientation.
The film is weaved together by the theme of “tango,” the interest that sustains Sindeeva through her hardships and a metaphor for Dozhd TV’s work. Akin to tango partners’ advancing and retreating movements, independent journalism has to tactfully dance through cracks in the Kremlin’s behind-the-scenes measures to silence dissenting voices. The film is a story of what individual citizens, both inside and outside Russia, have to face in their struggle for justice in an unequal world.
Sindeeva and her co-workers did not decide to dedicate their channel to coverage of government-suppressed news stories until they were infuriated by state media channels’ avoidance to cover social unrest and events, such as the 2011 “Russia without Putin” protests and the assassination of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov. Upon Putin’s return to power in 2012 and strengthening control over dissenting voices, Sindeeva and her colleagues were intimidated by the administration, cyber-attacked, blocked off wiring networks and labeled as “foreign agents.” Never did they give up their calling, even after being forced to move abroad when their Moscow studio was shut down for spreading “false information” on the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“YouTube is the only way for us to reach our Russian audience right now,” Sindeeva told the Stanford audience, referring to the Kremlin’s blockage of other forms of foreign social media. However, since the conflict, YouTube has cut off content creators’ access to advertising revenue from viewers in Russia.
“We’ve been trying to have a conversation with YouTube and Google about how they are killing the only vehicle that can reach the Russian audience,” Sindeeva said.
Krichevskaya added that 60% of Dozhd’s audience currently resides in Russia. The lack of revenue prevents the channel from attracting new audiences and spreading true information on the current state of the war.
Similarly, Sindeeva condemned how the current sanctions on Russia by numerous private companies hurt the common people more than they do Putin. “Who suffers? Not Putin. People like us. The same people who go to protests. Go to prison. This is hurting us,” Sindeeva said. Her call for the humane use of sanctions on Russia was echoed by McFaul, leader of the International Working Group on Russian Sanctions.